Relations between the Sunni and Shiite blocs in the Middle East appear to have hit a new low with the new (Christian) year after Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, executed a Shiite cleric who had led protests demanding better treatment for the kingdom's Shiite minority. Despite what Wikileaks reports about Nimr al-Nimr's antipathy toward Iran, the Saudis apparently decided that anyone agitating their Shiites was doing the Islamic Republic's work, and the official opinion is that al-Nimr was no mere dissident but an "extremist preacher" illegally inciting violence. And in Iran, the leading Shiite many people took it like one of their own had been murdered. Apparently spontaneous street-level anger was directed at the Saudi embassy in Iran, the government's subsequent angry crackdown indicating that the violent demonstration wasn't something they'd orchestrated. Nevertheless, the boss ayatollah warned that the Saudis would face a "divine revenge" for executing al-Nimr. In reprisal for the embassy attack -- and as my mother used to say, Americans feel for the Saudis, but can't reach -- Saudi Arabia has cut off diplomatic relations with Iran and is encouraging other Sunni states in the Gulf to do likewise. The funny thing is that both Sunnis and Shiites will probably tell you that Islam is the most egalitarian of religions, in that it doesn't discriminate by race. Yet Islam's history from the beginning belies any claim that the religions has any inherently anti-discriminatory quality. Never mind how they treat other religions; Muslims habitually discriminate amongst themselves. That's what al-Nimr was protesting against: in Sunni Saudi Arabia, Shiites reportedly are second-class citizens. In predominantly Shiite Iraq, where a secular Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein lorded undemocratically over the majority, resurgent Shiite arrogance under the U.S.-imposed regime reportedly drove many disgruntled Sunnis into the arms of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
All this over the dead-letter issue of who should rule dar al-Islam in Muhammad's absence, in the absence of indisputable guidance from Muhammad or God on that question. You would think that Sunnis would be the more liberal of the two factions, at least by Islamic standards, because they're the ones whose ancestors believed that Muhammad's successor should be elected, yet the most despotic Muslims today appear to be Sunnis. But that may only prove that Sunnism's more-democratic option never amounted to more than the Leninist notion of democratic centralism, according to which certain people get to debate policy freely and vote on it, but for everyone else obedience is compulsory and unconditional. Meanwhile, Shiism, which asserted a monarchical principle of succession in behalf of Muhammad's cousin Ali, is represented in the Middle East today by an Islamic Republic where elections, if not entirely fair, are at least obviously and often bitterly contested. But as is well known, Islamic republicanism is subject to various vetoes wielded by the top ayatollahs, following Khomeini's theory that the leading religious scholar is the rightful head of state in the absence of the authentic caliphal (or imamic) line of succession. If Iranians take their Shiism seriously, does that mean that they believe that the current grand poobah, Khamenei, is the rightful ruler of the entire Muslim world? Sunnis sometimes act as if that's exactly what all Shiites think, and for all we know that's one reason why the IS has proclaimed a Sunni caliphate for itself, but behind all that, most likely, is pure and simple tribalism of the sort that Islam should have abolished long ago if all Muslims are supposed to be equal. This inability to overcome tribalism on its home ground points to a fundamental weakness of Islam that belies its religion-of-peace claim and limits its appeal worldwide to the completely alienated and disgruntled, and probably self-limits this vaunted missionary religion's own outreach efforts. How can these idiots hope to conquer the world if they can't even conquer each other? Instead, at least at the geopolitical level, if any Muslims do try to conquer the world, the world can probably rely on the other Muslims as allies. They may hate us, but it often seems as if they hate each other even more.