The Secretary of State recently stated that the Middle East will have to “overcome” the tendency to see things in Sunni-Shi”a terms. There are two things wrong with the statement of Condoleeza Rice.
The first is the o’erweening, history-ignoring idea that Sunni-Shi’a rivalries and hostilities can “be overcome.” The Sunni-Shi’a split long ago transcended the initial quarrel over succession. Now there are differences in the organization of the Shi’a and Sunni variants of Islam: in organization (the power of the Shi’a ayatollahs and other Shi’a clergy has nothing similar in Sunni Islam); in ritual (the Shi’a Ashoura, with its emphasis on self-flagellation); and practice (the Shi’a shrines and visits to those shrines, so offensive to austere Sunnis, especially to the most austere of all, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia).
The belief that somehow deeply-held beliefs and attitudes can be “overcome” seems to approach all this as if it were a question of civil rights in the South. One of the silliest and most harmful aspects of American governments is the belief that many things are susceptible of change, or of change that will come quickly. “Let’s have self-determination now” or “Let’s end poverty the way Jeffery Sachs says we can” or “Let’s just get right in there and reform Islam.” A blend of naivete, ignorance, and arrogance, which yields a most unappetizing brew.
The second thing wrong with Rice’s statement is that apparently she cannot conceive of why this Sunni-Shi’a split is a good thing for Infidels. She cannot conceive of why chaos and confusion and endless hostility between the two main branches or sects of Islam is something to be exploited, not to be deplored. It appears that American governments want always to take the side of this or that plausible group of Muslims. First, it was the Shi’a in exile who managed to woo and win so many in the American government with their tales of WMD (Chalabi and his group), and others who confidently predicted that once the Americans “liberated” Iraq they would be greeted, those Americans, with an outpouring of joy and presumably permanent gratitude that “would make the liberation of Kabul look like a funeral procession.” It would cost, according to Wolfowitz and others, nothing like what it cost to maintain those sanctions — possibly a few tens of billions of dollars. And then it would be over. A “cakewalk,” wrote Kenneth Adelman (sometime purveyor of Shakespeare to corporations so that the tycoons and tycoonettes can apply “Shakespeare to the business world).
Many have in this farce, on all sides, in the government, and in the press, been weighted and found wanting.
Meanwhile, there’s something just over here, freshly scribbled on this wall, that I’d like to show our rulers and our pundits:
“Mene, mene, tekel upharsin.”
Do you think they’ll be able to make it out?
Yet Rice is not the worst. She is far superior to others who preceded her. If she invites comparison with two former and still nattering-away National Security Advisers, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, Condoleeza Rice only gains by the comparison. But that should not be the point of comparison. She, and all others in the government, should be spending their days and nights studying Islam, studying not only the texts — Qur’an, Hadith, Sira — but how those texts are naturally received by, not all, but almost all, Muslims, and figure out on what side the textual authority lies. They should learn about taqiyya. They should learn about the history of Islamic conquest and about the subjugation of non-Muslims — which is not only a matter of history, but can be seen today in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iraq, Sudan, Saudi Arabia (where the non-Muslims are to found only among the expatriate wage-slaves). They must learn what is so misleading about the phrase “moderate Muslim” — misleading and unhelpful. They must learn to detect the plausible from the true, to discover the smyler with the knyf under his cloke, as Chaucer emblemized the figure of Treachery he found in Boccaccio, well in advance.
They must learn to understand it all, and to understand not only the texts and the history, but the other attitudes that naturally arise in Islam: aggression, violence, inability to compromise, susceptibility to the most primitive conspiracy theories, blaming of non-Muslims for all the ills that should rightly be attributed to Islam but of course cannot be, and so on.
These are the things she, and so many others, including all of the would-be Presidents now eagerly seeking our support, must learn. Now, not in five or ten years. Now.