A few days ago Hugh and I answered Dinesh D’Souza’s question: “Can you name two previous wars that have been fought between the Shia and the Sunni?” D’Souza asked this question in the course of writing a paragraph that demonstrated yet again, as if fresh demonstration were needed, his abysmal ignorance of all things Islamic, and in this case, Islamic history:
Ask youself this question: can you name two previous wars that have been fought between the Shia and the Sunni? I didn’t think so. Neither can I. Because there aren’t any. The Shia and the Sunni have not been fighting for centuries. Historically speaking, they have not been fighting at all.
But instead of noting the information we gave him and admitting he was wrong, D’Souza digs himself in even deeper in a new piece, “Robert Spencer’s History for Dummies”:
Taking up the gauntlet, Robert Spencer purports to answer my challenge to name two wars fought between the Shia and the Sunni. The context for my question was this. I argue that the Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq is not a religious war. Nor have the Shia and the Sunni fought religious wars in the manner of the Catholic Protestant conflicts in Europe. Rather, I contended that this is a gang fight between two groups over who gets to rule the country.
D’Souza says it’s not a “religious war,” it’s a “gang fight between two groups over who gets to rule the country.” By making this distinction he betrays his lack of awareness that there is no traditional delineation between the sacred and the secular in Islam (although reading farther into the one authority he claims to have read on Islam, Bernard Lewis, would have apprised him of this). It’s not a “religious war” OR a “gang fight.” It’s a “religious war” AND a “gang fight.” Like so many Western analysts, D’Souza is transposing Western assumptions about what a religion is and how religious people act into an Islamic context, where those assumptions don’t hold: he assumes that if wars have a political dimension as well as a religious one, the very presence of political considerations means that the conflicts’ religious character must be secondary — as in the cultural identity politics of the Catholic/Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland. But in a cultural and religious setting that considers the religious to be political and the political to be religious, and earthly dominion to be a sign of Allah’s favor, this is a false assumption.
Spencer proceeds to give a list of Shia Sunni conflicts of the past. Interestingly, all but one occurs before the middle of the seventeenth century. That’s right! Spencer can name only a single Shia-Sunni clash in the past three hundred and fifty years. So my argument isn’t holding up badly at all so far.
One sign of desperation in a debater is when he tries to change the terms of the debate in mid-conflict: he realizes he has lost on the original grounds, so he tries to shift the focus to a fight he thinks he can win. Note here that D’Souza is crowing because I can allegedly “name only a single Shia-Sunni clash in the past three hundred and fifty years.” But in his original post did he say a word about limiting the question to the past 350 years? Nope. He asked: “can you name two previous wars that have been fought between the Shia and the Sunni?” No time limit. But when you’re losing on the original point, shift your point.
Anyway, I noted that my previous list was not exhaustive. Here are some more Sunni/Shi’a conflicts, from the last 350 years. The Sunni Afghan invasion and domination of Iran resulted in intermittent strife for around 70 years, from 1722 until the Shi’ite Qajars regained control in 1795 and reestablished a Shi’ite theocracy. Then there are the frequent Persian/Ottoman conflicts between 1499 and 1822, although since D’Souza imagines that the political and religious are distinct in Islam, he will say those are all political conflicts only. And Hugh reminds us here of the ongoing conflicts, going up to today, between the Sunnis and the Shi’ite Hazaras in Afghanistan. (I wrote about that conflict in Islam Unveiled, a book D’Souza has named in his writings and claims to have read.) There are plenty more still, which I will list if he responds again.
Spencer gets no points for mentioning the battle of Karbala, since I mentioned that in my original post. That was one of the earliest battles in Islam, and it defined the dividing line between Shia and Sunni. Every other conflict that Spencer lists is not a religious conflict. Spencer is simply listing dynastic and political wars that happened to have Shia and Sunni on opposite sides. For example, Iran used to be a Sunni country. When the Safavid rulers came they imposed Shia rule on Iran. That’s how Iran became Shia. For the Safavids this was a way to consolidate power and to build alliances. Spencer lists their arrival as a Shia-Sunni war, as if the two sides were fighting over theological issues.
They were, of course, or the conquerors would not have imposed Shi’ism on Persia.
