As I write this essay, two unnerving elements in the now more than year-old Syrian civil war have come to light; one of recent vintage, and one going back more than 1,400 years. First, the recent development:
An article published in yesterday's Los Angeles Times revealed that CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year -- months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming them. The information comes from both U.S. officials and rebel commanders. This covert training operation has raised hopes among the Syrian opposition that in addition to the arms and ammunition already promised by President Obama, the U.S. will ultimately provide heavier weapons as well. Only time will tell. To be certain, there are inherent risks in arming and training opposition forces in any Middle Eastern conflict. We don't really know who they are or what philosophical principles undergird their efforts. Additionally, if experience teaches anything, it is that that old saw about the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" cannot be the basis for a relationship, let alone a policy; it is an absolute chimera. The "friendly" rebels we arm and train today are likely to become our well-armed enemies tomorrow.
The second development is far more eerie and troubling, and has its roots not in events transpiring over the past year, but rather in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. For the first time in modern history, Shiites are crossing borders to fight against the "evil ones," meaning Sunnis. In the past, it was the Sunnis -- not the Shiites -- who were on the march; they traveled to Afghanistan to fights the Soviets in the 1980s and to Iraq to fight the Americans. These days, the draw is Syria, but the cause is not a foreign invader; it is a rival Muslim sect. The Shiite invaders' purpose is not merely to topple a murderous, autocratic regime or to fight for the rights of an enslaved people; it's about fulfilling a thousand-year old prophecy. As Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah has openly admitted, his men are leading battles in Syria, and Iraqi fighters are streaming in to join them. Shiites back at home say all the signs in Syria point to the appearance of a messianic era -- an era predicted by the 9th-century Imam Mahdi. (In Muslim eschatology, Mahdi, "the guided one," is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will rule for seven, nine or nineteen years before the Day of Judgment and will rid the world of evil.)
Syria's war didn't start as a sectarian one. It started as an uprising of the people against their government. But the majority of those people are Sunni. The Assad government is Alawite, which has roots in Shiite Islam. The arrival of sectarian fighters is a huge historic development; one that does not bode well for the future of Syria -- let alone the rest of the Middle East.
"How in the world," the westerner asks "can a 9th-century sectarian schism motivate people to fight and even die in the twenty-first century?" Although a perfectly fair and honest question, it nonetheless betrays a relative lack of knowledge about the very nature of Islam. More and more, I find that many of the so-called "experts" who talk up the nature and danger of Islam really don't know all that much about their subject; they are like park rangers who lead tours of a primeval forest without knowing that there's a difference between a Redwood and a Giant Sequoia.
Please note well that Islam is a highly fragmented faith with two major sects, numerous sub-sects, and doctrinal disputes that have been festering since the beginning of time. Understanding Islam without a "scorecard" or grounding in its history is rather like trying to grasp the difference between, say, Methodists, Presbyterians and Northern Baptists without first having studied the history of Protestantism.
Those whose knowledge of civil war begins and ends with the American "War Between the States" as it is still referred to in the old South, must acknowledge that there are generally two well-defined sides to a civil conflict, both of which hold fast to a set of political, economic, or even moral beliefs. In America's case, of course, the simple version has it that the Northern states opposed slavery, while the states of the Deep South overwhelmingly favored retaining their "peculiar institution." Never mind that this is a rather simplistic, middleschool version of history; never mind that this war had as much to do with Federalism-versus-States'-Rights as it did with slavery. That's a matter for another day and another article. History does accurately record that the regional antagonism, which eventually led to the firing on Fort Sumter, had been simmering, smoldering and sparking for nearly a hundred years before the first shots were ever fired.
In the current civil war going on in Syria, the sides are fairly distinct, though they certainly do not represent clear-cut geographic regions. Their conflict isn't so much about ideology as it is about theology and religious history. And whereas the American Civil War's gestation was about a century, the Syrian conflict has been bubbling and boiling over for more than a thousand years.
In order to understand just how serious and unique the current "invasion" of Shiite fighters into Sunni-led Syria is, one must know something about Sunni-Shiite schism. One should know at the outset that of the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world, approximately 85% are Sunni, and 15% Shiite. Shiites form a majority in but four countries: Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan.
The differences between the Sunni and Shiite sects are rooted in disagreements over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad, who departed this mortal coil in the year 632 C.E. -- that's A.D. to non-Jews. The disagreement also extends to the nature of political leadership within the Muslim community. The historic and often lethal debate between Sunnis and Shiites originally centered on whether to award leadership to a qualified and pious individual who would lead by following the customs of the Prophet, or to preserve the leadership exclusively through the Prophet's bloodline. Its sort of like saying: "We declare that only the most pious, the most learned and most charitable can become Chief Rabbi; you declare that there is but a single qualification . . . being the son of the former Chief Rabbi."
Shortly after Muhammad's death, community leaders elected one Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet, to become the first Caliph [Arabic for "successor"]. Although a clear majority of Muslims accepted this decision, there were those who supported the candidacy of one Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was both Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law -- he being married to the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. Although obviously closely allied with Muhammad, there were those who sincerely believed that Ali lacked seniority within the Arabian tribal system. As such, he was bypassed as the immediate successor.
