Know your wogs

Update: Ed Brayton has now acknowledged the non-triviality of his original error. Bravo! A gentleman he is.
End Update:

Today, Ed Brayton has post where he comments on an article about Saudi ties to Sunnis in Iraq, etc. The article itself isn't interesting to me really, but what Ed did say about it caught my attention:

That could spark a regional war with the two largest and most powerful Arab nations [Saudi Arabia and Iran], not to mention the world's top 2 oil producers, on opposite sides.

There are some factual issues here. 95% of Iranians are not Arabs. The largest number are Persian, speaking Farsi, an Indo-European language which is more closely related to English than Arabic. The Turkish ambassador in Vienna once offered that the locals (Germans) "spoke Farsi." A large minority of Iranians, including the current Supreme Leader, are ethnic Azeris, a Turkic group which was instumental in the creation of a Shia Iranian state in the 16th century. There are other assorted groups like Kurds, Balouch, Turkomans, and yes, Arabs, to round out the balance. Second, Saudia Arabia is not one of the two largest Arab countries if you define it as population. Egypt is the most populous and culturally most influential Arab state, with Cairo being the New York and London of the Arab world. Even including Saudi Arabia's large non-citizen population (millions and millions), Algeria is more populous.

Two trivial mistakes you say? So sayeth Ed:

Okay, so Iran is Persian, not Arab. That has precisely nothing to do with the substance of this post. And I think Migeulito got it right, if Saudi Arabia gets involved it will likely be by funding Syria and providing diplomatic cover via their ties to the US for their actions.

I was somewhat displeased by this sort of response, so I posted a lengthy comment. Not only did Ed seem to believe that it was a trivial error to assume that Iran was Arab, but he offered up another implausible scenario, the use of Syria as a proxy by Saudi Arabia against the Iraqi Shia and Iran.

Let me explain. To Ed the fact that Iran is not Arab or Arab might seem non-trivial, seeing as how he is focused on the common Shia identity of Iranians and Iraq Shia. But the fact that Iran is not an Arab country is assumed to be very salient by most observers. Some have contended that the Iranian state's hyper-hostility toward Israel is in part posturing in front of the Arab world to prove its bonafides in the great cause of the Arab nations, the dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs. During the Iran-Iraq War the Iraqi army was predominantly Shia in the ranks. During a counter-offensive in the mid-80s the Iranian government assumed that Shia southern Iraq would welcome them as liberators. But it wasn't so, rather, the Shia army and citizenry dug in in Basra and the Iranian army was not able to conquer the city and so proceed toward central Iraq. The assumption here is that despite the Shia fellow feeling on the religious plane, ethnic difference remained which meant that the Iranians could not take their Arab co-religionists for granted. A few years back Moqtada al-Sadr burnished his credentials in part by offering a contrast with the Iranian born ayatollah Ali Sistani, who still speaks Arabic with a Persian accent. These fissures would be totally unpredicted if one assumed that Iran was an Arab nation, because there would be no potential cleavage that one could predict based on language and ethnic identity. In other words, I do think it speaks to the plausibility of the argument Ed is making.

Now, let's move to the second point, the use of Syria as a proxy by Saudi Arabia. Some facts

1) Syria is ruled by the Assad family
2) The Assads, and much of the military elite, are Alawites
3) The Alawites were declared Ithna Ashari Shia in the 1970s by a Lebanese ayatollah, but traditionally their classification as Muslims, let alone Shia, has been somewhat problematic. They practice a religion steeped in mystery which likely exhibits quasi-Christian tendencies, not surprising since Alawites dominate the western regions of Syria where Jacobite Christianity has deep roots
4) Syria is majority Sunni
5) Saudi Arabia is a Salafist state which takes a narrow view of "who is a Muslim?"
6) Syria has long had an alliance with Iran, dating back to the Shah, but solidifying during the Iran-Iraq War

Note that ayatollah Khomeini's standing with Sunni fundamentalists plunged when he was silent about the events of the Hama Massacre, where Syrian Islamists were slaughtered by the Alawite dominated regime. The idea that Saudi Arabia would use Syria as a proxy against Iran is rendered far less plausible (though nothing is impossible) precisely by the structural conditions I note above. On the most recent Mickey Kaus offered the opinion that Syria is a Sunni regime, so why would they cooperate with the Iranians? Mickey should stick to commenting on domestic policy, though Syria is mostly Sunni, it is ruled by notional Shia, and has had a long standing alliance with Iran as I note above. Facts matter in weighting the plausibility of various conclusions.

This is not a limited problem. Today pundits, and bloggers, often speak about things they have imperfect knowledge of. You do it, I do we it, we all do it. A few months ago I commented about Azeris on this blog and Jeff Boulier responded:

Provoking Azeris against Persians (or Persians against Azeris -- look at how they are hogging the best jobs!) may be difficult, but I guess I attach a higher barrier to "implausible" than you do. Kurds and Arabs offer better opportunities.

