As Nancy Pelosi struggles to contain increasing demands for the Congress to impeach President Trump, his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo ratchets up tensions in the Gulf of Oman, as it has done in countless other historical circumstances, making war with Iran look imminent. Now more than ever, Americans need to know that beyond oil, the Middle East, like the rest of the world, is divided between right and left. Iran is the leader of the left-oriented Shia version of Islam, while Saudi Arabia leads the right oriented Arab world. Meanwhile, Israel, as it continues to occupy Palestinian territory for over seventy years, has gone from being a left-oriented society in which the kibbutz played a central role, so far to the right that it often agrees with fascists. Across the Middle East as elsewhere,“Follow the money”, corresponds to the left-right divide.
Unlike American ignorance of current foreign affairs, few people across the world have a false idea of the French Revolution of 1789: driven by popular hardship, the sans culottes got rid of a monarch, opening the way for an organized left that carried out the Russian Revolution of 1917, followed, in due course, by the Chinese Revolution of 1949. These three revolutions duly claimed their place in history and in the popular imagination, however, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the US installed ‘liberal’ parties in Western Europe, Eastern Europe modernized under a Soviet controlled authoritarian form of social democracy, while Iran was still a relatively poor country whose population was in need of everything from health care to education and housing. In 1953, when Iranians elected a lawyer named Mohammed Mossadegh to lead the country, the nationalization of their oil bonanza was a no-brainer. Alas, this coincided with the growing realization by the US of the crucial role of ‘black gold’, as American automobile ownership tripled, and petroleum became the magic fluid that generated prodigious development in the West. In what was to become a pattern, the CIA and M16 worked in tandem to overthrow the Iranian popular government and put the exiled Shah back in power.
Twenty-six years later, in 1979, popular forces carried out a revolution against the Shah’s iron rule that has never been understood by the West, which saw the new leaders exclusively as religious fanatics. In reality, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France, he was accompanied by a socialist theoretician. Ali Shariati had been in and out of jail while teaching high school and campaigning for change. Eventually, he was allowed to accept a scholarship to France, where he studied with Islamic scholars, earning a PhD in sociology and the history of religions in 1964, while discovering the third world political theologist Frantz Fanon, collaborating with the Algerian National Liberation Front and campaigning alongside Jean-Paul Sartre for an end to French colonialism. Returning to Iran, Shariati founded the Freedom Movement of Iran, gathering followers throughout society.
His sin was to have revived Shiism’s revolutionary claim that a good society would embrace religious values. He taught that the role of a government under a learned clergy, was to guide society according to Islamic values rather than managing it, allowing human beings to reach their highest potential rather than encouraging the West’s hedonistic individualism. Believing that Shia Muslims should not await the return of a mysterious 12th Imam, (as the Jews await ‘the Messiah’) but hasten it by fighting for social justice, even to the point of martyrdom, Shariati criticized the Shah’s clerics and translated the claims of Iranian Marxists that revolution would bring about a just, classless society into religious symbols that ordinary people could relate to. Seeing a direct link between liberal democracy and the plundering of pre-modern societies based on spirituality, unlike Fanon, he believed that people could only fight imperialism by recovering their cultural identity, including their religious beliefs, which he called ‘returning to ourselves’. (Like a growing number of contemporary leaders — such as Vladimir Putin — Shariati called religious government ‘commitment democracy’, as opposed to Western demagogy based on advertising and money.
The panic that gripped the West in 1979 when 52 American diplomats were locked-into the Embassy for 444 days, was heightened by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War a few years earlier. Since that time, while continuing to deny the Palestinians a state of their own, Israel has moved closer to the most powerful Sunni (i.e., conservative) Arab nation, Saudi Arabia, which supports ISIS and its offshoot terrorist organizations worldwide, and wages an unrelenting campaign against the tiny country of Yemen, whose revolutionary Houthis are also supported by Iran, in the millennial battle between Sunni and Shia.
