Sometimes a shallow explanation, the kind you read in newspapers and hear on television, is enough. “The home team was beaten at the buzzer” is probably all you need to know. Sometimes, however, it’s not. The intermittent conflict between the Shias and Sunnis in Iraq (and elsewhere) provides a good example. It is just not sufficient to say, as the major news outlets often do, that the Shias are fighting the Sunnis in Iraq because the Shias were oppressed by the Sunnis under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. If this is all you understand about the conflict, you do not understand it. And you need to understand it.
To even begin to comprehend the Sunni-Shia conflict, you need to know how, out of one revelation, Islam broke into two major parts; how, in the course of time, multi-national empires integrated those parts under one ostensibly pan-Muslim writ; how European imperialist broke up those empires, with their Shia and Sunni parts, and out of them made “nation states” where there were no nations; how Arab nationalists attempted to remake these faux-nations and their Shia and Sunni parts along “international socialist” lines; how radical Islamists, fed up with the aforementioned Arab nationalists, launched a fundamentalist revolt within Islam; how one such group, having decided, bizarrely, that the United States was somehow at fault for the oppression of Muslim “true believers” in the Middle East, murdered 3000 innocent people (from all over the world and of all confessions, it should be said) on September 11, 2001; how, in response, the president and the congress of the United States ordered the invasion of two Middle Eastern states believed to have suborned the attack and international terrorism more generally; how those invasions, and the complete breakdown of law and order that followed them, provided an opportunity for Sunni and Shia militants to settle very old scores in what the Western press blandly calls a “sectarian conflict.”
This is not a tale anyone can tell in a headline or even 500 words. So if you want to grasp the “whys” of the Sunni-Shia struggle, you need to look beyond The New York Times. Lesley Hazleton’s marvelous After the Prophet: the Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split (Doubleday, 2009) is an excellent place to start. In terms of historical trade-craft, Hazleton has done something quite remarkable: she’s told a complicated story in writerly, yet concise way. You won’t get lost (though the cast of characters is long) and you won’t tire (though the tale stretches over centuries). Moreover, the book is written with great understanding and sympathy. Hazleton allows us to share the feeling of frustration (and worse) that the early followers of the Prophet felt as they tried to work out what Islam would be in his absence. In so doing, she gives us a sense of their frustration (and worse) as they continue to do so in places like Iraq.