Middle East beliefs are distinct, unique - and should not be blurred together

The debate on funding the war in Iraq seems to have quieted for now but promises to return in September, when Gen. David Petraeus delivers his progress report. Politicians will again expound, with fingers on the public pulse. Many will speak in e...

The debate on funding the war in Iraq seems to have quieted for now but promises to return in September, when Gen. David Petraeus delivers his progress report. Politicians will again expound, with fingers on the public pulse. Many will speak in expediently imprecise generalities. Watch for pronouncements that continue to echo the disproved link between Sept. 11 and Iraq and that conflate all militant groups simply as "the terrorists."

In a May debate among Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney declared "They want to bring down the West, particularly us, and they've come together as Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, with that intent." While this may be the most egregious of several ill-informed comments made at that Republican event, Democrats are also prone the language of subterfuge.

"Shia and Sunni" represent sects within Islam, not militant groups. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is Sunni. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is Shiite. Hezbollah and Hamas participate in elected governments in Lebanon and Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood long predates the era of American involvement in the Middle East. Although outlawed in Egypt, its members participate as independents in Egyptian pseudo-elections. Al-Qaeda is Sunni. Shiite Iran helped with intelligence and diplomacy after Sept. 11 to expel archenemy al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

These groups are not monolithic, but arise from diverse support bases, social environments and sectarian traditions. They have goals that are diverse, locally driven and sometimes in mutual opposition. Let's have a closer look.

Unlike Afghanistan and Pakistan, few al-Qaeda fighters operate in Iraq. Those who do migrated there only during the chaos following the U.S. invasion. Ruthless tyrant that he was, Saddam Hussein was a secular socialist. Bin Laden is a religious fundamentalist. It is Middle Eastern regimes like Saddam's that bin Laden has vowed to overthrow.


Hezbollah, with its military wing, is a Lebanese Shiite political party with representation in parliament. It formed in response to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and subsequent occupation. It has no agenda to attack the U.S. Its interests are contrary to ours mainly with respect to our close alliance with Israel. Hezbollah has built support among Lebanese Shiites by providing social services and health care for a population long ignored by the Lebanese government.

The formation of Hezbollah was energized by Iraqi Shiite resistance groups opposing Saddam. Current Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, in Iranian exile during the Saddam era, was influential in the creation of Hezbollah.

Hamas, a distinctly Palestinian group with no international agenda, is seen by supporters as a force defending Palestinians from Israeli military occupation.

Its short-term aim is to free the occupied territories from Israeli forces, with a long-term dream of an Islamic state in historic Palestine. Like Hezbollah, Hamas has not threatened the U.S. For better or worse, it forms a democratically elected government within the Palestinian Authority.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, advocates reorganization of Muslim societies and government according to Islamic doctrine, rejecting westernization and secularization. Although it radically opposes U.S. hegemony in Muslim lands, the Muslim Brotherhood will not "follow us home." Neither will Hamas or Hezbollah. They're not necessarily nice guys, but their focus is local.

There are two other groups of interest that Romney failed to mention, which might have revealed a touch of hypocrisy if he did. The Mujahideen-e-Khalq is an Iraq-based Iranian group from the Saddam era devoted to fighting Iran's theocratic regime (CNN, April 6). Officially, both the U.S. and Iran label it a terrorist group, but the U.S. is using the group to undermine the Iranian government.

The Pakistani group Jundullah also mounts terrorist raids inside Iran. Secretly encouraged and advised by American government agents (ABC News, April 3), the group claims responsibility for deaths and kidnappings of Iranian soldiers and officials. The U.S. provides no funding to Jundullah, thus eluding congressional oversight.

Yes, the U.S. homeland is vulnerable to people inspired by bin Laden, as is the American presence overseas. But beware of politicians offering simplistic explanations.


At best, they display ignorance of the complexities involved.

At worst, they are indeed informed but assume that we are not patient enough to listen or intelligent enough to understand.

The politics of fear and expedient slogans is past. We need to hold our elected officials, both Republicans and Democrats, to a higher standard of accountability and honesty.

Otherwise, we allow ourselves to be misled regarding the direction of policy and to be denied the ability to make informed choices. This ultimately undermines our democratic process.

Paul Martin of Superior has spent more than 30 years working in international business and education, including 5 years residing and working in the Middle East.

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