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Sunnis and Shiites—Lessons from Iraq

Hayden Hollingsworth
Hayden Hollingsworth

We are inundated with news masquerading as accurate information on the continuation of Iraqi violence.  Most of what is presented is slanted to suit the bias of whichever commentator one watches.  Certainly, there are those who give a balanced view, but for the most part, what we hear may be badly distorted.  Unhappily, most of us accept what we read and hear that supports our own beliefs.  That rarely leads to a balanced appraisal.

The majority of the broadcast media frequently do not correctly pronounce the names of the countries involved. It is E-Rock, not Eye-Rack; it is E-Ron, not Eye-Ran.   Even highly placed government officials make this error and, although it seems a small point, I have been corrected (with some vigor) if I make that mistake when speaking with natives.

The Sunni/Shiite divide is even less well appreciated.  It was reported that a former President did not even know which the dominant group in Iraq was and what their differences meant; consequently, he could hardly be expected to understand the background of the conflict.

While the differences between the two are complex and far beyond matters of Islamic faith, they go back 1400 years when the successor to Mohammed was being chosen.  One group favored a direct descendent of the Prophet, Shiate-ali (a cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed).  From this derived the Shiites.  The Sunnis, which means “followers of the Prophet,” thought the leader could be any worthy and upright man who understood and strictly followed the Qur’an.  The two groups have been fighting ever since Mohammed’s grandson was assassinated in 680 CE.

Throughout the centuries the bloodshed has widened to include much more than a statement of Islamic succession; long ago it became a political power struggle and all that entails.  Currently, only 15% of the Islamic world is Shiite, Iran and Iraq accounting for a large portion of that.

During the reign of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party, Iraqi violence was directed toward Iran and the Kurds; it was largely about political power not religious differences.  The focus has changed radically since the United States involvement unleashed internal forces that had been hitherto repressed by the government.

If one talks with Iraqis they will tell you that the lessening of violence in 2006-2007 had little or nothing to do with the troop surge but was due almost entirely to the completion of ethnic cleansing in the Shiite/Sunni communities.  I have seldom heard that mentioned by anyone in government and Barack Obama, during his campaign, was roundly pilloried for not endorsing the surge as a “success.”  He remained surprisingly quiet on that issue and did not mention ethnic cleansing as the cause of the violence into the middle of which our forces fell.

The violence has re-escalated, which comes as a surprise only in that it has happened before we have completed our withdrawal.  It was inevitable and is a continuation of the warfare that has plagued the Islamic world for a nearly millennium and half.

The word Islam means “one who submits to God.”  Muslim is the participle to the infinitive verb.  If God is present in this unholy war one may want to revisit that definition.  To believe that religion should be part of politics flies in the face of the wisdom of the Dali Lama, who certainly has suffered enough to know, when he stated that only when government and religion are totally separated can we hope for peace.

Is there any point here to be applied to our current political angst?  Yes, I think so.  In this country we have resorted to violence to settle political differences rather infrequently, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement being the major. In the former, the idea of state vs. federal sovereignty was at issue; in the latter whether the Declaration of Independence is more than an attractive schoolroom wall hanging found the proper answer.  We have much work to do if we are to avoid violence, and our consideration for the welfare of those with whom we have disagreements should always be near the top of the list.  That has rarely been the case in the Middle East.

The Founding Fathers worked for decades to insure separation of church and state.  When one looks at the reigning confusion of the two in international affairs their prescient sagacity is amazing.

By Hayden Hollingsworth
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