No (religious) roots?

rootsSome roots are shallow and weak. They do the everyday job of holding their plant in the ground, but when given a slight yank of the wrist, they come right out of the ground.

Other roots are deep. They are nearly impossible to remove without a backhoe and a lot of ripping and tearing.

Such are the religious roots at the heart of the conflict in Iraq, and as the Bush administration miscalculated this fact a long time ago, the mainstream media continue to miss this story for a variety of reasons I shall discuss later.

Sunday morning’s Meet the Press interview with Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed little we didn’t already know about the administration’s view of Iraq’s religious divide. What has me up in arms is host Tim Russert’s poor follow-up to a statement by Pace.

Russert asked Pace about a Knight-Ridder report last week revealing that the White House was warned two years ago that the insurgency in Iraq “had deep local roots, was likely to worsen, and could lead to civil war.” Pace responded:

I do not believe it has deep roots. I do not believe that they’re on the verge of civil war. I do believe that there are a small number, relatively small number, of individuals who are ideologically committed to the terrorist ideology and are going to do whatever they need to do to try to bring those citizens back under tyrannical rule.

Perhaps we’re not on the brink of civil war in Iraq. How do you define a civil war anyway? Does one side have to wear red and the other blue? However, to state that the Iraq conflict lacks deep religious roots is akin to stating that the ocean is not deep.

Yes, the Sunni-Shia divide is largely political and a majority of Muslims in the world don’t consider it a big deal religiously. The religious differences do matter, however, and contribute to the seething cauldrons of extremism that we have in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

A report from The Economist last week sums up the Iraq quandary which is deeply rooted in a historic religious split:

Iraq’s experience may be unique, yet it is far from being the only example of tension between Sunnis, who make up 85% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and the multiple sects of the Shia minority. In places as far apart as Pakistan and Lebanon, a centrifugal momentum appears to be exacerbating sectarian feelings. The emergence of revolutionary Iran as an ambitious Shia regional power, and potentially as a nuclear-armed state, has combined with the coming to power of Shias in Iraq to encourage greater assertiveness by Shias in the many countries where they have been historically disenfranchised.

This, in turn, has aroused the awareness of Sunnis to what many see as strangers in their midst. Shia empowerment has been matched by the evolution of radical Sunni chauvinism. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabists, for example, have always taken a dim view of Shias, but this has been amplified by the country’s oil wealth (which happens to be in the region where Shias live), and twisted by some into the violence of terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda. …

Yet the danger of conflict has always existed, ever since the murder, 29 years after Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, of the Caliph Ali, who was the Prophet’s son-in law and the father of his grandchildren, Hassan and Hussein. The word shia derives from the Arabic shi’at Ali or the partisans of Ali, and referred at first to the political faction that believed leadership of the Muslim community should remain in the hands of the Prophet’s family. When the caliphate passed instead to a rival branch of Muhammad’s tribe, other disgruntled groups, including many non-Arabs recently converted to Islam, joined the Shia cause, which drew further emotive strength following the martyrdom of Hussein at the hands of a Sunni army.

This is the big question that must be answered: how effective have the Sunni and Shia fringe groups been in exacerbating this sectarian divide for their own benefit? Measuring this aspect is difficult, partly because the Sunni-Shia divide is more political today than anything, but its roots are in Muslim theology going back decades and while it may be surprising to someone unfamiliar with religious history, theology matters a lot longer than one would think.

I guess I shouldn’t fault Russert for missing the story. NBC News’ website partner Newsweek ran a week ago with a top-of-the-cover-headline dramatically stating “HOLY WAR,” but the subsequent article fell flat on its face when it came to explaining the holiness of the conflict. The article fails to offer a single sentence explaining the religious/doctrinal differences between a Sunni and a Shiite. Maybe they assume we learned about it in a high school or college geography class way back when and we’re all experts in all things Sunni and Shia.

terroristA question tmatt raised is whether it is Jihad to attack other Muslims. Apparently this is not so, but Osama bin Laden and his fellow Wahhabist clearly don’t appreciate Shias. More from The Economist:

One obvious factor is the upsetting of old balances by the intrusion of western power, not only in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and more widely, through the global campaign against Islamist terrorism. But this intrusion was in turn largely provoked by something else, the radicalisation of large numbers of Sunni Muslims, fired by ideas of a return to “pure” Islam and of uniting Muslims into a single nation modelled on the early caliphate.

The most famous proponent of such ideas, Osama bin Laden, has always carefully refrained from any reference to the Shias. Yet he and many fellow-travellers adhere to a school of thought, influenced by Saudi Wahhabism among other currents, which holds the rival sect to be an elemental threat to Islam as a whole.

Before their overthrow, Mr bin Laden’s protectors in Afghanistan, the Taliban, mounted merciless pogroms against that country’s Shia minority, the Hazara, on purely doctrinal grounds. It is the parties in Pakistan most closely aligned to al-Qaeda that have bombed Shia mosques and torched Shia villages, simply because they hold the Shia to be infidels. Mr bin Laden’s lieutenant in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, refers to Shias as al-Rafida, a Wahhabist slur meaning rejectionists or turncoats. They are the near enemy, as opposed to the American far enemy, he says, “and far more destructive”.

The vast majority of Sunni Muslims find such notions as repulsive as anyone, yet even milder forms of Sunni chauvinism have had nasty effects. Pakistani analysts, for instance, tend to trace the origin of communal strife to the 1980s, when General Zia ul-Haq, then in power, tried to bolster his legitimacy by imposing Islamic law. The trouble was that his laws were those of the Sunni majority, and met with protest from Shias. Their resistance, in turn, provoked radical Sunnis to form vigilante groups, which in some cases recruited among peasants working on large, Shia-owned estates. The result was tit-for-tat killings, culminating in a series of bloody bomb blasts at Shia mosques.

Why have the American mainstream media largely missed this story? Does it go too deep? Are network executives afraid it’ll put Americans to sleep? Dramatic headlines declaring “HOLY WAR” probably sell more copies than a more nuanced position explaining what exactly is holy about the current conflict. Perhaps the failure of the Bush Administration to see the religiously delicate situation in Iraq took whatever steam the story ever had out of the sails?

I guess when you think about it, covering a story that goes back more than 800 years before the printing press was introduced to Western culture does present its own unique set of challenges. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try a bit harder.

Print Friendly

  • David

    Excellent points, Daniel. I agree that this goes much deeper than the pols are letting on.

  • Scott Allen

    What we’re seeing here, more than the media failing to educate the public, is the media’s failure to educate itself. This is the ultimate source of their failure to “get” religion.
    They focus on selling stories that can get past their editors (and their institutional bias), but over time this is undermining their credibility. In the case of Iraq, the media have been mentioning “Sunni” and “Shia” in passing since the war began. But since they failed to probe the depth of the difference, not only theologically but historically, they saw the bombing of the shrine as some dramatic new event (“NEWS”) as opposed to a marginal escalation (“news”). Thus their headlines screamed “Civil War” when this was just an upsurge in a conflict that has lasted over 1,200 years and ranges geographically from Saudi Arabia, through the Gulf States and Iraq to Afghanistan. Nothing fundamentally has changed. The media missed this, and some prominent members (including William F. Buckley) will be eating their hats if they have any intellectual honesty.
    Overall, this shows the value of blogs like GetReligion and I hope that journalists increasingly turn to folks like TMATT so they can educate themselves before they attempt to educate their audience.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X