Sunni vs Shia in Context

Muslims split into two camps, Sunni and Shia, soon after Muhammad died in 632, they have battled ever since, and their violence has spread here.  Is that true?  Should we be afraid?

The Sunni-Shia divide over the succession to Muhammad obscures both what all Muslims accept and significant differences between five Sunni and three Shia schools of law as well as many schools of theology, some of which are accepted by both Sunni and Shia sects.

The seed that grew into today’s conflict was sown in the early 1500s when the Safavids, a Kurdish Sufi mystic order that turned militant, gained control of Iran and established a Shia sect as their empire’s religion to differentiate it from the previous regime, the Sunni Ottoman Empire based in Turkey (see this excellent article for a comprehensive geographic history of the Islamic states.)

Islamic States 1550

Today’s battles do reflect sectarian differences but they are primarily about worldly power.  I’ll say more about those differences and what every Muslim accepts, then review events in the recent past that made the early 1500s split newly relevant.

The Quran, Allah’s words to Muhammad, is the foundation for all Muslims.  There are also Hadiths, reports on Muhammad’s words and actions that correspond to the gospels about Christ’s words and actions.  Some Hadiths are followed by both Sunni and Shia, others only by one or the other.  The major Hadiths happen to have been collected by a Persian Muslim.

The Hadith of Gabriel is the most important and is accepted by both Sunni and Shia.  It includes the mandatory Five Pillars for all Muslims — faith in Allah and Muhammad, five daily prayers performed in a prescribed way, charity (because all things belong to God), fasting (to purify worldly desire), and pilgrimage to Mecca.

The mode of prayer is essentially the same for all Muslims and although the prayer leader in any mosque belongs to one of the Sunni or Shia schools, unlike Catholic or Protestant churches where the fundamentals of practice are different, Muslims of any school can pray in any mosque.

The main Sunni schools of law are Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shaf”i.  They are associated with different territories as with any organized religion:

  • Hanafi has the largest number of followers and is dominant in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, parts of Iraq, India and Bangladesh, and a vast area to the east and north that includes most Russian Muslims
  • Hanbali is strictly traditionalist and is dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  The Saudi regime enforces a harsh, fundamentalist form of Hanbali known as Wahhabism
  • Maliki is in Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and NE Saudi Arabia
  • Shafi’i was the most popular school but was superseded by Hanafi under the Ottoman Empire

The major Shia traditions are the Fivers, Seveners, and Twelvers who differ on which of Muhammad’s successors are legitimate.  The Twelvers’ Jaʿfarī is the school of law for most Shia Muslims because Twelvers are a majority in Iran and among the Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Iraq.  They are also a significant minority in Lebanon.

Overall, around 85-90% of Muslims are Sunni, 10-15% Shia.

Sunni Shia Map

Now the events beginning in 1979 that made the Sunni-Shia split newly relevant.

The leading political movement in the Middle East in the 1950s and ’60s was Arab nationalism.  Sunni-Shia distinctions were almost irrelevant then.  The important issues were shared Arab ethnicity, which is different from Turks and Persians, and their long suffering under colonial powers who divided them.

What changed all that was Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrowing the pro-Western shah.  Iran’s theocratic revolution was both popular and anti-monarchist, and the new regime encouraged uprisings in other Middle Eastern nations.  That threatened Saudi influence and their monarchy itself.

Then came the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The Saudi regime supported Iraq’s 1980s war against Iran to preempt revolution by Iraq’s Shias, but Saddam Hussein considered both Saudi Arabia and Iran enemies.  Removing him disrupted the balance between the powers and left a power vacuum in Iraq.

Next the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia in 2010, spread to Syria and other Middle East nations.   Saudi Arabia and Iran, in rivalry for influence, amped up Sunni-Shia sectarianism.  Their power plays, the Saudis’ heavily supported by the US and Israel, greatly increased the violence.

In Syria protests grew into rebellion then civil war.  Rebels, encouraged by US policy to oust President Bashar al-Assad, were armed by the Saudi regime and Qatar.  The Saudi regime wants Assad replaced by a Sunni government because Assad is Alawite, a Shia sect.  They fear a potential “Shiite crescent” from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.  Seeing the civil war recast as anti-Shia, Iran’s regime encouraged Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon to battle the Sunni rebels.

Those rebels include Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham (funded chiefly by Kuwait), and Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State.

Israel shares the Saudis’ fear of Iran.  Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon, one of whose chief goals is the elimination of Israel, gets substantial support from Iran.  Sunni group Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, also seeks to establish an Islamic State in what is now Israel.

