This is not the first time the United States has become obsessed with an Islamic terrorist menace. For a decade after the Iranian revolution of 1979, Americans had nightmares about militant Muslims. But they were not the same militant Muslims that we fear today.
Ayatollah Khomeini had galvanized Shiite masses—Shiites are a minority sect of Islam who are dominant in
American intelligence experts warned that Shiite training camps in the Iranian mountains were preparing thousands of militants for a holy war against the
The Shiite scare was founded partly on the belief that Shiites were inherently prone to anti-Western violence. American analysts examined Shiite religious practices and asserted that the heart of Shiah Islam was a “not rational,” “violently reactionary” “extremism.” Fascination with martyrdom supposedly defined Shiites. Their central holiday remembers the martyrdom of Hussein, one of Muhammad’s descendents, and some Shiites commemorate by flagellating themselves with whips. A reporter dubbed this “a ceremony that spawns suicide bombers.”
Still, Americans could console themselves that not all Islam posed such mortal danger. Shiite extremism was contrasted with dominant Sunni Islam, which was “rational” and “moderate” and valued power and stability. We could deal with Sunnis: Sunni Egypt and
But now, in the American mind, Shiites have become Sunnis, and Sunnis have become Shiites. We say the same things about the zealous Sunni followers of Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban that used to be said about Shiite militants. According to intelligence experts, Bin Laden’s training camps in the Afghan mountains have prepared thousands of militants for a holy war against the
As with the Shiite anxiety, there is a belief that this particular kind of fundamentalist Islam is inherently violent. The belligerent Wahhabism of Bin Laden and the Taliban is a “warrior religion,” a “steel-tipped Islamic fundamentalism.” It, too, celebrates the idea of martyrdom and views violence as “a means of purifying a corrupt world.”
Our old Shiite enemies, on the other hand, are now seen as moderates.
(The Sunni-Shiite exchange has even infected Capitol Hill culture. A few years ago, liberals would call Christian conservatives “the Shiite wing of the Republican party.” These days, lefties refer to Christian conservatives as “The American Taliban.”)
Of course there are still extremist Shiites, and relatively moderate Sunnis still control the biggest Islamic states. But why have Sunnis and Shiites traded places in the American Zeitgeist? Shiites have shed their dreadful American reputation because Shiite extremists really have moderated. The Iranian revolution is 22 years old.
There are other reasons why Americans increasingly sympathize with Shiites. The United States used to support despicable Saddam Hussein in order to check Shiite
We have grown disenchanted with Sunnis because Sunni extremism has surged even as Shiite militancy has waned. Part of the Sunni radicalization can be blamed on blow-back. When the Soviet Union invaded
The results are now dismally familiar. Thousands of fervent Sunni Arabs—such as Bin Laden—traveled to
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority has lost influence throughout the past five years as Palestinians recognized its corruption and weakness. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, extremist religious organizations, have filled the vacuum, proselytizing and radicalizing the secular Palestinian population and turning Arafat’s political struggle for a Palestinian state into an Islamic holy war against
As there was a generation ago, there is a surging Islamic jihad, fomented by zealous clerics and soldiers who preach the glory of martyrdom, the corruption of most Arab governments, and the villainy of the