It’s been years since I read John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra, but I remember well its introductory epigraph, a retelling of a 1933 W. Somerset Maugham story that appears in Maugham’s play Sheppy:
“There was a merchant in Bagdad (sic) who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra (Iraq) and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw her standing in the crowd and he said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad (sic), for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’ ”
I was talking to a friend recently about the unfolding of events in Iraq and about America’s seeming inability to contextualize what was going on. I despaired of airwaves filled with vitriol, pundits and politicians flaunting their ignorance in public and of disgraced emperors wearing no clothes. I despaired that no one was thinking about Samarra, north of Baghdad.
“You have the worst job, as a columnist, in America this week,” he said.
Those were words I didn’t need to hear, but he was right: The Middle East was aflame in ways few had foreseen, radical Muslim elements were at the center of it – again – and I didn’t know where to start.
Where to start.
It won’t comfort readers that I was right about opposing the 2003 Iraq War, that it would prove to be catastrophic, that I predicted that the surge was only a temporary solution or that I told a group of students that a Syrian civil war would be the most vicious ever – except that now to recognize and accept such historical truths might help the West – and Sunnis and Shiites – avoid keeping that appointment in Samarra.
I don’t have a solution to offer, but in the off-chance that some readers might like more context than they are presently getting I offer:
First, the idea that the “Sunni-Shiite” conflict is a 1,400-year-old war is ill-informed and dangerous: It’s a myth. Indeed, if such a war had existed for 15 centuries, there would perhaps be no Shiites remaining, as they have been historically so outnumbered they could not have survived as a proud and cohesive identity without acceptance by Sunnis.
Indeed, if such a war had existed, Baghdad would not have been 45 percent Sunni and 55 percent Shiite on the eve of Shock and Awe and annually millions of Shiite and Sunni Muslims, standing shoulder-to shoulder in prayer, would not peacefully make the pilgrimage to Mecca together.
The prophet Muhammad 1,435 years ago called upon the tribes of Arabia to adopt a radical concept: to trade the blood of identity for the beauty of an idea – Islam. Arabs were asked to renounce their familial tribal links and beliefs in a polytheistic pantheon of gods in order to embrace Islam, which was to emerge from the Arabian Peninsula as the third of the world’s major monotheistic faiths.
We define identity as being different from someone or something else – with the someone or something being dependent on context. And because of context identity can change meaning. Today, in the context of the failed states of Iraq and Syria, identity is being politically exploited: your governments failed you – adopt our identity and we will protect you!
After the Prophet Muhammad died, there was conflict over his succession. Those who would eventually become Shiite believed that Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, should succeed him. Ali’s followers lost.
Ali was not elected until he became the fourth caliph. Succession conflicts lasted until the Battle of Karbala (Iraq) in 680, where Ali’s son Hussein was killed – the battle that irrevocably divided Sunni and Shiite.
Sadly, the world has never been free of ethnic and religious conflict.
Wars between Catholics and Protestants, Crusades, the Holocaust, the Hutu-Tutsi and Pol-Pot Genocides, 9/11, the Boko Haram atrocities, sectarian battles in Northern Island and Sri Lanka remind us of what depravity mankind is capable.
Not about religion
Second, today’s Sunni/Shiite conflict has little to do with religion.
Except when Iran turned Shiite in the 16th century in part as a strategic response to an aggressive Sunni Ottoman empire, Sunnis and Shiites have generally co-existed. For centuries in the Middle East, Sunnis and Shiites, along with Druze, Kurds, Jews, Christians and other religious groups, lived closely with each another.
It’s not to say that there’s never been inter-communal prejudice and violence. For example, both Lebanese Sunnis and Maronites historically discriminated against Shiites. Saddam Hussein (whom some believe America helped rise to power) gassed Shiites whom he perceived as threats, and in Syria the Alawite-dominated government holds power tightly within its own community.
No, it’s to say that such actions are generally the result of cynical political manipulation, exploiting identity for gain rather than just naked prejudice. It’s to say that for most of Islam’s history such sectarian identification was rarely relevant.
I believe that the fratricide we are witnessing today between Sunnis and Shiites is directly related to Khomeini’s 1979 Iranian Revolution and, in response to the perceived “Shia threat,” aggressive Sunni proselytizing by many Salafist and Wahabbi supporters in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Today’s Sunni/Shiite divide is driven by 21st-century identity politics, where rulers, warlords and criminal elements ask their followers to set aside any belief in civil society and embrace instead hatred, paranoia and dreams of revenge.
In the case of ISIL in Iraq, the indigenous Sunnis are being asked to act on their grudges against the Shiite-led Al-Maliki regime.
Third, if there’s one thing I believe with certainty, it’s that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the beginning of the end of the Western map of the Middle East. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty dividing parts of the former Ottoman Empire into Western spheres of interest is finished.
We have to accept that Iraq as a unitary state is done and accept that Iran is the region’s hegemonic power. We have to help Turkey accept a new neighbor called Kurdistan and help stabilize a Jordan that is being battered by political forces from its neighbors and overwhelmed by refugees.
We have to worry about who has an appointment in Samarra, a Sunni majority city that is home to the Al-Askari Mosque, which holds the mausoleums of the 10th and 11th Shiite Imams as well as relatives of Prophet Muhammad. It’s an important pilgrimage center for Shiites and is an important worship site for Sunnis as well.
We have to help convince Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States that supporting Salafist elements in Mesopotamia and elsewhere is inimical to their interests and survival, and we have to redouble our efforts to get Israel and Palestine back to the negotiating table.
To thrive, Islam must reject deviant ideologies and ideologues acting in its name. To continue to play a role in the future of the Middle East, the West must recognize that their Orientalist perceptions of Arabs and Muslims are ill-informed and dangerous.
To avoid an appointment in Samarra, such truths must be embraced.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.