Last night, as we watched on
television news the terrible scenes of bloody rioting in Cairo,
and of the continuing mayhem in Syria,
M asked me a question. I’m embarrassed to say I was fundamentally unable to
answer: “What is it really about, all this trouble in the Arab world?”
I started to explain that the underlying
conflict revives a centuries-old rift between the two distinct congregations of
Islam, the Sunnis and the Shiites, the former (I asserted) roughly the
equivalent of Protestants and the latter of Catholics in the Christian faith
(or is it the other way round?). The
Sunnis, I knew, represent about 90 percent of the Islamic population, making
the Shias, in most countries, a troublesome minority. Just to complicate the geo-political
scenario, two nearby countries, Iran
have Shiite majorities to perform the same function.
But such simplistic catch-all facts
were about as many as I could muster. A
more honest response to M’s question, I quickly realised, would have been that
I really don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on. Does
anyone? And is it as simple as a
Googling the subject – necessarily
no more than a superficial Wikipedia crash course on a subject as dense as any
that troubles the world – frankly left me none the wiser.
The basic facts are easily
absorbed. The Muslim world, I read, is
indeed divided by the two dynastic interpretations, based on who should have
succeeded the prophet Muhammed (or is that Mohammed?). On Muhammed’s death, the Sunnis favoured a
political appointment, while the Shias believed that the successor should come
from the founder’s bloodline. So far, so
good, I thought.
But then the history that emerged
became ever more dense and convoluted, involving inexplicable differences in religious
rituals and emphases, like when and how to pray, and to whom. And now, in the twenty-first century, secular
forces, even more complex, are involved too, these derived from myriad national,
tribal, social and political divisions, differing greatly from one Islamic
country to the next. Then there are various
sub-divisions of the two denominations.
President Assad of Syria, for example, comes from a group called
the Alawites, a mystical religious sect based on the Shiite so-called Twelver
sect (don’t ask), representing a mere ten percent of Syria’s population. In Saudi Arabia, power is wielded by the
Wahhabi sect, an extremely conservative Sunni revivalist movement that aspires
to return to the most fundamental principles of Islam.
It’s all very confusing, at least
to someone like me, who has not only failed to plot the course of this ancient
schism in the world’s largest religion, and all its varied consequences, but
still has trouble interpreting the long, bloody history of conflict between
Catholicism and Protestantism; not to mention the latter’s multiple offshoots. What, for example, are the differences
between Baptists and Methodists, and between Seventh Day Adventists and
Lutherans – to name just a few.
I’m damned if I know – and
probably will be for not knowing. All I
can say is, thank God I’m an atheist; life is so much easier in the realms of
Does Barack Obama understand all
this Middle East turmoil? Does David Cameron? Do their armies of expert advisers? I’m only asking because, from time to time –
and increasingly often – ‘our’ governments, viewing the instability in the region
with alarm, are persuaded that they should consider military intervention,
though whether this is to preserve the interests of the western ideals of
freedom and democracy or the sources of oil is debatable. So far, getting involved, which Britain,
France and others have been doing for centuries, has done neither us nor the
Islamic world the slightest good, and may have done irreparable harm – whatever
George Bush and Tony Blair would claim to the contrary.
Not that they should shoulder all
the blame. Those amateur cartographers, Mr.
Sykes and M. Picot, have a great deal to answer for in drawing apparently
random lines on ancient maps. So of
course do Messrs. Lawrence, Allenby, Gordon and other imperial ‘heroes’. I can’t wait for the Chinese to get involved.
On the grounds that a little
knowledge is a dangerous thing, and spurred on by my ignorance, I intend to do
some more reading on the subject. Give
me time, and wish me luck.