At Large

The War at Home

Ancient tribal rift comes to America.

By 10.5.07

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Our nation has been blessed in many respects -- not least in its ability to assimilate so many bickering nationalities and faiths into a new people as if cut from whole cloth. While some multiculturalists may regard the melting pot as (in Philip Gleason's words) "some sort of waspish cauldron, which cannibalistically devoured the immigrant's past and his ethnic identity," it has nonetheless enabled people of various sects, tribes, clans, and ethnic groups -- or their children anyway -- to progress from clubbing each other over the proper way to dunk a convert in a creek, to clubbing each other over a parking space.

The Jamestown settlers, the Puritans, Quakers and Dutch Calvinists who established the 13 Colonies brought with them a desire for economic gain and religious freedom, but also their Old World prejudices. Protestant Europe's contempt and distrust of the Catholic and the Jew thrived for decades on American soil, though it would dissipate here faster and more completely than elsewhere. Martin Scorsese' Gangs of New York is a reminder how the Irish Catholic had to fight his way, tooth and nail, to gain respect and equality. And even the whores of HBO's Deadwood will not endure the presence of a Chinaman.

With the increase in Hispanic immigrants the morality of the melting pot has been hotly debated, with those defending the tradition labeled nativists or likened to Klansmen and Know-Nothings. Hispanics, however, have arrived without sectarian and ethnic baggage, and for the most part blend in well with their Anglo neighbors. Indeed, with the exception of the intermittent race riot, stoked by some perceived injustice to some minority group, America has been blissfully free of sectarian and ethnic violence.

That may be about to change. The nearly fourteen-century-long brawl between Sunnis and Shiites has begun to spread to the U.S., particularly to college campuses and Muslim enclaves like Dearborn, Mich. At present there are 2.5 million Muslims in the U.S. (two-thirds of whom were born overseas), and some of these newcomers seem to have packed their religious and tribal hatreds in their luggage next to their Koran and tighty-whities.

"You have people who recently arrived from other places where things may have gotten out of hand," Sheik Hamza Yusuf, the U.S.-born co-founder of the nation's first Muslim seminary, told USA Today. "It takes just one deranged person with a cousin back home who died in a suicide bombing to create trouble here."

The problem is more serious than the simple refusal of some Sunnis and Shiites to pray together or the usual tiffs over who leads prayers. Rather it is about legitimacy and heresy, and is stoked by the war in Iraq and by a fundamentalist Wahhabist form of Sunni Islam imported from and funded by Saudi Arabia.

As radical Islam watcher Stephen Schwartz reported in Frontpage.com, "the Islamic Society of Rutgers University has established a little Saudi Arabia on the Rutgers campuses, in which Muslims are required to abide by the authoritarian whims characteristic of Wahhabi governance." The International Herald Tribune this year reported that in numerous universities Shiite students, banned from leading prayers, have broken away from the Sunni-dominated Muslim Student Association to form their own groups. It is worse in the prison system -- both state and federal -- where Muslim clerics are exclusively Wahhabis and routinely victimizing Shiites, writes Schwartz.

Recently groups encouraging Islamic divisions, like the ironically named Islamic Thinkers Society, have gone on the offensive, distributing leaflets in major cities that urge their Sunni brothers not to traffic with Shiites. Meanwhile Shiites have founded their own national lobbying groups, the result of national organizations like Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American Islamic Relations being slow or reluctant to criticize Sunni verbal and physical attacks.

THE SECTARIAN DISDAIN cuts both ways. In Sunni enclaves like Dearborn, Shiites purposely angered the majority Sunni population by celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein, a dictator whose official policy was to marginalize and occasionally torture and kill Shiites. In January, following Saddam's hanging, four Shiite mosques were vandalized, and a dozen Shiite shops vandalized, doubtless by pro-Saddam Sunnis.

Islamic organizations are adept at telling the media what it wants to hear, and what it wants to hear is that Muslims have created teams of religious leaders aimed at fostering "understanding" between sects. However, understanding is not the problem. Sunnis and Shiites understand each other all too well. The problem -- which goes back to the 7th century -- is one of intolerance and centuries of tit-for-tat reprisals. It is a battle that has been ongoing since Mohammed's passing, and erupts anew wherever Sunni bumps up against Shiite.

Muslim spokesmen like CAIR's Ibrahim Hooper can always be counted on to show up on CNN calling for a form of "Big Tent Islam" that "encourages dialog," while launching "peace initiatives," etc., etc., designed to give the non-Muslim audience a sense that positive change is in the air. Nothing, though, is ever mentioned about assimilation, nor about following the example of the Christian infidels who -- even in today's Northern Ireland -- manage to get along. Meanwhile, if you cannot count on college kids to endorse peace and dialog, your prospects are bleak indeed. "Shiite students [at the University of Michigan] set up a forum for all Muslims to discuss their differences, but no Sunnis who had endorsed the e-mail message...showed up, and the group eventually disbanded," reported the Herald Tribune.

Pollyannas note that increasing numbers of American Protestants are discarding their traditional Methodist, Baptist, or Lutheran affiliations and joining popular non-denominational churches. Therefore, the supposition goes, it is reasonable to predict that American Muslims will likewise trade Sunni or Shiite Islam for a generic, non-sectarian Church of Islam. If so -- and if the multiculturalists do not object -- it will be something more than another American melting pot success story. It will be a miracle.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.