The Western media has devoted precious little consideration or discussionto the importance of the Shi’a-Sunni split within the context of the current struggle against Islamic extremism. This is further complicated as issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and the disarmament of Hezbollah are regularly framed by the Bush administration and subsequently the media as being integral components of the same radical Islamic threat that seeks the utopian goal of world domination under a re-established Islamic Caliphate. As a young Marine officer in the early 1980s, I was instructed that the Shi’a – especially Iranians and their surrogates – were essentially evil ideologues – irrationally emotional, motivated by religious vice national interests, completely inimical towards Western culture, and entirely devoted to undermining the prestige and influence of the United States.
The Sunna, however, were good, practical people with a moderate outlook and friendly disposition towards the West. Despite our previous “understandings,” we now realize the real existential threat to Western culture comes from the ideological heart of Sunni, not Shi’a Islam? More importantly yet less obvious, we share this existential threat with Shi’a Islam, as the radical pan-Islamic Sunni ideology that drives the followers of Bin Laden and Zarqawi seeks to remove the heresy of Shi’ism from this earth with the same fervour it pursues the destruction of the West.
In this struggle against Al Qaeda, the Shi’a are our natural allies. We need to set aside old arguments and engage the Shi’a in a more proactive and positive way. Iran is a problem but it seeks neither the destruction
If we are searching for a reformist element in Islam it will be more likely found amongst the Shi’a. Unlike the rigidity of Sunni Islam, reformation is a component of Shi’a theology. Within Shi’a Islam the “Bab of Ijtihad” – essentially the “Door of Reason” – remains open, allowing scholars to offer current interpretations of ancient scriptures. The most enlightened Islamic sects emerged from Shi’ism – the Ismaili Sect led by the Agha Khan is a good example. In the 11th Century the Ismailis were the dreaded “assassins” – the Al Qaeda of their time – but today the ideology of Ismaili Islam is a model of tolerance that would shame most Christians.
In the end, Shi’a dominated governments in Iranand Iraq will serve as a better bulwark against the expansion of radical pan-Islamic wackiness in the region than a whole division of Marines.