Recent developments in Iraq have both degraded the stability of its government and kick-started a new conversation about American involvement in the Middle East. Unfortunately, partisan rhetoric from the right has so far driven a conversation lacking in historical insight and replete with American hubris.
Specifically, the arguments being made today that President Barack Obama’s “failed leadership” is driving the chaos in the Middle East are both embarrassingly egocentric and unproductively partisan in a manner that sidelines the clarity of this important international debate.
For those unaware, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (aka ISIS) is a splinter group from Al Qaeda that initiated successful takeovers of major Iraqi cities last week in an effort to destabilize the democratically elected government of Iraq.
As the name implies, they have organized during the Syrian civil war and aim to leverage the instability in that country to garner more power across the region of both countries in an effort to enact a very conservative form of sharia law based on the teachings of Islam. Using barbaric measures such as beheadings, crucifixions, and public executions, the leaders of ISIS are wielding a brutal, effective campaign to terrorize all in their path.
The complexities behind these recent efforts are centuries old. Just looking at this issue from a very superficial level, that of a battle between orthodox and liberal interpretations of a religion, this crisis is larger than America. Larger than our geo-political interests in the broader Middle East and larger than the number of years that America has even existed.
A Brief History of Sunni and Shiite Muslims
The internal conflict of how faith should be interpreted and enacted in a culture’s everyday life is common to most major religions. In the Christian world, this drama plays out in the form of fundamentalist groups battling liberal, inclusive groups over issues like homosexuality, evolution, civil rights, segregation, abortion, and various other cultural-political debates.
In the Muslim world, there is a strong parallel to the internal Christian debate in the conflict over how to interpret the prophet Muhammad’s teachings after his death in 632 AD. More specifically, the discussion focused on who would succeed Muhammad after his death and lead the believers of Islam.
One sect, the Shia (commonly referred to as Shiite), felt that the next leader should be a blood relative of Muhammad while a second group, the Sunni, believed that a colleague of the prophet was more prepared to lead.
Essentially, this was an argument about the merits of divine ordination. Does one’s god choose one’s leaders on the ground or not? Again, there is a strong correlation between this discussion and historical conflicts in the Christian world that resulted in kingdoms, fiefdoms, and eventually, violent rebellion and the establishment of the United States.
As it has developed over the last 1400 years, the philosophical evolution of competing interpretations within the Muslim world have broadly been interpreted by us as a simplistic divide between secular and non-secular forces. It’s the fundamentalist Shiia battling to rule the land according to strict interpretations of Islamic law (aka Sharia law) versus the more inclusive, non-sectarian governance of the Sunni Muslims.
Quite obviously, these battles over how faith should or should not be reflected in government are not specific to Islam. Rather, they are an eternal human discussion in every culture and belief system. My point here is to make it clear that this divide between Shia and Sunnis was not born during Obama’s term.
Yet, Republicans here in the US have immediately begun blaming our president for this week’s violence in Iraq. This is most frustrating, mainly because the potential for post-war Iraq to degenerate into a Sunni-Shia conflict was given as a reason we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq twelve years ago.
The fact that a Republican foolhardedly led us into this war despite those warnings is really water under the bridge to me at this point. I don’t see any purpose in ridiculing Bush. Frankly, I think history will do that for me and it’s counterproductive, but it has to be brought up now that Republicans are blaming Obama for Shia attacks against a Sunni government.
People said this would happen and we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq for this specific reason.
It’s Not as Simple as Sunni versus Shia Anyway
The current crisis is far more complex than just an internal holy war between two sects of Islam anyway. That would be too simple.
What makes this more complex than that? For one, there is the issue of the arbitrarily drawn political lines between these various Middle Eastern countries. Created by Western forces in the aftermath of World War I who were focused on dividing up the Ottoman Empire, many of the countries on the Middle East map were created with borders that were either ignorant of or defiant of the inherent political discord that had developed between tribal and religious groups over centuries. In other words, lines on a map were crafted in a vacuum and seemingly without regard for how they would affect people on the ground.
Look at a map of the countries in the Arab world and then look at a map that redraws the area according to religion. You will see pockets of Christians engulfed by Muslims. Within the Islamic faith, you will further see large swaths of concentrated Shia surrounded by the more dominant Sunni sect. Now compare the two maps, one outlining the area by country and one outlining the area by religion and you find massive incongruities with strong potential for conflict.
Forcing competing ideologies into a Western-drawn country and mandating that they get along was ill-conceived, but it isn’t the totality of the problem. The original split in Islam was rooted in political succession, not strict religious interpretations. For many, the competing religious interpretations were more a vehicle for maintaining political power between competing tribes.
One group saw power in a strict interpretation of lineage. Specifically, if relatives of Muhammad were the only ones succeeding him in leadership, then members of his large extended family would remain in power.
When another group sees themselves as patently excluded from power due to a lack of blood line connections, they embrace the spiritual teachings of the prophet Muhammad and espouse a political interpretation that is less about the physical person of Muhammad and more his philosophies. The next leader, therefore, would be the most experienced teacher of Islam and not just some cousin of the previous leader.
And so the competing political interpretations drawn up in the aftermath of one person’s death in the 7th century were designed to benefit competing tribes. Don’t take this to mean that I’m discounting the faith behind the Sunni and Shia interpretations. I merely aim to point out that people, being people, tend to leverage their perspectives into what they believe is the best path forward for them personally and in this case, it is clear that the family of Muhammad would naturally see the best path forward in what they undoubtedly called a more pure succession of leadership while others, not related to the prophet, would naturally see the merits of a more inclusive interpretation.
A Regional Conflict
This original political debate is further complicated by the tendency for people to wield religion as a weapon to mobilize followers for their own personal advantage and to garner power as both a head of state and religious sect. Some simply abuse faith to become the leader while others leverage it to gain personal wealth.
This is not an Iraqi problem as much as it is a crisis of faith, politics, and power succession. When we removed Saddam Hussein from power, we removed a stabilizing force of brutality that had strong-armed peace. While the regime of Hussein was undoubtedly a corrupt dictatorship that inflicted great harm on other people, his absence from power has instigated the return of a 7th century debate that has often had violent incarnations.
To say that President Obama, in five years, has incited these recent developments through political ineptitude is both naïve and jingoistic. It is a perspective rooted in American ego; the idea that we are the center of the world and the developments of culture, faith, and conflict internationally are rooted in our ability to mitigate or direct them. It is a mistaken perspective manifested in the idea that the world didn’t exist before us and therefore, it should develop according to our historical perspective.
To put it bluntly, it is an embarrassing narrative that must end and it hijacks our national debate at a time when we desperately need clarity in order to negotiate the most peaceful path possible for ourselves and for International peace.
We should be approaching this subject from a longer perspective, focusing closely on the regional trend of Middle Eastern-African religious and political conflicts between fundamentalism and liberalism as well as how to mitigate the potential risk that these conflicts between Islamic sects could escalate into an external religious war involving Israel and the Judeo-Christian world.
President Obama is absolutely correct in his approach to this crisis. We must certainly engage in the conflict, but less paternally and more as an advocate for peace. Or to put it into religious terms, with less of our own orthodoxy and more from a perspective rooted in bringing people towards solutions. We must not leverage brute force to do so because brutality clearly has not worked to the favor of the Middle East or the world at large. Rather, our solutions should promote inclusivity in a manner that fosters those on the ground to build solutions together based on their own history and culture. Or get out of the way.