Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Saudi-Iran Conflict and the Resonance of History

A brief piece  in the Atlantic on Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution by the Saudis has led to the latest crisis with Iran. This article barely scratches the surface on the deep and complex issue of the Shi'a population of Saudi Arabia and the significance of the state's current crackdown on it.

Here I want to comment on a side issue raised briefly in the early part of this article: The idea of a centuries old conflict between Shi'as and Sunnis. As the article points out, this idea has been "debunked" by several writers, and there is ample justification to reject the simplistic, black-and-white version of this notion that one often finds in the Western media. However, I think that it is problematic - even dangerous - to paper over the issue completely and pretend that ancient history plays no role in the problems we're seeing -- that they are purely of modern origin, e.g., triggered by the Iranian revolution or the rise of Hezbollah, or even a little older and grounded in the emergence of Wahhabi-Saudi power. All these factors are major contributors to what we see today, but so is a longstanding historical context that is both real and alive. Much of Islam's early political, intellectual and doctrinal history was shaped by the dialectic between Shi'a and Sunni views of the world and how God acted in it. And though the Shi'a have always been outnumbered numerically, Shi'a dynasties have held sway over various parts of the Muslim world for significant periods, and exerted strong cultural and intellectual influence. Indeed, successful theocracies in the history of Islam have tended to be Shi'a rather than Sunni for a variety of plausible reasons. Outbreaks of sectarian conflict at various levels has been a regular feature of the history of Islam in its core region (Iran to Morocco), culminating in the long, cruel and civilization-shaping conflict between the Ottomans and the Safavids.

It is true that, throughout the centuries of intermittent conflict, Shi'a and Sunni Muslims have lived together, interacted socially, intermarried, and often dissociated themselves from the rigid views of their religious scholars and political leaders. However, the resonance of history cannot be ignored. This is especially true on the Shi'a side, which has a fundamentally more history-centered worldview with a highly developed eschatology. It is also more rooted in the ideas of charismatic leadership, struggle against oppression, and martyrdom. These ideas do exist among Sunnis as well, but mostly in a diffuse, inchoate form due to the lack of formalization by an organized clergy. By colonial times, most Sunni populations in the Muslim world had settled into political and social systems they found themselves in, with only minor outbreaks of historically-driven zealotry. However, that has now changed. Several of the Sunni revivalist movements that have emerged in the last few centuries -- including Wahhabism -- do have a more history-centered worldview, albeit with none of the sophistication that has developed in this regard on the Shi'a side. Thus, it is not surprising that these two worldviews with strong ideas about the very nature of history and world order should find themselves in conflict. But it is also important to accept that this current conflict connects readily with the historical memory and symbolism of Shi'a-Sunni conflicts through the centuries, and supercharges them with an existential significance. Cynical firebrands may exploit this symbolism for narrow purposes, but the emotional effect of the symbols is all too real. Yes, ordinary Shi'as and Sunnis have lived together in harmony in South Asia and the Middle East for centuries, but when the specter of history -- or worse, the specter of mythology -- begins to loom large in minds, people often forget about human relationships.

Let's hope that the present outbreak of hostilities turns out to be a footnote rather than a new chapter in a long and terrible history.

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