Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Brief History of This Moment

A Brief History of This Moment
© 2006 Ross Williams

Mohammed wasn't even buried before his followers started choosing up sides. Who was going to inherit the already sizable islamic kingdom?

Having no sons, it couldn't go to any of his children. But he had a daughter[1]; his son-in-law claimed rightful inheritance. Heaven forbid, literally, a woman gets anything of her own. Many of Mohammed's cousins and uncles and, probably, in-laws of both, also claimed rightful inheritance.

But then there were the non-relatives. There were a lot more of them, naturally. They believed that the line of succession should belong with those who supported the movement – and weren’t related.

Martin Luther King started a movement for civil rights in the US. When King was killed in 1968, there was no civil war between his widow and Jesse Jackson. His widow got the estate and the book deals, Jesse Jackson got the movement. Everyone came away happy. Well, as happy as they could be under the circumstances, considering.

When Mohammed died everyone wanted everything. The battle lines were drawn up accordingly. On the one side were those who believed, generally, that the islamic movement needed to be inherited by the family of the founder[2]. On the other side were those who believed the islamic movement should be inherited by – in our judeo-christian terminology – the disciples of the founder[3].

The family inheriting branch of islam is now called Shi'a islam; the disciple inheriting branch of islam is called Sunni islam. They hate each other. And they've been killing each other for the past 1,300 years.

Now, a lot of people are going to say that this is one of those "religion causes all wars" things. Baloney. Double baloney. And bullshit to boot.

This is one of those tribal things. The relatives of Mohammed belonged to one tribe. A tribe is, in tribal cultures, a family grouping. Mohammed briefly united various tribes under a larger ideology, and collected a modest amount of political power – under religious auspices – using that ideology. So when he died there was a classic power struggle. The battle lines were drawn up under classic tribal affiliations: one tribe versus another.

At the time this schism developed there were no doctrinal differences; it was based purely on who would inherit the power[4] associated with the islamic religious movement. Even today, almost 1,400 years after Mohammed's death in 632AD, the major doctrinal difference consists of who should be the main spiritual leader of the One True Islamic Faith. About the only thing that changed in all that time was due to the normal and expected exigencies of tribal culture: tribal conflicts tend to expand and collect allegiances and enmities among the neighboring tribes.

The islamic religion started among the Arab people of Arabia who were, up until that time, mostly zoroastran. Zoroastranism is a vaguely monotheistic religion which, like judaism, christianity, islam, hinduism and essentially all the rest, posits a Good versus Evil dichotomy that plays out in the temporal world, and to which our individual allegiances determines our spiritual fate.

In other words, there’s no fundamental difference between one religion and the next.

But that didn’t stop people from using it as an excuse to swipe power from the controlling interests in Mecca. Mohammed wanted to change the basic economic structure of Mecca, which was based on pilgrims coming to see the statues in the Kaaba. Essentially, tourists visiting Mecca spent money to go to a museum. Mohammed didn’t like the museum, because the statues in it were one-time gods of old religions, which were polytheistic, which meant that Mohammed’s hometown dealt in heathen practices. For money. How crass!

So Mohammed made a deal with Mecca’s main enemy – Ethiopia – to assist him in putting a stop to it. The Mecca city council was understandably annoyed. Not only was this upstart attempting to decimate the city’s treasury because of his artistic tastes, but he was allowing enemies to infiltrate. Mecca kicked his followers[5] out of town.

They went to Ethiopia; Mohammed stayed in Mecca. From all accounts he was miserable. So he went to Jerusalem, gave a speech on the Temple Mount[6] which muslims have taken to calling Dome of the Rock.

From Jerusalem, Mohammed went to Medina[7], which was a rather cosmopolitan trade city at the time. There were no offensive museums in Medina, or pesky pagans attempting to practice their idolatry, and Mohammed thrived. He built a huge following in Medina, mostly by convincing the two tribes squabbling for control of the Medina city council that they should join him in conquering Mecca.

Which they did.

Our story so far: Arabs are squabbling zoroastran tribalists. Mohammed shows up, gives them a new religion that is essentially the same as every other, but demands that their politics adhere to his tastes. This would severely impact their finances, so they decline. Mohammed takes this to be an act of war. He gets other tribes to join him in the war, and thus islam spreads. By the time Mohammed died many of the tribes in the central Arabian desert were united under the islamic religion, and the fledgling empire would have been quite a prize to one who inherited it. It would be like inheriting Microsoft© today.

