By Scott Ritter
The ongoing hand-wringing in Congress by the newly empowered Democrats over what to do about the war in Iraq speaks volumes about the level of concern (or lack thereof) these “representatives of the people” have toward the men and women who honor us all by serving in the armed forces of the United States of America. The inability to reach consensus concerning the level of funding required or how to exercise effective oversight of the war, both constitutionally mandated responsibilities, is more a reflection of congressional cowardice and impotence than a byproduct of any heartfelt introspection over troop welfare and national security.
The issues that prompt the congressional collective to behave in such an egregious manner have more to do with a reflexive tendency to avoid any controversy that might disrupt the status quo ante regarding representative-constituent relations (i.e., re-election) than with any intellectual debate about doing the right thing. This sickening trend is bipartisan in nature, but of particular shame to the Democrats, who obtained their majority from an electorate that expressed dissatisfaction with the progress of the war in Iraq through their votes, demanding that something be done.
Sadly, Congress’ smoke-and-mirrors approach to the Iraq war creates the impression of much activity while generating no result. Even more sadly, the majority of Americans are falling for the act, either by continuing their past trend of political disengagement or by thinking that the gesticulation and pontification taking place in Washington, D.C., actually translate into useful work. The fact is, most Americans are ill-placed intellectually, either through genuine ignorance, a lack of curiosity or a combination of both, to judge for themselves the efficacy of congressional behavior when it comes to Iraq. Congress claims to be searching for a solution to Iraq, and many Americans simply accept that this is this case.
The fact is one cannot begin to search for a solution to a problem that has yet to be accurately defined. We speak of “surges,” “stability” and “funding” as if these terms come close to addressing the real problems faced in Iraq. There is widespread recognition among members of Congress and the American people that there is civil unrest in Iraq today, with Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence tearing that country apart, but the depth of analysis rarely goes beyond that obvious statement of fact. Americans might be able to nod their heads knowingly if one utters the words Sunni, Shiite and Kurd, but very few could take the conversation much further down the path of genuine comprehension regarding the interrelationships among these three groups. And yet we, the people, are expected to be able to hold to account those whom we elected to represent us in higher office, those making the decisions regarding the war in Iraq. How can the ignorant accomplish this task? And ignorance is not something uniquely attached to the American public. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the newly appointed chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, infamously failed a pop quiz in which journalist Jeff Stein asked him to differentiate between Sunni and Shiite. Reyes has become the poster boy for congressional stupidity, but in truth he is not alone. Very few of his colleagues could pass the test, truth be told.
The task of holding Congress to account is a daunting one, and can be accomplished only if the citizenry that forms the respective constituencies of our ignorant congressional representatives are themselves able to operate at an intellectual capacity above that of those they are holding to account. So rather than issue “pop quizzes” to our elected representatives, I’ve designed one for us, the people. If the reader can fully answer the question raised, then he or she qualifies as one capable of pointing an accusatory finger at Congress as its members dither over what to do in Iraq. If the reader fails the quiz, then there should be an honest appraisal of the reality that we are in way over our heads regarding this war, and that it is irresponsible for anyone to make sweeping judgments about the ramifications of policy courses of action yet to be agreed upon. Claiming to be able to divine a solution to a problem improperly defined is not only ignorant but dangerously delusional.
So here is the quiz: Explain the relationship between the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Baghdad as they impact the coexistence of Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni populations.
Most respondents who have a basic understanding of Iraq will answer that Karbala is a city of significance to Iraq’s Shiite population. Baghdad is Iraq’s capital, with a mixed Sunni and Shiite population. If that is your answer, you fail.
Karbala is a holy city for the Shiites. Its status as such is based on the fact that Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad and son of Ali, the fourth caliph, was killed outside Karbala in a battle between Hussein’s followers and forces loyal to Yazid, son of Muawiyah, the fifth caliph. The two sides were fighting over the line of succession when it came to leading the Muslim faithful after the death of Muhammad in the year 632. Abu Bakr, a close colleague of Muhammad but not a member of Muhammad’s biological family, was elected as the first caliph after the prophet’s death, an act that many Muslims believed broke faith with a necessity for the successor of Muhammad to be from his family. Abu Bakr’s death brought about a quick succession of caliphs, all of whom met untimely deaths and none of whom were from the family line of Muhammad.
