Fighting Words

The War Within Islam

The growing danger of the Sunni-Shiite rivalry.

“See how the Christians love each other!” This used to be the secular response to the fratricide between Catholics and Protestants, let alone the schisms within the Catholic Church and the vicious quarrels between different schools of Calvinism. (When the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., wrote to Thomas Jefferson, asking for his assurance against persecution and generating his famous “wall of separation” response, it was the Congregationalists of Connecticut of whose intolerance they were apprehensive.)

Within Islam, these lines of division are many times more acute. Ahmadi Muslims are considered impossibly heretical by most other followers of the Prophet, and Ismaili Muslims are looked upon askance in many quarters as well, but the rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites (which also conceals numerous poisonous rifts between different interpretations and leaderships in both camps) has become one of the most toxic phenomena in the world today. On Web sites that offer advice to the devout, Sunnis and Shiites ask their imams and ayatollahs whether it is permitted to take the life of a member of the other sect. On American campuses, Muslim student groups now shun one another on a confessional basis. Throughout the Arab and Persian media, moods of excommunication and denunciation are vocally expressed. Almost every day in Iraq, as has been well-reported, a mosque is blown up or a religious procession shredded by other Muslims. As is less well-reported, the same thing happens in Pakistan almost every week. And it is waiting to happen in other countries, too, as the Alawite sect that runs Syria (Alawism being a splinter of Shiism) gets ready for another confrontation with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, and as Sunni minorities in Iran become restive at the increasingly sectarian character of the Shiite dictatorship.

The schism may not appear to be doctrinal, since it arises from a dynastic squabble of the seventh century over the disposition of the Prophet Mohammed’s inheritance. (Christianity spared itself this kind of earthly split by making it impossible for anyone but Dan Brown to believe that Jesus had a sexual nature, let alone any offspring. It went on to split about matters like the Trinity, which raised the awkward question of monotheism.) But Sunni and Shiite disagreements, in effect, do the same thing. Those who worship at the shrines of any of the 12 imams or who foresee the return of the “occluded” 12th one are idolators in Sunni eyes. While those who do not recognize the martyrdom of the prophet’s grandson Hussein, according to Shiites, are following worldly caliphs whose rule is destined to pass away. This might seem quaint if it did not involve the quailing of many Sunni-dominated states at the prospect of an Iranian thermonuclear capacity.

Thus, the extreme forces of Sunni Wahhabism and the takfir school that form the hard core of al-Qaida may have been brilliant in the short term in their declaration of war against Shiism. They have certainly made Iraqi life very nearly unlivable and helped to wreck the prospects of a federal democracy there. But there is evidence that even Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri told their late brother Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to rein it in a bit. Delicious though it is to send heretics to hell, they murmured, the long-term cost of inter-Islamic bloodshed might be a trifle high. It is too late for that afterthought now; the war is on in earnest. After the savage demolition of the golden dome in Samarra, only a very few Shiite demagogues tried to blame the atrocity on the Jews. They knew very well who had done this terrible thing, and they acted, and continue to act, accordingly.

I have met a few very hard-line right-wingers who say: So what? If one lot of Islamists wants to slaughter another, who cares? It’s very important to repudiate this kind of “thinking.” Religious warfare is the worst thing that can happen to any society, and it now has the potential to spread to societies that are not directly involved. For the most part, official U.S. policy in Iraq has been sound in this respect, always working for a compromise and recently losing American lives to rescue the moderate Shiite leadership from a murder plot hatched by a messianic Shiite militia. Even where this policy fell short—as in the appalling execution of Saddam Hussein—the American Embassy urged the Maliki government not to conduct the hanging on the day of the Eid ul-Adha holiday that would most humiliate the Sunnis. We cannot flirt, either morally or politically, with divide and rule.

However, the self-generated Islamic civil war does have significance in the wider cultural struggle. All over the non-Muslim world, we hear incessant demands that those who believe in the literal truth of the Quran be granted “respect.” We are supposed to watch what we say about Islam, lest by any chance we be considered “offensive.” A fair number of authors and academics in the West now have to live under police protection or endure prosecution in the courts for not observing this taboo with sufficient care. A stupid term—Islamophobia—has been put into circulation to try and suggest that a foul prejudice lurks behind any misgivings about Islam’s infallible “message.”

Well, this idiotic masochism has to be dropped. There may have been a handful of ugly incidents, provoked by lumpen elements, after certain episodes of Muslim terrorism. But no true secularist or even Christian has been involved in anything like the torching of a mosque. (The last time that such a thing did happen on any scale—in Bosnia—the United States and Britain intervened militarily to put a stop to it. We also overthrew the Taliban, which was slaughtering the Hazara Shiite minority in Afghanistan.) But where are the denunciations from centers of Sunni and Shiite authority of the daily murder and torture of Islamic co-religionists? Of the regular desecration of holy sites and holy books? Of the paranoid insults thrown so carelessly and callously by one Muslim group at another? This mounting ghastliness is a bit more worthy of condemnation, surely, than a few Danish cartoons or a false rumor about a profaned copy of the Quran in Guantanamo. The civilized world—yes I do mean to say that—should find its own voice and state firmly to Muslim leaders and citizens that respect is something to be earned and not demanded with menace. A short way of phrasing this would be to say, “See how the Muslims respect each other!”


I wrote last week that Congress passed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act on the initiative of the Clinton administration. Though this is true to some extent—the sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., introduced the legislation (which passed by 360 votes to 38) by saying that he had worked with the White House on its terms and that the administration did not oppose the measure—it would have been as accurate to credit those, from Sens. Kerrey and Lott to Sens. Lieberman and McCain, who argued for the law as a means of making the Clinton administration live up to its public rhetoric. In signing the bill into law (after its unanimous passage by the Senate), President Bill Clinton spoke as if he was serious on the point. Those who wish to repudiate their past votes, therefore, should probably start by revisiting the view they took in 1998.