Sophisticated Orientalism in the New York Times

Middle East
on 46 Comments

As part of the New York Times‘s coverage of the rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the paper included an article today titled “How Do Sunni and Shia Islam Differ?”  The piece described the 7th century schism in Islam in some detail, and summarized the differences in religious beliefs.  The implication is that this ancient historical information will help readers understand what is happening now.

This is sophisticated but still classic Orientalism: the belief that “Islam” (in this case, two types of “Islam”) has a timeless, unchanging essence that governs how its adherents will act in the present.

Enter Marc Lynch, the distinguished Mideast scholar at George Washington University who has also blogged and tweeted for years @abuaardvark.  In the Washington Post, Lynch gets straight to the point:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics.  This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

Lynch goes to convincingly explain that Saudi aggressiveness, as shown by the January 2 execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric and activist Nimr al-Nimr, is motivated by political reality today, including the kingdom’s fear that it is weakening regionally after the Iran deal, and that its brutal intervention in Yemen has bogged down.

In some sense, the mistaken Orientalist explanation for Saudi behavior is less painful than Lynch’s interpretation.  If the monarchy’s rising hostility were truly deeply theological, you could at least say their religious passion meant they couldn’t help themselves. But the fact is the Saudi king coldly executed Nimr al-Nimr mainly just to gain regional strategic advantage.

Let’s try a thought experiment to see the absurdity of Orientalist analysis.  Let’s say Germany and France got into a dispute over the future of Europe.  Would the New York Times run a sidebar informing its readers about Martin Luther and the rise of Protestant Germany in the 16th century, and the religious differences with Catholic France?

46 Responses

  1. DaBakr
    January 4, 2016, 9:41 pm

    “thought experiment”……?

    They (NYT) absolutely might. It wouldn’t be out of character. Edward SaidCerritos wrongly gave the liberal academy of the West the most negative interpretation of ‘orientalism’ that never existed previous to his tome. In the past there was an occident and an orient and the same amount of bigots and racists in both realms.

  2. Nevada Ned
    January 5, 2016, 12:04 am

    Orientalism is exactly what the NYT is proposing.

    James North gave a hypothetical example. Let’s go with some actual history: the 30 years war (1618-1648) that raged in Europe, especially in Germany. Nearly all the major powers in Europe were involved.

    The public justification for the war was religious: Protestant vs Catholic. However, Catholic France was aligned with the major Protestant countries. IMHO this proves that the French leaders were not motivated by religion, IOW they didn’t believe their own propaganda.

    There’s a lot of that going around today. The Israelis and their US supporters and defenders put great stress on the supposedly horrible Iranians and the menace that Iran poses to Israel.
    Nobody mentions the 1980’s, when Israel and the US (Reagan administration) sold modern weapons to Iran. This inconvenient fact has disappeared down an Orwellian memory hole.

    • Boo
      January 5, 2016, 2:24 pm

      “Nobody mentions the 1980’s, when Israel and the US (Reagan administration) sold modern weapons to Iran”

      We’re not just talking memory holes here. A conjunction of James North and Ollie North in relation to an article about Sunni vs. Shia? We’ve gone down the rabbit hole as well.

  3. yonah fredman
    January 5, 2016, 2:07 am

    How many times have you seen the terms Shiite Sunni split in the newspapers? I’ll answer for you, enough times that these terms deserve a definition. Now James North informs us that these terms don’t need a definition and if someone does define them then Mister North has his own definition for them: orientalists.

    Let us assume that Mister North is correct that the Saudi Iranian tensions have very little to do with the definitions of these terms. Even so, these terms Sunni and Shiite will continue to be used to describe the tensions and the terms deserve definition. And to toss the term Orientalism on this and the German France analogy to boot shows a type of adolescent tendentiousness to Mister North’s reporting.

    Just to be clear: in a newspaper article describing the 30 years war it would be totally appropriate to define the terms catholics and protestants if those terms were constantly used in articles to describe the war, even if the war had little to do with Martin Luther.

    • Mooser
      January 5, 2016, 1:17 pm

      ” I’ll answer for you…”

      I’ve got a better idea, “Yonah”! Why don’t you, for the first time since you started posting, answer for yourself!
      Try it!

    • Mooser
      January 5, 2016, 1:19 pm

      “Just to be clear: in a newspaper article describing the 30 years war it would be totally appropriate to define the terms catholics and protestants if those terms were constantly…”

      We get it, “Yonah”! You want people to stop saying “the Israel Lobby” or “Israel” or “Zionism” or “illegal settlers” and just say “the Jews”.