Meanwhile in Yemen, where civil war also rages, Saudi bombing, justified by greatly exaggerating Iran’s support for Houthi Shia rebels, has greatly worsened the humanitarian disaster.

And meanwhile in Iraq, changes there illustrate how Sunni-Shia strife is not the norm.  Iraq’s population is 75%-80% Arab and almost all Muslim, half to two thirds Shia.  Saddam’s regime was Ba’athist, a movement aiming for a single Arab state that would be Muslim by tradition but more importantly, socialist (see comment.)  Most of Saddam’s government were Sunni.  Shia were oppressed by them, but there was little conflict between Sunni and Shia people until we made Iraq essentially lawless.

Sunni and Shia lived side by side in much of Baghdad, even in 2005.  But as chaos grew, Sunni and Shia began to form self-defense militias, then saw each other as threats.  Neighborhoods in Baghdad that had been mixed were starkly divided two years later.

Baghdad Shia-Sunni Map

The Sunni-Shia split is real enough to excite support for political leaders, but it is their contests for power that are the root of today’s Middle East violence.  Our military interventions to prop up or topple these autocrats are counter-productive and greatly increase the suffering of the people.

Middle East conflict has spread to the USA only in the sense that we replaced the 20th century British and French Empires as the power whose actions aim to dominate the Middle East.

Should we be afraid of the variously named ISIL, ISIS or Islamic State?  It is famous for beheading opponents and now controls most of Syria, but we do not condemn the Saudi regime for beheadings.  Should we then support Syria being ruled by ISIL, a regime similar to Saudi Arabia’s?

No, we should stop being afraid, and we should stop compounding violence.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Nations

I wrote in Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations that a pathetic fallacy — personifying what is not a person — masks reality with an idea and triggers false emotion from false perception.

Thinking of a nation as an entity with a will is as misleading as thinking that a corporation decides what to do.  Nations and corporations are not beings with a mind of their own.  They are artificial entities that enable real people, their leaders, to command resources and project power.

To see that a nation is a concept just like a corporation, consider nations to be a form of business.  For example:

  • The business known as England, where I grew up, was owned and operated as the Tudor family business from 1485 until 1603 when it was taken over by the business operated by the Stuart family since 1371 that was known as Scotland
  • The USA business, where I have lived all my adult (hah!) life, resulted from the hostile takeover of what we term the “Indian nations.”

Indian Nations Map

But what actually is a nation?  There are many forms of nation, just as corporations are only one form of business, so there are many definitions :

  1. “A large group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history
  2. “A large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own
  3. “A large area of land that is controlled by its own government

The USA is not a nation of the first kind since we do not have a common language — there are 45 million Spanish-speaking Americans — or a common culture, ethnicity or descent.  It is also not a nation of the second kind, not unified in a deep way, as this election season makes so clear.

As Colin Woodard’s excellent historical analysis shows, the USA is better understood as eleven nations, each with a different culture.

Eleven American Nations Map

So the USA is a nation of the third kind, one with the same system of government for more than two centuries whose territory kept expanding until it spanned its ocean borders.

What about other nations, those in the Middle East, for example?

A map of their territories suggests that:

  • Large ones on the periphery — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are likely to fight over those in the center — Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon
  • Iraq is likely to want to control Kuwait to get ocean access
  • Saudi Arabia is likely to want to control Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAR, Oman and Yemen

Middle East Map

But we are misled by our delusion that nations are natural entities, especially Saudi Arabia, whose eastern and western coastal borders make it seem to be a nation of the third kind like the USA.

In fact, the territory now known as Saudi Arabia only came into existence in 1932.  It is, to continue the business analogy, an Ibn Saud family-owned oil production business.  Their administration happens to require the people in that territory to conform to an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.

The territory now known as Iran, however, part of whose borders are also coastal, is a nation of the first kind.  It has a distinct ethno-linguistic population and a common culture formed by operating from 530 BC to 1979 as the Persian Empire.  Its secular dynastic rule was then overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini who established a fundamentalist Shia Islam theocracy.

The territory now known as Iraq, with no natural borders, has an even longer history as Mesopotamia.  It is where the world’s first cities formed around 5300 BC.  Unlike Iran, the majority of Iraq’s people are Arabs although there are also Kurds where it borders Turkey and Iran.  Mesopotamia was conquered by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century, later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, briefly stable under Saddam Hussein after 1979 but its territory is now battled over by an elected government and unrecognized new nations, Kurdistan and Islamic State.

