Saturday, June 16, 2007

Opinion (Chris Toensing): Persian ghosts

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."

Read the rest at the Nation