      As you say, that will help a lot to clarify the situation.

    • Donald
      January 5, 2016, 6:45 pm

      Your own comment is tendentious . Given the treatment you get here, I can understand you being snarky with a lot of us, but I can’t recall James North ever getting snippy with you.

      That aside, both of you have a point, which you’d see if you weren’t trying to score one against him. It is fair to explain the meaning of the terms. but it is also true that Americans often speak as though there were age-old conflicts going back centuries or more that “explain” the actions of cynical people today. I remember the same complaint being made about some of the reporting during the Balkan Wars. Cynical actions taken by specific people in order to arouse sectarian tensions were then presented in the press as evidence of age-old sectarian tensions. Well, no, ordinary people under normal circumstances are perfectly willing to live side-by-side with others of different faiths. The “age old” sectarian struggles are the results of cynical people trying to stir up hatreds, sometimes from within the society and sometimes from outside it.

      At another blog a person I generally like reacted to the Saudi bombing of Yemen (and the American assistance given to the Saudis) with the question “Why should we involve ourselves in these age-old sectarian wars?” I generally liked the point he was making, which was that there was no good reason for the US to support Saudi Arabia as it killed people in Yemen. But the way he made it made me wince.

      • yonah fredman
        January 11, 2016, 4:28 am

        Donald- I cannot deny that too often, including here, I allow my emotions to color my comments and those emotions include my reaction to my general treatment by other commenters on this site.

        But let me emphasize that I also have very mixed feelings regarding the overuse of the Orientalist accusation. Aside from my mixed feelings towards Edward Said, let me say that Orientalism is just one aspect of light being shined onto the white man’s attitude towards nonwhites, which is both an important innovation and perspective, but also potentially an overused tool. It can become a crutch and an excuse.

        It is difficult for an amateur like myself to assess precisely the line when this overuse occurs, but it seems to me to be a danger that needs to be acknowledged.

        I feel that the NY Times’s historical background piece on Shiite versus Sunni could have used more information (rather than less) in order to achieve a balanced contribution to reader knowledge. Particularly in regards to Persian versus Arab enmity or competition, such information would add to the readers’ understanding of the conflict between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Persians. The Times might also have benefited from a less pedagogic and a more conversational style if it had added the following to its article as its closing paragraph:
        To view the religious history of the Sunni -Shiite conflict without the context of other more immediate factors unrelated or tangential to this religious history is to obscure the “real” causes of this clash and it may lead one to view something incidental as if it were essential. That is not our intention. Our intention: Merely to define our historical terms.

      • Mooser
        January 11, 2016, 12:32 pm

        “those emotions include my reaction to my general treatment by other commenters on this site.”

        And you have always been unfailing polite. And what I most appreciate, “Yonah” is that no matter whether you agree or disagree politically, you never attack people’s Judaism or make personal attacks! You have been treated most unfairly here.

        But than, fehon them! They treat us all like that! Remember Hebron in 1929?

      • Mooser
        January 11, 2016, 12:38 pm

        “That is not our intention. Our intention: Merely to define our historical terms.”

        “Yonah” babes, if we Jews are going to “define our historical terms” we better start schtupping day and night. Takes more’n a couple million people before you can start demanding to have historical terms defined our way.
        Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, we also need a way to prevent the kids from running away as fast as they can.
        But yeah, as soon as we solve those two little impediments, we can start thinking about “defining our historical terms”.
        Oh gosh, hadn’t thought of theological discipline and unity, we’ll need that too. We got a ways to go. Keep schtupping!

      • Mooser
        January 11, 2016, 1:23 pm

        the way I’ve been treated…”

        The way you have been treated?

        “But Phil Weiss might amend/emend this poem as follows:– See more at: link to mondoweiss.net

        I’ll forego reprinting that bit of charming verse. It’s linked. But we owe “Yonah” an apology.

      • Kris
        January 11, 2016, 3:59 pm

        @Mooser: ” And what I most appreciate, “Yonah” is that no matter whether you agree or disagree politically, you never attack people’s Judaism or make personal attacks! You have been treated most unfairly here.”

        How people respond to “Yonah” has absolutely nothing to do with his behavior. Criticism of Yonah is vile antisemitism, just as is criticism of Israel.

