How could it be that Danish cartoons of Muhammad led to mass violent protests, while unspeakable violence by Muslims against Muslims in Iraq every day evokes about as much reaction in the Arab-Muslim world as the weather report? Where is the Muslim Martin Luther King? [bold mine-DL] Where is the “Million Muslim March” under the banner: “No Shiites, No Sunnis: We are all children of the Prophet Muhammad.” ~Thomas Friedman

There are so many moments when Friedman’s commentary causes pained grimaces or hysterical laughter that it is hard to know if this is the most foolish thing he has ever written.  Why do the Friedmans of the world write columns that pose what should be absurd rhetorical questions as if they were earnest inquiries after truth?  How could it be that the Danish cartoons provoked more outrage?  Well, for starters, the campaign against the cartoons was not spontaneous, it had been organised over the course of many months (adding three additional, far more insulting cartoons to the twelve originals) and the outrage, to the extent that it wasn’t entirely ginned up by demagogues, focused on what these people considered a grave insult to the man they regard as the most virtuous and noble in history.  Plus, it was an occasion to dictate Islamic norms to Westerners in a demonstration of their presumed superiority.  Their view of Muhammad is deeply wrong and their presumption to dictate our behaviour ludicrous, but that is why they responded more vehemently. 

Why would they respond with great outrage about a relative few Sunnis and Shias killing each other?  For both sides, they might respond by saying: what else is new?  In Shia historical memory, Sunnism is identified with the people who caused the death of ‘Ali and with Karbala and the martyrdom of his son, Husayn.  Husayn was literally a direct descendant of Muhammad through his mother, Fatima, and a legal heir through Muhammad’s adopted son.  Down across the centuries sayyids (those who are accepted as descended from Muhammad through the male line) have been typically respected in both sects because everyone acknowledged that not all Muslims were “children of Muhammad.”  Therefore, appealing to Muslims to stop killing one another on the basis of some mythical shared descent from Muhammad (even assuming that those engaged in the violence do not accuse members of the opposing sect through the process of takfir) would be to rub salt in the wound of Shias and uncomfortably remind the Sunnis of Shia claims to authority (which the appeal would probably also effectively endorse).  

Perhaps in his flight of fantasy in which a Muslim MLK gives his “I have a fatwa” speech of reconciliation and brotherhood, Friedman was using children metaphorically.  You have to hope that he was.  Even so, in using this metaphor he accidentally stumbles into one of the long-running causes of opposition between the sects, and thus unknowingly answers his own question about the relative indifference to the violence (since each side will undoubtedly lament its own dead, but not that those killing and being killed are fellow Muslims).  At the same time, he unwittingly invokes the remembered past of suffering and repression that feeds modern Shia attitudes (reinforced by more recent repression at the hands of Sunni authorities) in the unintended allusion to the violent deaths of the first two Imams at the hands of Sunnis.

A separate query: if many Western liberals insist that the Islamic world is in need of an Enlightenment of its own, and these same people consider such an Enlightenment vital to the future moderation of Islam (which assumes, I think erroneously, that Islam’s experience with such a phase would yield results similar to the European Enlightenment with respect to the eventual establishment of religious toleration, pluralism, etc.), and if these same people also believe that our Enlightenment was possible only in the wake of the destruction and disillusionment caused by the “long” century of the Religious Wars (1525-1648), should they not rather cynically welcome Sunni-Shia carnage as their hoped-for vehicle of introducing religious disenchantment into the Islamic world? 

I don’t say that these developments are desirable, nor do I think much of large parts of our Enlightenment (so I would hardly want to inflict such a thing on anyone else), but for the people, like Friedman, who prattle on about liberalisation and reform within Islam and dream of future fantastical Muslim MLKs, it seems to me that they ought to embrace the Muslim-on-Muslim bloodletting, to borrow from our famous “student of history” Secretary Rice, as necessary and the “birth pangs of a new Islamic world.”  That this would reveal the full madness of the drive to “fix” the Islamic world according to our lights, which Westerners will never accomplish, is probably why they hold back from the very logical conclusion of their arguments for liberalisation and reform.  That it would demonstrate the ultimate futility of all attempts at introducing or encouraging reform and liberalising elements would weigh heavily on the minds of the Friedmans, assuming they gave much thought to their false premises.