Saturday, July 18, 2015

Revolution and Reaction: Have We Seen This Opera Before?

2011: Demonstration in "revolutionary" Iran
Quick: what's the main difference between Shiite and Sunni Islam?

If, like me, you don't really know how to answer that question -- if, like me, you feel like saying, "'Shiite vs. Sunni' isn't really providing any explanatory power for me" -- then you may, like me, have found an article that appeared in yesterday's New York Times provocative.

"WikiLeaks Shows a Saudi Obsession With Iran" (July 17, 2015, by Ben Hubbard and Mayy el Sheikh) describes the far-reaching efforts of the US-backed, Sunni, monarcho-aristocratic, Arab Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to counter the influence of US-shunned, Shiite, "revolutionary," Persian Iran.

While the documents do not show any Saudi support for militant activity, critics argue that the kingdom’s campaign against Shiites — and its promotion of a strict form of Islam — have eroded pluralism in the Muslim world and added to the tensions fueling conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

* * *

Clear in many of the diplomatic messages are Saudi fears of Iranian influence and of the spread of Shiite Islam.

* * *

Other cables detailed worries that Iran sought to turn Tajikistan into “a center to export its religious revolution and to spread its ideology in the region’s countries.”

A World Restored: Metternich,
Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace
1812-22, by Henry Kissinger
As I read it, I suddenly said to myself, "This is like Metternich after the Congress of Vienna."

My mind then spun back nearly 40 years to the time I was a sophomore in college, learning 19th century European history. I was playing desperate catch-up, never having really understood the significance of the French revolutionary army that was turned loose on the rest of Europe after 1789, or what "the ancien regime" really meant, much less the meaning of "reaction" and the search for a "balance of power" after Napoleon was squelched.

It helped that some years later I learned that Henry Kissinger broke into academics with a study of the European reactionary diplomacy after 1812. But I'm still trying to get my mind around it all.

Perhaps I was alert to the parallels between the situation that the Times article alludes to -- which in may ways is the overarching story of the contemporary Mideast -- and the history of 19th century Europe because on Friday I was fresh off an enjoyable evening of watching a broadcast of the Donizetti opera, La fille du régiment. The comedy is set in the Tyrol, where the people are terrified of the (revolutionary) French army that is swarming over them. (I was reminded of the opening of Stendahl's La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma, 1839).  Over the course of several enjoyable hours, I felt encouraged to let my mind range over the bits and pieces of that history that I could remember, and try to make a coherent picture out of it. "Oh yeah," I remembered, "one man's terrifying brute is another man's brave liberator."

Fille du regiment Marie (Natalie Dessay) protects local boy (and lover) Tonio
(Juan Diego Flórez) from her "papas" in the regiment of invading French
soldiers in the Met production of La fille du régiment.

In fact, the arc of the Donizetti comedy is provided by a foundling turning out to be an aristocrat, and her entry into aristocracy trapping her, among other things, in an arranged marriage, the return of the local peasant who is her true love, and, ultimately, her liberty being restored and free choice permitted via the intervention of the revolutionary, populist French soldiers.

Aristocratic engagement party overthrown by French intervention in  La fille du régiment.

So: this led me to wonder about the situation described in the Times article.  It probably is true that Saudi Arabia (Sunni, monarcho-aristocratic, Arab) is pitted against Iran (Shiite, "revolutionary," Persian). (It is even possibly true that this provides a useful interpretive frame for the entire Arab Spring.) Issues that I'd like to understand better include:

* To what degree is this traditional power politics (like France c. 1800 wanting more of the European pie)?

* To what degree is this cultural? (e.g. Arab : Persian :: German : French?)

* To what degree is this ideological? (e.g. revolutionary Iran : monarcho-aristocratic Saudi Arabia :: revolutionary France : Hapsburg Empire?)

* To what degree is this informed by religion? (i.e. Shiite vs. Sunni)

(And that doesn't even begin to get at the role of the US in all this.)

As for region: Shiism -- the version of Islam followed in Iran -- is often described as a more "radical" form of Islam. But is the "radicalism" of the religion what informs ideology and politics? Or the other way around?

One thing is for sure: it all starts to seem a whole lot less exotic and inscrutable when described in parallel to well-known phenomena in Europe.

Discovery continues . . . .

Related posts

I often refer to how important the films of Iran have been in helping me open my mind to the possibilities of a peaceful relationship with that country.  I have been fortunate to be able to go see some of the best films from Iran every year at the wonderful Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. The will be another Festival of Films From Iran showing there in February, 2014.

(See A Force for Peace: Getting to Know Iran Through Film)

I wonder if the outrage that many Muslims seem to feel at the suffering of other Muslims doesn't put us Christians to shame.

(See Fighting Back: It's alright as long as you're a Christian, right? )

There will be no shortage of members of Congress who see this as an opportunity to puff out their chests and wave their arms and insist on continued conflict. It will be the work of the people to insist that the path of peace be followed through.

(See Talk With Somebody About Iran Today. (Maybe a Member of Congress?))