Category Archives: Political Conflict
This week’s Jerusalem Post had a 25 page insert that was a political journal sponsored by the “Women in Green” who are a very conservative grassroots group concerned with advancing the interests of Israel. This is an interesting document and not something you would see in the United States, at least not typically. The entire document – or political journal as it is called – is devoted to the issue of declaring sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. Because the two-state solution is losing favor and fading in the eyes of some, the right wing has seized the moment and is trying to kill off the two-state solution once and for all. Moreover, the election of President Trump has empowered the right wing because he is seen as sympathetic to their issues and the best chance for the United States to be more aggressive in the defense of Israel’s conservative environment. The election of Trump is considered a game changer because he is perceived as willing to find alternatives to the two-state solution and will be “tougher” in his defense of Israel. Note the appointment of Friedman as the ambassador to Israel who is very conservative and pro-settler.
A proposed solution that is receiving increased talk time anyway is the issue of sovereignty. Political sovereignty is when a political authority has power over independent states. That power is established through some sort of enabling law or Constitution. Governments maintain the integrity of the sovereignty relationship and ensure that the administered groups keep their rights and cultural freedoms.
Now there are different types of sovereignty and numerous complexities but we don’t want to send everybody scrambling to find their old political science books. Go here for more on sovereignty. Suffice it to say that Israel would be the primary overseer of a collection of communities that maintain their independence but had limits on citizenship rights, military, and certain other conditions that might damage the standing of the primary sovereign. Here is an outline of the sovereignty plan.
- There would be the establishment of Arab “autonomies” subject to the rule of the Israeli sovereign.
- Security and national issues will be under the control of the State of Israel.
- The autonomies would be bound together in an infrastructure that supports water, electricity, and a host of municipal services.
- Members of the autonomies would be eligible for health benefits, insurance, education, and freedom of movement. This grants the right of permanent resident but not citizenship.
- Martial law will be canceled and normal government services will be returned to civil society.
- The Oslo Accords, which turned out to be unsuccessful, will be canceled.
- The UN refugee organization will be released and refugees will have the right to settle in any autonomy.
- Ultimate responsibility for the protection and maintenance of holy sites will be with the State of Israel. All holy sites will be accessible to believers of all religions.
- No foreign country would have special status over holy sites anywhere in the country.
- The Gaza Strip is part of historical Israel that would ultimately have to become part of the sovereign relationship with Israel.
Suffice it to say that reasonably fulfilling and satisfying relationships can develop under conditions of sovereignty. Still, the success of sovereign relationships is dependent on the history of the relationship between the dominant political authority and the weaker party. Why do those supporting sovereignty believe that the Palestinians will be any more accepting of a sovereign relationship than of outright Israeli control. This conflict has been complex and delicate for a long time. The Palestinians have honed their own consciousness into images of a cohesive collective with all the requirements of nationhood – ethnic identity, religious orientation, national boundaries and borders, and the possibility of a proper functioning political system. The proposal of sovereignty is subject to the same deficiencies of any other proposal – the Palestinians still end up in the weaker position. That’s why a two-state solution remains the only hope for a mature political relationship between Israel and Palestine.
There is something symmetrical about the fact that my first week in Jerusalem was taken up with the issues of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. And what could be more appropriate given that Israel was unhappy with Obama who was too slow and diplomatic along with overly careful about relationships with the Arab world, and Trump is about the opposite. Netanyahu has put together and drifted toward one of the most conservative governments in Israel’s history so it stands to reason that Trump should be more to his liking. But what could really happen? What are some of the issues in the new relationship between the U.S. and Israel?
First, there is little doubt that Netanyahu figures his path is going to be easier with respect to settlements. He has tried to walk the line between being supportive of settlements but still managing the international condemnation that comes with it. It was no accident that the announcement of thousands of new homes in the West Bank coincided with Trump’s ascendancy. And Netanyahu has stated rather boldly that he has no intention of giving the Palestinians a state. This is related to a point I’ve been making for some time. Does anyone really think that there’s going to be the creation of a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s watch? Does anyone really think that Netanyahu is going to be the prime minister who goes down in history as responsible for creating a Palestinian state? Even though Netanyahu is on record as supporting the two state solution, I figure you have to be pretty naïve to think that he actually meant it. Like Trump, Netanyahu will say pretty much anything he needs to say to satisfy the moment. The settlements remain perhaps the most significant obstacles to peace and they continue to be the major point of contention.
The US and Israel must put their heads together and work out a common platform designed to support the issues related to settlements. The fact that Netanyahu allows two minor political parties (Haredi and Bayit Yehudi), who are animated by settlement issues, to command so much attention is evidence of both his fragile coalition and the importance of the issue.