  4. Bandolero
    January 5, 2016, 6:39 am

    I disagree with both, the NYTs and the WaPos explanation for the Saudi-Iranian spat.

    For the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that there was no much Saudi calculus behind it, but just blind sectarian rage, and maybe also a desire of revenge for the killing of Saudi-backed militant leader Zahran Alloush in an airstrike near Damascus.

    Regarding the underlining world view, I do believe that the Saudi rulers indeed view todays political world according to the orientalist view of a Sunni-Shia struggle dating back from the 7th century. This world view transpires all their arguments and behaviour, for example when the Saudis accuse Iran of meddling in foreign countries, especially majority Sunni arab countries like Syria, while completely ignoring their own meddling their and the fact that Syria and Iran already had a mutual defense treaty long before the war in Syria started. The same is basically true regarding the Saudi behaviour in Yemen, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon and elsewhere: the Saudis back wahhabi-Sunnis, no matter what kind of terrorists they are, as a matter to fight against Shia.

    But the other side, Iran and friends, have a totally different view on these conflicts. They view these conflicts as a political struggle – resistance against imperialism and imperialist zionist and wahhabi terror, and for liberation from global US-zionist supremacy -, where all sects, religions, and ethnicities, Shia, Sunni, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Kurds, Persians, and whoever. That’s why many Hezbollah fighters for example wear Christian crosses in their battles, why Iran and Hezbollah always supported Hamas, PIJ, and even the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Both, the NYT and the WaPo disinform their readers on this.

    • rugal_b
      January 5, 2016, 8:40 am

      Excellent point, and I should add that this Sunni-Shiite dichotomous narrative is only being pushed by one side, as opposed to the often reported case of both sides pushing their own versions of Islam. A bit similar to the Jew – Arab dichotomy being pushed by the Zionists.

      Iran has never explicitly or implicitly promoted their official view of Islam as the correct one, or even pushed the term “Shiite” anywhere outside of their country. For them,it is just about practicing Islam as they see and understand it, which is pretty much the case for any other Muslim community.

      With respect to the Sunni-Shiite divide, I believe Western media is trying to downplay actual political and historical factors that lead to the current turmoil in the SWANA region, which strongly incriminate their respective governments. Hence, almost all media mentions of Sunni and Shia Islam as two, diametrically opposed sects of the religion are found in the BBC, CNN, MSNBC, NY Times, etc.

  5. Stephen Shenfield
    January 5, 2016, 6:40 am

    It certainly isn’t enough to explain the doctrinal differences, but it shouldn’t be assumed that they are totally irrelevant to the social, political, and economic factors in the Sunni-Shi’i division. Historically Shi’ism arose as a rebellion against caliphs seen as corrupt (after the first four “righteous” caliphs) in the name of the original Islam, and in Sunni-dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Lebanon Shi’ism still has this character as a rebellion of “underdogs”. That is reminiscent of certain Protestant groups in Europe (e.g. Anabaptists). However, in another respect the stronger parallel is that between Shi’ism and Catholicism as variants of their respective religions with a unified clerical hierarchy, and that is more relevant when we consider a Shi’i society like Iran. (For this account I am indebted to a classroom discussion of the topic with Arab students when I was teaching at Brown University.)

  6. Kay24
    January 5, 2016, 7:38 am

    Despite the accusations against Iran, Saudi Arabia is no saintly nation either. It has tried to radicalize Muslims in some Asian nations, and equally bad when it comes to proxy wars, and interference in other nations. Looking at its dismal human rights abuses, the mere fact that women cannot drive, or vote, in their kingdom, it is obvious this so called Middle Eastern buddy of ours, always gets away with crimes like executions, stoning to death, and primitive laws condemned by other nations, because of that filthy thing called oil. Bush would lovingly hold the hand of the Saudi King, yet attacked other Arab nations for not being “democratic”, and even bombed them eventually.
    The criminals who were behind 9/11 were Saudis yet we ended up bombing Afghanistan and Iraq, Recently the US sold weapons to the nation that are keepers of the two Holy places in Islam:

    “The US state department has approved the sale of $1.3bn of bombs to Saudi Arabia, to allow the Gulf nation to replenish its depleted weapons supplies as it continues to conduct intensive air strikes in Yemen and Syria.

    Amnesty International, however, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that some of the types of bombs the US proposes to sell have previously been used in air strikes in Yemen that violated international humanitarian law.”
    link to aljazeera.com

    It should make any citizen on the world wonder why we are so pally with SA, and the other demon in the region, Israel, and keep arming these devious nations. What games exactly are we playing along with them? Whatever it may be, it does not bode well for the rest of the world.

