Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sunni and Shiite Muslims - Choosing a Sect Sunni and Shiite Muslims - Choosing a Sect

Noah Feldman in the NYT: Sunni and Shiite Muslims - Choosing a Sect points out that it used to be fairly easy for the U.S. to pick a side in the Sunni/Shi'a debate. We would inevitably choose the Sunni side. Feldman suggested that it was because of the realist/ Arabist school of thought in the State Department. Maybe. But part of Iraq's problem right now is that the Protestant British, seeing a lot more similarity between their religion and Sunni Islam than they did with the more Catholic looking Shi'a, and more comfortable with the desert Beduins than the sophisticated townsmen, threw three somewhat disparate former Ottoman regions togther based on oil, and then gave control to the minority Sunni Arabs, who then maintained their control over the majority with ever increasing levels of force, violence, and brutality.

But what Feldman seems to miss is that our focus has changed from supporting our guys in power, whoever they are, as long as they were our "allies", to self-determination. We primarily support the Shi'a in Iraq right now because they are the distinct majority. Combining them with the American leaning Iraqi Kurds (who are happy just to be left alone), and you have between 80% and 85% of the Iraqi population. Supporting the Sunni Arabs, as we had done in the past, would mean supporting a 15%-20% minority. And that philosphy is becoming the driving force behind many of our choices in the Middle East as to which side to back.

Self determination is a much more viable guide to picking sides for a number of reasons than any belief that the Sunnis are because their religion is more pure, or that the Shi'a version of Islam is more flexible. First, self determination and majority rule are morally superior. And secondly, majority rule ultimately will reduce ethnic pressures of a minority using force and brutality to maintain control over a minority.


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