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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



Okay–Just Once More

April 18th, 2008 by Steven Gould

I wrote about this back in 1990. From Chapter 13 of Jumper:

“One of the problems with American public policy on terrorism is that our government insists on blurring the line between armed insurgence against military forces and installations and attacks on uninvolved civilians. Now, obviously attacking unarmed civilians who have no involvement with a particular political issue is terrorism. But an attack on an armed military force occupying one’s homeland? That’s not terrorism. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying that if you call that terrorism then the U.S. is also involved in financing terrorists in Afghanistan and Central America. See what I mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that the proportion of American dead from terrorism is way out of proportion to the response it generates. We did nothing to stop the Iraq-Iran war because we perceived it in our interests that damage be done to both of those countries. Personally I think that’s inexcusable, but I’m not in the position to make government policy. Certainly both leaders were crazy with a long-standing personal grudge, but their people paid a horrible price.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was a personal grudge.”

“Hell, yes. In nineteen seventy-five; when Hussein settled the dispute over the eastern bank of Shatt-al-Arab with the Shah of Iran, one of the unwritten conditions was that Hussein get Khomeini to stop his political activity.”

“How could he expect Hussein to do that?”

Perston-Smythe looked at me like I was an idiot. “Khomeini was in Iraq. When he was exiled from Iran he went to the Shiite holy city of An Najaf. Anyway, Hussein told Khomeini to stop and Khomeini refused, so Hussein bounced him out of the country to Kuwait which promptly bounced him out of the country to France. Over a fifteen-year period, seven hundred thousand Shiites were thrown out of Iraq. There’s a lot of bad feeling there. More now of course, since the war.”

I blinked. “I know you’re trying to give me the big picture, but what about these particular terrorists?”

“We’re getting there. It’s a roundabout way, but all the better for the journey. What do you know about Sunni versus Shiite beliefs?”

I’d been doing some reading, evenings, after working on the cliff dwelling at El Solitario. “Sunnis make up about ninety percent of Muslims. They believe that the succession of caliphs was proper after Mohammed died. The Shiites believe that the rightful successors descended from Ali, Mohammed’s cousin, not his best friend, Abu Bakr. They believe that the rightful descendants have been assassinated and discriminated against ever since.

“Sunnis tend to be more conservative and they don’t believe in a clergy or a liturgy. The only countries with Shiite majorities are Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain.”

“That’s right,” said Perston-Smythe. He seemed surprised at my knowledge after my earlier ignorance. “Even among Shiites, terrorism is abhorrent. One of Mohammed’s strictures calls for the protection of women, children, and the aged. One of the ninety-nine names of Allah is ‘The All Merciful.’ “

But, it seems that presidential candidates and major media outlets don’t read obscure science fiction novels (much less history books.) So, let’s get this straight.

Click to embiggen.

al-Qaeda : Sunni

Iran: Shia

Like everything, this is a gross simplification. Iran has a Sunni minority (under 10%) and, apparently, a great many countries that are listed as completely “Sunni” have a small fraction of Shia population. But, there is still no excuse for confusing the two.

Are we clear on that now?

Good.

Posted in History, Politics, reading, Religion, Steve | 13 Comments »

13 Responses

  1. will shetterly Says:

    Ah, but now you have to throw the Wahhabis into the mix! (Okay, I would like to throw them out, but that’s another matter.)

  2. Rory Harper Says:

    What I don’t understand is whether the Sunnies and Moonies are natural enemies, or whether they believe that they complement each other…..

  3. Rory Harper Says:

    Also am not sure how you could use a terrarium against either military or civilian targets. But, then again, I’ve never actually owned a terrarium.

  4. Spherical Time Says:

    You know, I forgot to mention this to you, but you’re the person that taught me the difference between Sunni and Shia with that passage above.

    It’s far and away the clearest description that I’ve seen of the discussion.

    It’s amazing what you can learn from semi-obscure science fiction novels.

  5. N.G. Says:

    I don’t consider Jumper THAT obscure…

  6. Rory Harper Says:

    Well, it used to be, but now it’s a NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING BOOK !!!!!!

  7. Stuart Says:

    What amazes me is that there isn’t a single Republican who comprehends any of this.

    While my daughter was finishing her course work at Harvard she was a teaching fellow for Efraim Karsh and she suggested I read his book Empires of the Sand, published back in 1999.

    About three quarters of the way through the book is a discussion of British Prime Minister Asquith in 1915 making a list of reasons why the British Empire should not get involved in Mesopotamia. At the top of the list was the likelihood that it would trigger the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds to engage in mutual conflict against each other.

  8. Bill Bottorff Says:

    And for goodness sakes don’t forget the Assassins, or Nizari Isma’ilis, the leader of whom just visited his best buddy from Austin.

  9. Madeleine Robins Says:

    It’s a pretty damned elegant precis, Steve.

  10. Steven Gould Says:

    I could be way out there in left field on the Wahhabis, but I think of them as fundamentalist Sunni. Yes, I know there was a specific area of teachings (and a person) but this phrase keeps coming up in describing them: “an austere and puritanical type of Islam.”

    But, regardless of the smoke coming out of my keister, it just illustrates how complex this all is. After reading Bill’s point about the Ismalli, I did some reading. I hadn’t realized they were the second largest sect within the Shia community. I knew about them as the historical Hashshashin but that was a very small part of it.

    So, complex. Not for simpletons. Not for soundbites.

  11. tagryn Says:

    It gets even more complex when one considers that there’s historical precedent of sworn enemies working together when they have mutual interests in common. Hence, the Sunni-Shia rift doesn’t ipso facto mean that Iran and al-Qaeda aren’t cooperating… especially since the 9-11 commission report cited specific cases of Iranian support of al-Qaeda.

  12. Rory Harper Says:

    …I just pulled tagryn’s comment out of moderation. It was probably the multiple links that put it in there. Not that you shouldn’t post links, just that it may cause you to get labeled as possible spam…

  13. M. Jallad Says:

    OK, Lets say that who wrote this is nearly correct about what he said, but guys i think you are talking with yourself like you are in a small circle you cant get out of it and thats why you are having conflicts. so my advise that you dont be enclosed on your self and speak to the Muslims who have knowledge and neutrality so you can understand.

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