As one might expect, many of Ali's followers considered Abu Bakr and the two Caliphs who succeeded him to be illegitimate interlopers. This faction firmly believed that the Prophet Muhammad himself had named Ali as his successor, and that the status quo -- i.e. the elevation of Abu Bakr -- was both a corruption and a violation of the Divine order.
Those who supported Ali's ascendancy became known as Shi'a a word stemming from the term shi'at Ali, meaning "supporters of Ali." There were many others who respected and accepted the legitimacy of his caliphate, but opposed political succession based on mere genetics -- being one of the Prophet's blood relatives. This group, which constituted a vast majority of Muslims, came to be known as "Sunni," meaning "followers of [the Prophet's] customs -- sunna."
This is precisely where the schism began and, to a great extent, it has remained ever since. Theologically, there are a few interesting differences between the two sects. Most deal with the nature and interpretation of Islamic law [shari'a]. There are no codified laws in either Sunni or Shiite Islam. Rather, there are sources for the interpretation of law, which both groups share. Generally speaking, Shiite legal interpretation, in contrast to that of the Sunnis, allows quite a bit more space for human reasoning.
Shiite religious practice centers around the remembrance of Ali's younger son [the ironically named Hussein], who was martyred near the town of Karbala in Iraq by Sunni forces in 680. Each year, his death is commemorated on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram in a somber and sometimes violent ritualistic remembrance known as Ashura, which is marked among some Shiites by the ritual of self-flagellation.
Sunnis reject the Shiite belief that the imams [religious leaders who are blood relatives of the Prophet Muhammad] are divinely inspired beings who should be revered. Sunni Muslims do not bestow upon human beings the exalted status given only to prophets in the Quran. By contrast, the Shiites' veneration of their imams -- the most exalted of whom are called ayatollahs -- approaches a level of infallibility that the Sunnis find repugnant.
There are, of course, sub-sects within the sects.
Within Shiite Islam one finds:
- Twelvers: the most common form of Shiism; "twelvers" accept a line of twelve infallible imams descended from Ali.
- Ismali or Seveners: the second largest Shiite sect, which recognizes only the first seven imams.
- Zaydis: a minority sect that only recognizes the first five imams, and
- Alawite: a tiny subset found predominantly in Syria
they interpret the 5 Pillars -- duties -- of Islam as symbolic rather
than applied, and celebrate an eclectic group of Christian and
Islamic holidays. (The Assad family and the Syrian ruling elite are Alawites).
The Sunnis have one major sectarian subdivision called Wahhabi. They are, arguably, the most pervasive revivalist movement in the Islamic world. Unlike other Islamic sects, they tend to apply the Quran and Haddith [sayings of the Prophet and his companions] in a literal way. They occupy a position roughly equivalent to the ultra-orthodox haridim in Judaism. It should be noted that there is an extremely close relationship between the Saudi ruling family and the Wahhabi religious establishment. The most conservative interpretations of Wahhabi Islam view Shiites and other non-Wahhabi Muslims as dissident heretics. Outside of Saudi Arabia, this sect often goes by the name Salifi -- Arabic for "predecessors" or "ancestors."
One must also give a shout-out to the Sufi, the mystical branch of Islam. Historically, their influence was felt far more in Africa and Asia. Indeed, the tomb of one of the most revered Sufi saints, Khoja Afā, is in Kashgar, China.
So how in the world is it that these two groups [and their various sub groups] could be killing, fighting, and dying over something that happened nearly 1,400 years ago? Ah, there's the great distinction or difference between Western and Eastern history. Some people live and plan for their collective future by giving the past a vote but not a veto; others take marching orders strictly from their collective past. Sunnis and Shiites have been going at it for hundreds and hundreds of years, as if the issues upon which they so violently disagree -- prophetic succession and legal interpretation -- occurred last Thursday. To be sure, the rise of secular ideologies in the first half of the 20th century -- Nationalism, Communism, Baathism -- did manage to temporary mute or deflect tensions between the sects. But as Bill Cosby once quipped about Novocain, "It doesn't cure pain; it merely postpones it."
It is all reminiscent of a story Grandpa Doc used to tell:
A Jewish man is stranded on a desert island. After many years, his presence on the island is discovered by a passing ship. He greets his rescuers with dignity, grace and a cup of tea. They ask him how he has survived all these years. He then begins to proudly show them around his self-made paradise: his orchard, his garden and his pasture. Then, he tells them, "Ve go to 'da other side of 'da island, and I show ya 'da piece 'da resistance." They follow him to the leeward side of the isle where he proudly points to two finely-crafted grass huts. "What are these?" his rescuers ask. "Meina two shuls," he answers. "Your what?" they ask. "Meina two shuls -- meina two synagogues." "But why do you need two?" they ask. "Ah," he says, pointing to one, "Dats 'da vun I go to religiously every day. And dat vun," he says, pointing to the other, "Dats the vun I'd never step foot in!"
This new sectarian dimension -- Shiites going to war against Sunnis in order to hasten yawm al-qiyamah ("The Day of Resurrection") -- makes Western (read: American) involvement in Syria all the more problematic. Goodness knows taking sides in a civil war is difficult enough even without the added apocalyptic ambit. This chilling addition should force all sides, all potential players, to think long and hard; to consider every possible move and counter-move on the strategic chessboard. For when the 9th century comes 'a calling it's a whole new game; one whose rules, though older than time, possess an immediacy that is likely beyond our understanding.
©2013 Kurt F. Stone