It sounds presumptuous, but I wish I had written this column in October 2002, and some eagle-eyed George W. Bush assistant would have noticed it and shown it to his moron boss. Let’s just play the What If game for a minute. Had the moron read it and taken what I’m about to write into consideration, Uncle Sam might be one trillion dollars richer, and thousands of our dead and maimed might still be alive and kicking—and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, ditto.
Well, it’s nice to imagine it, as no one close to George W. would have dreamed of telling the idiot boss the truth. Certainly no fifth columnist such as Perle, Feith, Wolfowitz, or Abrams, not to mention the Likud Bobbsey Twins, Kristol and Podhoretz. The great secret they kept from the boss was not a very complex one. The Middle East is a place dominated by the bitter, bloody feud between two branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites, and this feud has gone on for centuries, long before baseball, oil, or Texas were invented or discovered. (Remember, Bush had no idea about Sunnis and Shiites well after the fall of Baghdad.) They could have also shown him a book by Charles Glass, an American close buddy of mine, called Tribes With Flags, published way back in the late 80’s. Glass explains that in the Middle East there are very few real countries—such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran—with strong national identities; instead, most might be called “tribes with flags”—places such as Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. Then, step by step, the way one teaches a child how to read, Bush’s helpers could have explained to him that regime changes and nation building in the Middle East are a sucker’s game, and that tribes and sects live by their own mottoes, democracy as we understand it not being one of them. It is no accident that the recent rebellions in the Middle East began in real countries like Tunisia and Egypt, with homogenous populations, and have spread to tribes-with-flags places, where there is no end in sight. But let’s start from the top, as if we were giving a starter to Bush Jr.
The roots of the hostility between Sunni and Shiite lie not in profound theological differences but in political intrigues that took place in the Muslim world in the seventh century. When Muhammad died in a.d. 632, the question of succession was dominated by family feuds and rivalries. Essentially, there were four candidates, and Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was favored by a large group that called itself Shi’atu Ali (“followers of Ali,” now Shiites). But others were chosen before him—not once, not twice, but three times. This opposition to Ali deepened the sense of anger of his followers, especially when, after he finally became the fourth caliph, he was soon assassinated.
So far, so bad. The tribal feuding in the post-Muhammad period reached its climax in the Battle of Karbala in 680. In that battle Ali’s son, Hussein, was killed and became known as a martyr. The battle also marked the permanent fissure of the Shiite movement from the rest of the Muslims. The latter called themselves Sunni, the Arabic word for tradition. As one would expect, things got worse after that. A deep hatred settled in between the two sides, causing endless sectarian trouble across the Middle East and the Arab world. The division soon turned into a theological contention. The traditional Sunnis regarded the Shiites as heretics because the latter regard Ali and Hussein as infallible imams, whereas the Sunnis stuck with old Muhammad baby. I know, I know, these names might have confused W—“like who cares, Muhammad Ali, Hussein, they’re all towelheads”—but still, Wolfie baby could have explained it to the President by substituting Texan names, like Billy Joe versus Dawg and Roy. Mind you, the Shiites worship Ali and Hussein, but do not worship them as much as Muhammad, or Billy Joe.
So, there you have it, the history of the great schism between towels in one easy lesson. The Sunni belief in the heresy of the Shiites has led to repellent prejudice in Saudi Arabia and other such Sunni countries, to the extent that Sunnis believe that Shiites are unclean and one should never touch them or accept food from them. One man who knew how to take care of this problem was a chap named Saddam Hussein, the very same man whom our great 43rd president hunted down like a mad dog. Saddam was not a gentleman in the tradition of, say, John P. Marquand’s Boston clubmen, but he knew how to keep the peace, however violent his methods. As did the much maligned shah of Iran, before we sold him, too, down Swanee.
Now we have new names in the news. Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. Obama surely knows all about this—after all, Hussein is his middle name—but do the wise people advising him? I have yet to hear some pundit mention Muhammad, Ali, and Hussein, or even Billy Joe, Dawg, and Roy.