Peter Wehner, deputy assistant to the President and director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, has written a hugely informative piece about the jihadists with whom we are at war. Wehner’s discussion of the similarities and differences between the Sunni and Shia jihadists is must reading, and not just for the woefully uninformed, such as that congressman Nancy Pelosi placed in charge of the House Intelligence Committee.
Wehner points out that comtemporary Shia radicals tilt towards an “end of days” eschatology, considering it their duty to fight to speed up the return of the Twelfth Imam (the Mahdi). This stands in contrast to the traditional Shia view that the Mahdi’s return is inevitable and cannot be hastened by human struggle. Significantly, this latter “quietist” view is assocated with the holy city of Najaf in Iraq and with the influential Ayatollah Sistani. As such, it tends to be the prevalent strand among Iraqi Shia (though perhaps less so in very recent days).
Contemporary Sunni radicalism differs from its radical Shia counterpart in that it’s less apocalyptic. The grand object is not the return of a religious figure, but the restoration of an historical phenomenon — the old Islamic empire known as the caliphate. Thus, bin Laden doesn’t talk about “the end of days.” His goal is not the end or utter destruction of civilization; his goal is conquest. However, the bloody means through which intends to achieve this do not differ markedly from the preferred means of the Sunni jihadists.
It is the fate of the West, and in particular the United States, to have to deal with the combined threat of Shia and Sunni extremists. And for all the differences that exist between them — and they are significant — they share some common features.
Their brand of radicalism is theocratic, totalitarian, illiberal, expansionist, violent, and deeply anti-Semitic and anti-American. As President Bush has said, both Shia and Sunni militants want to impose their dark vision on the Middle East. And as we have seen with Shia-dominated Iran’s support of the Sunni terrorist group Hamas, they can find common ground when they confront what they believe is a common enemy.
The war against global jihadism will be long, and we will experience success and setbacks along the way. The temptation of the West will be to grow impatient and, in the face of this long struggle, to grow weary. Some will demand a quick victory and, absent that, they will want to withdraw from the battle. But this is a war from which we cannot withdraw. As we saw on September 11th, there are no safe harbors in which to hide. Our enemies have declared war on us, and their hatreds cannot be sated. We will either defeat them, or they will come after us with the unsheathed sword.
All of us would prefer years of repose to years of conflict. But history will not allow it. And so it once again rests with this remarkable republic to do what we have done in the past: our duty.
UPDATE: At the risk of veering wildly off track, I’ll add that Wehner’s comparison of radical Sunni and Shia ideology reminds me of the relationship between communism and fascism. These ideologies also shared a common source — socialism (the Nazis were the National Socialists). They too were sworn enemies but could find common ground in order to take on free societies. Of the two, the Nazis more closely resemble the radical Sunnis, since they were not particularly utopian and looked backward to a romanticized notion of the early Germanic people for inspiration. The communists have more in common with the radical Shia since they saw history progressing in preordained fashion not towards territorial conquest, but towards the triumph of an idea and the withering away of the state.
Communism was an internationalist ideology, and so too (in Wehner’s account) is Shia radicalism. Thus, Ayatollah Khomeni said:
We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganizm. I say let his land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.
Under Stalin communism lost much of its internationalist purity, and this may also be starting to occur in Iran. Thus, Iranian President Ahmadinejad talks like a nationalist, not an internationalist revolutionary, when he says:
If you would like to have good relations with the Iranian nation in the future. . .bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender. If you don’t accept [to do this], the Iranian nation will. . .force you to surrender and bow down.
Statements like this may be evidence that, as professor Vali Nasr says in one of Wehner’s footnotes, the Islamic revolution is becoming a spent force in Iran, and that the Islamic Republic is a tired dictatorship facing pressures to change. Sort of like what happened with the Soviet Union.