Few Americans know that these two are strongly correlated to the left-right divide. Western media correctly attributes the conflict to attitudes toward Ali, the Prophet’s designated successor, but it features Shiites lashing themselves with chains in solidarity, without mentioning that the reason for Ali’s murder was his defense of the lower classes. In turn, that attitude was based on a disagreement over whether God had attributes, such as ‘justice’ and hence could demand that humans treat each other with respect and dignity.
Arising after the Prophet’s death, the argument centered around whether the Quran was an emanation of God, or had always existed. In turn, the answer to that question depended on whether God simply ‘is’ or whether, like humans, he has attributes, one of which would be ‘justice’, or solidarity, which would imply the existence of free will. At one point, a free will defender who got up and left the discussion was labelled a Mutazilla, or ‘one who has left’. During the following centuries, and mainly under the Abbasid rulers centered in Persia, the Mutazilla movement lead to the development of Shia Islam, with a different set of laws from those of the Sunnis, who still believe that individual lives are foreordained by a God who is neither ‘good’ nor ‘evil’, but simply ‘is’, and that men must obey Him without question. Under the cleric Wahhab, that conviction led to the extreme of Sunni Islam, in whose name terrorism is carried out to this day.
The notion of a ‘Shia arc’ suggests an equally threatening military entity, when in reality it is an ideological one. Although nothing could be further from the minds of those who hold Trump’s foreign policy in their hands, Ali Shariati and the Iranian revolution revived Shia Islam’s original message that men must treat each other with dignity and respect. The original seat of the Mutazilla movement was the city of Basra, located on the Persian Gulf Shat al Arab waterway, and the Shiite learning center of Najaf, near the southern Iraq/Iran border, was the headquarters of Iran’s exiled revolutionary leader, Imam Khomeini. After spreading from Iran to Iraq, Shia Islam reached Syria and Lebanon on the strength of its commitment to justice.
In Syria, the life values of Islam had already led to the creation of the Baaʿth Party, which in 1953 merged with the Syrian Socialist Party to form the Saddam Hussein’s Arab Socialist Baaʿth (Renaissance) Party. Although both countries belonged to the non-aligned, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist movement, the merger failed. (The US suffered the Baath being the party of Saddam Hussein as long as he was waging an eight-year war against socialist Iran.) Syrian Shiism continues to be represented by the small Alawite sect headed by the Assad family. Reaching back to the ninth century, the Alawites, who pray sitting rather than prostrate, and celebrate some Christian holidays, had been rejected by the Shiite hierarchy until Assad’s father, Hafez al Assad, came to power in 1964. Though accused by the US of “killing its own citizens”, Assad’s son, Bashar, heads the only secular government in the Middle East (including Israel), and retains the educational system and Western social customs that prevailed under the French mandate (1923-1964).
In neighboring Lebanon, the Shiite militia known as Hezbollah represents a powerful political force in a tiny nation whose population is divided among half a dozen religions and sects, including the Christian Druze and Maronites. The picture painted for Westerners is of a rabble acting on orders from Iran, while Hezbollah is allied with the Shia militia Hamas in the struggle for an independent Palestine, making Syria ‘the frontline state’. (Alastair Crooke’s book Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, attributes Hezbollah’s victories over the Israeli army to ‘horizontal’ organization, which encourages a high level of individual initiative, and is part of the surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of Western political thought by its leader Hassan Nasrallah.)
This makes the fact that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” all the more ironic. America is the only modern nation whose citizens have almost automatic access to guns, resulting in thousands of murders every year, while its leaders insist that foreign national militias must be punished by a so-called ‘rules-based’ international community.
Last but not least, in this saga, like the cherry on the cake, the American public is oblivious to the decades-long ties between Iran and its neighbor, Russia, based on both a shared revolutionary commitment to ‘dignity and respect’, and to religious values. It is disquieting, to say the last, that when the two B’s threaten Iran, they are threatening Russia outside the narrative familiar to American voters.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years. She can be reached at Otherjones. Especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.