We Do Not Understand the Middle East

That’s a pretty obvious statement, but Michael Totten’s article about the End of Hezbollah (his lips to God’s ears) underlines it wonderfully:

Part of Hezbollah’s support used to come from the fact that they were perceived as not being corrupt, but that’s over now, too.

“Even my family members who are big Hezbollah supporters are talking about the corruption,” she said. “One of my relatives told me she hates them now. And she has always been a huge resistance supporter.”

A large number of Lebanon’s Shia may not like Hezbollah so much anymore, but the support is still there because they feel like they don’t have any choice. They are afraid. Every sect felt this way during the civil war, when even people who are natural cosmopolitan pacifists supported one of “their own” sectarian militias because they were afraid of the others. It would happen to you, too, if you lived in an environment with a weak and dysfunctional state that can’t provide security while your neighbors are trying to kill you.

We discuss the Middle East in simple, monochrome terms, because drawing a distinction between radical Muslims seems like angels-on-pinheads territory. They all want to kill us, so what’s the difference?

But the Middle East is rife with faultlines and divisions: Shia, Sunni, Salafist, Alawite:

The Alawites—Bashar al-Assad’s minority sect—are not actually Shias, not really. Washington thinks they are, but that’s because back in the 1970s the Lebanese cleric Musa Sadr issued a fatwa declaring them Shias. For a thousand years before that, no one thought of the Alawites as Shias or even Muslims. What they are is a secretive and closed heterodox minority that fuses Christianity, Gnosticism, and Twelver Shia Islam together into something else entirely. Muslims have always considered them infidels.

I consider myself reasonably well-versed on the subject of basic Islam, and I’ve never heard of these people. I’d always assumed Assad was a Sunni Muslim, because I always figured the Tigris-Euphrates was the faultline between Sunni and Shia.

Until we learn these things institutionally — until the State and Defense Departments, the CIA etc. develop policy that exploits the complexities of the Middle East — we will make no headway.

Fortunately, it’s going to be a Long War.


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