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?