The territory now known as Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1922 when it was re-established by Kemal Ataturk as a secular democracy whose natural borders are coastal.

And the territory known as Egypt, with desert and coastal borders, was managed as a kingdom for three thousand years, then by the Arab Muslim Empire for six centuries and as part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 until that empire fell.  Its monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by Gamal Nasser.

So Iran, Egypt and Turkey each has a long history during which an ethno-linguistic majority established a culture in a territory defined largely by coastal borders.  Iraq also has a long history but lacks natural borders and has a divided population.  Saudi Arabia lacks agricultural potential and has only been a nation since oil was discovered.  The government of all five nations is in fact quite new.

The future of territories is determined to a great extent by geography.  The behavior of people is influenced by cultures that diverge over time.  But the behavior of what we imagine to be nations is decided not be those conceptual entities but by individuals such as Ibn Saud, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Nasser.

That’s a critical distinction because a territory and its people can, when characterized as a nation, inspire fear, hatred and violence, replacing what is real — people like us — with fantasy, an alien mass against which appalling violence seems necessary and right.

Terrible things happen when we condemn entire populations whose existence in the form of a nation is the product of our imagination.

We teach children who crush their thumb with a hammer not to fly into a rage at the hammer.  We must see for ourselves that it is not corporations and nations that take action but their leaders.


Beyond the Media Hype: Arms Exports

Most of us think beheading is barbaric and are horrified by 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for a website advocating free speech.  We abhor child marriages and are appalled that women anywhere should need permission from a male guardian even to travel.

Sweden’s foreign minister recently denounced those policies and acts by Saudi Arabia as extreme violations of human decency.

She went on to say it would be wrong for Sweden to continue military cooperation with such a regime.  European Union countries had after all in 2008 established a Common Position on arms exports making “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” a precondition.

The Saudi regime’s response was to withdrew its ambassador and stop issuing visas to Swedish businessmen.  Its allies condemned Sweden’s ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’  The United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassador, too.

How would the Swedish government respond?  Sweden sold more than half a billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia from 2011 to 2014 and the Saudi regime is expected to buy 52% more arms this year than last.  Would Sweden give up such a huge opportunity?

And the impact could be much broader than Sweden’s arms exporters alone.  Denmark was hit with a major international boycott when a Danish newspaper published Muhammed cartoons in 2005.

Lobbying by Sweden’s business leaders began immediately.  Thirty chief executives signed an open letter saying that breaking the arms trade agreement ‘would jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner.’

Sweden’s king called the foreign minister to his palace and told her to back off.  The Constitution grants him no power, but…

And the Saudi regime positioned the minister’s denunciation of their human rights abuses as anti-Muslim hatred.

It looked like business priorities would trump human decency.  But, after no doubt agonized debate, the Swedish government announced the cancellation of its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.  And a couple of weeks later Saudi Arabian media published a fabricated apology by Sweden along with the news that its ambassador would return.

This is a heartening story for anyone who thinks beheading and so forth is barbaric.  But it was little reported in Europe and almost not at all here.  So we must also note a couple of other things.

First, our US government supports the Saudi regime not just because we want their oil but because since we destroyed Iraq, it alone balances Iran’s power in the Middle East.

Middle East Map

Americans fear Iran.  We do not remember overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 and replacing it with the Shah’s dictatorship.  All we remember is the theocratic regime that overthrew our friend the Shah holding our Embassy staff hostage.  We imagine an Iran that we have always treated well but which is our mortal enemy for religious reasons.  And our ally Israel considers Iran an existential threat because it supports its Shia fellows, Hezbollah and Hamas, working for the Palestinian State that Israel’s newly re-elected leader declared he will resist to the end.

Second, Sweden’s admirable decision removes a competitor for Saudi Arabia’s arms purchases.

Arms Exporters

This March 2015 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report notes that we delivered major weapons to at least 94 countries in 2010-14.

The world’s largest importer, India, increased its purchases by 140% from 2005-2009, chiefly from Russia.  The second largest, Saudi Arabia, increased its purchases  by 400%, supplied chiefly by the UK (36%) and the USA (35%).Arms ImportersWe delivered $8.4 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and their Iran-facing neighbor United Arab Emirates last year, up from $6 billion the previous year.

A growing share of big fast-growing markets is what every business leader wants.

The Swedish government decided human rights trump what arms business leaders want.  My government is sticking with the opposite decision.