  7. hophmi
    January 5, 2016, 8:10 am

    So we’re not permitted to study the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam? They’re completely irrelevant to understanding the differences between Sunni and Shia?

    Very interesting perspective on a site that frequently (and inaccurately) suggests that ancient Jewish history and texts are a key to understanding modern Jews.

    • Kris
      January 5, 2016, 12:01 pm

      Zionists are constantly saying that “returning” to your supposed “homeland” of 2000 years ago justifies your ethnically cleansing Palestinian lands. Isn’t 2000 years ago “ancient history”?

      • eljay
        January 5, 2016, 12:25 pm

        || Kris: Zionists are constantly saying that “returning” to your supposed “homeland” of 2000 years ago justifies your ethnically cleansing Palestinian lands. Isn’t 2000 years ago “ancient history”? ||

        I guess what hophmi is saying is that ancient Jewish history and texts are a key to understanding Zio-supremacists, not Jews.

        That’s why he and his co-collectivists never tire of using ancient Jewish history and texts to advocate, justify, excuse and defend Jewish supremacism in/and a supremacist “Jewish State” in as much as possible of Palestine as well as related past and on-going (war) crimes.

  8. diasp0ra
    January 5, 2016, 9:16 am

    Sunni-Shia is too simplistic of an axis to analyze things. You can’t take things out of their political context, and the view of Iran as a rival regional power.

    Saudis and Gulf Arabs love to take their vacations in Lebanon, a Shiite majority country but would recoil if you suggested doing it in Iran. Shiism is the excuse the Saudis use to inflame the population, and it is demonized heavily. But it has more to do with Iran’s objection to US goals in the area, which Saudi Arabia are a part of. They cannot say that openly so they ignite sectarian wounds.

    Similar to ISIS, they talk and talk about the “infidels” and the “rafidha” (derogatory name for Shiites) but we can see them waging war against Jabhat Al-Nusra, even though they follow the same brand of Takfiri ideology.

    Boiling such a complex region down to Sunni-Shiite is lazy, and is no substitute for actual historical knowledge in the region. It’s similar to those who boil down the Palestine-Israel issue to a “holy war”. It ignores history completely but gives someone who has no grasp of the region an easy scapegoat they can blame to feel “informed”.

    • rugal_b
      January 5, 2016, 9:49 am

      Diaspore -“Boiling such a complex region down to Sunni-Shiite is lazy, and is no substitute for actual historical knowledge in the region. It’s similar to those who boil down the Palestine-Israel issue to a “holy war””-

      That is the whole point, the mainstream western media is actively peddling dumbed down narratives to its own audiences and not just on complex issues such as Sunni-Shiite differences.. While I’m not sure what they aim to achieve from this, I can’t help but be glad I’m not part of the target audience for this 1984-esque circus.

    • Maximus Decimus Meridius
      January 5, 2016, 12:10 pm

      ” It ignores history completely but gives someone who has no grasp of the region an easy scapegoat they can blame to feel “informed”.

      Thank you. My thoughts exactly.

      I’m tired of hearing people say ”Oh, those silly folks have been fighting each other over religion for hundreds of years. Let’s just leave them to it”. Whenever I ask them to name for me all these sectarian battles and wars, I draw a blank.

      “Saudis and Gulf Arabs love to take their vacations in Lebanon, a Shiite majority country”

      Are they really a majority? I had heard that they were probably the single largest sect (it’s all guesstimates, as there are no official statistics) but that no one sect has an outright majority.

      • Annie Robbins
        January 5, 2016, 12:24 pm

        it’s an open secret that lebanon is majority shite. the ptb set up an electoral system favoring christians a long time ago, so rather than change the system (or acknowledge it’s not very democratic – in a certain way) they just don’t do demographics there anymore (last i heard).

        i didn’t really explain that very well. someone else could do better. it’s a long story ;)

      • diasp0ra
        January 5, 2016, 12:26 pm

        @MDM

        Hrmm, you’re right. I should have chosen my words more carefully. Shias are the biggest sect, but are not the majority of the country.

      • Annie Robbins
        January 5, 2016, 12:30 pm

        diaspora, you mean they are not over 50%?

