What the Shia Is Going On?

Anyone who seriously thinks Israel holds the key to peace in the Middle East either doesn’t know history or believes in prophecy. Imagine for a moment a tomorrow with no Israeli state and new apartments for all Palestinians who have lived for nearly three generations in semi self-imposed exile elsewhere. Does Iraq become a stable democracy? Does Assad relinquish complete control in Syria and make way for a transitional government based on mutual consent? Does Iran proclaim its love for the West, declare that it is content to rely on its oil fields for its energy needs and abandon the pursuit of highly enriched uranium? Does Saudi Arabia stop funding various terrorist groups and governments now that Jerusalem is completely out of the reach of the Jews? Do Yemenis lay down their arms and dance in the streets in an Islamic celebration of victory? I think not.

Muhammad’s Islam was never merely a personal religion, a question of conscience. It was also a mandate that Islam be the political authority over the Arab peoples first and ultimately the world. It is this fervor that spread Islam under the edge of the sword so effectively in its debut century. [1] Muhammad ruled as the prophet of his religion, the general of his armies, and the head of his state. In him was vested total authority over all aspects of life. This authority underwent successful transitions of power three times after his death in 632 AD. But the third caliph proved unpopular.

‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the third rightly guided caliph (from the Arabic khalifah, successor), was assassinated 656 AD by Egyptians unhappy with his governance – in particular his lavish expenditures and rampant nepotism – and perhaps incensed at his compilation of an “official” Quran at the expense of alternate readings.[2] This set up a crisis of succession that sparked the First Fitnah, or Muslim civil war. Contending for the post of caliph were Muawiyya, the governor of Syria, and Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Muawiyya was the ultimate victor in the conflict in 661 AD. The Muslims who acknowledged his leadership became what we know today as Sunnis, who make up roughly 85% of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Those who followed Ali were known as the shi’atu Ali, the party or partisans of Ali. We know them today as Shias.

Westerners have long been insensitive to the realities of this division in Islam. From Crusaders to Colonials to the current power brokers in the District of Columbia, all have been blinded in part by a conception of the nation state, wherein a territorial base and a relatively homogenous ethnicity define identity and political affiliation. For centuries, this was not so for Muslims in the Middle East and surrounding areas. Their prime identity was in Islam and its subsequent divisions into its Sunni and Shia factions. For most of that history, the Sunnis have held the upper hand and the Shias have lived in subjugation. The primary exception of this rule has been Persia, home of the Safavid dynasty from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries and roughly what we refer to as Iran today.

Persian history is ancient, but modern Iran – like the rest of the region – was shaped in the forges of the two great World Wars. Through various machinations, Britain and the United States placed the Pahlavi family in power over Persia from 1925 until 1979. After a coup carried out with the help of the CIA placed him securely back on the throne, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled his country even more harshly and pulled them ever so strongly toward Westernization. This exacerbated and inflamed the Islamic passions of the Shia majority, who deposed him in the Islamic Revolution under the guidance of the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. One doesn’t need American Embassy hostages to know that Iran is no fan of the United States.

For the first time in centuries, Shias had their own country where they were clearly in charge. And they were committed to changing the fortunes of their coreligionists in the region. This set the stage for the carnage that persists in the Middle East today. Iran was a major oil producing country. That it now was in the hands of Shias allied with Soviet Union was frightening to both Saudi Arabia and the United States. What to do? What else but fund the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein in an eight-year war that killed nearly a million combatants, Iran suffering the greater losses.

Iraq is a majority Shia country. But Saddam and his regime were Sunnis. He kept the Shias in line, as well as anyone else who opposed him, by any means necessary.  After the First Gulf War and the return of sovereignty to Kuwait, a mostly Shia country, Shias in Iraq rose up to defy Saddam sure that the United States would support their efforts. We did not. They were suppressed, brutally. When we ultimately removed Saddam from power and helped institute a “democratic” government, the vote flowed toward majority rule. Shias came to power. One doesn’t need a burning Bagdad to know that Iraqi Shias are no fans of the United States.

