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In the Middle East, Follow the Violence

“Follow the money” has become a catchphrase in both journalism and politics, seemingly applicable to almost any subject. But if you want to understand what really matters to Middle Eastern Muslims, a better rule might be “follow the violence.”

A case in point is the still widespread delusion that what Muslims care about most is “Western aggression”–firstly Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians, and secondly America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Based on Muslim rhetoric, that’s a plausible conclusion. But if you look at what Muslims care enough to put their lives on the line for–a far better indication of concern than mere talk–a very different conclusion emerges.

Two recent developments made this blindingly evident. The first was a religious ruling by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most influential clerics in the Sunni Muslim world, whose weekly television show on Al Jazeera attracts tens of millions of viewers. As Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Y. Zelin reported in the July 7 issue of Foreign Affairs, on May 31, Qaradawi said that any Sunni “trained to fight … has to go” join the war in Syria. What makes this noteworthy, the report said, is that Qaradawi hasn’t issued similar rulings in other cases: “In 2009, he wrote a book titled Jurisprudence of Jihad, in which he dismissed the individual duty argument for the jihad in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”

Though Qaradawi deemed all those cases “legitimate jihad,” meaning any Muslim who wished to fight there was permitted to do so, only in Syria’s case did he say that Muslims able to do so must join the fight. Thus he clearly views the Syrian war as more important than those in “Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” even though the latter all pitted Muslims against either Israel or America, while the former is a strictly intra-Muslim affair pitting Sunnis against Shi’ites, with no Israeli or American involvement whatsoever.

In short, important parts of the Sunni Muslim world view the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict as more important than the battle against either Israeli or American “aggression.”

The same conclusion emerges from last week’s New York Times report on the rising number of Western Muslims joining the war in Syria–about 600 so far. “More Westerners are now fighting in Syria than fought in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen,” the report says. Western Muslims have also largely sat out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a 2003 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv perpetrated by two British Muslims made headlines precisely because it was so anomalous). And the same goes for non-Western Muslims: Altogether, the Times reported, some 6,000 non-Syrian Muslims are now fighting in Syria; by contrast, only a handful of non-Palestinian Muslims have fought in the West Bank and Gaza in recent decades.

Again, the implication is clear: To many Muslims, the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict is much more important than the conflict with either Israel or America.

Unfortunately, Western governments don’t seem to have gotten the message: Stuck in their time warp, America and Europe are still obsessing over the Israeli-Palestinian sideshow rather than focusing on the conflict Muslims actually care about.


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