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Common Cents

Zero Sum

Ralph Murphy

(9/2013) The current violence in the Middle East is not new, but today's shifting alliances, clash of ideologies and resulting violence is less predictable. It reminds me of what game theorists and economists call a "zero sum game" where someone has to lose for another to win.

The Muslim world is dominated by two major denominations - the Shia and the Sunni. Both adhere to the Quran - the Islamic holy book and are expected to live by the "five pillars of Islam". The Five Pillars include the obligation of its followers regarding faith, prayer, giving of alms, fasting, and a pilgrimage to Mecca for those who are able. At that point the two Muslim denominations diverge. The prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD and his teachings were succeeded by those of his wife's father (the Sunni preference), or Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law (the Shiite preference). There were wars shortly after the prophet's death over who was the real "Caliph" or religious leader, and they have continued to the present day.

It is difficult to give an exact percentage break down, but there are far more Sunni's than Shiites. The Sunnis constitute 80 to 90 percent of the modern, Muslim population worldwide. The Shiites are more numerous in The Islamic Nation of Iran, The Islamic Nation of Iraq, and Bahrain. Lebanon could be as high as 55 percent Shiite.

Before 9/11 the Shiites were considered predictably more militant. For example, taking American diplomats hostage in Iran; blowing up embassies in Lebanon through proxies, and generally fueling discord. Sunni- Al-Qaeda's terrorist successes at home and worldwide broadened the range of violence, to include distant, Western targets.

Islamists promote an ideology where "Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life." The movement promotes Sharia Law - a strict doctrine that demands legal punishment to include amputation of limbs for any theft- and stoning for adultery. Shiite- Iran as well as Sunni- Saudi Arabia have incorporated this standard into their legal structures. It is part of the Islamist packages associated with many of the Arab Spring successes in recent years. Sharia law enforces a socio-economic structure which delves deeply into politics, moral behavior, and even hygiene and diet. It is legitimized by quoting the Quran and by citing the verbal communications of the prophet Muhammad and his followers. The Quran allows its followers to take "three or four" wives if they so choose, but also concedes that a man can settle down with "just one" wife if he prefers. A positive option for a generally, monogamous people. It also avoids a lot of frustration and jealousy.

Monarchs in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco are concerned about the internal opposition fomented by the Islamists, and the movement is almost spontaneous, with a successful democracy rare in the Muslim world. Little pan-Arab institutionalization exists except for the Muslim Brotherhood that was formed in 1928.

One thing most Muslims agree upon is the right for the creation of a state of Palestine. This is a view that is shared by many Western peoples as well, and is even promoted by Israeli President Shimon Peres who is now in his nineties. The main obstacles to this new state are the Israeli settlements on the West Bank. A contentious issue that the Clinton Administration's, Secretary of State, Madeline Albright tried to finesse with the promise of their removal in exchange for peace and Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is a holy site to Christians, Muslims, and the Jewish people. However, PLO leader Yasser Arafat balked and the deal fell apart. At the time Albright claimed that was the best deal the Palestinians were ever going to get. While subsequent events haven't proven her wrong, the two- nation objective still hinges on a deal in that portion of the "Old City".

East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in the 1967 conflict, and at the time was mostly populated by Arabs. It contained the "Second Temple", a religious site where Jesus was said to have ousted the money changers, leading to animosity among the affected Jews shortly before his crucifixion. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Western Wall at the western base of the "Temple Mount" remains a sacred place of worship for Jews. Once a wall that surrounded the Jewish temple's courtyard, it is now an area of continuity with their past. The mount itself is also sacred to the Arabs as the point where Muhammad was said to have ascended to Heaven. The "Dome of the Rock" is revered as his actual departure point.

There is currently a Mosque on the Al Aqsa ("Noble Sanctuary") site and the Israelis have plans to erect a "Third Temple" there, depending on ongoing, diplomatic negotiations and related, regional turmoil. Perhaps a church, a mosque, and a temple could all be squeezed into the area, but without East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine - peace is unlikely in the near term.

Israel is rumored to be a nuclear power - something they refuse to confirm. This makes an Arab invasion unlikely as none of the Arab nations could respond in kind. The Israelis also took in about a million Soviet Jews prior to and after the collapse of the USSR. This drove up housing prices and led to recent unrest in the area. The West Bank appears a convenient place for new housing, but this would come at the expense of long term instability.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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