Which brings us back to the Sunni/Shi’a schism. One of the tribes unified under Mohammed’s rule was Mohammed’s own tribe; this tribe believed – per cultural practice – that the proper succession went to the family. The rest of the tribes, big surprise, felt otherwise.

Arabs, the nomadic tribes stretching from Morocco in west Africa to Mesopotamia in the east, the entire Arabian peninsula in the south to Byzantium in the north, were unified within a few generations of Mohammed’s death. The unifying concept was, essentially, “there’s one tribe seeking to control all Arabs, so join us to stand against them … and by the way, here’s your new religion.”

Mohammed’s tribe, finding some but not many Arab tribes to join them in their squabbling against the majority of the other unified Arab tribes, found more allies outside the Arab peoples. Specifically, the Persians[8]. Persians historically hated Arabs who, when some of those Arabs were known as Babylonians, periodically invaded Persia; Persia then returned the compliment, usually with greater success. So pariah Arab tribes and Persians lined up against the rest of the Arabs was how it broke down.

Religion has what to do with this? Nothing; religion is simply the superficial excuse used to exploit traditional, in this case tribal, rivalries. Tribe X hated and periodically warred with tribe Y long before Mohammed left a religious/political empire to the one who could grab it. Persians hated and periodically warred with Arabs long before outcast Arab tribes convinced Persians to join them in the sectarian bickering that masked their own tribal squabbles.

Religion is irrelevant here. They’d be at war with each other regardless. The only thing religion adds to it is the monumentally pious self-righteousness that is so wedded to the ultra-religious.

So, recently the sacred Shi’ite shrine in Samarra Iraq was blown up. Odds are it was Sunni thugs, seen entering the shrine moments before it blew up, who did it. Hussein was Sunni and spent his entire career killing Iraqi Shi’a. Iraq is one of the few muslim nations which has sizable populations of both Sunni and Shi’a. Shi’ite populations in all muslim nations except Iraq and Iran[9] are extremely small.

Iran, which hates Israel and the US more than it does Sunnis and Arabs[10], has blamed Israel and the US for destroying the shrine. Persia, pushing pan-islamism, is intent on defeating the West, and they don’t have time for any such sectarian nonsense. …until the West is defeated, that is, and then Iran would undoubtedly like to rule the West-ruling Greater Islamia under a reanimated Persian Empire.

Iranian desires notwithstanding[11], Iraqi Shi’a took the opportunity afforded by the destruction of their shrine to go on a rampage against Sunnis. See? it’s not just cartoons they object to. So the Sunnis retaliated by dropping out of the Iraqi government. What we have shaping up is an Iraqi civil war.

Many people who know what they’re talking about[12] are going to be claiming that an Iraqi civil war was virtually inevitable. Take Tito’s iron-fisted tyranny out of tribalist Balkans, within a decade you’ve got civil war. Or, as fate would have it, two. Take Hussein’s iron-fisted tyranny out of tribalist Iraq, … you have peace and stability?

Don’t be silly.

The odds-on likelihood for civil war led many cynics, including myself, to oppose a full-scale invasion just because it would have been trivially easy to get Iraqis to do the job themselves with very little US expense or manpower. A Desert Storm/Desert Fox-style air war could be coordinated with anti-Hussein forces, Shi’a or Kurds, or both, who would take out Hussein on their own … It’s not like RealPolitik is a modern American invention that hasn’t practiced around the globe for millennia.

A civil war among the people who hate you and wish to see you destroyed is a good thing. The US should embrace an Iraqi civil war, and get the hell out of their way while they fight it. The more they fight amongst themselves, the less we’ll have to fight against them. Our job would be to prevent them from spreading the civil war to the neighbors’ yards. Well, the neighbors who like us, anyway. Turkey, Saudi, Kuwait, Jordan and Israel.

If it spreads to Iran and Syria … darn the luck. The last man standing wins. If no one’s standing, so much the better.

[1] Fatima
[2] they settled on the son-in-law, Ali, who was also Mohammed's cousin, thus serendipitously marrying the immediate family to the extended
[3] specifically, the disciple named Abu Bakr, who conveniently claimed that Mohammed rewrote his will at the last minute
[4] and the rich, trade center cities of Mecca and Medina, conquered by the Mohammedans a few years before Mohammed’s death
[5] i.e., his family
[6] hence the historic squabbling between jews and muslims over ownership of same
[7] let’s just skip merrily past his abortive war on the Byzantine Empire…
[8] …and by the way, here’s your new religion
[9] Babylon and Persia, respectively
[10] now, anyway; that may change at any moment
[11] and their desires have no standing as far as I’m concerned
[12] which leaves out anti-war weenies in the US and Europe


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