Why we need to avoid Middle Eastern entanglements: too complicated!

By Razib Khan | February 25, 2010 6:02 am

The New York Times has an article attempting to clarify complex political tensions cross-linked with religious identity (or not), In an Iraqi City, the Real Ballot Contest Is for Shiite Leadership. The author, Anthony Shadid, states:

The contest bears down on one of the unanswered questions in Iraq’s tortured narrative of invasion, occupation, war and recovery. The country today stands as the only Arab state in which Shiite Muslims rule. Nasiriya is a stage, rendered small, where several Shiite currents, from street movements to venerable parties, are now vying for ascendancy.

That’s not really true. The Alawites of Syria dominate that Sunni-majority nation arguably with as tight a fist as the Sunni Arabs dominated Baath-era Iraq, or the Sunni royal family of Bahrain dominates that island nation. The Alawites are Shia, or at least identify as such. They’ve long had a tacit alliance with Iran, and the Iranian regime’s lack of support for the Sunni Islamists of Hama, who were massacred by Hafez Assad’s army in 1982, reputedly had a lot to do with Sunni rejection of Iran as a leader for worldwide Islamic revivalism. Throughout the 1980s Baathist Syria was aligned against Baathist Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, in keeping with Syria’s traditional pro-Iranian tilt (Syria also is a secondary patron of Hezbollah).
In any case, this is all relatively academic, except for the fact that Syria borders on Iraq, has millions of Iraqi refugees, and likely served as a base for Iraqi insurgents. How does the fact that Syria is dominated by a heterdox Shia sect which rules a Sunni majority influence its relationship to Iraq? That’s for you to explore. I just think it is worth pointing out this error, because if The New York Times can get basic facts retrievable from Wikipedia wrong how much should you trust it when it comes to the political dynamics of an obscure Iraqi city?*
* Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future is worth reading, as he outlines the network of Shia religious movements which span Iran to Lebanon, and now have come into stark relief with the emergence of a “Shia arc” of Iran, Iraq, Syria (Shia dominated) and Lebanon (Hezbollah becoming operational king-makers).

  • John Emerson

    Most liberals have given up on the New York Times and the Washington Post. They speak now for a kind of centrist establishment received wisdom and seldom seem to even bother to get things straight. Surf over to Brad DeLong, Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler, or Dean Baker’s “Beating the Press”. The whole liberal blogosphere spends a lot of its time attacking the Times and the Post.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    1) you could substitute in “conservative” and also swap in appropriate websites
    2) still good for science and other stuff where there’s less pressure to be fake objective and/or add analytical value-add by people who aren’t area specialists

  • Ahmad

    Syria’s regime might be “alawites” but the government rule the people based on secular views. There are Syrian Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Jews, etc.. they all are identified as syrians and the law doesn’t discriminate among them.
    I don’t understand the point of this article, are you attempting a racial religious sagregation among syrians? Cause it’s not working.. i am sunni and i like bashar 😀

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    yes, yes, of course. when religious minorities are in power in the middle east the government is often secular (e.g., the iraqi baathist regime dominated by sunni arabs was secular). well, excepting the case of the safavids, who forcibly converted the sunni persian majority to shiism, but that’s old news and pre-modern. if the sunni majority had power i doubt syria would be so avowedly secular.
    as for syria, no one in the USA really cares too much about you guys except in relation to israel. since i don’t care much about israel, or lebanon to be honest, i don’t care about syria. my pragmatic interest in syria has to do with the fact that borders on our operational 51st state, iraq :-)
    i have more academic interests in the emergence of heterodox religious sects like the alawites in the early to middle muslim period as well. also the fissiparous tendencies of late antique oriental christianity still evident among syrian christians.

  • http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/contributors/bio-jasonhvb/ Hamza van Boom

    >>also the fissiparous tendencies of late antique oriental christianity still evident among syrian christians.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/cgw Clark

    Hold it Razib. Those are fighting words. Canada is supposed to be the 51st State.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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