Both Trump and Netanyahu assume the relationship will be “bromantic.” That is, these two political and ideological brothers who share a common vision of the world – along with a common desire to change directions from Obama – will have a “bromance” hopefully followed by a complete union.
But in both love and politics things don’t work out the way you expect. I will just bet, for example, that Netanyahu is not happy about having to deal with Trump’s pesky son-in-law who may be bright and capable but seems woefully unprepared to be in a position to manage the most intractable international conflict in modern history. When I think of distinguished presidential advisers (e.g. Brzezinski, Kissinger) the name Jared Kushner doesn’t come to mind.
This is going to be a learning experience primarily for Trump who, as is quite evident, is a newcomer to politics with little knowledge or experience in international relations or policy. Trump’s rather careless statement, for example, about moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem is a good example of his naïveté. He started to back off from this demand as soon as he learned of its provocative nature and the damaging consequences. There is little doubt that Netanyahu will try to lecture Trump and “educate” him on the issues. This puts Netanyahu in a power position because he is more able to manage the information environment. But in the end I hope Netanyahu is careful because this is a president who will strike back viciously if he feels manipulated, disrespected, or challenged. Hopefully, Netanyahu will use his skills to do more than “bromance” his friend; rather, he will take this opportunity to direct Trump to that portion of reality that represents what is best for both countries.
You have to admit that if you were Daniel Silva or Tom Clancy trying to write another international thriller you could do no better than the opening chapter being devoted to the Russians hacking American political campaigns in order to influence elections and plant their own Manchurian candidate. This opening “staging” chapter could include tensions between the intelligence services and the new president complete with allegations and embarrassing verbal exchanges. To listen to the president elect and the heads of the security agencies trade public accusations and barbs along with charges of incompetence is unprecedented.
And what if rather than treating this as an enjoyable fictional experience we stopped for a moment and considered the implications for the current state of American institutions, political leadership, and security. Corey Robin has begun to make the argument that American institutions are becoming less and less legitimate and this is occurring against the background of political deterioration. Even at the risk of charges of alarmist exaggeration, I believe it’s possible to make the case, at least one worthy of discussion, that there has been a steady decline down a path littered with the remnants of more legitimate institutions and behavior reflective of that legitimacy.
The American democracy seems to be turning on itself and in the process weakening institutions and altering our sense of moral political consciousness. In other words, certain democratic values and forms of political communication have begun to decline. Robin cites as one early example the loss of trust in the government and military during the Vietnam War that resulted from lies and misleading information. This would extend to the crude manipulations about Iraq and the deceptions perpetrated on the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the denigration of an admired military leader (Colin Powell), a “stolen” election (Busch-Gore) decided in accordance with pure party lines by the Supreme Court, the rise of Trump, and a Congress so polarized and entrenched that it cares nothing about governing but plenty about treating the other as an enemy to be conquered rather than a worthy adversary to work with.
There are two trends in contemporary American society that are both causes and consequences of this decline. The first is the rise of American authoritarianism (see Amanda Taub’s work), and the second is the post-truth politics were there are no facts or evidence-driven conclusions that can’t be manipulated. As Nietzsche put it, “there are only interpretations.” And it is important to underscore that the rise of authoritarianism in America is not about strong controlling individuals taking over and leading by authority. No, it is more the rising tendency for people in the country to obey and accept authority, to prefer authoritarian relationships. They accept authority unquestionably and seek it out.
This preference for authority was one of the divides that separated Trump supporters from those who are horrified by him. And a post-truth mentality seems to be attaching itself and boring into the culture ready to deconstruct and disperse the “reality-based community.” These are the conditions for some difficult conversations and the impossibility of communicating. Then again, paradoxically, it is probably only the communication process that can re-challenge these trends.
Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.
Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.
The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.
Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.
There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category
Enemies versus Adversaries
|To be destroyed.||To be defeated.|
|Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust.||The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.|
|No trust.||Trust is possible.|
|Zero-sum game.||Non-zero-sum game.|
|Warfare metaphors.||Possibilities for cooperation.|
|Differences between the two sides are maximized.||Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.|
|Unwavering commitment to a perspective.||Opportunity for change and altering perspectives|
|The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it.||Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.|
|Statements are predictable and offer little new information.||New information surfaces and can be addressed.|
|Success requires simple impassioned statements.||Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.|
Have you noticed that it’s the left end of the political spectrum that is now defending the status quo. Obama and Hillary supporters are the establishment and described as a continuation of the past and the mainstream of politics. It’s the Trump supporters and those on the right who are the critical outsiders. They are the ones who want to take down the “establishment” and remove the government. It used to be that the left had an oppositional relationship with society, and the right was mainstream conservatism and the defender of national values; it used to be the left that engaged in cultural terrorism, and the right was associated with maintaining American values and traditions. So, what happened?
