Newscasters often identify whether a Middle Eastern people are Sunni or Shia Muslim, but they rarely explain what that means and why it is important to know. Once, by chance, I heard a Middle Eastern scholar explain it really well on television. I heard it once, but since then not again. This is what I learned from that one interview.

There are few doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia, their beliefs and rituals differ only in minor ways. The big difference has to do with the history of Muhammad the ruler and who was the right person to inherit his power after his death. The Sunni believe the choice was Abu Bakr, the man selected as the most capable leader by the group as a whole. The Shia believe that the leader had to come from Muhammad’s bloodline and was Ali, a cousin and son-in-law. The Shia call themselves the followers of Ali.

Geographic distribution: Sunni Islam is found primarily in the West, Egypt, Saudi Arabia; while Shia Islam is found in the East, especially in Iran. Iraq is a mostly Shia country formerly dominated by a Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein. When the US destroyed Saddam Hussein, they liberated the Shia, and the former Sunni elite went into hiding to avoid revenge. (In fact, many of the Sunni elite eventually joined Isis to fight the Americans who dethroned them; Isis is Sunni). Despite this example, the US is generally on the Sunni side and prefers Saudi Arabia.

The scholar suggested that Sunni and Shia had been in conflict for supremacy for a long time before the US intervention. In particular, the Shia, driven primarily by Iran, are trying to wrest control and prestige from the Sunni. Some of this conflict is a matter of prestige – the Sunni have had a tendency to look down on the Shia, which is of course strongly resented. The scholar seemed to think that it would have been best for the US to sit out this conflict and wait to see how it would be resolved in the region. He emphasized that this conflict has nothing to do with the US.

In Syria there are both Sunni and the Shia variant, Alowite, the sect that the dictator Assad belongs to. Iran and Russia are helping Assad out in the name of regional stability. Open Sunni and Shia conflict is currently going on in the Yemeni civil war, supported on the one side by Saudi Arabia and on the other by Iran.

The US blundered into a Sunni-Shia trap in Iraq, not taking these religious identities seriously enough. In defeating the Sunni Saddam Hussein, I am sure they knew that the Shia would come to power, but seemed to assume that this would be a peaceful transition and not result in violent insurrections. As much as they tried to get the new Iraqi Shia leadership to work with the new Sunni minority, neither side would have it gladly. One mistake the US has made in the Middle East is to disregard these matters of identity. It is significant that in all the news and reportage, these issues are not clearly explained to the American public so they can understand some of what is going on.

Of course, all this began for the US with the terrorist attack in New York on 9/11. The suicidal perpetrators were mostly Sunni fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia. We did not attack Saudi Arabia in retribution, but Afghanistan, which only harbored the Saudi mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

Subsequently, we chose to attack Iraq, whose strongman Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the terror, but the US wanted to remove him for personal and economic reasons. This embroiled the Middle East in a series of domino insurrections and civil wars, enlarging the sphere of action of the Sunni-Shia rivalry. With the entry of Russia into the conflict on the side of Assad in Syria, the conflagration now has global dimensions.

The actual attack on the US on 9/11 was experienced as an act of war by Americans not accustomed to any enemy attacking it on its own soil since Pearl Harbor in World War II. The 9/11 attack was three-pronged: the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, and the foiled crash in Pennsylvania that was meant to for the White House or the US Capitol. The coordinated attacks using commercial airliners were astonishing and might have paralyzed the government. In actuality, the attacks were largely symbolic.

The attackers could not have known that the World Trade Center towers would fall, partly because of the way they were built. Their flight into the top of the towers, on a clear morning with blue skies was so outrageous and so surprising that aliens came to mind to many. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen compared it to a “work of art.” By that, perhaps, he meant a carefully orchestrated happening or installation. He was, of course, roundly criticized for such a heartless comment. But the fact is that it was a bizarre otherworldly event. Although everyone expected other similar ingenious strikes in the following months and years, there were no other such spectacular strikes. All other terrorist activities were more conventional murders and explosions.

I was living in New York at the time, a hundred blocks north of the towers, so I saw the planes hit on television, just like everyone else. A few days later, as the wind shifted, even there, the air was full of the stuff of the collapse – ash, dust, human remains. It was terrifying to breathe it in. The terrorists destroyed the happy isolation of American life and pinpointed New York as the central symbol of hate.
The cause of Osama bin Laden and the Sunni fundamentalists was hatred of the Americanization of the world – their world in particular – through the globalization of trade, politics, and culture. They wanted to wind back the clock to a time when their culture and traditions were supreme, many centuries earlier. The World Trade Center towers were ideal symbols of American global power, and they were selected to be attacked symbolically.

The attack and all the arrangements and ingenuity they entailed were so complex that they stunned more by their fiendish cleverness than their military might. They proclaimed a fight between tradition and modernization that continues on. The mechanism of this war was to be terror. The US retaliated with conventional warfare, with tanks and bombings. The result of all the chaotic wars that have flowed from it, in displacement and communication, has been, paradoxically, to bring a globalized modern worldview increasingly into the traditional Middle East. It is now encouraging thousands in Africa as well as the Middle East to want to escape the conflagration for the safer shores of the developed world, Europe and the US. Large-scale migration has been unleashed.


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