Thursday, February 15, 2007

Shiites and Sunnis

David Seaton's News Links
Thinking about the Shiites and the Sunnis, I had a little flash of insight that I'd like to cast upon the waters to see if anybody with special knowledge, like Juan Cole, could riff on it.

I understand that Iran, which is 90% Shiite has never been a colony, which makes it unique in the region. The rest of the Middle East was Ottoman or English or French, colonies, protectorates or whatever. In these situation of domination the outsiders availed themselves of the Sunnis as their interposed governing elite, even when they were a minority as in Mesopotamia/Iraq. The Arab Shiites were simply treated as hewers of wood and drawers of water when not actively persecuted: always obsessed with justice and sacrifice and allowed to dissemble their religion if in danger from the Sunnis.

So the Sunni Arabs in the Middle East have always been the clients and executors of some faraway ruler, either in Istanbul, London, Paris or Washington and the Shiites were excluded and left "wild and free".

Thinking about all this I suddenly remembered a summer I spent as kid at a Cheley camp in the Colorado Rockies. We used to go riding in large groups on these trail horses that spent their lives following the horse in front of them. One time we were visiting a "ghost town", which had a large flat field next to it and the counselors thought it would be fun if we played "capture the flag" on horse back. It was dreadful! We were all milling around trying to capture the flag or having captured it trying to escape or to catch the one who had the flag, but the poor horses instead of enjoying a good, free-form gallop, were only desperately trying to find some other horse's bottom to follow. Disaster.

Maybe the Sunni Arabs are like those trail ponies and that is why the rise of the Shiites is putting them into a panic. Perhaps the Shiite Arabs are like "mustangs" with no previous habits of government, unlike the Sunni Arabs who seem to have been the "Sepoys" of the Ottomans. The Shiites have never been anybody's man Friday, so they don't have those "trail pony" reflexes, which, as I learned as a boy, are so hard to shake off. DS


Anonymous said...

I am not the expert on this, but it's worth remembering that Iraq had a significant Jewish colony until the late 40s (the Sassoons come to mind), a significant Christian population until George II, as well as the Yazeris and perhaps other religious minorities.

Iran also had a significant Jewish minority until 1979, though some stayed on to this day. Then it had Bahais, who get the Shia clergy all paranoid, a smattering of Christians, and Zorastrians, who like the Jews and Christians enjoy protection from religious persecution. If I'm not mistaken, Juan Cole has some ties to the Bahai.

I suspect, from my years in the region, that the Shi'a and Sunnis may well distinguish themselves in having slightly different temperaments; much as say Boston's Christians have not always had the same temperaments.

The other thing to bear in mind is that Iraq is not topographically homogeneous; many of the Shia once existed as the Marsh Arabs, who probably were not as affluent as the Baghdadis. Sadr City is a slum built to accommodate those who moved to Baghdad. Another possibility if not likelihood is that the Shia were already excluded from power by the Sunni Caliphate. It's also likely that the Sunni elite would have had a wider world of connections to draw on ranging from Al Azhar to Damascus and Beirut and even Marocco to Mecca and Medina, India and Malaysia, whereas the Iraq and Iran are essentially the only places where many Shi'a are.

You'll also have had some degree of allegations of dual allegiances made at the Shi'a, and also that ambitious Shi'a may have at times gone to Iran, where they didn't face discrimination.

Rather than focus on horses, perhaps a comparison between the Anglo-Irish and the less Anglo-Irish in what is now the Republic of Ireland may be topical. Some sent their progeny to Eton and Oxbridge, some didn't.

As for Nasser, he talked a great talk, which may well have raised morale, and was known for being personally incorrupt. But he badly botched the Union with Syria, letting prima donnas destroy what could have been a great strategic move, and pursued Quixotic ideals such as that the Saudis share their oil wealth with all Arabs. I do not claim to know what I would have done in his place, but I am not convinced that Egypt has profited much from being on a war footing for 40+ years.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

What I meant is that the Shiites were like "mustangs" with no previous habits of government, unlike the Sunni Arabs who seem to have been the "sepoys" of the Ottomans.

Thanks a lot for the comment, as you can see it has caused me to change the original version. DS

Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert either, but from what I've read, Saudia Arabia was never a colony since no one really cared who controlled the interior of the Arabian peninsula. The British had protectorates along the east coast of the peninsula to protect the sea route to India, the Turks had loose control over the Hejaz (the west coast). Yes, it was in the British and American sphere of influence, particularly after oil was discovered, but it was never occupied.

From what I've read, the Ottoman Turks were Sunni and hired the local Sunnis as their representatives in the Mesopotamian provinces. The British likewise hired those who had had experience in government or military under the Turks; and there was also a feeling among the Brits that the Shia were analogous to Kentucky fundamentalist snake handlers -- they were the ones who paraded every year slashing themselves. The British also hired the Christian Assyrians, who were later oppressed by the Iraqis, Turks, and Syrians. While Iran was never occupied it was in the British (and partly Russian) spheres of influence. So Shia have experience governing only in Iran; Shia arabs have had minimal experience in governing.

My understanding was that Ottomans ruled through local notables in much of their empire; the local clans or tribes had significant authority. So there is a continuum of gradations of control from colony to ruling through locals, to "sphere of influence" to independent.

Keep up the good work of your commentaries.

Anonymous said...

I would imagine that the Iran under the Qajars enjoyed far more autonomy than under the last Shah. It is news to me that the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1781 to 1925 was not Shi'a. It would be extremely rare for a monarchy to not share the religion of the vast majority of its subjects for more than a century. I can't think of an example. Mossadeq, a Shi'a, by the way, was the daughter of a Qajar princess; to some degree his interregnum can be seen as a Qajar Restoration.

It is tempting to forget that one reason that colonialism (and Christianity) was such a success in India was that they were valuable and viable antidotes to the racist and, in my opinion, loathsome, caste system. Many, if not most, of India's Christians had ancestors who felt that they could do better than being dumped on all their life.

Saudi Arabia was never really a colony, nor were the sheikhdoms on the southern litoral of the Gulf until oil was found. Until then, they were far too poor to be worth colonizing, and had to settle for mutual defense agreements. When oil came, power was exercised more subtly, i.e. training the palace guard.

The plight of Iraq's Shi'a may perhaps be compared to that of Catholics in Scotland. Ethnically, they're 100% Scottish, politically, religiously and culturally they oriented themselves differently than bulk of population, and long paid a significant price for this. Similarly in the border area between Iran and Iraq, you have Arabs that are Sunni, and then, in both countries, Arabs that are Shi'a and then Persians who are not Arab and Shi'a. The Iraqi Shi'as may not have enjoyed as much political influence as others, because of their being Arab Shi'a, but the Qajars went to war with the Russians several times.

The British, masterful colonizers that they were, may have preferred to couch their reluctance to give power to an ethnic group with loyalties beyond Mesopotamia in language referring to their backwardness. So white man's unfortunate burdenish! In India, they proved themselves masterful in exploiting ethnic and religious differences to get their way.

Saddam Hussein's claimed that his invasion of Iran was to bring the Arab Shia back into his Arab dominion. He thought he'd quickly lop Khuzestan with its vast oil reserves off of a disoriented Iran; unfortunately the other powers in the region (Saudi Arabia and all) decided they liked the idea of weakened Iran and Iraq, and simply went and picked up some popcorn.