Commentary Magazine


The Shia Turnabout

To the Editor:

Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby’s recent essay “Why Sunnis Fear Shiites” [December 2013] is one of the best essays on this great schism in Islam that I have seen in many years. It is literate, historically grounded, beautifully written. Its authors are to be commended for so brilliant an exposition.

It is amazing that Shia Islam, though a minority now, has the Sunni world on the run. This is clearly a reflection of the realities of the Fertile Crescent. The Sunni order in the Fertile Crescent had rested on the cultural hegemony of the Ottoman Empire, and the brutal truth of it is that the Sunnis were not a fighting community. Look at Lebanon, look at Syria. The Sunnis were mercantile communities. Their primacy rested on their hegemony in the cities. Once the Ottoman order receded, the Sunnis were on their own and they were in trouble.

Iraq had its own peculiarity. The way that state was put together gave the Sunnis an easy pass; they rode the coattails of the British and that did the trick. The Tikriti gangs in the late ’60s and ’70s gave Sunni hegemony muscle, but there, too, luck intruded. The American invasion in 2003 put an end to the Sunni order and for good.

At any rate, I can think of no other piece that illuminates these issues with such power and integrity. For the Shia, there is now a supreme irony. The Shia prided themselves on the sympathy for the downtrodden, and now in Syria, the Shia of Lebanon and Iraq find themselves on the side of the killers. A big change in Shia temperament and narrative. 

Fouad Ajami
Washington D.C.

To the Editor:

Though Sunni–Shiite conflict has a long history, it was relatively quiet for centuries until the past several decades. The conflict is getting much worse and explosive. Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby should recognize that Western leaders are now smart enough not to interfere. Non-involvement is the only way the Muslim world will be contained.

Ibrahim Musa
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby write:

We are, of course, very grateful to Fouad Ajami for his comments: first, for his generous praise; and second, for his insights into the article’s themes, for example his account of the prolonged roots of Sunni weakness in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Intriguing, as well as helpful, is his underscoring of the new irony with which the Shia are now presented: their status as victors rather than victims.   

Ibrahim Musa raises the issue of American policy. As he notes, the Sunni–Shiite conflict has a long history—indeed, one some 1,400 years old—long predating the founding of the United States. When engaged, American policy has usually sought, albeit with unequal skill and often mixed motivations, to reach out to such Muslim states as it could on the grounds of friendship and shared interests. This could, and at times has, included alliances with both majority Sunni and Shiite states. But since its 1979 revolution, Iran has declared enmity to the United States to be a cardinal principle and has pursued that with great vigor. 

Both letters speak to the long-running and costly tragedy of the bitter divisions within the Islamic world. No one has done more to bring the history and pathos of these divides to light than Professor Ajami in such elegiac works as The Dream Palace of the Arabs and The Foreigner’s Gift. He ends the first of these with the question, What do the people of the Middle East seek for themselves?—and with the haunting image of dust, kicked up in the swirl of conflict, that covers equally everyone engaged. The dust, he notes, does “not distinguish between the conquering soldier and the conquered villager.” In the end, the divides of the Middle East bode ill for all, but while the aggressors imagine their moments of glory, the innocent gain nothing at all.




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