I will tell you what happened. The left has made serious progress on its goal of creating the “culturally correct” man. This was accomplished methodologically by the process of criticism of society with the goal of transforming the historical power structure of American society. The angry, violent, and revolutionary voices come more from the Trump camp than the Hillary camp. Even Bernie Sanders’ liberal constituencies quietly and obediently returned to their lives rather than organize and revolutionize. What is this methodological process that creates the “culturally correct” man? It is commonly known as political correctness. The angry American (of which angry white males are the most typical) feels oppressed by political correctness such that he or she is now in a more radicalized oppositional relationship with the political process. It’s the right that is intensely and more violently critical of American society.
Political correctness has its roots in Marxist social theory and the goal of revolutionary transformation. Detailed examination of Marxist criticism is beyond our concerns here but suffice it to say that a whole line of destructive criticism – emanating mainly from the Frankfurt School – challenged the fundamental elements of American society such as patriarchy, capitalism, patriotism, morality, family, gender, and religion. The transformations of the economy and the changing nature of work and manufacturing have combined with cultural criticisms to position a significant segment of the right into a revolutionary stance.
Working class white males, exemplified by what has become known as the typical Trump supporter, have suffered the most from pressures to upset the patriarchal order (e.g. intense demands to change gender reference language; acceptance of same-sex marriage), change the Christianity-capitalism authoritarian structure (ordination of women; the misguided belief in the efficacy of their own individualism), and the steady substitution of white males by women, immigrants, and the government.
The pressure on middle-class white males has been relentless. The culture increasingly speaks a new language that has been stripped of its traditional power and substituted by a neutral and more inclusive vocabulary that clearly does serve the goal of diversity but at the expense of the traditional institutions of authority.
Even though more inclusive culturally sensitive language is a laudable goal, it resonates more with the cosmopolitan liberal than the traditional conservative. Multiculturalism is the true enemy of this group on the right and can be seen as breaking up traditional cultural values, taking jobs, and dismantling American society. Interestingly, this group values rugged individualism and small government but still expect government to provide social safety nets. Many of these working-class white males have roots in the Democratic Party and still retain some party identification but most of them fit into the Pew Research Center political identity category termed “hard-pressed skeptics.” They are low income and express negative attitudes toward immigrants and are distrustful of government. The combination of factors has resulted in a communal rather than ascribed identity makes them a politically critical outside group.
When Donald Trump proposed that Ghazala Khan – the Muslim Goldstar mother of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq – was not allowed to speak, ostensibly because of Muslim sexist control of women, he dehumanized Mrs. Khan. Interestingly, Trump dehumanized Mrs. Khan by assuming that Islam was responsible for her dehumanization thus projecting the issue to the foreground.
To “dehumanize” someone is typically thought of as portraying the other person as uncivilized and animal-like. It has historically been used to explain the psychological changes in individuals during times of war or atrocity. In order for genocide and mass murder to take place the perpetrator must see his enemy as less than human and thereby more deserving of being killed. And, dehumanization helps perpetrators justify their behavior since they are not taking the life of a “real” human being.
But in recent decades researchers have been more interested in subtle forms of dehumanization in which human characteristics (such as emotions) are denied to some other individual or group. This can happen on an individual as well as group basis. Freedom of expression, for example, is considered a natural “human” right and it is “dehumanizing” to deny the right. Most research is on racial and ethnic groups. For example, studies show that the association of one ethnic group with an animal (e.g. Blacks with apes) causes significant perceptual distortions such as the overestimation of children ages and criminal culpability. Such research helps explain police violence and the disparities of police violence toward different groups (for a review of dehumanization research see Haslam and Stratemeyer).
Immigrants and asylum-seekers are also dehumanized (Trump calling Mexicans coming over the border “rapists” and “drug dealers”) as well as an increasing number of groups such as psychiatric patients, homeless people, gay men, and older adults. Although dehumanization is related to stereotypes, they are not equivalent since it is possible to stereotype without dehumanizing and vice versa. Moreover, keep in mind that “super humanizing” someone is equally as dehumanizing since it defines them as “other than human.” The ascription of superhuman physical or sexual qualities to an ethnic group diminishes the recognition of their experience of pain and their capacities for sensitivity.
