June 26, 2013 · 8:47 pm
When Americans think of extremism, they conjure up ideas like the Jehovah Witness group going from house-to-house pushing their Watchtower magazines. A Mormon missionary riding a bicycles down the street wearing a white shirt and black tie with pants to match might come to mind. In the world of politics, the Left wing points to the Tea-Party types as the extremist while the Ann Coulter’s of the right point in the other direction. Depending on your viewpoint, you either like or dislike these groups. But you aren’t waiting in the bushes to shoot one of them if they come by your house.
Extremism in the Middle East is an entirely different breed of cat. Shiites and Sunni are still killing each other over a difference of opinion about a successor to Mohammed that happened way over a thousand years ago. Westerns cannot make sense out of such hostilities.
Some years ago, I was in Jerusalem and had gone up to the Temple Mount. Near the Al-Aska Mosque was a large fountain used by Muslims to wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque. I was looking into the reflection pool when a Muslim man approached me and warned me to get out. I told him that I had as much right to be there as he did. My answer nearly got me assaulted and possibly killed. What I will always remember was the fierce, grazed look in his eyes. This “true believer” was ready to attack the infidel who had wandered across some imaginary line.
Can you imagine a Baptist in America threatening a Presbyterian for picking up a hymnal in one of their churches?
However, here’s how it is playing in Iraq today. Last week a suicide bomber killed 23 people inside a Shiite mosque during evening prayers. Looking like the rest of the worshippers, the suicide bomber simply sat down in the midst of the crowd and blew himself up. Since the beginning of April, more than 2,000 Iraqis have been killed in extremists attacks. These massacres have been the most sustained violence in Iraqi since 2008. What’s it all about? Just religious differences between the Shiites and Sunnis!
In the village of Sabaa al-Bour a suicide bomber in a Shiite mosque killed 14 people and wounded 32 others. Moreover, police officers are often the targets of these attacks. Not only driving explosive laden vehicles into police stations, the extremists often attack checkpoints.
The Al Qaeda followers in Iraq often assault the Shiite-led government in an attempt to undermine public confidence in this element.
The point? Americans paid no attention to this highly destructive factor and the meaning of religious extremism in their various forays in the Middle East. As we erred in Vietnam by not assessing how the natives thoughts, we have made the same error in the Middle East. To avoid these terrible clashes, we need experts to explore the mindset of the locals and how various groups differ.
We must not underestimate the potential of extremism to produce destruction.
June 22, 2013 · 10:42 pm
Much to the surprise of most of the world, cleric Hassan Rowhani won the election and become the new president of Iran. easily out pacing his opposition. While Rowhani received nearly 51% of the vote, his nearest opponent the mayor of Tehran brought in only 18 percents. The greatest surprise is that moderate Rowhani represents a striking repudiation of the the ultraconservatives who have held power in the country. In contrast to the mullahs who actually run the country, Rowhani advocated greater personal freedom and a more reconciliatory approach to international opposition. His election by the people indicates that a vast majority of Iranian voters are tired of the endless confrontations that Ahmadinejad’s term produced.
Of course, in the final analysis the mullahs actually run the country. Ayatollah Khamenei thumbed through a list of candidates who applied to run for president and only selected the final four who were allowed to campaign. Regardless of his hard-line positions on such matters as nuclear armament, the election results will pressure Khamenei to give second thoughts to some of his intransigence. Westerners only get hints about the power struggles that go on behind the scenes in Iran. However, it became clear that Ahmadinejad had gotten crossways with the Ayatollah as he pressed for a more powerful position in the government.
During the reign of reformer Mohammed Khatan, Rowhani had been the lead nuclear negotiator. Of course with his more moderate position, his election raises hopes for a shift in the unyielding position the government has maintained for the pursuit of nuclear capacity. While it is unlikely that there will be an immediate shift, Rowhani does point toward a new path. During the Khatami era, Iran froze its nuclear program and promoted dialogue with the West. Currently the country is struggling under international isolation and seen as being religious reactionary. If Rowhani can change this direction, it would indeed be received as good news across the world.
During the campaign, Hassan Rowhani said, “Let’s end extremism … We have no other option than moderation.” In addition, he opposed the hated morality police who could arrest women for not having their heads covered in the manner the mullahs demanded. Besides favoring the lifting of restrictions on the internet, he supported freeing politial prisoners.
Two-thirds of Iran’s 70 million population are under 35. Rowhani partiularly connected with this younger group. Hard-liners had tried to mold the opinions of the young through internet restrictions and similar harsh measures, but it has not worked. Often American policy toward Iran has been aimed at finding support in this younger group. Rowhani’s election could open the door to a relaxation of tensions that would be good for the entire region.
If Rowhani can reverse the harsh threats Ahmadinejad made against Israel, Iran’s feature will immediately become brighter. Such a shift could actually be a literal life-saver for the region. Let’s hope the new president proves to be a new day.