11/30/2010 06:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

WikiLeaks Expose Cracks in Islamic Unity

Although WikiLeaks' revelations bring great challenges, they shine new light and hope into American-Muslim relations. In the past, common rhetoric cast the United States as an aggressive imperialist power seeking to mold the Middle East into its image by forcing lesser foreign powers to puppet its will. Now we see "wag the dog" forces attempting to play behind the scenes.

Americans are worried their nation may be drawn into yet another undesired war with a preemptive attack on Iran. We have believed that other Middle Eastern nations except Israel would censure this action. Now we rock in surprise to discover that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim states encourage the United States to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear power.

A boy I knew in childhood used to induce other children to perform risky deeds that he abstained from but that got them into trouble. When the deeds were discovered he would gloat from a position of apparent innocence. Similarly, WikiLeaks exemplify ways that other powers pressure the US to further their ends while distancing themselves from the responsibility of negative consequences.

Over the years I have had many conversations with expatriate Iranians and Arabs who at the same time they fear and decry America's influence in the Middle East, declare that we ought to use force there to clean up Iran, install puppet dictators, or otherwise bring about whatever miracle they want. Such interactions underscore the impression that America is "damned if we do, and damned if we don't" interfere in the Middle East. WikiLeaks now support this impression.

I suspect most Americans are glad with me that we are relying on wisdom other than the desires of our Middle East allies in forestalling invasions for which they reap benefits and we get the bloody hands and blame.

But let's look deeper. Can we understand from where this rift between Muslim nations comes? Why would Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations encourage America to attack Iran? The answer is something which, as I mention in my book The Topkapi Secret, if better understood could have influenced the start and course of American involvement in Iraq: the differences between Muslim sects have significant political consequences.

Political stones are set into the foundation of Islam and its sects. In 9/11 we discovered how the United States is directly affected by these stones. Other stones can indirectly affect us. Awareness of the differences and future view of Islamic sects is paramount in both understanding the Muslim World and in preventing the USA from being inadvertently drawn into furthering sectarian agendas of Islamic states.

The Koran encourages unity amongst Muslims.

And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah and be not divided among yourselves. Koran 3:103

For a group in the minority, such as Muslims were in their early days or as they currently are in the USA, unity is the best way to succeed. In the United States the face of Islam we see is united. Most mosques here are a mixture of races and various sects: a big city mosque on a Friday afternoons brings a fanfare of costumes from around the world and people of all colors. They worship together well, accept the same Koran (the 1924 Cairo edition), and delight in displaying unity to outsiders. This united appearance is so impressive that it assists in recruiting converts to Islam.

Muslims of different nationalities and sects interacting freely is a benefit that America bestows upon them: here they can safely enjoy learning from each other. Just as Europeans who came to America made a fresh start, Muslims here can abandon old rivalries. Only in a few enclaves where the populations of the various factions are high enough do we begin to see factional differences in America.

This superficial unity can mislead Americans in several important ways. We like to simplify, generalize, and think the best. Thus, we are happy to accept that differences between Islamic sects are theological and subsequently inconsequential. The problem comes when this hopeful simplicity is reflected in our international politics. Leaders of Muslim nations are obliged to work within the traditional views and difficult doctrines which continue to divide them.

In the Middle East Sunni-Shiite conflicts have been at the heart of a majority of the battles over the years, and the Arab states current distrust of Iran should be viewed through this lens.

Being on the outside of Islam yet personally close to both Sunnis and Shiites, I try to be objective between them. To me it seems many or most Muslims of both these major sects want to live peacefully, but the obstacles are great.

Shiites and Sunnis differ in several important ways. Both claim the other has false hadiths (traditions regarding Mohammed). Sunnis consider Shiites heretics for believing the blood of Hussein and other saints can intercede for them. Shiites say Sunnis stole leadership of the Muslims from Ali, its rightful hereditary leader, then dreadfully deceived and killed his heirs. Every year as Shiites commemorate their martyrdom at Ashoura they chant traditional poems which revive the animosity saying, "We will never forget, we will never forgive."

In the current setting perhaps the most significant difference between Sunni and Shiite relates to their prophetic views.

All Muslims believe in an end to the world and final judgment. The details of how this comes about, however, are in contention. Most Muslims believe that a leader called the Mahdi will return to judge and bring peace. Some Shiites believe the Mahdi will be a reincarnation or reappearance of a former leader. Such a sect now leads Iran. For it the Mahdi is alive, consultable, and soon to be revealed. This sect will do anything to speed the Mahdi's reappearance - including incite the world chaos to assure the requisite setting.

When one nation wants chaos and war, how can another make peace with it? What a quandary! How do neighboring and declared enemy nations respond to one which does not want peace and openly states its apocalyptic goals? Thus, Iran presents a problem to Sunnis as well as non-Muslims.

Is the outlook sunnier on the Sunni side? A noted Sunni hadith quotes Mohammed predicting the future of Islam,

This nation will be divided into seventy-three religious sects - all in hell, except one, and that one is the one on which I and my companions are today.

Laying aside the accuracy of the prediction (there are about 150 sects of Islam), the fact that it is in three respected collections (Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, and Abu Dawud) means most Sunnis take it as authentic. Such a prediction leads to unsettling questions like: Which sect is the true one? What should be done about the others? and conclusions: Being Muslim alone does not protect me from hell. Not all Muslims are brothers. We can not trust each other. Add to this the admonition to fight against heresy and we explain current Sunni actions in Iraq and beyond.

Sunni bastion Saudi Arabia has a Shiite component in its oil-rich eastern region. One of these Shiites told me personally of going to a Saudi grade school where it was not known she was Shiite, and how she cringed as the teacher indoctrinated the little children to kill all Shiites. This child in the heartland of her faith lived in fear lest they found her out. Within recent months, Saudi Arabian clerics again branded Shiites as heretics.

In light of the WikiLeaks and in view of their relation to Islamic sects, here are my suggestions:
• Middle Eastern countries should open their eyes to see that the United States is not working on an anti-Islamic agenda in Middle East, but rather is cooperating with their leaders, and in fact is showing restraint
• Sunni Saudis may be justified in their distrust of apocalyptic Shiite doctrines, but need to desist from preaching genocide of the "Family of the House (of Mohammed)", as Shiites call themselves, and to stop short of excommunicating Shiites.
• "Twelvers" and other apocalyptic sects should let Allah create world chaos if he wants it, without any assistance from them
• Modern nations need to get over ancient grievances. Shiites must stop singing vengeful songs year after year in commemoration of Ashoura, and other practices which fuel sectarian hatred. What if Americans said every July 4th that they will never forgive the British for attacking us during the Revolutionary War?
• Shiite and Sunni Muslims should do their best to discover the truth individually, but let Allah sort out who is right
• The United States government, non-Muslims and Muslims - anyone seeking to understand the Middle East - need to look deeply into the political implications of the sects involved in the conflicts

Terry Kelhawk
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