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Saturday, February 26, 2005


Toward a reality based foreign policy

posted by Razib Khan at Saturday, February 26, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
A few weeks ago I came across as something of a petulant nitpicker when it came to the equivalence of the "Shia" of Iraq and the "Shia" of Iran and the possible implications of this in the development of our foreign policy. I noted in the comments that both sides of the political aisle tended to look at international issues through an extremely ideological lens. I think part of this is because few people make an effort to master the basic facts that are at issue, but plug in prefab values into their analogical equations.

Let me be explicit about what I mean.

Some people assume that Shia in Iraq ~ Shia in Iran.
Iran is a "fundamentalist theocracy."
Ergo, the probability is that Shia ascendency in Iraq will, by analogy, lead to "fundamentalist theocracy" in Iraq.

This is very convenient for those who wish to undermine the Bush administration's policy in Iraq, so of course such people are not going to check their premises since the analogical equation spits out results that fit their expectations. I am going to submit that some of the premises, very far upstream, are faulty, or at least that their validity must be mitiated by large error bars.

In what follows, I will argue the following: when it comes to the context of international foreign policy models the term "Shia" becomes rather close to useless in terms of its predictive utility.

Though I have been skeptical of making analogies between Christianity and Islam to impart to non-Muslims (I myself am of Muslim background though a self-professed atheist) the flavor of sectarian divisions in Islam in the past, I will now try to offer one that I think is more helpful in the light of our previous discussion. In the "Standard Model" the Shia are made equivalent Catholics and the Sunni to Protestants. The reason being primarily that the Shia tend to be far more "clerical" in orientation while the Sunnis tend to be more "individualistic." This analogy is not totally misleading, and does yield some valid associations. But, I think a more valid analogy is as follows: the Sunnis are like Catholics and the Shia are like Protestants.

But I will not leave you with the bald assertion as there are many loose ends and vague implicit assumptions that will not impart to you the gist of what I am trying to say. So, I will illustrate with example.

When I was in college I had a roommate from Singapore who was of Roman Catholic background. He told me that once his father had stumbled into an Anglican cathedral and not realized that it was not a Catholic service until about halfway through. On the other hand, one would likely gather from the general tone of a Baptist service that it was not Roman Catholic in any way. My point is there is an enormous internal variation within Protestantism. What unites Protestants is that they are not Roman Catholic, with the priority being on Roman, because substantively the difference between High Church Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism is minimal, the main point of distinction being that the former rejects the Pope in Rome.

This internal variation within Protestantism has had historical consequences, for example, during the Elizabethian period many of the queen's radical Protestant courtiers were angered by her relative caution and uninterest in defending the interests of the anti-Catholic sects on the continent. Some of this might have had to do with the fact that Elizabeth perceived in radical Protestantism something profoundly alien and subversive. Her successors, the Stuart monarchs, made a slow but uninterrupted shift from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism in the next century because of their perception that the latter was more amenable to absolute monarchy than the former, and during much of the period when they were Anglicans they persecuted radical Protestants with more verve and persistance than they did Roman Catholics (in fact, they wed Roman Catholic princesses). Similarly within Germany the conflict between Calvinists and Lutherans was often nearly as great as between Protestants and Catholics. And it was in Calvinist countries that the most radical Protestant groups, for example, Baptists, were most thoroughly persecuted. The overall point is though from a Roman Catholic perspective they were all "Protestants," there was so much internal variation that the utility of the term could only go so far.

I think that this reality is translatable to the Muslim world. The Sunni faction is relatively uniform in that there are four broad schools of shariah which recognize each other as valid. They developed together in a broad consensus in the light of history and through state support over a thousand years. The Shia on the other hand, the supporters of Ali, have generally been dissidents and existed on the margins. As such, they are characterized by a great level of internal difference and sectarian faction (rather like Protestants).

For example, after I read Mullahs on the Mainframe, an ethnography of Aziz's religious group, the Daudi Bohra Ismaili Muslims, I realized how much salience the Catholic analogy must hold for him, for I had never realized exactly how relevant and powerful the religious leaders of the Ismaili community were on a day to day basis. Some Catholics have a saying, "Protestants believe in the Bible, we believe in the Church." To paraphrase, while Sunnis put their faith in the Koran and Hadiths, Aziz's group seems to invest as much reverence upon the guidence of their "dai" (their religious leader). I do not believe this is nearly as true for other Shia groups. To me, it seems that the Ismailis are one antipode of the spectrum of what it means to be Shia, in some ways they are perhaps the exemplars of Shiism in its hierarchal tendencies.

The Ithna Ashari, the majority of the world's Shia, who are centered around Qom in Iran and include the Shia of Lebanon, Iraq and much of the Gulf countries, certainly are more centrally organized and led than many Sunni groups. Nevertheless, they do not seem to evince the same tight focus that the Ismaili do (if the Ismailis are Roman Catholics, perhaps the Ithna Ashari are Anglo-Catholics). This is even less true of other "Shia" groups like the Zaydi of Yemen (who are very close to the Sunnis in practice), or the Alevis and Alawites of Turkey and Syria.

I put quotes around Shia purposely in the case of these last, particularly the Alevis and Alawites. If you read about the Alawites, though they have been declared Ithna Ashari by clerics in that camp, you are struck by their relative heterodoxy. Like their cousins in Turkey, the Alevis, they do not practice the conventional 5 pillars of Islam because they consider them "symbols." The Alawites also celebrate Christmas and Nawruz, the Persian New Year, which the clerics in Iran have been campaigning against because of its un-Islamic origins. I have also read that, like the Alevis, the Alawites include alcohol in some of their secret rituals. Nevertheless, in the 1970s Ithna Ashari clerics declared that the Alawites were orthodox Muslims of their sect. Why? One might consider that at this point the Alawites, in the person of Hafez Assad, had ascended to power in Syria, and Syria was a crucial geopolitical consideration which the Ithna Ashari Shia of Lebanon and Iran had to take into account. Nevertheless, I doubt that the Alawite ruling class of Syria is warmed by the rise of a Shia state in neighboring Iraq.

