Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Posts Tagged ‘Shi’ism’

Sectarian Blues: Some thoughts on the “Eclipse of the Sunnis”

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2010 at 10:13 am

It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.

Book of Amos 5:19

In a welcome distraction from the health care debate in the House, I was riveted by a description of Deborah Amos’ new book called the “Eclipse of the Sunnis.” There is a nice set of blurbs on the book over at Politics and Prose.  I won’t say much about the book or the situation in Iraq, because I am still learning about conditions on the ground there, but the introduction of the book in her NPR interview was the kind of material that can break through even the most jaded social theory infused mindset I can put on. I am not sure if it was Deborah’s descriptions of girls being marketed for the sex trade, or the concrete descriptions of Iraqi brothels that drew me in: this the day after International Women’s Day.Whatever it was, I paid attention.

The stories she tells are devastating in a surprisingly fresh way. I think the reason for surprise derives from the current mindset in the U.S. on the Middle East. We have a sneaking suspicion (we being the mythical median voter) that the surge in Iraq worked and the election there Sunday was bloody, but hopeful. This sits against the backdrop of new muscular efforts in Afghanistan to root out extremism. Many high level operatives have been killed or captured and the story is positive enough so that we can turn attention back to our own collapsing economic and political system. We are in a mood of hopeful optimism about that part of the world as a result of exhaustion as much as progress, and Amos shocks us into a broader perspective at just the right time.

Among the most jarring frames she places on the situation is the simile involving the Palestinian case. From the P&P description we get:

The history of the Middle East tells us that one of the greatest problems of the last forty years has been that of a displaced population, angered by their inability to safely return home and resume ownership of their property—as they see it. Now, the pattern has been repeated. A new population of exiles, as large as the Palestinians, has been created.

If that does not strike you as ominous, then you have been surfing too long today. The implication is that we have a new refugee problem that could be as big or bigger than the one that now drives insecurity in the region. In case you demur and suggest that Arab on Arab confrontation could never rise the level we have seen in the Arab-Israeli case, we might remember that the historical traumas that divided the people before the twentieth century were sectarian, not interfaith in nature. In fact, unless you read Israel primarily as an extension of European culture (plausible enough to do, although obviously fraught), it is difficult to see which of the rifts is more foundational.

I think, in general, that we have paid too little attention to political Shi’ism in the region and what its effects might be. Amos’ book might be a nice place to begin our education. Following the example of her namesake, the Jewish prophet, Amos is alerting us to the desperate need we have to understand. For the rest of you out there who are working on these issues and know far more about this than I do, keep writing.