      • Maximus Decimus Meridius
        January 5, 2016, 12:31 pm

        @Annie, my impression is the same as diaporas. The Shias are the largest single sect (some claim they may be 40% of the entire population) but not an outright majority. For the reasons you state, many people – mostly the Maronites – are none too keen to do an official survey.

      • Annie Robbins
        January 5, 2016, 12:40 pm

        thanks mdm, i think i knew that. not thinking clearly, i should drink my coffee before posting!

      • diasp0ra
        January 5, 2016, 1:04 pm

        @Annie

        The Muslims are the majority of the country, easily. But when it comes to Sunni/Shia numbers specifically no one group can form the majority.

      • oldgeezer
        January 6, 2016, 8:49 pm

        @dabaker

        Try to lay off the drugs long enough to be coherent. Next you will be claiming Israel is not tyranny of the majority. Oops. Too late

    • lysias
      January 5, 2016, 5:38 pm

      As an example of an Islamic state that is not a grotesque tyranny, but instead a semidemocatic state with something like a rule of law, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a terrible ideological threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

      • DaBakr
        January 6, 2016, 2:49 pm

        @ly

        not a “grotesque tyranny ” ? only a twisted mind or a die-hard brainwashed by leftist anti-western media/propaganda would make this claim. saddam hussein also had a semblance of laws and even granted women the ‘right’ to higher education but still maintained his and his crazy-ass sons “grotesque tyranny “. so easily fooled by smooth, handsome western educated iranian officials.

        Go view her “diabolical” facebook page: ‘my stealthy freedom’s for a non western, non zionist, feminine, non blinkered take on this “semidemocrasy” alluded to.

      • lysias
        January 6, 2016, 5:22 pm

        Iran has elections that the candidate favored by the establishment sometimes loses. That’s a semidemocracy in my book.

        True, only candidates approved by the Mullahs are allowed, but that’s not very different from the money primary and the legal obstacles to all but the two major parties here in the U.S.

  9. arihalli
    January 5, 2016, 9:29 am

    My guess, and its only a guess is that there really is some Shia/Sunni divide. Not based on orientalism, religon but secularism.

    There has been an entrenched Sunni class, that, not unlike the Jews in Israel and their Palestinian Israelis, has felt, historically, some sense of entitlement over Shia brethern. NOT because there religon is better. But because they CAN.

    There must be some sort of truth evidenced by Iraqi feuding post-falling of Saddam.

    And the cover of the onion might appear to be a very religous Saudi group maintaining the fanatic leadership of a god-driven religon —- but if one peels back the onion — i think that we find a long-term, arrogant, entrenched aristocracy that doesn’t want to give up their status. That is my guess.

  10. jimby
    January 5, 2016, 10:58 am

    Another factor is that (according to my readings) is that the Saudi royal family is not so very religious but the inhabitants are militant radical sectarians (Wahhabis) who would gladly overthrow them if the Saudi Govt did not reflect the Wahhabi point of view. They back ISIS to keep the radical militant Saudis off their backs at home.
    Another thing, It seems to bother people that the favored form of execution is beheading. To me it appears more civilized than the electric chair, the gas chanber or lethal injections. They chop off your head and poof, it’s over.

    • Maximus Decimus Meridius
      January 5, 2016, 12:22 pm

      “Another factor is that (according to my readings) is that the Saudi royal family is not so very religious but the inhabitants are militant radical sectarians (Wahhabis) who would gladly overthrow them if the Saudi Govt did not reflect the Wahhabi point of view ”

      I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Many Saudis are indeed extremely religious and conservative, but you have to ask how much of that is due to the fact that they have been indoctrinated i n the Wahhabist creed from the day they were born. If the Saudis permitted a less extreme education system – as they do in Qatar, where the locals are also Wahabbis – I’m sure many Saudis would be considerably less extremist.

      The real issue for the House of Saud is the centuries’ old ‘contract’ they have with the Wahabist clerics, who helped them into power way back in the 19th century (if not before). The deal was: You allow us (the clerics) free reign domestically and you can do what you like on the broader world stage. So the ‘royals’ simply cannot alienate the clerics too much. It’s a tightrope they’ve been walking for some time now, and one day, someone is going to fall off.

    • lysias
      January 5, 2016, 5:39 pm

      The guillotine would be a humane way of beheading, but they don’t use it. In comparison, beheading with a sword is crude, and can go wrong in the same ways that lethal injections can.