Similarly Spencer lists the ongoing power struggles between the Ottomans and the Safavids as a Shia-Sunni clash. But when there are five Islamic empires all trying to expand, we can expect these dynastic clashes. They occured just as often between Sunni and Sunni as between Sunni and Shia. That’s because religion had very little to do with it.
Sure. That’s why, again, the Safavids imposed Shi’ism on Persia. Here D’Souza is again reasoning in a deeply flawed manner, assuming that because people sometimes fight about things other than religion, they must never fight about religion.
To test Spencer’s logic here, ask yourself this question. Was the 30 year war between England and France a religious war because there were Protestants on one side and Catholics on the other? Of course not, because the parties were not fighting about religion. Transubstantiation was not the issue. This was a war over territorial control and power. Another example: in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the British and the French fought several battles in India. Were these Anglican-Catholic wars? No, both countries wanted India as their colonial prize.
Using Christian examples to prove something about Islam is based once again on the assumption that the distinction between the religious and the political is identical in both religions. If D’Souza would actually read his Lewis books instead of admiring them on his shelf, he would know this is not the case.
Now I come to Spencer’s recent example, and please don’t laugh. It is the Iran-Iraq war. Here we see Spencer’s power of discernment in full gear. Saddam was a secular dictator whose Baathist party drew its inspiration more from European fascism than from Islam. How can his eight-year fight with Khomeini be counted as a Shia-Sunni struggle? Spencer is unfazed. After all, Saddam was himself a Sunni and many of his henchmen were Sunni. Yes, Spencer, but the majority of Iraqis are Shia. If this truly was a Shia-Sunni conflict, why didn’t the majority of Iraqi Shia fight on Khomeini’s side? Khomeini was the leader of the Shia armies of Iran. The very fact that the Iraqi Shia fought on Saddam’s side and were willing to kill their fellow Shia in Iran shows that they did not view this war as a Shia-Sunni conflict. Khomeini tried to make it one, in order to win Shia defectors from Iraq, but in this he was completely unsuccessful.
D’Souza demonstrates here that he knows as little about Saddam Hussein and the Iran/Iraq war as he does about Islam in general. Yes, most Iraqis are Shia. Does D’Souza think it would have been an easy thing for them to leave Iraq and cross the lines to fight on Khomeini’s side? Does D’Souza think it would have been an easy thing to decline an invitation to join Saddam Hussein’s military? He actually says, “The very fact that the Iraqi Shia fought on Saddam’s side and were willing to kill their fellow Shia in Iran shows that they did not view this war as a Shia-Sunni conflict” — as if they had a free choice in the matter, and Saddam’s regime was gentle toward conscientious objectors.
How hospitable was Saddam Hussein toward the Shi’ites? Let me count the ways. Before 1963, there was considerable Shi’ite involvement in the Ba’ath Party. When al-Bakr (and his deputy Saddam) took power in Iraq in 1968, Shi’ite membership in the Ba’ath Party fell to six percent. Of the 15 members of the Revolutionary Command Council, none were Shi’ite. Saddam’s persecution of the Shi’ites is well documented: in the 1970s and 1980s, he had numerous Shi’ite clerics tortured and killed, and during the war, he appealed to Iranian Sunnis to turn against the mullahocracy.
Anyway, in the “argument weak here, yell like hell” tradition, D’Souza concludes his latest farrago with a bit of chest-thumping:
With intellectual adversaries like Spencer, I never have to worry. He specializes in launching boomerang strikes that leave him gasping in a heap. I wish him well, but the poor fellow is quickly establishing himself as the Alan Wolfe of the right.
Gasping, yes. In a heap of laughter and chagrin at how this man continually backs himself into a corner and refuses to admit it, and continues to expose his own ignorance and carelessness with the facts. Rishwain scholar of the Hoover Institution, eh? I should think they would be backing away from Dinesh D’Souza as quickly as they can at this point. Anyway, I was trying to think of a good rejoinder to “the Alan Wolfe of the right.” Hugh and I tossed around some ideas — maybe D’Souza is the “Walter Duranty of the global jihad,” or the “Clifford Irving of the right,” but let’s have some fun with this. It’s a Jihad Watch Contest: come up with the best “D’Souza is the ____ of the ____,” and you’ll win an autographed Truth About Muhammad. Post your entries in the comments field here.