In two previous essays [“Middle East Politics in Disarray,” March 25, and “The Shia/Sunni Feud,” April 14, 2014)] I described the rift that has developed in the Middle East over the Plan of Action — an agreement under which the U.S., the EU and the UN propose dismantling the sanctions against Iran as Iran halts it progress towards nuclear weapons capability — and I noted there that the alignment of Arab governments for and against this agreement corresponds to the line of division between Shia and Sunni powers in the Middle East.
Recent Developments in the Arab Spring
In recent weeks, the interminable Arab Spring has (reasonably enough) lost the lion’s share of international media attention to the crisis in Ukraine and its effects upon relations between Russian and the West. Meanwhile, we have all lost track of how many further steps backward have been taken from the promise of the Arab Spring.
In Egypt, the masses are now acclaiming a military savior, who is recapitulating the betrayal of democratic method that brought on the dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser, over sixty years ago. Here in Egypt, failure of the hope for an Arab Spring can be fully explained by the congenital inability of Muslims to work in a spirit of compromise. In Lebanon, Syria and Iraq it is more specifically attributable to the continuing effects of the original schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims, fourteen centuries ago.
In Syria, Assad’s killing machine, now uninhibited by any possibility of combined action from the international community since the collapse of the U.S./Russian partnership, is whole-heartedly embarked upon liquidation of the few remaining communities – including some of the biggest cities in the land – where Assad’s writ had ceased running many months ago. To date, an estimated 150,000 Syrians have been killed, about a fourth of the population has been dislocated, many permanently settled as refugees outside. Iran and Saudi Arabia, the principal regional champions (respectively) of the Shia and Sunni sides in the region’s civil war, have willfully exacerbated local animosities to the point where there is now not a shred of hope that Syria will ever again be a united and independent polity.
In Iraq, they have just held an election — the second in their history — the second, that is, since the American-led invasion of 2003. It will undoubtedly be the last. Rival squadrons of Shia and Sunni suicide warriors and car-bombers are working day and night to impose their incompatible and equally inhumane visions of the righteous Muslim life throughout that land. Nearly 10,000 people were killed in this Iraqi civil war during 2013, and since January of this year the pace has picked up.
Theological Debate: Muslim Style
As I noted in my essay on the Shia/Sunni feud, the matter that prevents Muslims from living together in lands where only Muslims are allowed to live at all, is difference of understanding about the detail of the succession crisis that followed upon the death of Muhammad. It is sub-rational; it is Hatfields and McCoys, going on for 1400 years. So long as Shiites hate Sunnis (and vice-versa) neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia nor Qatar nor any of the other major actors in the Syria maelstrom will ever be able to impose its will up a united Syria or a united Iraq, let alone upon the whole Middle East.
Compounding the possibilities for mayhem, is the fact that Muslims are divided with equally toxic effect over their understanding of how the last chapter of this feud must play out in the End of Times — just over the horizon. In the Shiite story, the forces of darkness are to be led by a diabolical character, Sufyani, who raises the End Times army in Syria and who marches into Iraq to initiate the liquidation of all Shiites. It is this theological conviction that has brought Hezbollah into Syria, determined not to leave until Sufiyani is destroyed. This makes sense only if End Times has begun. [A number of videos capturing sermons of Islamist preachers on both sides of this eschatological screaming match can be viewed on the website of MEMRI (Middle East Media Review email@example.com.)
In 2006, the official Iranian network ran a television series indoctrinating Iranians in the meaning of current world policits in light of Shiite theology. The series explained that for complex theological and astrological reasons, the Twelfth Imam (the Mahdi, the Chosen One or Redeemer) could be expected to come to earth in the spring of 2007. “He will appear as a handsome young man, clad in neat clothes and exuding the fragrance of paradise…. Heavenly light and justice accompany him.” The Imam will first appear in Mecca and then Medina. There he will form an army to defeat Islam’s enemies, beginning with conquest of Arabia, then Syria and Iraq completing everything with the destruction of Israel. Then a global government will appear, based in Iraq.
Here is a chilling note: there “God will make him defeat Dajjal the Impostor or the anti-Christ as the Christians say, who will be hanged near the dump of Kufa.”
This will strike us as profoundly paradoxical (to put it mildly), given that according to all the Muslim theologians the Mahdi will be assisted in this task by Prophet Jesus.
Incidentally, the Supreme Leader of Iran has asserted consistently that for the most profound of theological reasons the government of Iran will never surrender freedom of action over its atomic energy program. To do so would be to abdicate its eternally-ordained responsibilities in these last days. It would mean surrendering to the unbelieving world which seeks to impede the return of the Mahdi.
