This man, in a previous, Beirut-based life, had been a Marxist, so I couldn’t understand why the particular brand of opiate mattered to him. To these secular men, I thought, the assorted confessional categories—Shia, Sunni, Sufi, and for that matter Presbyterian and Lubavitcher—were interchangeable and identically passé. I asked if his problem might be ethnic, rather than religious: Iran is Persian, not Arab, and the two civilizations are historically competitive. “Of course,” came the answer, but I was missing the subtlety: a Palestinian cannot become Persian, but he can become Shia. And this, to a Sunni Muslim—even to a wine-drinking, pork-eating Marxist Sunni Muslim—is a reprehensible idea.
This dinner occurred shortly after 2 million Shia had visited Karbala, a Shia holy city in Iraq, to commemorate the martyrdom of a crucial Shia saint. It was the first time so many Shia had gathered in Karbala in recent memory; Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had prevented such gatherings. President Bush saw this as a triumph: “Many Iraqis are now reviving religious rituals which were forbidden by the old regime,” he said. “See, a free society honors religion.” But the sight of such Shia power, however moving to George Bush, was intensely upsetting to America’s Sunni allies in places like the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. At dinner that night, the message, in its purest distillation, was simple: Who do these uppity Shia think they are?
Shiism, whose followers constitute a mere 15 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion or so Muslims, long ago acquiesced to second-class status in the Arab world. But then came 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and sought to export the ideology of his country’s Islamic revolution to Muslims everywhere, even to Sunni Muslims. It was an unlikely goal. Centuries of blood-spattered encounters, prompted by deeply felt doctrinal differences, made Khomeini’s vision seem fantastical.
Most Westerners are insensitive to these doctrinal differences, viewing them as dry technicalities rather than matters of cosmological importance. The Sunni-Shia split dates back to the seventh-century dispute over who was meant to be the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successor. Today’s Shia are descended from those who believed that Muhammad had chosen his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his heir. This was a minority view in the days following the prophet’s death, and one of his lieutenants, Abu-Bakr, was made caliph and successor to Muhammad instead. The schism became permanent after the Battle of Karbala in 680, when Ali’s son Hussein was killed by the caliph’s soldiers.
The conflict between Sunni and Shia is the most consequential in the Middle East because it is so profound and elemental. But precisely because it is so intractable, it might hold the key to solving another seemingly eternal Middle East conflict, the one between Muslim and Jew. The definitive Middle East cliché is, of course, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Well, it turns out that today, more than at any other time in the ruinous 100-year encounter between Arabs and Jews on the strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the two parties in the dispute have a common enemy: the Shia Persian Islamic Republic of Iran. President Obama’s skills and charisma just might bring Sunni Arabs and Israeli Jews together, but he will be helped inestimably if he considers that the road to peace runs not through Jerusalem but through Karbala. Consider the possibility of a grand, if necessarily implicit, Jewish-Sunni alliance as a gift to Obama from his predecessor.