As the news of Saddam Hussein's execution was broadcast on Dec. 30, hundreds of Iraqi-Americans took to the streets of Detroit's heavily Arab west side to dance and celebrate. Days later, vandals attacked Detroit-area Shiite religious centres and stores with Shiite names, smashing windows and leaving Arabic-language death threats on voicemail systems.
For months, Jordan's King Abdullah has warned that the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq could infect the whole Middle East. Might it reach out into Europe and North America as well?
If it does, many in the West will wonder: What is this conflict about anyway? If that question baffles you, do not be embarrassed: A reporter recently put the question to the new Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, and he could not answer either.
According to Muslim tradition, the Shiite-Sunni divide originates in a disagreement over the inheritance of the Prophet Muhammad's spiritual authority and political power. Should it go to Muhammad's chosen subordinates and generals? Or to Muhammad's descendants: his son-in-law and nephew, Ali, and his grandson Hussayn? (The term "Shi'ite" is derived from "Shiat Ali," the party of Ali.)
The question was settled violently. Ali was assassinated, Hussayn killed in a battle fought on the site of the city of Karbala, Iraq, in 680.
Again, many in the West will wonder: Is it really possible that people are detonating car bombs in 2007 because of a succession dispute 1,300 years ago? There has to be more to it than that! And so of course there is.
Islam, as the great Islamicist Bernard Lewis has worked hard to explain, has no concept of the separation of church and state. Islamic teaching envisions a community united by shared beliefs, led by a just leader with the duty to "command right and forbid wrong." Shi'a Islam teaches that this ideal was betrayed almost from the very earliest beginnings of Islam: that the rightful leader was excluded and then murdered and his place seized by usurpers and tyrants.
The Ali/Hussayn story may or may not be literally true. (The oldest sources on the early days of Islam were composed 200 years and more after the events they chronicle). But you can see how the story would speak powerfully to individuals or communities that felt themselves maltreated by the holders of power. At the same time, you can see how the mainstream of a religion that propounded the absolute impersonality of God--and rejected any whiff of deification of its most revered prophet -- would condemn as heretical or worse any cult of the prophet's family.
So was launched a cycle over many centuries of rebellion and reprisal, heresy and martyrdom. The cycle continues to this day. If George W. Bush's surge plan for Iraq fails, the cycle will accelerate.
Can an exit be found? The outlook is not promising. On Friday, one of Saudi Arabia's leading clerics, Abdul Rahman al-Barak, issued a fatwa condemning Shiites as infidels upon whom jihad can legitimately be waged. Shiites, al-Barak said, "are the most evil sect of the [Islamic] nation and they have all the ingredients of the infidels. The general ruling is that they are infidels, apostates and hypocrites."
Al-Barak has close ties to the supposedly moderate Saudi royal family. Yet his language is more violent than that of the al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in his declaration of war against Iraq's Shiites on Sept. 14, 2005.
We in the Western world did not reason our way to religious freedom. We accepted it (often very reluctantly) because we got tired of fighting religious wars. In his Letter on Toleration in 1689, the philosopher John Locke did not talk about the right of free inquiry or the beauty of diversity. He founded his argument for toleration on one promise: social peace.
"[It is] the common disposition of all mankind, who when they groan under any heavy burthen endeavour naturally to shake off the yoke that galls their necks. . . . There is only one thing which gathers people into seditious commotions, and that is oppression."
The Western world learned its lesson the hard way, but we learned. Over the years, many had hoped that the Islamic world and the Middle East could profit from the ghastly example of the West: that peace and justice are achieved not by "commanding right and forbidding wrong," but by establishing equal laws and respecting all who live by them.
But Western liberalism and democracy have found few takers in the Middle East. Instead, the people of the region have chased totalitarian fantasies: fascism, communism, Arab socialism and now sectarian Islamism. All have ended in blood and grief for their adherents and their victims. And one sees only more blood and grief for the region ahead.
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