The consequences of dehumanizing are serious and persistent. More than a few studies report how dehumanization leads to increased punishment because offenders are considered less than human, as well as the endorsement of extralegal behavior such as torture for terrorists. Trump’s dehumanization of Mrs. Khan perpetuated a stereotype designed to challenge the authenticity of their sacrifice, and to categorize the Khans in such a way as to make them less deserving of sympathy. Individuals or groups who are dehumanized are assumed to be less worthy of respect and conciliation.
The combination of stereotypes and dehumanization makes for an explosive mixture producing distorted perceptions and easy justification of violence. But even in situations where violence is less implicated (the Trump example) there is a sort of psychological violence that makes it easier to overlook or ignore the potential for aggression and cognitive distortions.
The below was first posted in March of 2014. Thought it would have new interest given events in Turkey.
The photograph above is of Fethullah Gulen who Victor Gaetan writing in Foreign Affairs compared to the Muslim Martin Luther. Interestingly, I have been writing a little bit about Gulen recently in a book that I’m finishing up and during my research I had become a little intrigued with Gulen. You can find the article in Foreign Affairs here.
A typical descriptive statement about Islam over the last decade is that it never experienced a Reformation. It is true enough that Sufi-ism and scholars such as Said Nursi inspired new more humane schools of thought but they remain marginalized. Much of Islam, not all, is harsh and rooted in the political and military conditions of the ancient world and there has never been a moderation of these tenets by a Muslim Martin Luther. There has never been a Muslim Reformation. Martin Luther was an influential and controversial figure in the Christian Reformation movement. He was responsible for entire new lines of thinking in Christianity and set in motion a sort of enlightenment. Luther had a desire for people to feel closer to God and this led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers. Martin Luther is generally associated with rooting out corruption, preventing religion from being used as a tool for political power, and humanizing the church his anti-Semitism notwithstanding.
Even at the risk of exaggeration, many feel the contemporary version of the Muslim Martin Luther is Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a Turk who has been in the United States since 1999. He has worked to promote a modern school of Islam and is an Islamic intellectual committed to secular education, economic development, democracy, and acceptance of scientific knowledge.
Gulen has taught that Islam should devote more energy to public service and be separated from politics as much as possible. His emphasis on helping others and doing good deeds in the community is consistent with much Koranic teaching and directs attention away from political organization. This is in sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood whose ascendancy in the last half-century has argued that the state should be Islamic and armed struggle is a moral and spiritual obligation. Moreover, Gulen is committed to education, including science and math, and has over 1000 schools around the world with video and instructional material made easily available to students.
As you might imagine, Gulen is not popular with modern-day Islamists. He has been exiled in the United States for many years and clashed with Erdogan over foreign-policy and authoritarian politics. Gulen is a strong supporter of democratic dialogue and he has chastised Turkey and other Islamic countries for poor treatment of journalists and a failure to engage sufficient constituencies over issues such as the Gezi Park protests.
The Gulen movement upholds numerous liberal conditions such as the belief in the intellect and the fact that individuals are characterized by free will and responsibility to others. Not all of Islam divides the world up into categories such as dar al-harb (the house of war) and dar al-Islam (the house of peace) but understands humans as more coherent and integrated. A verse in the Koran states that “there is no compulsion in religion” which emphasizes the individual intellect and freedom of choice.
Gulen is both careful and brave. He will not be intimidated and continues to speak up even in the face of the easy violence that could confront him. While Erdogan continues to clamp down on Turkey with Internet censorship and control of the judiciary, Gulen continues to infuse Islam with the teachings of tolerance and democratic sensibility.
One of the divides that has emerged more starkly from the Brexit debate and the candidacy of Donald Trump is the distinction between elite and popular discourse. Just being overly general for the moment, elite discourse is most associated with the educated and professional classes and is characterized by what is considered to be acceptable forms of argument, the use of evidence, the recognition of complexity, and articulation. Popular discourse is more ethnopolitical and nationalistic. It is typically characterized by binary thinking, a simpler and more reductive understanding of the issue, and an ample amount of cognitive rigidity makes it difficult to change attitudes. To be sure, this is a general characterization because both genres are capable of each.
Still, consistent with the well-known polarization of society is the withdrawal of each side into a comfortable discourse structure where the two codes are increasingly removed from one another and the gap between them cannot be transcended very easily.
Additionally, elite and popular discourses share some different sociological and economic orientations. Elites are more cosmopolitan and popular is more local and nationalistic. Elites live in more urban centers and are comfortable with and exposed regularly to diversity. Those who employ more popular discourse tend to live in smaller towns and are more provincial. They seem to resist cultural change more and are less comfortable with diversity.