This kind of thinking is alien to us, which is why Western analysts resist entering into it, preferring to explain the policies of kings and princes in terms of “larger” matters of national interest. Divisions in Muslim ranks are re-evaluated in sociological terms – that is as emanating from the inequities of wealth and privileges and respect. These conditions are relevant; but what should be clear by now is that at its fanatical edge the war that is going on in Syria, for example, it is about a succession crisis that occurred at the death of the Prophet Muhammad and about wrongs that occurred then and have multiplied since then and that still need still to be set right. It is about different understandings of the end of mankind’s pilgrimage on earth. It is about the coming of the End Times champion of Islam, the Mahdi , who will put himself at the head of all the forces of Righteousness as they defeat for all time and eternity the forces of darkness.
Ever-Increasing Hatred between the Shia and Sunni Camps
We know that we have reached a turning-point in regional history when we discover the loudest voices on both sides declaring that its principal adversary is not Zionizm, not the Jews, not the Great Satan (the USA), presently embodied in the defector from Islam, Barack Obama, but in the great local rival – either the King of Saudi Arabia or the Shiite in “Persia” — who calls himself a Muslim but is instead a cunning traitor.
According to the researchers at MEMRI:
Senior Iranian ayatollahs [are] calling the Saudi regime “a takfiri (i.e., heretic) … stream that is acting against Islam and the Muslims, in cooperation with the U.S., Israel and Zion …. They call on fellow shia clerics in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and other sunni countries that are friendly to the Saudis, not to cooperate with the wahhabis [the official form of Islam practiced and imposed in Saudi Arabia.]
One Iranian Ayatollah says: “We must always struggle against the infidels, headed by America and Britain. The traitors and the Zionists…. Saudi Arabia is using its income from its gas and petroleum to fight the Shi’ites and is a tool of America.”
What better proof could there be of the dementia that lies behind this preaching than this insane conspiracy theory?
Another Ayatollah says: “In Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain … the heretical Wahhabism is the chief cause of conflict.” A voice speaking for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s military elite, cries out in the daily newspaper Kayhan for “a decisive and crushing response [towards King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia].. [and] operations … that should start on the street leading to King Abdullah’s palace in Riyadh… If Saudi Arabia continues to equip and arm the terrorists of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and several other groups like Ansar Al-Sunna, every operation that the Shi-ites will carry out against Saudi facilities and centers will be legitimate.”
It boggles the mind that the most exalted voices in the political and religious hierarchy of Islamic regimes routinely use such extreme and inflammatory language in order to dismiss their adversaries as “extremists!” In our part of the world any person using such language is claiming to be (by contrast) moderate and civil and open to dialogue. But moderation and civility are not admired postures in the world of Islam.
The Voice of the People/The Voice of Allah
Such declarations of anathema are flying nowadays from the heights on both sides. But the key to everything is that this zero-sum contest is taking place among the masses of Muslims everywhere. No self-respecting Muslims wants to be found standing aside from the mud-slinging
A recent BBC News documentary, “Freedom to Broadcast Hate, ” gives us outsiders a chilling look into this increasingly mad world, documenting in living sound and colour the venom that is pouring forth worldwide, not only from Mosques and Muslim community gatherings, but via satellite television and internet websites. The most inflammatory propaganda goes out from broadcasters in the U.K. and is funded by oil-rich Muslim philanthropists from the Arab States.
We hear Sunni preachers say coldly of Shias: “Their heads should be smashed as the head of a snake… Shia is a cancer attacking the Muslim religion…. Adultery is part of their [Shia] religion.” From the Shia preachers we hear: “We do not believe a Sunni will be considered a Muslim in the afterlife…. Shia islam is the only Islam.” The Shia preachers go on endlessly, never pausing for breath, about the evil behavior of Muhammad’s his wife Aisha and Abu Bakr and Omar — role-models of the Sunnis, but traitors to all true Muslims (that is, all Shias. ) Interjected among the rampant epithets directed at these villains are what we assume (judging by the schoolboy giggling and the ongoing bleeping on the soundtrack) are gross scatological bits.
On this same video, Sunni clerics weep as they call upon Allah to “punish the Shia… [to] freeze the blood in their veins … They have insulted the wives of the Prophet…. Shi’ism is not true Islam. It is worse than cancer. “
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/n3csv0c4 , March 15, 2014.
None of these statesmen considers himself culpable of anything other than earnest and pious concern for the Faith.
The extreme language that Iran has always reserved for denunciation of the blood-sucking Zionists and the Great Satan still goes on – despite all the efforts of Messrs Obama and Kerry. But to get the full toxic effect of hatred that has been building and putrifying within the House of Mohammad for fourteen centuries we now have to go inside that House itself – something that we can do conveniently through the brave auspices of MEMRI and the BBC.
The bottom line is simply this: that what is tearing the Middle East apart today is the fact that they hate each other more than they hate us. This is not necessarily a comfort.