I'm certainly not a scholar of Azeris, but I do know more than the typical person. Whose ascertainment of a given probability here is more credible, Boulier's or mine? I saw no evidence on that thread that he knew anything about the topic at hand, but that didn't stop him from having an opinion, likely based on his political affiliations. We live in the world of "Opinions differ," even when the disparate opinions are differently informed. I wish Boulier had admitted he didn't know jack about the topic, but that was OK, he was going to support his own political group because that's what he did . A friend of mine was IMing me and asked, "How do we convince people about Iraq?" (the detail of what to convince was irrelevant, we didn't even agree, we were just frustrated by the lack of fruit in discourse on this topic). I responded that it wasn't going to happen through verbal persuasion, we'd have to let the chips fall into place. I've experienced many a time when I have made a historically informed argument (though not scholarly mind you, simply not based on pure opinion) on a foreign policy related issue, and a reader has responded, "I don't know if I agree with that." My only response is that usually one must put the bold on I don't know. Most people don't really know much history or geography, so their heuristics are very rough and imprecise. Their opinions are worthless, on most topics, to anyone but themselves.


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Americans have become incredibly naive in believing that people actually do things for ideas. The press has latched onto the "Shia/Sunni" distinction as an attempt to simplify 1/5 of humanity for your viewing pleasure. Who wants to be bothered with facts and details?

But to be fair to bloggers, mainstream media pundits are no worse. They just back each other up in their gross errors.

I cringe when I hear Iranians called Arabs. I can't believe it when people talk as though the difference between Sunnis and Shia are like those between Prebyterians and Methodists, or between Whabbi and Alawi like Catholics and Baptists.

Our leaders' abysmal (and often willfull) ignorance of the people in the area they invaded surely helped us arrive at the dismal point we are now. Pretending these things don't matter - pretending they don't exist - can only hurt us more.

I thought about this and reversed my position. To us folks who think HBD is interesting, the Arab-Persian difference is significant.

But in terms of what the U.S.&Co's underlying (and only partially explicit) attitude in the war effort, it is a trivial difference. Why? Because it's all about blowing up those brownish Others east of Europe. Who cares what they call themselves?

Brayton might acknowledge he made an error, but he most likely feels it is a "technical" error, not really meaningful for any of his arguments. (Not to jump on Brayton - he's just expressing a ubiquitous set of attitudes).

I often hear the Sunni/Shia conflict analogized to the Catholic/Protestant conflict, esp as manifested in Northern Ireland. Would you say this is valid or not? Why? I honestly don't understand these intramural conflicts very well, so this is a genuine request for clarification.

It's a good analogy. In Northern Ireland, the Protestants are the top dogs, imported by the English to "colonize" Ireland. Purpose: Divide and Rule.

In the region between the Mediterranean and Afganistan, the Sunnis are the conquerors, the Shias, the conquered.

i think the analogy is coarse. it tells you there are sectarian divisions, but that is about it. e.g.,

In the region between the Mediterranean and Afganistan, the Sunnis are the conquerors, the Shias, the conquered.

not in iran, where the shia safavids forcibly converted the sunni populace in the 16th and 17th century. or in the case of the shia fatimids, who dominated sunni populations in egypt for several centuries.

a big diff. is that shia vs. sunni is a chasm that emerged early on in islam. in contrast, protestant vs. catholic is a relatively recent development in western christianity.

Harvey Miller: in Northern Ireland, the Protestants are EQUAL CITIZENS with their Catholic, Atheist, etc. fellow citizens.

Furthermore, English settlement in Ireland was around Dublin. Northern Ireland was settled by Scots, hence their description as "Ulster Scots" and their allegiance to the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

Needless to say, there has also been plenty of Irish immigration to the UK mainland (i.e. in the opposite direction) as well.

So please keep your ignorance of history and attendant anti-English bigotry to yourself.

By David B. Wildgoose (not verified) on 04 Dec 2006 #permalink

Hey, I'd forgotten about this!

Anyway, when I posted, I was thinking of this set of events:

"Iranian police arrested 54 people after riots over a newspaper cartoon which provoked angry protests in the large ethnic Azeri community, a legal source said Tuesday."

wish Boulier had admitted he didn't know jack about the topic, but that was OK, he was going to support his own political group because that's what he did

I flatter myself by thinking I know slightly more than jack. Some family history ties into Iran, so I try to keep abreast of what is happening there.

That doesn't, of course, mean that my opinions are not warped by my priors. I think my opinion is less likely shaped by tribal identification with my political group but, well, my beliefs about the willingness of people to engage in tribal behavior.

That doesn't, of course, mean that my opinions are not warped by my priors. I think my opinion is less likely shaped by tribal identification with my political group but, well, my beliefs about the willingness of people to engage in tribal behavior.

the "tribalism" in iran and central asia is complex. ethnic identities are very fluid. in iran religious identity as shia is the glue and central touchstone traditionally. do you think that the current islamist regime would have changed that??? (in fact, they've de-emphasized persian nationalism and cultural holidays)