Friday, February 3, 2012

Islamic Unity

It should be obvious by now to all observers that Islam is no less heterogeneous than is Christianity. Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis, others. The largest Islamic countries by population are Indonesia and India. The ultra-orthodox (Wahhabi, Taliban and others) get most of the coverage, but aren't representative, much less dominant.

It should also be obvious that Iran's government and its people are quite two things, and frequently at odds. A reformist president was elected with 60% of the vote. THe recent reelection of Ahmadinejad was universally thought fraudulent, and demonstrations against it violently suppressed.

So, in a conference trying to bring the Arab Spring revolts under the rubric of reasserted, unified Islam, the Iranian government found itself, er, questioned:

--A Pakistani television reporter observed that some members of the Pakistani delegation had made vicious slurs against Shiites in their own country, and now mouthed mantras of pan-Islamic unity — presumably, he said, to hedge their bets or seek alliances with Tehran on political issues. “The talk here is of religion,” the reporter said. “But under the surface it is all raw politics.”

...The conference was widely reported in the Iranian news media, and posters bearing the words “Islamic Awakening” were plastered on walls near the conference hall. They were met in some Tehran quarters with dismissive sarcasm. One popular text message, circulated widely on cellphones around the capital, went: “If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, don’t worry: it’s not the high prices, poverty, or unemployment. You are suffering from Islamic Awakening.”

And one very interesting, highly heterodox observation was made:

The Iranian effort to hold up the struggle against Israel as a crucible of Islamic unity comes across to many Arabs as doctrinaire and shopworn, no matter how strongly they sympathize with the Palestinian cause.

---I've long thought that much of Iranian foreign policy is directed as much to a domestic audience as a foreign one. I view their movement to develop nuclear weapons in a similar light.

Samuel Johnson's old observation is that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Ambrose Bierce, in 'The Devil's Dictionary', begged to differ, in that it's often the first. We've even seen once or twice in the United States that a government called for domestic unity before a foreign threat.

Many a deficiency in Arab governance has been subordinated to opposition to Israel, and to the United States as its primary supporter. It's unfortunate that Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians so often provides factual material to that end. But the focus on Israel has oft been used to divert Arabs and Iranians from the need for domestic reform.

In which light, the United States, and Israel, make a serious error when they gratuitously offer material supporting that narrative. A military attack on Iran, in particular, would be a catastrophic mistake, empowering the very people we'd like to see out of power. It would confirm the wrong narrative, and unify an increasingly fractious Islam around opposition to the Great Satans. Containment, and a persistent recognition in word and deed that the Iranian people and its government are at odds, and that the government, as in the Arab Spring states, will not survive indefinitely.

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