Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Sunni-Shia Divide and Modern Consequences

Sunni and Shia

Mohammed revealed his new faith in 610 and it was known as Islam or submission to God. He gathered followers quickly and by the time of his death in 632 had set the stage for the building of an empire. But the Sunni-Shia divide was the result of disagreement over future leadership. The disagreement was simple. The Shia believe that only the descendents of Mohammed could rule, and the Sunni believe that being part of Mohammed’s bloodline was not necessary. The Sunni were more powerful and have a long history of persecuting Shia.

There were further splits within the Shia (e.g. “the Twelvers”), the details of which are not of concern here, but the result is the modern-day distribution of majority Shia in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain and about 40 countries are Sunni.

This modern ethnoreligious conflict

The current sectarian and political differences between the two are due in no small part to the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran who instituted an Islamic government based on Shia religious principles. Organizations like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are Sunni and do not accept such a version of Islam. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country, recently sent troops into Yemen (a key strategic concern to the United States) to repel Iranian supported agitators as well as the Houthis. Yemen shares a border with Saudi Arabia. And some scholars have argued that the Sunni puritanical sect known as Wahhbism was in response to Shia Iran. The tensions in Yemen, the Iran-Iraq war in 1980-1988, and the organization of militants in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union are all the result of Sunni-Shia tensions. And you might recall that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni ruling over a majority of Shia. Iran supports Bashar al-Assad even though he is an Alawite and a member of the Shia minority sect.

Sunni and Shia governments constantly worry about their grip on power, especially in the wake of protest movements in places like Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab awakening has spread along the sectarian divide especially when minority sects are the ruling power. This is true in Bahrain where Shia are the majority but there is a Sunni ruling family, and of course the Alawite in Syria rule over a Sunni majority. The Civil War in Syria is a classic sectarian tension and a proxy war between Sunni and Shia powers.

These authoritarian regimes, especially where a minority religious group rules over a majority, rely on authoritarian governments closely aligned with their military to maintain the order. These authoritarian governments are sometimes preferred because they result in stability. Sometimes leading scholars even suggest that these cultures are not going to be receptive to American reforms especially with respect to democracy creation. Consequently, they argue for the desirability of authoritarian regimes as illiberal as they are. But the Arab Awakening must be explained. Surely cultural, technological, and economic factors can be a combustible mixture. The Sunni and the Shia provide the spark for this mixture and bubble underneath most political change in the Arab world.


Cultural Differences and Conflict

devoted versus oppressed

I know, I know. Dichotomies like the ones below are typically exaggerations and overly simplistic. But such distinctions also represent the real world of how people think. And even if differences such as the ones below are not perfect, they are the sorts of differences that must find their way into solutions. These distinctions also necessarily simplify issues and make them more manageable. Besides, they are better than the cartoonish “Clash of Civilizations.”It is simply true that two cultures such as Islam and the West do not share universal standards of argument and reasoning. It is not that they are incommensurate, but they are sufficiently different such that certain points of articulation must be discovered and addressed. Moreover, the religious versus the pragmatic traditions of the East and West respectively make for numerous points of disagreement.

A Islam-West conflict will be considerably different than other international relations conflicts, which might be more subject to rational negotiation and decision-making. But any conflict between an Islamic and Western tradition will be filtered through identity and made more difficult and sensitive by identity. A conflict will always have to recognize the centrality of identity issues and find ways to manage them.


Differences between Islam and the West with Respect to Conflict Resolution

Islam                                                                           The West

1.      Believe an image of violent Islam is predominant in the West.


2.      Peace is defined by the presence of Islamic values.


3.      Issues of “face” and “honor” are particularly important.


4.      Discourse of peace is the exception.


5.      Modern social science is not very relevant.



1.      Islam and the West are incompatible and Islam is a threat


2.      Peace is the absence of war and found in pragmatism.


3.      These issues are important but somewhat less so.


4.      Discourse of peace is normal.


5.      Importance of the social sciences and managing conflict.


In my book “Fierce Entanglements” I cite 20 of these dichotomies but have only a few here for the sake of brevity and space. I think issues such as these deserve attention and I find that they get relatively little. One of our conundrums is that we currently live in an age of tremendous cultural difference recognition. Subgroups in a society demand recognition of their distinctiveness and the right to practice their culture even though it is at odds with the dominant culture. As a society, we increasingly take great pleasure in pointing to cultural differences.

But we’re much more hesitant when it comes to actually recognizing those differences legally and morally. When we generalize or categorize another culture we are quickly reprimanded and reminded of exceptions and variations. So, I do not know if all the distinctions referred to in the table above are justified, but they do represent a common template and for starters are worthy of discussion.

What do you think?


Obama’s Communication Problems: His Strengths Get Defined as His Weaknesses

Obama communicating

President Obama continues to make steady progress on foreign policy issues but, of course, gets no credit for it. Part of it is his own fault because he is always been better at policy than communicating about it. Although his campaigns for the presidency were brilliantly executed and finely crafted with respect to statistical models and winning pathways to the office, he falters when it comes to explaining himself and flooding the media environment with meaningful images and language that “sell” a policy. True enough, we are currently trapped in a maze of Republican attacks and the message environment is full of critical commentary designed to fulfill campaign needs more than anything else. If you did nothing more than follow the Republican primary debates you would think the President was a pathetic bumbling fool. But that is certainly not the case.