Saudi Arabia shares a border with Iraq and Iran is just a narrow gulf away. It is the second highest producer of crude oil on the planet, topped only by Russia. Yes, that’s right, Russia. The United States chugs behind in third place, but burns more than it can pump. Russia’s position at the top of the heap in production can be attributed to the vision and commitment of one man, Vladimir Putin. But before he came on the stage, Saudi Arabia was king and nearly brought the US to its knees during the Arab oil embargo of 1973. But oil isn’t its only claim to fame. It is also the most influential power base of Sunni Islam; in particular Wahhabi Suniism. To Arabia and the Saudi family belong Medina and Mecca, undoubtedly the holiest sites in all of Islam – an Islam that Shias see themselves as the rightful leaders of.

Despite the Arab-Israeli conflict in the early seventies and Saudi Arabia’s desire to see Israel lose, the Saudis were acutely aware of their own vulnerabilities to their more populous and Shia neighbors, Iran and Iraq. Causing further discomfort was the knowledge that their oil fields were in the region where their Shia minority was the majority. Their need for security outweighed their religious reservations and made them open to Nixon’s petrodollar deal sent in the hands of Henry Kissinger.  In 1974, Kissinger brokered the deal that would keep the Saud family in power and the American dollar the dominant world currency to the present day.

The US commitment was fourfold: we would provide military protection for Saudi Arabia and its oil fields, we would sell the Saudis any weapons they needed (and ultimately, any they wanted), we would guarantee them protection from any other Middle Eastern country, and we would make sure the House of Saud remained in power. In return, the Saudis would sell oil in US dollars only and they would invest their surplus profits in US Treasuries. Regardless of any other sentiments in the region, this alliance more than any other has determined our foreign policy in the Middle East until now.[3]

If you were a prince in the house of Saud looking at how the US has fared in the region in the past fifteen years, you would have to be scratching your head and watching your back. After punishing Iran and holding her at bay for years with our attack dog Saddam, we removed him from power and allowed the Shias to rise to power. And then we mostly vacated the premises and left a vacuum that Iran is gleefully filling. Meanwhile, Syrian rebels – who are a politically fractured group but primarily Sunni – receive encouragement from the US in their attempted oust of Assad, whose Alawite Shia family has been ruling the country with an iron fist for decades, but no intervention serious enough to definitely remove him from power. ISIS is brutal and thuggish, you might think to yourself, but at least they are committed Sunnis killing Shias with as much vigor as they cut off Christian heads. Staring at the long barrel of Iran, where would you put your money?

Yemen may be proof that Saudi Arabia is done with paying to watch us bleed. The successful Shia uprising on their southern flank has them amassing their own troops on the border and flying sorties with their own aircraft. The US is supplying support in the form of refueling planes and signal intelligence; but thus far, no precious American blood. How far will Saudi Arabia go to secure their Sunni hegemony in Dar al Islam against the ascendancy of the Shia Ayatollahs of Iran? Should they decide that rubles may spend just as well as dollars, particularly if Russia should back off of their patronage of Iran, the move would mark the end of the United States reign as a superpower.

[1] A simple note, dear reader, to inform you that there won’t be many more in this post. The subject is vast and I’ve opted for a wide-angle overview. The facts are there for the confirming should one desire to delve deeper.
[2] The original writings of the Quran, sometimes scribbled on palm bark or hastily painted on rocks as Muhammad declared another prophecy, is a story in its own right and worthy of investigation by the curious.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 53.

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My Top Ten Reads of 2013

Over the years, I’ve worked at formulating a personal motto that both encapsulates my passion and propels me forward in life. Thus far, I’ve narrowed it down to three: 1. “Your meetings do more harm than good”[1], 2. “All I want to know is everything”, and 3. “So many books, so little time.” In the spirit of the last two, I offer for your review my top ten reads from last year. I’ve listed them in the order that I read them.

