Back in the many-days-ago, immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims divided over the question of who should lead the “Umma” (the Faithful). Should it be some prominent person who enjoyed wide deference among Arabs or should it be a blood relative? The prominent (and rich) men who argued that one of them should lead tended to be “late adopters” of Islam. This opened them to the suspicion that they were what the Nazis would call “March violets”—opportunists who joined the movement once it came to power. The men who thought that a blood relative should lead tended to be, well, blood relatives, but also essentially lower-ranking figures committed to tribal loyalties. Islam divided between those who supported an eminent figure (Sunnis, the vast majority) and those who favored a blood relative (Shi’ites, a minority overall, but the clear majority in Iran and Iraq). The two sects of Islam did battle for hundreds of year. Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran espouses the cause of the Shi’ites, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia espouses the cause of the Sunnis.

For many years, the United States fostered warm relations with Iran. Then came the Iranian Islamist Revolution of 1979. The Americans shifted their support to Sunni rulers, like the kings of Saudi Arabia, but also to more “secular” Arab leaders like Saddam Hussein.[1] This makes it sound like the US is backing “moderate” Islam against “radical” Islam. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Saudis have their own brand of religious radicalism, Wahhabism.

Wahhabism began in the 18th Century as a puritanical sect of Sunni Islam. The founder, sheik Abdul-Wahhab, forged an alliance with the leader of the Saud family, an alliance sealed by the alliance of their children. Almost two centuries later, the Saud family completed the conquest of Arabia. Later, still, it became a major oil exporter. The oil wealth led to a loosening of the strict moral standards that had run in parallel with the rise of the Sauds. In 1979, Wahhabist enthusiasts administered a very public rebuke to the nation’s leadership by seizing the Great Mosque in Mecca. Taking the message to heart, the Saudi leadership changed course. Saudi Arabia has long tried to spread Wahhabism while checking the spread of Shi’ite doctrines.[2] Saudi money pays for mosques, schools, and cultural centers abbroad.

In failed or failing states like Pakistan and Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, Saudi-funded religious schools (“madrasas”) offered the only schools available to children in border regions and in refugee camps. The Wahhabist doctrines spread to many boys who would later take arms as part of the Taliban. The schools continue to teach studetns drawn from Muslim populations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

In exchange for this largesse for the cause, Wahhabist militants operate only outside Saudi Arabia. The “Arab Afghans” who went to fight the Soviet Union were Wahhabists. Others went to fight in Bosnia or in Chechnya. Most of the 9/11 plane hijackers were Wahhabists.[3] The Nigerian group Boko Haram grew out of Saudi-funded efforts to counter the spread of Sufism in the Sahel. ISIS can be seen as an extension of Wahhabism. Certainly, the Saudis have shown no interest in fighting it in Syria and Iraq, even as their planes pound Shi’ites in Yemen.

In short, victory over Iranian-backed Islamism might just reveal a greater danger still. Little in either the media or government pronouncements is preparing Americans for that shock.

[1] Clients of Iran had a hand in bombing the Marine barracks in Beirut, so it isn’t like this was done at the whim of the oil companies. Regardless of the last sermon in the New York Times.

[2] “Exporting radical Islam,” The Week, 14 August 2015, p. 11.

[3] A portion of the 9/11 Commission’s report that deals with Saudi involvement remains classified.

An eye for an eye.

Here’s the narrative of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the Middle East as seen through Saudi Arabian eyes.[1] Back in the day, as my students often refer to any historical event that occurred before the latest installment of “The Dark Knight,” the dispute over who should lead the Faithful divided Islam into Shi’ites and Sunnis. Over many years, the two different schools of thought pretty much learned to live with one another. Later still, most people stopped caring about the argument in any concrete way. For fifty years in the middle of the 20th Century conflict turned on rivalries between conservative monarchical (and pro-Western) regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and revolutionary, “democratic” (and pro-Soviet) regimes like Syria and Egypt. Still, that did not mean that particular religious identity had ceased to matter to people, just that they wouldn’t fight over it. Then came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Not only did the Iranian ayatollahs overthrow the Shah, they also claimed the right to lead all of the “ummah,” and they attacked the conservative monarchies that had once been Iran’s partners. The Sunni countries, led by Saudi Arabia, weren’t taking this pretentious claim lying down: they counter-attacked by questioning the ayatollahs. Political conflicts began to activate the long-dormant conflict between sects.

Then, in 2003, the United States attacked Iraq. The American invasion overthrew the established order (a Sunni minority ruling a Shi’ite majority), then, first, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, then ISIS arose out of the conflict. From 2011 on, the civil war in Syria turned up the flame under the Sunni-Shi’a struggle.   The Iranians backed the Assad regime in Syria and the Shi’ite state in Iraq. Now, the Iranians have supported (fomented) trouble in Yemen by the Houthis. This has finally alarmed the ever-patient Saudis: “Until this war, there has been a sense that Iran was encircling Saudi Arabia, [and] that this Shi’ite revival is occurring at the expense of Sunnis.” With the outbreak of fighting in Yemen, however, “It was no longer a Shi’ite crescent, but a Shi’ite circle.” The Middle East has been engulfed in violence as a result of the immoderation of Iran.

What gets left out of this narrative? The most obvious thing is that Iraq attacked Iran at the start of the Iranian Revolution. In the long (1980-1988) war that followed, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait financed much of the Iraqi war effort. Iran had done little beyond rhetoric at this point to threaten either “revolutionary” Iraq or the conservative monarchies. It looks more like trying to profiteer off a weakened Iran on the part of Iraq and then an attempt to fend off the consequences of an ill-considered adventure by Iraq on the part of the Saudis.

A second thing to consider is that Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of Wahhabism, a conservative brand of Sunni Islam, did not arise as a response to a challenge from Shi’ite Iran. Rather, the Saudi monarchy and Wahhabism have been long-term allies. The oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 vastly enriched Saudi Arabia.[2] The wealth sucked out of Western countries allowed the Saudis to embark on a vast Wahhabist propaganda/proselytization campaign in many areas of the Muslim world.[3] That propaganda described non-Wahhabi Muslims as “apostates.”

All narrative demands simplification as a means to clarity. Some narrative simplification can be carried too far in the service of political advocacy. Doubtless this page is a case in point.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Sunni-Shi’ite Conflict Is More Political Than Religious,” WSJ, 15 May 2015.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahhabism#Afghanistan_jihad

[3] Including northern Nigeria, where Wahhabists opposed the local brand of Sufi Islam. Out of this struggle and from the many failings of the Nigerian state, emerged Boko Haram.