When Ali was elected as the fourth caliph, many Muslims believed that for the first time since the death of Muhammad the caliphate had been restored to one properly authorized in the eyes of God to lead the Muslim faith. In fact, upon Ali’s accession as caliph, one of his first acts was to seek to restore the Muslim faith to its puritanical origins, which Ali believed had been departed from by the merchant families closely allied with the third caliph, Othman. Ali’s efforts were bitterly resisted by merchant families in Damascus, which refused to recognize Ali as the caliph. The head of the Damascus rebels, Muawiyah, fought a bitter conflict with Ali, which weakened the caliphate and paved the way for Ali’s assassination.
Upon Ali’s death, the caliphate was transferred to his elder son, Hassan, but when this succession was challenged by Muawiyah, Hassan relented, transferring the caliphate to Muawiyah with the caveat that once Muawiyah died, the caliphate would be returned to the lineage of the prophet Muhammad. When Muawiyah died, the caliphate passed to his son, Yazid. This succession was challenged by Hussein, Hassan’s brother and Ali’s younger son, who believed that the succession, as dictated by Hassan when he abdicated, should have gone to someone within the direct line of the prophet Muhammad, namely Hussein. Yazid’s treacherous attack on Hussein and his followers, occurring as it did during prayer time, set the stage for the split in the Muslim faith between the Shiat Ali (Shia, or followers of Ali) and the Ahl-i Sunnah (Sunni, or the people who follow in the custom of the prophet Muhammad). Both Shiite and Sunni view one another as deviants from the pure form of Islam as taught by Muhammad, and as such functioning as apostates deserving death.
If you answered the quiz on Karbala in the above fashion, you would still be wrong. The split between Sunni and Shiite goes beyond simple hatred for one another. Not only did the religion split, but so too did the methodology of governance as well as the interrelationship between religion and politics.
There was a final chance at achieving unity within the Muslim world. In the year 750, at the battle of Zab in Egypt, nearly the entire aristocracy formed from the lineage of Muawiyah was annihilated when the Damascus-based caliphate clashed with predominantly Shiite rebels. Jaffar, a Shiite spiritual leader and the great-grandson of Hussein, was supposed to be elevated to the caliphate, thereby uniting the Muslim world, but was instead murdered by Al-Mansur, who established the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. This final treachery created a permanent split between the Shiites and those who became known as Sunnis.
The Shiite faithful embraced rule by imams, infallible leaders who provide guidance over spiritual and political affairs. According to the majority of Shiites, there are 12 imams, originating with Ali. The 12th imam, also named Muhammad, is believed by many Shiites to be the Mahdi, or savior, who went into hiding at God’s command and will return at the end of days to bring salvation to the faithful. With the passing of the 12th imam, matters of spiritual and political concerns were dealt with by religious scholars, or the ulema. These scholars are products of religious academies, known as “hawza.” In Iraq, the city of Najaf is home to the most important hawza, the Hawza Ilmiya. Each hawza produces religious scholars, or “marjas,” who interpret religion and provide guidance over social matters to those who rally around their particular teachings.
The Najaf Hawza currently has four marjas, or grand ayatollahs, each of whom reigns supreme when it comes to matters of religion or state. The faithful look to their hawza for guidance in all they do, and the sermons given by the various marjas take on a significance little understood by those who aren’t born and bred into that society. To speak of creating a unified Iraqi state without factoring in the reality of the hawza and its competing marjas is tantamount to claiming one will seek to fly without factoring in the realities of lift and gravity.
So if you answered the question concerning the city of Karbala with anything remotely resembling an insight into not only the schism that exists between the Sunni and the Shiite but also how the development of the practice of the Shiite faith has led to an absolute insinuation of religious dogma into every aspect of social and political life in a manner that operates independently of any so-called central state authority, you would get a passing grade, enabling you to move on to the next city covered by the pop quiz: Baghdad.
