A full scale Middle Eastern, Islamic type of war between the Sunnis and Shiites is raging. Officials in Washington are doing their best to label it anything but a war; when asked if it is a war, they seem to react in fear, and ignore the issue by saying, “We must do our best to ensure that such a war does not happen.”
By refusing to label what is going on a war, however, we may well be preventing ourselves from devising policies which would address the problem, and make it evolve in the best interests of the U.S.
Historically, Islamic warfare has not necessarily been one in which large armies have fought each other, at least at the beginning of conflicts. What usually happens is that there are what we in the West call “terrorist raids,” in which opposing sides send small raiding parties into each other’s territory. These raids are ongoing and cause both sides to live in a constant state of tension with one another.
The dispute then festers until one side is strong enough to vanquish the other; from that day on, each side lives in an uneasy relationship with the other. The vanquished look for an opportunity to avenge their loss. Sadly, Middle Easterners culturally are unable bring themselves to “let bygones be bygones” – a concept totally alien to Middle Eastern culture. Disputes therefore fester, then erupt when one side perceives the other as weak.
When Khomeini arrived in Iran in February 1979, one of the first statements he made to the media on the tarmac was that “he had come to rectify a wrong which took place 1400 years ago.” Westerners thought this somewhat quaint and obviously irrelevant. All that interested them was what he had to say about the Shah, America, and Israel. To Westerners, especially Americans, who dismiss things that happened a few days ago, Khomeini mumbling about some event that took place centuries ago seemed irrelevant. Middle Easterners, however, who never forget perceived wrongs, knew exactly what he was talking about. When the Muslim prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E., a fight broke out among the Muslims as to who would inherit the leadership of Islam. Those who supported their prophet’s family eventually became known as the Shi’ites. Those who supported what might be labeled the “establishment” in Mecca became known as the Sunnis.
The Shi’ites were defeated and their leaders were, one by one, murdered by the Sunnis, who proceeded to take over the larger part of Muslim world. Sunnis and Shi’ites – especially in areas where they live together – still refight that battle, which took place almost 1400 years ago. Moreover, thanks to the easy way information travels, Sunnis and Shi’ites know more about each other than in the past, so this battle now also takes place even where Sunnis and Shi’ites never knew each other. What ended up being most important to Khomeini was not the Shah, therefore, but devising a strategy to rectify what he considered the great wrong that took place so long ago: bringing down the Sunni rulers and their version of Islam, and replacing them with the “true,” Shi’ite, version of Islam.
No wonder Saudi rulers, who are members of an extreme Sunni version of Islam called Wahhabism, and their fellow Gulf Cooperation Council Sunni-ruled Gulf States, understood immediately that Khomeini was a mortal threat.
Sadly, our political establishment, who, as Westerners, simply do not live as deeply in history, had an immensely difficult time — and still do — assimilating Saudi, Jordanian, Egyptian, and other allied leaders’ concerns.
In addition, on 9/11, Osama bin Laden vented his rage, blaming the West for what it did to Islam 80 years ago. Western experts of the Middle East racked their brains trying to figure out what that meant, but to Sunni Muslims, the answer was obvious: the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished by Ataturk and his colleagues. Many Muslims believe this degradation was imposed on Turkey after its defeat in World War I. For Sunnis, the Ottoman Caliph, the rightful ruler of the entire Muslim world, had been humiliated by people who could not have been Muslims. For Shi’ites, the abolishment of this “usurper” institution was a relief; the Sunni ruler, they believed, wanted nothing more than to destroy Shi’ism, the only “true” Islam.