Her name was Fatima, and she was
her father's favorite. When she was to
marry, her father, the Prophet Muhammad, chose to be her husband his young
cousin, who had fought by him, slept in
his bed in time of danger, and who was
probably the first man ever to make the
Islamic declaration of faith.
The Prophet's new son-in-law Ali ibn Abu Talib, was a pious man who challenged Uthman for the position of third caliph, on the grounds that their religion was moving away from tradition. Uthman was chosen, but Bedouin sol- diers, who were part of Uthman's great military expansion, soon became dissat- isfied with their allotment of land and money, turned against him.
Their group, which included son of the first caliph, surrounded Uthman in the town of Medina, and killed him. Ali, who was not a conspirator, but sympa- thetic to their cause, was chosen to be the new caliph.
He was soon accused of complicity in the killing by Muawiyah, governor of Syria and relative to Uthman. Their two armies met in battle along the Euphrates river. Muawiyah, on the verge of defeat, proposed that the battle be decided by judges, who were empowered to rule that Ali had been a just executioner and that Uthman had deserved killing.
Instead of letting the outcome of the battle reveal the judgment of God, as his followers wished, Ali agreed to the arbitration. However, when the judgment went against him, Ali rejected it. Unfortunately, he had already alienated many of his own followers, who deserted him. Enraged, Ali had many of them put to death.
This dispute settled down to a centuries-long division between the Shiat Ali, whom we know as the Shiites, and Muawiyah's Ahl as Sunna, or the Sunnis. Both Muslim, the Shiites are the opponents of privilege and power, free to act and face divine justice. The Sunnis are conservators of orthodoxy, fatalistic agents of the will and destiny of God on Earth.
Why do I relate this? Well, I suppose it is because I believe that this story,in the context of the Middle East, is every bit as timely and relevant as the war, which I pray will be over by the time you read this.
In that part of the world, every new event is simply appended on to a fourteen century long tale of struggle and conquest. In that part of the world, the events of tomorrow might very well be determined by an injustice suffered a thousand years in the past.
And yet, it will soon be incumbent upon us to establish a lasting peace be- tween ourselves and a people that we barely understand. I am reminded of an address written 74 years ago today by then President Thomas Woodrow Wil- son. It concerned the same problem.
"The question upon which the whole future peace and policy of the world depends is this: Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure peace, or only for a new valence of power? If it be only a struggle for a new valence of power, who will guarantee the stable equilibrium of the new arrangement...
There roust be, not a valence of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.
[We must seek] "a peace without vic- tory. It is not pleasant to say this... I am seeking only to face realities, and to face them without soft concealments. Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor's terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a . resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not perma- nently, but only as upon quicksand. Only a peace between equals can last. Only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit...
"The equality of nations upon which peace must be founded if it is to last must be an equality of rights; the guaran- tees exchanged must neither recognize or imply a difference between big nations and small, between those that are powerful and those who are weak. Right must be based on the common strength, not the individual strength, of the na- tions upon whose concert the peace will depend... (Countries cannot all have equal territories and resources)... But no one asks or expects anything more than an equality of rights. Mankind is looking now for freedom of life, not .for equipoises of power."
Within weeks we must begin to re-establish an equality of rights and a common strength. We. have never appreciated the breadth and depth of feeling that exists about issues like the Palestinian problem. Yet, by the act of engaging Iraq in battle, we have probably committed ourselves to their solution. We face the same dilemma as did the Ottomans, who bolstered the Sunnis in Iraq to prevent the Safavid Shiites from over-running Asia Minor, and who were consumed in the conflict We must face the fact that the Gulf region may be locked forever in the customs of antiquity, reliving, like faded athletes, the battles and intrigues of the fifth century. Their governments derive their strength not just from the consent of the governed, but their unquestioning and often single- minded devotion.
We cannot expect that they will ever adopt those truths that we hold to be self evident. They have their own truths. In comparison to the Sunnis, Shiites have established rules of law that favor women. We must finally comprehend that it is not because they understand the inalienable rights of equal citizens, but because they act out of regard for Fatima, the lovely daughter who was her father's favorite.