In the middle months of 2006, as Iraq plunged into what increasingly looked like civil war, a new parlor game captivated the cognoscenti. Which Iraqi Muslims are Sunnis and which ones are Shiites? And which ones are on America’s side? The questions could be asked of people throughout the Islamic world–particularly given the undercurrent of intra-Islamic strife during last summer’s Lebanon war, when Saudi Arabia led Sunni Arab regimes in denouncing the “adventurism” of Shiite Hezbollah and Iran–and the answers seemed far from trivial. So the smart set was both bemused and appalled to learn, via the investigations of Congressional Quarterly gumshoe Jeff Stein, that the FBI’s national security bureau chief mistook Hezbollah for a Sunni party and that Representative Silvestre Reyes, new Democratic chair of the House Intelligence Committee, thought Sunni Al Qaeda just might be Shiite.
As if on command, the nation’s newspapers and magazines generated a flurry of “refresher courses” on the two main branches of Islam. The primers, though sometimes adopting a lighthearted tone, usually closed on a serious note. The general upshot was to tacitly ascribe the real difficulty in Iraq (and the region as a whole) to an epic quarrel between Sunnism and Shiism over “the soul of Islam.” The cover story in the March 5 edition of Time was exemplary for its forthrightness: “Why They Hate Each Other: What’s really driving the civil war that’s tearing the Middle East apart.” One could find the proximate cause in any number of events following the US invasion, Time writer Bobby Ghosh conceded. “But the rage burning,” he continued, “has much deeper and older roots. It is the product of centuries of social, political and economic inequality, imposed by repression and prejudice and frequently reinforced by bloodshed.” And though “the hatred is not principally about religion,” it dates all the way back to 632 AD, when the Prophet Muhammad died before designating a successor and a vocal minority championed his cousin and son-in-law Ali. Ali eventually served as the fourth caliph, but enmity between the partisans of Ali (in Arabic, Shiat Ali, the expression eventually rendered in the West as Shiites) and Sunnis was cemented after 680, when the son of the governor of Syria killed Ali’s son Hussein at the battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq. For the Muslims who came to be known as Shiites, the caliphate had been unjustly wrested from the blood relatives of the Prophet.
There is something convenient, of course, about the invocation of a primordial discord among Iraqis to explain “what’s really driving” the ever-widening cataclysm in Iraq. If they have hated each other since 632, after all, it cannot be anyone else’s fault–and certainly not America’s–that they are killing each other now. (One is eerily reminded of Robert Kaplan’s claim in Balkan Ghosts that the war in Bosnia was driven by ancient hatreds–a claim that gave one influential reader, President Bill Clinton, a pretext for delaying intervention on behalf of Bosnian Muslims facing ethnic cleansing.) Some ardent war supporters, like Charles Krauthammer, have espoused this narrative as one more prophylactic against admitting errors of their own. “We have given the Iraqis a republic,” Krauthammer archly observed, “and they do not appear able to keep it.” Depending on one’s perspective, the Sunni-Shiite split can be a reason for the US military to stay indefinitely (to prevent mass slaughter) or for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to tell Iraqi officials “the clock is ticking” on the US deployment (because Americans’ patience with the war is wearing thin) or for the troops to depart as soon as possible (because Iraqis are bent on internecine squabbling no matter how much the United States “gives” them). More than one erstwhile Republican chest thumper in Congress, seeking to justify opposition to President George W. Bush’s “surge,” has taken the blame-the-Iraqis trail blazed by Democrats seeking “phased redeployment.”