It is not only the Shiites who are bound by religious ties seemingly indecipherable to the West. From the chaos that was created with the Islamic schism came a very fluid situation in the development of Sunni Islamic dogma, with the Sunnis embracing a notion of consensus among the historical Muslim community, a line of thinking that led to the creation of four so-called legal schools of Islamic thought (the Maliki, the Hannafi, the Hanbali and the Shafi’i). These schools produced Islamic scholars who in turn competed for a constituency of followers. While in theory Sunni scholars preached adherence to the customs of the prophet Muhammad, in practice the Sunni schools became intertwined in the affairs of state and business. This deviation from the pure practice of faith led to the growth of “mystic societies” known as Sufism. Sufi brotherhoods sprang up throughout the Muslim world, each preaching its own mystical path toward achieving personal growth through the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.
The Abbasid caliphate, which oversaw this period of religious “softening,” in which the pure practice of Islam gave way to a more secular tolerance of the baser concerns of man, was centered in Baghdad. It was the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 that signaled not only the end of the Abbasid caliph’s rule but the certification in the eyes of some Sunni faithful that Abbasid’s ruin was brought about by the lack of pure faith in Islam by those professing to be Muslim. One of the basic tenants of the Sunni faith was the notion of community consensus, or “taqlid.” Taqlid was actively practiced by three of the four “legal” schools of Sunni thought. The sole exception was the school of the Hanbali, which followed a stricter interpretation of the faith. A Hanbali religious jurist, Ibn Taymiya, rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion. He held not only that the Mongols were an enemy of Islam but that the Shiite Islamic state that emerged in Persia after the Mongol conquest was likewise anathema.
More important, Ibn Taymiya broke ranks with the rest of the Sunni community, especially those who practiced Sufism, declaring all to be an affront to God. Ibn Taymiya rejected the notion of community consensus represented in the taqlid and instead professed that a true Muslim state could exist only where the political leader governed as a partner with the religious leader, and was subordinated to the religious through strict adherence to the “sharia,” or religious law. The Muslim jurists, or “ulema,” held total sway over society, to the extent that even matters pertaining to war were reserved for the religious leader, or imam, who was the only person authorized to declare a jihad.
During the Abbysid caliph, the term jihad had taken on the connotation of inner struggle. This interpretation gained wide acceptance with the spread of the Sufi brotherhoods, which were all about inner discovery. Ibn Taymiya rejected this notion of jihad, instead proclaiming that true jihad involved a relentless struggle against the enemies of Islam. For a while his teachings were popular, especially when they were being used to encourage the forces of Sunni Islam confronting the infidel Mongol invaders. However, his strict interpretation of Hanbali tenets were rejected even by other Hanbali religious scholars, and Ibn Taymiya himself was branded a heretic.
The teachings of Ibn Taymiya continued to be taught in certain Hanbali circles, including those operating in the holy city of Medina. It was here, in the 18th century, that a Arab Bedouin from the Nejd desert, in what is today Saudi Arabia, named Muhammed al-Wahhab emerged to create a movement that not only embraced the teachings of Ibn Taymiya but took them even further, preaching a virulent form of Islam that claimed to seek to bring the faithful back to the religion as practiced by the prophet Muhammad himself. Wahhab’s movement, known as the Call to Unity, reflected his strict interpretation of Islam as set forth in his book Kitab al-Tawhid, or the Book of Unity.
At first Wahhab was rejected by the Sunni scholars, and he was hounded and finally forced to take refuge in the tiny village of Dariya. There Wahhab befriended the local governor, Muhammed Ibn Saud, initiating what was to become a partnership in which the Saud family took on the role of emir, or political leader, while Wahhab became imam, or religious leader. The team of Bedouin warrior and Islamic fanatic soon led to what would become known as the Wahhabi conquest, bringing much of what is now present-day Saudi Arabia under their strict religious rule. In 1802 a Wahhabi army attacked Karbala and sacked the sacred Shiite shrine to Hussein. In 1803 the Wahhabis sacked Mecca, laying waste to the most holy sites in the Islamic world, including the Great Mosque. In 1804 the Wahhabis captured Medina, looted the tomb of the prophet Muhammad and shut off the hajj, or pilgrimage, to all non-Wahhabis. The rise of the Wahhabi empire was seen as a threat to all Islam, and soon a massive counterattack was mounted by the caliphate in Egypt. By 1818 the Wahhabis had been destroyed in battle, and everyone professing Wahhabism was treated as an apostate and butchered. The head of the Saud tribe was captured and beheaded, along with many of his fellow tribesmen.