I digress into such minutiae to hammer home the possibily that the term "Shia" in analogical equations that one constructs might be a very fuzzy variable indeed. Syria is technically a Shia ruled state, but it is a secular Baath nationalist one, and so religiously tolerant that the Christians from Iraq are emigrating to Damascus! Why do people fear theocracy in Iraq even though Syria is ruled by a Shia ruling class? Obviously, circumstances in the specifics differ, the Shia of Iraq have closer connections to Iran, are unambiguously Ithna Ashari, and they are a majority as opposed to a minority like the Alawites. But taking these specifics into consideration, one should then move further, and evaluate whether the analogy between Iraqi and Iranian Shia might be imperfect as well. I have detailed in the previous post that the Akbari faction tends to be much more powerful in Iraq than in Iran, where the Usuli are dominant. Akbari interpretation of Ithna Ashari religious thought is more conservative in that clerics tend to play less important roles in political life. This is something that is quite clearly relevant in the case of Iraq.

I will close out this post by suggesting that if you are to hold that your opinions, projections and evaluations are based on empirical considerations, a thorough, detailed and deep knowledge of the variables must be attained before one can truly be confident of predictions. If one is basing one's opinions on first principles drawn from political values and beliefs, certainly facts are simply colorful adornments and need not be examined in detail. But in that case you will certainly not be able to convince those who are outside your charmed political inner circle and faction rather than the best interests of your values are being served.


a few comments:

"while Sunnis put their faith in the Koran and Hadiths, Aziz's group seems to invest as much reverence upon the guidence of their "dai" (their religious leader). I do not believe this is nearly as true for other Shia groups."It is true as a doctrinal axiom for all Shi'a groups by definition - but not neccessarily in pragmatic use. It isn't the Dai who controls the interpretations of the Qur'an and the religion, but rather the authentic Imams descended from Ali AS, in whose stead the Dai's operate as regents. There is also over a thousand years of material, written in books, rulings, judgements, etc from the period of the Dais themselves since the Imam went into seclusion, which also serve as an analogue to teh body of hadith etc. The crucial difference is of course "quality control".

But all Shia acknowledge that only Ali AS and the Imams afterwards are teh sole authority for interpretation of teh Qur'an and the faith. The precise agreement upon who the Imams were may differ from sect to sect. The Sunni perspective of individualized interpretation - which has led equally to the likes of Qutb as it has to the likes of the Mu'tazili - is completely the antithesis at a fundamental, doctrinal level, to Shi'a identity and faith. Given that the Protestant Reformation was a rebellion against centralized interpretation of the institutionalized Church, I think that teh Catholic = Shi'a analogy holds up very strongly, and not just because of the trappings of the organized religious hierarchy. It holds up well despite the braod diversity within Shi'a themselves, in fact.

I think though that ultimately trying to equate Shi'a on any conceptual levelk to either Protestants or Catholics is a square peg / round hole problem. Just like RAND's typology of muslims; unlike prak, I find the divisions both arbitrary and redundant. Thats a poor critique however and i will strive to articulate a better one later. Still, it is at first pass, like teh Shia = Catholic analogy, useful on certain levels, and so shoudl not be dismissed completely out of hand.


A (possibly dumb) question:

I did some reading on usuli and akhbari Shi'a, and from what I could gather, usuli believe that ijtihad conducted by a learned scholar is acceptable whereas akhbari accept only the Traditions as a source of doctrine or law, and only when the Imams have explicitly weighed in. Is this right?


Wow, great discussion! I really enjoyed the Rand Taxonomy at praktike's.
But the best taxonomies have backgrounding in concepts relevent to their audience. I will argue that razib's analogy may be especially useful to people with protestant and catholic backgrounds, ie US citizens. And perhaps not as useful to muslims. ;)
As a lapsed catholic myself, i can see the parallels between two montheistic, rulebased, fairly strict and rigorous religious sub-sects.

And praktike, fundamentalism has an entirely different meaning to people like razib and me, based on the tennants of cultural anthropology and cognitive neuroscience. That might make a better (less fuzzy) baseline definition. ;)


jinn, for the benefit of the larger audience, would you mind elaborating on the definition of fundamentalism from your cognitive neuroscience perspective?


Sorry for not checking back sooner! I would never pass up a chance to quote Pascal Boyer! ;)
In the most diverse traditions (American Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and surprisingly Buddhism)one can find movements entirely focused on a return to the religious values promoted by the religious guild and supposedly perverted by further developments."


It is true as a doctrinal axiom for all Shi'a groups by definition - but not neccessarily in pragmatic use. It isn't the Dai who controls the interpretations of the Qur'an and the religion, but rather the authentic Imams descended from Ali AS, in whose stead the Dai's operate as regents.1) good point.
2) this has important practical implications.
3) nevertheless, in practice, no only is there wide variation with how shia interpret this, sunnis in practice tend to also have clerical specialists. though these clerical specialists do not axiomatically have as much authority, in practice, the differences can often seem minimal. the ottoman mufti system developed at around the same time as the ayatollah system, both inspired by western models.
4)"suli believe that ijtihad conducted by a learned scholar is acceptable whereas akhbari accept only the Traditions as a source of doctrine or law, and only when the Imams have explicitly weighed in." that seems about right from what i recall.


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