  1. La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. This novel was the one I broke my fiction fast on. I’ve always been an avid reader. But somewhere around 1997, I stopped reading fiction. My mother was in the habit of sending me book store gift cards for my birthday. But in 2007, she decided to send me a book instead. It was The Shadow of the Wind. She said she knew if she sent the gift card, I would just go out and buy another dry science book and she wanted me to enjoy a good read. And so I did. I liked it so much; I went on line and bought it in the original language. Spanish is the first language I learned to read and write. To this day, my comprehension level reading it still exceeds hearing it. This novel is a Gothic tale set in Barcelona of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It revolves around the mysteries of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I re-read the Spanish version again last year in preparation for a Spanish CLEP[2] test. It was my third time through the story and I still found it engrossing.
  2. What Love Is this? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God by Dave Hunt. This is a masterful exposition of Scripture regarding the love of God and the ways in which the Calvinist TULIP stands in contradiction to it. With all due respect to my Reformed brethren, this book is worth your honest investigation. You may find it liberating.
  3. Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by George Church and Ed Regis. Genetic engineering has been an intellectual hobby of mine since 1999 when I began seriously researching the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Many of the articles I read then warned of what was to come in bio-engineering. Much that was theoretical then is old hat now. George Church is very prominent in the GE field. He compares the science used to sequence the human genome to the Stone Age compared to where the science is today. This book reads like science fiction, but it is scientific intent. And it is terrifying. Science may be amoral, but scientists are not. Humans beware!
  4. The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler. The author compiles cutting edge corporate team building techniques and applies them to the family context. He opens with a line from Tolsoy’s Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The author discovered that the way in which all happy families are alike is that they work at it continuously.
  5. El Capitan Alatriste  by Arturo and Carlota Perez-Reverte. I chanced upon a trailer of the film Alatriste starring Viggo Mortensen some years ago. I’ve wanted to see the film ever since, but decided to read the book first. Lucky for me, the movie is based on four books in the series! Thus far, I’ve only read this one but plan to continue on with the rest as time allows. The story revolves around Diego Alatriste, a soldier turned mercenary in 17th century Spain. High adventure and wry humor. Fun, fun read.
  6. How Islam Plans to Change the World by William Wagner. The author documents the recent history and strategies of Islamic evangelism. Having done missions work in Africa, I can attest to many of the methods he describes. The most surprising find in this book was the Baptist author’s appeal to the miraculous in the “Power Encounter” chapter as one asset in the Christian arsenal lacking in Islam. This book is a vital intelligence briefing if you are an evangelical and serious about world missions.
  7. The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield. In 2012, prominent evangelicals endorsed Mitt Romney in his bid for the presidency. The nation has come a long way from sending troops into Utah to stop plural marriage. From the days that Mormon missionaries visited my family when we lived in Spain, I’ve been a student of the religion. Though the author doesn’t shy away from the controversial areas of Mormonism, he primarily focuses on what most Mormons find important in their faith. Highly readable and informative.
  8. The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. I read this shortly after I completed my rounds of chemotherapy and radiation for tongue cancer. Dr. Davis has been in the cancer research field for many years. Her revelations from the trenches will open your eyes to the complexity of this disease and the complicity of government, industry, and the medical community in its continual propagation.
  9. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read this book many years ago. But they finally made the movie and I had to read it again. Card has made a whole franchise from his Ender universe, but for my money, he could have stopped with this one and been fine. I read the three subsequent works in the series in the way back and none of them approached the sheer enjoyment of the first one. It ranks up there as one of my all-time favorite science fiction reads. (Dune tops the list, but Frank Herbert is hard to beat.)
  10. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm is in the rank of one of my top five favorite authors. His insights are brilliant and his writing is exquisite. When I grow up, I want to be able to write like Malcolm Gladwell. Don’t let the title fool you. This isn’t a Bible book. It’s a book about asymmetrical thinking and winning against the odds. For an idea of how insightful Gladwell is (or how thick-headed I am), I’ve been a serious Bible student for thirty-four years. I’ve read, studied, and taught on David’s confrontation with Goliath more times than I can count. I thought I knew the story until I read this book. If you think you know all about this historic encounter, you’re in for a real treat.

I trust you enjoyed this little slice of my library. If any of the titles intrigued you, don’t be shy. Hop out on Amazon or go to your favorite book store (or library) and pick one of them up. You won’t regret it.


[1] Believe it or not, this comes from my chosen “life verse” 1 Corinthians 11:17. From the days of my late teens, it has been a continual reminder to me that gathering together should result in net benefit, not harm.

[2] CLEP – College Level Examination Program. It is a great way to rack up college credits for pennies on the dollar. The tests usually cost around $90. Scoring well on the Spanish test is worth 12 credits. Not bad for a couple of hours in the evening.