As Iraqis go to the polls today – or do not – it is a critical moment not only for America’s gamble in the Middle East but in the evolution of Islam. While Iraqis try that most Western of political innovations, two strains of history are coming into play at once – the growth of Islamic radicalism and the long hostility between the Sunni and Shiite sects.
Islam was born in a time of turmoil and change in seventh-century Mecca, where the rapid growth of commerce and finance threatened old values and clan ties. The new monotheistic religion with which the Prophet Muhammad challenged the pagan idols of the day was in many ways a conservative call to restore the old values. It would be an oft-recurring theme.
Muslim warriors swept out of the desert spreading the new faith by sword and establishing a caliphate, a religious empire that would reach dazzling heights in learning and extend from Spain to far Asia. It was not without inner turmoil; a lasting schism formed between majority Sunnis and minority Shiites.
But by the end of the 19th century, the caliphate’s final incarnation, the Ottoman Empire, was a spent force. After World War I, Britain and France redrew the map of the Middle East to suit their own ends, creating largely artificial countries. Unrest, uprisings and a birth of new ideologies started quickly.
Frustration grew as new secular faiths failed and governments came to be seen as corrupt, inefficient, brutal, the pawns of foreigners, or all of the above.
For many Sunnis, the answer became a return to a purer Islam, first with the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The mid-1960’s writings of Sayyid Qutb are central to the current generation of Sunni fundamentalists, known variously as Wahhabis, Salafis and Deobandis. Shiite clerics forged a similar, if separate, path to radical politics.
For some Sunnis, fundamentalist Islam encompasses a virulent hatred of Shiites as apostates and heretics. Thus, today’s elections in Iraq – where Shiites are expected to win big – could well turn out to be about more than political real estate.
Iraq today presents eerie parallels to much of this history. Capturing Baghdad in 1917, Maj. Gen. Stanley Maude of Britain declared, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” Insurgents captured and murdered British officers. The British bombed from the air. They staged a referendum for their chosen king.
Writing about the aftermath of World War I in the Middle East in his epic study, “A Peace to End All Peace” (Avon, 1989), David Fromkin stated that “the modern belief in secular civil government is an alien creed in a region most of whose inhabitants for more than a thousand years, have avowed faith in a Holy Law that governs all of life, including government and politics.”
“European officials at the time had little understanding of Islam,” he continued. “They were too easily persuaded that Muslim opposition to the politics of modernization – of Europeanization – was vanishing. Had they been able to look ahead to the last half of the 20th century, they would have been astonished by the fervor of the Wahhabi faith in Saudi Arabia, by the passion of religious belief in warring Afghanistan, by the continuing vitality of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Sunni world and by the recent Khomeini upheaval in Shiite Iran.”