Thursday, August 02, 2007

Scott Ritter - Former U.N. Weapons Inspector

I've just come upon this March 2007 essay by former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter, in which he provides the most cogent and detailed explanation I've yet read regarding the Sunni - Shia rift in Islam.
First, however, he delivers a scathing indictment of America's failure to grasp the historical and cultural roots of insurgent violence in Iraq:
Calling Out Idiot America

Congress’ smoke-and-mirrors approach to the Iraq war creates the impression of much activity while generating no result. Even more sadly, the majority of Americans are falling for the act, either by continuing their past trend of political disengagement or by thinking that the gesticulation and pontification taking place in Washington, D.C., actually translate into useful work. The fact is, most Americans are ill-placed intellectually, either through genuine ignorance, a lack of curiosity or a combination of both, to judge for themselves the efficacy of congressional behavior when it comes to Iraq. Congress claims to be searching for a solution to Iraq, and many Americans simply accept that this is this case.

The fact is one cannot begin to search for a solution to a problem that has yet to be accurately defined. We speak of “surges,” “stability” and “funding” as if these terms come close to addressing the real problems faced in Iraq. There is widespread recognition among members of Congress and the American people that there is civil unrest in Iraq today, with Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence tearing that country apart, but the depth of analysis rarely goes beyond that obvious statement of fact. Americans might be able to nod their heads knowingly if one utters the words Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, but very few could take the conversation much further down the path of genuine comprehension regarding the interrelationships among these three groups. And yet we, the people, are expected to be able to hold to account those whom we elected to represent us in higher office, those making the decisions regarding the war in Iraq. How can the ignorant accomplish this task?

After posing this question, Ritter then provides a fascinating historical backgrounder as to the ancient break between Sunni and Shia.

Karbala is a holy city for the Shiites. Its status as such is based on the fact that Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and son of Ali, the fourth caliph, was killed outside Karbala in a battle between Hussein’s followers and forces loyal to Yazid, son of Muawiyah, the fifth caliph. The two sides were fighting over the line of succession when it came to leading the Muslim faithful after the death of Muhammad in the year 632. Abu Bakr, a close colleague of Muhammad but not a member of Muhammad’s biological family, was elected as the first caliph after the prophet’s death, an act that many Muslims believed broke faith with a necessity for the successor of Muhammad to be from his family. Abu Bakr’s death brought about a quick succession of caliphs, all of whom met untimely deaths and none of whom were from the family line of Muhammad.

When Ali was elected as the fourth caliph, many Muslims believed that for the first time since the death of Muhammad the caliphate had been restored to one properly authorized in the eyes of God to lead the Muslim faith. In fact, upon Ali’s accession as caliph, one of his first acts was to seek to restore the Muslim faith to its puritanical origins, which Ali believed had been departed from by the merchant families closely allied with the third caliph, Othman. Ali’s efforts were bitterly resisted by merchant families in Damascus, which refused to recognize Ali as the caliph. The head of the Damascus rebels, Muawiyah, fought a bitter conflict with Ali, which weakened the caliphate and paved the way for Ali’s assassination.

Upon Ali’s death, the caliphate was transferred to his elder son, Hassan, but when this succession was challenged by Muawiyah, Hassan relented, transferring the caliphate to Muawiyah with the caveat that once Muawiyah died, the caliphate would be returned to the lineage of the prophet Muhammad. When Muawiyah died, the caliphate passed to his son, Yazid. This succession was challenged by Hussein, Hassan’s brother and Ali’s younger son, who believed that the succession, as dictated by Hassan when he abdicated, should have gone to someone within the direct line of the prophet Muhammad, namely Hussein. Yazid’s treacherous attack on Hussein and his followers, occurring as it did during prayer time, set the stage for the split in the Muslim faith between the Shiat Ali (Shia, or followers of Ali) and the Ahl-i Sunnah (Sunni, or the people who follow in the custom of the prophet Muhammad). Both Shiite and Sunni view one another as deviants from the pure form of Islam as taught by Muhammad, and as such functioning as apostates deserving death.

Ritter's historical treatise continues to the present:

Wahhabi concerns over the weakening of the Muslim world by those who practiced anything other than pure Islam were certified in the minds of the faithful when, in April 2003, American soldiers captured Baghdad in what many Wahhabis viewed as a repeat of the sack of the city at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. Adding insult to injury, the role of Iraq’s Shiites in aiding and abetting the American conquest was seen as proof positive that the only salvation for the faithful could come at the hands of a pure form of the Islamic faith, that of Wahhabism. As the American liberation dragged on into the American occupation, and the level of violence between the Shiites and Sunnis grew, the call of jihad as promulgated by the Wahhabis gained increasing credence among the tribes of western Iraq.

Ritter's article is a must (but not an easy) read.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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