For starters, and this is one of the more egregious failures of the president’s team, those critical of the President have been able to control the meaning of his foreign policy by taking the President’s qualities of patience, diplomacy, and thoughtfulness and turning them into weaknesses. It’s a perfect foil for a candidate like Trump (and Rubio and Cruz) all who take macho stances and believe they must come off as “tough guys” who are not going to take any guff from anyone. While the president is solving problems and stimulating relationships, the Republican presidential candidates are making statements that are irresponsible and indicative of their ignorance of foreign policy. I realize this is campaign rhetoric but it does influence the message environment and the White House and Hillary should recognize that a steady diet of these messages is debilitating to the health of Obama’s legacy and Hillary’s campaign.

President Obama is skillfully resetting relationships with Iran and Cuba but the President’s enemies remain in control of the message and its interpretation.

The nuclear deal with Iran was a historic piece of talented negotiation between two religious and political cultures that could not be more distant and separate from one another. You could not find two cultures – the US and Iran – more recalcitrant when it comes to talking to one another; yet, the deal was made and even the carnival barker Donald Trump using the principles of his shallow and simplistic book “The Art of the Deal” could not have done better, his bluster about his own experience making deals notwithstanding. If the future of the treaty with Iran is fragile then it is only because Congress is so hostile to Iran.

And President Obama’s trip to Cuba on March 21 will make him the first sitting U. S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge. This normalization of relations with Cuba is long overdue and certainly will not happen during a Rubio or Cruz presidency as they continue with their counterproductive and stereotypic categories for Cuba as a Castro controlled communist state that can never redefine itself.

The power of regular communicative contact has been apparent in the relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iranian Foreign Minister. They have been talking recurrently and rumor has it they have formed a strong personal relationship during the negotiations. Tyler Cullis writing in Foreign Affairs (March 7, 2016) explains that the US sailors who accidentally drifted into Iranian waters would not have been released so quickly and easily had it not been for the relationship between Kerry and Minister Zarif. This is a success for the Obama administration and should be understood as such. But instead the administration allowed its Republican opposition to characterize it as an embarrassment and an example of disrespect for the United States.

Obama has taken important historic steps to form long-term relations with Iran, Cuba, and other countries, and must be praised for his patient and persistent diplomacy.

Trump and Post-Truth Discourse


[I am republishing this because it was an early warning about Trump and violence. The video tells the story of how Trump does not understand what he is responsible for.]

Trump is dangerous and worse yet he’s unaware of how dangerous he is or doesn’t care. Even at the risk of a little hyperbole we are seeing the consequences of a “post-truth” society where information is distorted, low quality, and attached to a cultish individual full of shibboleths rather than data or reasoning. The post-truth society no longer observes and gathers data in the service of a defensible conclusion; rather, one’s established beliefs and group identity seek confirmation and discourse becomes characterized by a series of cognitive shortcuts designed to confirm what you already believe. Below are three qualities of Trump’s discourse.

But first listen to Trump tell an audience that a heckler from the audience should be “punched in the face.” This is a man running for President of the United States encouraging the audience to start a fistfight. Trump does not even have a rudimentary understanding of his own behavior and the likelihood he could start a riot and hurt someone. His own social and political development is so stunted that he does not understand the tinderbox nature of the situation.

Here is Trump telling us he must be smart because he knows a lot of words.

Then again, this is the same presidential candidate who said the only way to defeat ISIS is to kill their family members. This is a candidate for president who is advocating for a war crime and instructing the military to break the law.

Trump is an essentialist. His rhetoric is filled with references to groups of people and their “essential” qualities. He refers to those who are “stupid” and “not the best.” He regularly makes references to a family member who is a professor at an elite university and to his own elite university attendance. He believes himself and his family are of superior descent. In the video Trump embarrassingly tries to perpetrate this myth by referring to how many words he knows.

Trump demonizes the other side. He refers to Hillary Clinton in extreme terms including name-calling, polarizing language, and blame. By creating the opposition as the “devil” incarnate then it becomes easier to scapegoat them and attach blame. He also has no qualms about dehumanizing others also referring to his opposition as “criminal” or “the most incompetent.” This demonization is simply a substitute for his own inadequacies. Trump essentially knows nothing about policy and hasn’t even taken the time to prepare. Moreover, his followers don’t want to hear policy they just want to hear tough talk and demonization.

Third, and more characteristic of Trump than any other candidate, is a strategy that says attack, blame, and accuse and don’t worry about accuracy or justification because the blame and the accusation is what will be remembered and not the explanation or the truth. Hillary Clinton is bombarded with accusations regarding Benghazi, or emails, or accusations about trustworthiness none of which have much merit but are all designed to do damage first and not worry about the truth. These are all tactics associated with authoritarians trying to damage in opposition rather than engage them argumentatively.

A more shocking and deeper question concerns the explanation for why so many people support Trump. He is not so difficult to explain but the collective delusion of the populace is far more troubling.

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