These two orientations toward language divide the leave-remain vote over Brexit and the electorate that characterizes the differences between Clinton and Trump. But this distinction is more than a socioeconomic divide that reflects some typical differences between people. It symbolizes the polarization currently characterizing American politics and has the potential to spiral into dangerous violence as the “popular” form of discourse becomes more “nationalistic.” It lowers the quality of public discourse and typically degenerates into even more rigid differences and stereotypical exemplars of elite and popular discourse. Nationalist discourse substitutes close minded combativeness for elite debate which can be passionate but is geared toward deliberative conversation that can be constructive. Nationalism is the deep sense of commitment a group has to their collective including territory, history and language. When national “consciousness” sets in then one nation is exalted and considered sacred and worthy of protection even in the face of death. Trump’s catchphrase “make America great again” or “let’s take our country back” or his appeals to separation and distinctiveness by building walls that clearly demark “us” and “them” are all examples of a nationalist consciousness that glorifies the state.
The nationalism espoused by Trump and the “leave” camp during Britain’s vote on the EU question are the primary impediments to consolidating, integrating, and strengthening democracies. All states with any sort of diverse population must establish a civil order that protects those populations; that is, no society will remain integrated and coherent if it does not accommodate ethnic diversity. At the moment, Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and representative of a tribal mentality that clearly wants to separate in many ways various communities in the US. Trump’s references to Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, for example betrays his own nationalistic sentiments.
The two ways to handle ethnic diversity are either pluralistic integration or organizational isolation of groups. Isolating and separating groups is inherently destabilizing and foment ripe conditions for violence. Building a wall and making determinations about who can enter the United States and who can’t are all examples of isolating groups. Intensifying nationalist discourse and the privileging of rights for a dominant group is fundamentally unsustainable.
This gap in the United States between an elite discourse and the nationalist discourse has grown wider and deeper. Each side snickers at the other’s orientation toward language and communication and continues the cycle by reinforcing the superiority of his own discursive position.
In the modern era religion has played a relatively small or insignificant role in foreign policy, especially among academics and professionals. International relations are assumed to be subject to rational processes and the primary motivating force is not religion but maximization of gain and minimization of loss.
But the Iranians following the revolution of 1979 have been the first significant departure from this trend. Iranians have defined themselves as fundamentally Islamist and any effort to organize against them, any war or confrontation, is considered an attack on Islam. Global jihad and pressures on other Islamic countries not to partner with non-Muslim governments are part of the growing entanglements between foreign-policy and religion.
The United States is oblivious, and I don’t mean that as a compliment, to issues in religion in foreign policy. They miss theological underpinnings all the time and have naïvely misread and failed to grasp incidents such as the Iranian revolution, Islamists objections to our presence in Saudi Arabia, all while we blithely armed Islamists in Afghanistan because we thought we were thwarting communism. Even our efforts at democracy promotion have failed in the face of confrontations with religious tenets that we fail to understand, ignore, and consider to be little more than inconsequential background.
And probably the biggest blind spot for the United States has been the published documents by ISIS and Al Qaeda members detailing terrorism with a vision of Islam. These documents make reference to the creation of a global caliphate; foment a religiously apocalyptic narrative; and use religious motivations to recruit young believers. The US continues to fight the war on terrorism as a military and security matter and not a religious one. Theology animates ISIS such that killing them only creates more committed actors who will find new ways to subvert their enemy, namely, the US.
Interestingly, it is a form of political correctness that keeps the US from acknowledging the theological underpinnings of terrorism or any other foreign policy with a basis in religion. What I mean is that American leaders do not want to be perceived as attacking Islam or being critical of Islam even if it is religious tenets rooted in Islam that justifies violence in its name. Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama might refer to gun laws, history, morals, economic deprivation, or some aberration but they never tie violence or some aggressive behavior by another group directly to theological principles of Islam. I can understand the delicate diplomatic position of the President of the United States such that he does not want to prance around the world condemning world religions. In fact, organizations like ISIS want to divide the world into Muslims and non-Muslims and blaming entire religions would play right into their hands. They succeed at this to the extent that the US blames Islam or gets involved in military actions on land that is considered caliphate. Still, our policies will be ineffectual to the extent that they fail to consider religion in foreign policy.
It is not easy for the United States to all of a sudden adopt religious oriented policies or even to begin to use the language of religion in an effort to appease or seek a superficial identification with another political entity. That is why we must find other ways to weaken their theological basis. This includes empowering natural enemies, and providing improved social and economic progress in contested areas. We’re also losing the propaganda or information war as these religious oriented policies spread their beliefs. Organizations like ISIS and countries like Iran clearly embrace religion as part of foreign-policy. In the end, if we are to make progress in the information war we are probably left with Justice Brandeis’s adage about how “the remedy for bad speech is more speech.”
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.