An open letter to Silvestre Reyes
Dear Representative Reyes: Congratulations on your new position as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. With the sorry state of our intelligence community and the continued specter of transnational terrorism (not to mention organized crime, narco-trafficking and nuclear proliferation), yours is an important position and I’m sure you’re enthusiastic about the job. However, I couldn’t ...
Dear Representative Reyes:
Congratulations on your new position as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. With the sorry state of our intelligence community and the continued specter of transnational terrorism (not to mention organized crime, narco-trafficking and nuclear proliferation), yours is an important position and I’m sure you’re enthusiastic about the job. However, I couldn’t help but be more than a little concerned this weekend when I read that you, like so many other U.S. officials involved in counterterrorism, do not know the religious layout of the greater Middle East. Knowing the difference between Sunnis, Shiites and Arab nationalists will not simply make your job easier, it will make it possible. Because I’m sure you’re busy, I took the liberty of writing up a primer for you:
Sunnis, Shiites and Arab Nationalists—Sectarian divisions between Sunnis, who comprise nearly 85 percent of the world’s Muslims, and Shiites, who make up most of the remainder, have fueled warfare in the Middle East for around 1400 years. The curious should check out Slate’s “Islam: A Glossary” for a short description of the differences or Karen Armstong’s Islam: a short history (New York: Modern Library, 2002.) Arab nationalism is a secular ideology developed by Arab Christians in the early twentieth century that gained widespread popularity in the 1950s and 60s via Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria. For further information on Arab nationalism, check out the history section of Robert D. Kaplan’s Arabists: the Romance of an American Elite (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, c1993.)
Iraq—”Islamofacists” the term coined by Michael Savage (according to the buzz on the web), popularized on the right side of the blogosphere and used by President Bush last spring, is a cute expression often applied to anyone who opposes the United States in Iraq. By doing so, it is wholly inaccurate. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni by birth, was the head of the pan-Arab Iraqi Baath party, which transcended religion and was secular in origin. Prime Minster Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and the anti-American militant Moqtada al-Sadr are, like the majority of Iraqi Muslims, Shiites. Secular Sunnis, who tend to be Arab nationalists, and radical Sunnis connected to Al Qaeda round out anti-American forces. Most of the violence in Iraq takes place between these three groups, with a temporary alliance between the secular and religious Sunnis. A great article on the divisions in Iraq is Threats Wrapped in Misunderstandings from Friday’s Washington Post.
Al Qaeda, Iran and Syria—While Osama Bin Laden has shown a surprising level of ecumenicism, Al Qaeda rank and file generally believe the only good Shiite is a dead Shiite. In Iran, conversely, 89 percent of the population and all of the religious leaders are Shiites, many of whom hold Sunnis in equally low esteem. The Iranian government helped oust the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001. Since 1963 Arab nationalists, in the form of the Syrian Baath Party, have reigned in Damascus. And for the past 26 years Syria’s rulers have hailed from the Assad family, which is Alawite Muslim—a sect that only in modern times lost its status as heretics and is now considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The majority of Syrians, however, are Sunnis. It is worth noting, then, that it is a mistake to consider the relationship between Syria and Iran is anything but one of convenience.
Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinians—Hezbollah, like its Iranian patron, is a Shiite movement (Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world with a sizable Shiite population, but it also has a significant number of Sunnis and a large, but shrinking, community of Christians). Hamas and nearly all of the Palestinians, including most of the Arab nationalists from the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, are Sunnis. Because supporting Hezbollah in its operations against Israel gains Iran popularity in the entire Islamic world and Hamas needs help wherever it can find it, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian leaders have been known to work in concert.
Although you would benefit from knowing these differences, the above example shows that you also shouldn’t consider them to be set in stone. The media often correctly note that the intensity of the sectarian divides in Iraq is a new thing. Moreover, Iraqi Kurds, who are Sunnis, are more loyal to their ethnic brethren than they are to their fellow Sunnis. Likewise, Arab Shiites in Iraq have long held animosity toward the Persian Shiites in Iran.
Thankfully, it appears that the days of attempting to ascertain whether Sunnis or Shiites are the “bad” Muslims are over. Neither group is inherently bad. However, this does mean that measuring the success of our intelligence community—or for that matter, U.S. policy—in the greater Middle East is going to require a more nuanced understanding of the fault lines within the Arab and Muslim worlds.
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