Deep in the Arab deserts, a small number of Saudi tribesmen, strict adherents to Wahhabism, survived the Egyptian onslaught and began the struggle to regain their lost power. By 1924 the Wahhabis once again controlled Mecca and Medina, and by 1932 a new nation, Saudi Arabia, emerged from the Arabian deserts, governed by the house of Saud and with religious affairs totally in the hands of the Wahhabis.
To the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia there were two great sources of religious heretics: the Shiites, who ruled in Iran and represented a majority population in several Arab nations, including Iraq, and worse still, the Sunni Arabs, who rejected the true path as represented by the teachings of Wahhab. The puritanical form of Islam pushed by the Wahhabis was difficult to export, however, until the oil crisis of 1973, after which the Saudi government was able to fund the printing of Wahhabi literature and training of Wahhabi missionaries. In Iraq, there was some attraction to the puritanical teachings of Wahhabism among the Bedouin of the western deserts. However, with the rise to power of Saddam Hussein, Wahhabism and those who proselytized in its name were treated as enemies of the state. Wahhabism was still practiced in the shadows of Sunni mosques throughout Iraq, but anyone caught doing so was immediately arrested and put to death.
Wahhabi concerns over the weakening of the Muslim world by those who practiced anything other than pure Islam were certified in the minds of the faithful when, in April 2003, American soldiers captured Baghdad in what many Wahhabis viewed as a repeat of the sack of the city at the hands of the Mongols in 1258. Adding insult to injury, the role of Iraq’s Shiites in aiding and abetting the American conquest was seen as proof positive that the only salvation for the faithful could come at the hands of a pure form of the Islamic faith, that of Wahhabism. As the American liberation dragged on into the American occupation, and the level of violence between the Shiites and Sunnis grew, the call of jihad as promulgated by the Wahhabis gained increasing credence among the tribes of western Iraq.
The longer the Americans remain in Iraq, the more violence the Americans bring down on Iraq, and the more the Americans are seen as facilitating the persecution of the Sunnis by the Shiites, the more legitimate the call of the Wahhabi fanatics become. While American strategists may speak of the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq, this is misrecognition of what is really happening. Rather than foreigners arriving and spreading Wahhabism in Iraq, the virulent sect of Islamic fundamentalism is spreading on its own volition, assisted by the incompetence and brutality of an American occupation completely ignorant of the reality of the land and people it occupies. This is the true significance of Baghdad, and any answer not reflecting this will be graded as failing.
A pop quiz, consisting of one question in two parts. Most readers might complain that it is not realistic to expect mainstream America to possess the knowledge necessary to achieve the level of comprehension required to pass this quiz. I agree. However, since the mission of the United States in Iraq has shifted from disarming Saddam to installing democracy to creating stability, I think it only fair that the American people be asked about those elements that are most relevant to the issue, namely the Shiite and Sunni faithful and how they interact with one another.
It is sadly misguided to believe that surging an additional 20,000 U.S. troops into Baghdad and western Iraq will even come close to redressing the issues raised in this article. And if you concur that the reality of Iraq is far too complicated to be understood by the average American, yet alone cured by the dispatch of additional troops, then we have a collective responsibility to ask what the hell we are doing in that country to begin with. If this doesn’t represent a clarion call for bringing our men and women home, nothing does.
Scott Ritter was a Marine Corps intelligence officer from 1984 to 1991 and a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of numerous books, including “Iraq Confidential” (Nation Books, 2005) and “Target Iran” (Nation Books, 2006).