  11. John Douglas
    January 5, 2016, 12:49 pm

    I agree with James North that the attempt to explain the Saudi vs Iran divide as a direct consequence of the Sunni vs. Shiite issues of succession and the consequent theologies, histories of massacres and all the rest of the seventh and eight century goings on is both simplistic and condescending. Then too, “arihalli” has a good point, which is that this divide resulted in centuries of class differences between the poorer and more devout Shiites vs. the the wealthier and more secular Sunni.

    Isn’t there an element of this in the US between the poorer, more rural and socially conservative Evangelicals cheering on Trump (so much irony there) and the more urban and socially liberal Anglicans (with their liberal Jewish allies), who ruled the US until recently, reacting in horror at what they see?.

    • gamal
      January 5, 2016, 1:43 pm

      “which is that this divide resulted in centuries of class differences between the poorer and more devout Shiites vs. the the wealthier and more secular Sunni.”

      utter nonsense

  12. gamal
    January 5, 2016, 1:34 pm

    Please forgive below I can hardly muster the energy to return to the breach yet again, i have been at this too long, before 1979 no westerner other than a specialist even knew the words sunni or shia,

    “and its only a guess is” spectactularly wrong arihalli

    when the US issued its playing cards of the most wanted 52 Ba’athists 35 were Shi’i …?

    as to aristocracy al shafi al radi anyone.

    In India of course we have the whole Naqi Khani Vs Ahmed Khani thing, which was a revolt of a mainly Sunni proletariat against a landed largely Shi’a aristocracy,.

    Iraq has so many shia today because when Nadir Shah invaded Iran, no wait first when the Half Christian Azeri bandit Shah Ismail decided to impose shi’ism as the state religion of his relatively newly captured Sunni Iran, to provide him with a defense against political domination by the Ottomans, he needed a shi’i population, he used ferocious coercion, much blood, Ismail did a top down shi’ization, beheading tens of thousands of Iranians in the process.

    Then Nadir Shah came along from Afghanistan many Shi’a ulema fled to Sunni iraq, now they were top guys in the field of Islam, world class performers, albeit the Shia variety and were graciously received by the Ottomans (Sunni) given endowments lots of respect and as they were world class ulema they rather out did the local Sunni’s and some of the Sunni Bedu etc were annoyed with the Sublime Porte and they converted in droves, hence in the 1830’s Shi’ism took off in southern Iraq as an explicit Sunni expression of dissatisfaction with their Sunni rulers.

    It was at US insistence that voters in Iraq were registered as sunni shia or kurd, to ensure the correct running of Democracy, the Iraqis now realize the utter depravity of this policy, Negroponte and the Salvador option is what the Sunni/Shia war was about aided by the Iranian Badr brigades (Iraqis who fought for Iran in the ’80’s), you cant tell westerners this but it was common knowledge in the Arab world that the US intends to carve up Iraq in to either independent states or a chronically conflict ridden regionally devolved state. On the grounds of the age old sunni/shia/kurd conflict, its bull.

    Shi’i, there are many kinds of them, even the Kharijites survived but Sh. Ibad toned it all down now they pray with us even though they dont really think we are the best sort of co-religionist.

    Who is a Muslim is never an issue of belief but rather performance, its a bit complex here but i can safely approximate due to the level of resolution at which we are having to speak, if you say you are a Muslim pay Zakat, in olden days they added pray the Juma, then thats it, it is also possible to just declare that you are a Muslim act the dead beat and even Ibni Taymiya is of the view that you remain a Muslim,

    It is true that taking ibni Taymiya, as we have all heard of him, that he denounced Shi’ism in a fatwa that was never referenced certainly in the ottoman period, but then it is in the nature of Islamic discourse that scholars write “against” each other, sound familiar, so mostly Ibni T spent his time denouncing not just other Sunni’s but other Hanbali’s. modern Salafists are anti-madhab I am told.

    Historically the Shia have been ideologically very aggressive and because in the early days they were frustrated they became millenarian, hoping the Messiah would come and sort out that terrible Sunni chaos,

    There has been no long standing Sunni/Shia wars, and none that were motivated by doctrinal concerns.

    A brief word on Sunnism: there seems to be no way to convey to non-muslims the reality of the total Chaos that is Sunnism, people who grow up in it dont get that you dont get it, native informants cant help you much when you are utterly ignorant.

