The Sunni-Shiite Switch
How two Islamic sects traded places in the American mind.
This is not the first time the United States has become obsessed with an Islamic terrorist menace. For a decade after the Iranian revolution of 1979, Americans had nightmares about militant Muslims. But they were not the same militant Muslims that we fear today.
Ayatollah Khomeini had galvanized Shiite masses—Shiites are a minority sect of Islam who are dominant in
American intelligence experts warned that Shiite training camps in the Iranian mountains were preparing thousands of militants for a holy war against the
The Shiite scare was founded partly on the belief that Shiites were inherently prone to anti-Western violence. American analysts examined Shiite religious practices and asserted that the heart of Shiah Islam was a "not rational," "violently reactionary" "extremism." Fascination with martyrdom supposedly defined Shiites. Their central holiday remembers the martyrdom of Hussein, one of Muhammad's descendents, and some Shiites commemorate by flagellating themselves with whips. A reporter dubbed this "a ceremony that spawns suicide bombers."
Still, Americans could console themselves that not all Islam posed such mortal danger. Shiite extremism was contrasted with dominant Sunni Islam, which was "rational" and "moderate" and valued power and stability. We could deal with Sunnis: Sunni Egypt and
But now, in the American mind, Shiites have become Sunnis, and Sunnis have become Shiites. We say the same things about the zealous Sunni followers of Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban that used to be said about Shiite militants. According to intelligence experts, Bin Laden's training camps in the Afghan mountains have prepared thousands of militants for a holy war against the
As with the Shiite anxiety, there is a belief that this particular kind of fundamentalist Islam is inherently violent. The belligerent Wahhabism of Bin Laden and the Taliban is a "warrior religion," a "steel-tipped Islamic fundamentalism." It, too, celebrates the idea of martyrdom and views violence as "a means of purifying a corrupt world."
Our old Shiite enemies, on the other hand, are now seen as moderates.
(The Sunni-Shiite exchange has even infected Capitol Hill culture. A few years ago, liberals would call Christian conservatives "the Shiite wing of the Republican party." These days, lefties refer to Christian conservatives as "The American Taliban.")
Of course there are still extremist Shiites, and relatively moderate Sunnis still control the biggest Islamic states. But why have Sunnis and Shiites traded places in the American Zeitgeist? Shiites have shed their dreadful American reputation because Shiite extremists really have moderated. The Iranian revolution is 22 years old.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.