    As to Shenfields Catholicism/Shi’ism thats extraordinarily inapt, I am with Professor Paul Freedman when he says that in origin the Shi’a were “Republican” perhaps traceable to Ali’s rejection of the client system ( for the early Muslims converts were a bit of problem as there was no concept of a non-Arab Muslim so they became clients of a tribe, how could you be a Muslim if you were not one of the tribes? they were bound by their own cultural expectations, a condition that persists to this day), his enforcement of a system that protected the peasants from the abuse of Landholders, he is always very critical of the Basrans, they follow policies that militate against their very own welfare, so Hazrat Ali says.

    the Sunni/Shia nonsense may be a comforting dream, but its nothing more.

    As to God well in Islam, a scholarly consensus of either variety would perhaps agree that it is not being or a being, it has no volition, we have this book, “any ideas Ahmed?”

    I led the prayers for my dead Sunni mother in a Shia mosque, they were our neighbours ( one of whom went to Iraq, against our pleas and was stabbed to death in that Mosque, by other Shia outraged that he had come home on the skirts of the invaders, as we had warned him he was suspect), it never occurred to anyone that it was anything other than standard operating procedure ( i got a brief gig at Syracuse Uni as a result, where i offended 70 sleepy young Americans), local Sunni shopkeepers would repair there on Friday to pray.

    You can of course keep reframing this completely non-existent conflict anyway you want,

    the most depressing thing is that while Shenfield gives a fairly good Orientalist performance please the in “discussions with Arab students” proposal is so 1800’s, the native informant is passe, and also if you refer to them quote them, you give the impression of being unable to learn.

    its so tedious, but oddly people take this seriously as an explanation for the destruction of a whole region and the unbelievable slaughter that the west has unleashed on the central Arab lands,

    No matter how sectarian or fundamentalist i become i do not find an AK 47 sprouting from my side nor fleets of toyota technicals magically appearing so that I can drive to Syria and slaughter Nusayri’s suppress the rafidah, even in a state of utter fundamentalist sectarian apotheosis i am unable to make even a pistol. or undertake the logistical burden of running a state and fighting multiple wars on multiple fronts, where do they get all these arms, Al Karim really that generous.

    I like DBkr’s first post, made me laugh, i doubt he is a good enough reader to see that Shenfield and ari provide us with two polls of Orientalism, the psuedo scholar and the really cant be bothered, thats my guess anyway. please forgive my perfunctory reply ennui has finally the better of me.

  13. gamal
    January 5, 2016, 1:55 pm

    you could try this from page 103 and on, it is the sort thing (scholarly) if you dont read Arabic that you might want to consider reading, i entered the terms to get these pages from

    Shi’a Islam in Colonial India: Religion, Community and Sectarianism
    By Justin Jones

    link to books.google.ie

  14. gamal
    January 5, 2016, 5:05 pm

    i guess if you really want to get in to Shia Sunni a good place to start would Sayida Arwe b Ahmad, Queen of Yemen, via al dai al mutlaq to the Dawoodi Bohra, Bohra means businessman apparently, Islam is weirder than you think.

    here is a former Sunni chauvinist who is now a competent scholar (hat tip a4) i dare you to listen to the complexity of the traditional Sunni view of the sects. it being superfluous to add that i disagree with the Sheikh, but would concede his far better grasp of the material in question. i am not into all this…

    this stuff ( he is a Sunni, Sayida is a title, there is no Sunni Shia war)

    • Mooser
      January 5, 2016, 6:21 pm

      Thanks, “gamal”. For all of the comments here.

    • RoHa
      January 5, 2016, 6:44 pm

      gamal, are you suggesting that over a thousand years of history and theology cannot be summed up in a couple of sentences by a junior reporter on the Courier Mail?

    • John Douglas
      January 6, 2016, 3:57 pm

      Thanks, Gamal.

  15. Rusty Pipes
    January 5, 2016, 11:06 pm

    Not only do MSM reports rarely mention the corrupt Saudi royal family’s accommodations with its Wahhabist clerics. They also rarely mention that the majority of people in the country’s qil-producing regions are Shia — who are treated very badly. Saudis are afraid of their citizens getting uppity and blame the prospect on Iranian interference rather than reasonable response to oppression.

  16. Nevada Ned
    January 7, 2016, 10:33 am

    Lots of opinions out there.

    Want to hear from an actual expert?

    Listen to Najam Haider of Barnard College, asst prof of religion. At the website of the valuable Institute for Public Accuracy. Haider writes about the myth of entrenched sunni/shia conflict.

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