“Whoever took religion seriously?”

[ cross-posted from the DIME/PMESII boards at LinkedIn and Zenpundit ]

I’ve been hammering away at the importance of a nuanced understanding of religious drivers in successful modeling of our world, and today I ran across some paragraphs from a book by Gary Sick that explain, forcefully and briefly, just why this seems like a big deal to me.


Sick, who was the National Security Council’s point man on Iran at the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini‘s Iranian Revolution, recounts how totally unprepared we were for the sudden emergence of a theocracy in his book, All Fall Down:

Vision is influenced by expectations, and perceptions — especially in politics — are colored by the models and analogies all of us carry in our heads. Unfortunately, there were no relevant models in Western political tradition to explain what we were seeing in Iran during the revolution. This contradiction between expectation and reality was so profound and so persistent that it interfered fundamentally with the normal processes of observation and analysis on which all of us instinctively rely.
On one level, it helps to explain why the early-warning functions of all existing intelligence systems — from SAVAK to Mossad to the CIA — failed so utterly in the Iranian case. Certainly, US intelligence capability to track the shah’s domestic opposition had been allowed to deteriorate almost to the vanishing point. But even if it had not, it would probably have looked in the wrong place. Only in retrospect is it obvious that a good intelligence organization should have focused its attention on the religious schools, the mosques and the recorded sermons of an aged religious leader who had been living in exile for fourteen years. As one State Department official remarked in some exasperation after the revolution, “Whoever took religion seriously?”
Even after it became clear that the revolution was gaining momentum and that the movement was being organized through the mosques in the name of Khomeini, observers of all stripes assumed that the purely religious forces were merely a means to the end of ousting the shah and that their political role would be severely limited in the political environment following the shah’s departure, The mosque, it was believed, would serve as the transmission belt of the revolution, but its political importance would quickly wane once its initial objectives had been achieved.


The blissful ignorance didn’t end back there in 1979. Right at the end of 2006, reporter Jeff Stein asked Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Dem, TX), the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee (which has oversight of the entire US Intelligence Community) whether Al-Qaida was Sunni or Shiite – noting in two asides, “Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East” and “To me, it’s like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who’s on what side?”

Reyes guessed wrong – not good – and so did a lot of other senior people in the FBI, Congress and so forth. Understandable perhaps, but still, not good.

The popular media keep many of the rest of us confused, too. Glenn Beck has been misinformed by the Christian thriller writer Joel Rosenberg, and refers to the “Twelvers” when he means the “Anjoman-e Hojjatieh” -which, to extend Stein’s point, is the equivalent of saying “Catholic Church” when you mean “Legionnaires of Christ”.


Okay, we know that religion has something to do with all this Iran – and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq, and Yemen, and Somalia, and Nigeria — and maybe even homegrown — mess. And I agree, other people’s religions really aren’t our business normally, and it’s not surprising if we don’t know much about them.

Except, I’d say, when religions take up the sword, or have significant power to influence decisions about the use of nuclear weapons — at which point it’s appropriate to get up to speed…

12 thoughts on ““Whoever took religion seriously?””

  1. This is why I enjoy reading Indian security and intelligence blogs. Not that they are necessarily better analysts but they do have a cultural and religious framework which Americans lack. This helps when analyzing their neighbor to the West. I particularly like the interplay of religion, post colonial feelings, shared histories and rivalries that show up in the analysis.

    An example is a recent British jihadi that supposedly had a Hindu name. All the native speakers immediately picked up that the name didn’t make “sense” culturally. Others missed it.

    Human beings are complicated creatures. Damn complicated. I suppose a good analyst must attack a problem from every angle possible.

    – Madhu

  2. I had a distant cousin, dead now, who was involved in the shenanigans attendant to installing the Shah. As a boy, I sat on the front porch of a frame house in east Texas, under a yellow bug light, listening to him and Dad’s circle of friends discuss the matter, punctuated by the soosh of church keys opening cans of Pearl beer; this would’ve been summer of ’54.

    Dad summarized it: “It won’t last. They didn’t pay enough attention to the religious people.” It would appear that things haven’t changed much in half a century.


  3. The one thing that surprised me at the time was I figured the Commnists were using Khomenei as a club against the Shah, and would quickly turn on him and his followers and bring Iran into the Soviet. So I was pleasantly surprised when Khomenei did unto the Communists what Communists usually did to their “popular front” allies: he turned on them and slaughtered them. I recall thinking at the time (1) serves them right, and (2) this is something new that does not fit the Cold War framework.

  4. From the post:

    Right at the end of 2006, reporter Jeff Stein asked Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Dem, TX), the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee (which has oversight of the entire US Intelligence Community) whether Al-Qaida was Sunni or Shiite –

    What bugs me is that this is a trick question. Al Qaeda is nominally Sunni and has been funded by Sunni countries in the past, but during the Iraq campaign Iran supplied a lot of money and resources to both the nominally Sunni Al Qaeda in Iraq and to nominally Shia groups that were fighting them. And has been sending resources to nominally Sunni groups fighting the Americans in Afghanistan. Also, although they’ve gotten money from the Saudis in the past, AQ is officially dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi government, which is generally thought of as Sunni.

    It doesn’t _work_ like the conflict in Northern Ireland does.

    And if you stop to think try to formulate a description of this very complex situation, it’s indistinguishable from someone who doesn’t know or is trying to cover up that they don’t know.

  5. Phil:

    AQ is not “nominally” Sunni – it’s a Sunni outfit, and specifically a Salafi outfit, “Salafi” being the term preferred to “Wahhabi” by practitioners, since most of those influenced by Ibn Wahhab wish to distance themselves strongly from the possibility that they are following Wahhab himself — Muslims don’t like to be called “Mohammedan” for the same reason.

    The House of Saud is also Salafi: indeed its ascendance dates back to the alliance of Muhammad ibn Saud with Ibn Wahhab in the 1740s. But most Salafists believe, following the words of the Prophet, that “whoever accuses a believer of disbelief, it is as if he killed him” – so there is an extreme, built in reluctance to “declare takfir” within even the austere Salafist form of Sunni Islam which is the official theology of the Saudi regime.

    It was Sayyid Qutb, developing certain ideas of Maududi and Ibn Taymiyya, who suggested that rulers might exclude themselves from Islam by certain actions, and opened the way for AQ to oppose unIslamic rule of Islamic states – the Saudi royal house not excepted. This merely marks them as virulently puritanical within the already puritanical Salafist mode promulgated within Sunni Islam by Ibn Wahhab.

    For a more detailed exposition, see Quintan Wiktorowicz, A Genealogy of Radical Islam, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 28:75–97, 2005.

    Likewise, AQ may on occasion accept financial and military support from sources to which it is ideologically opposed by agreement, just as it may take booty from its enemies by conquest – this in no way compromises its Salafi and Sunni identity either.


    Reyes was not being asked a question that demanded a particularly complex level of knowledge — and Stein was considerably more impressed with him than he was with some other sitting members of the Intelligence Committee. He wrote:

    [Reyes] knows that the 1,400- year-old split in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites not only fuels the militias and death squads in Iraq, it drives the competition for supremacy across the Middle East between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
    That’s more than two key Republicans on the Intelligence Committee knew when I interviewed them last summer. Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., and Terry Everett, R-Ala., both back for another term, were flummoxed by such basic questions, as were several top counterterrorism officials at the FBI.

    Reyes had been a member of the House Intelligence Committee since 2001.

  6. “Sick, who was the National Security Council’s point man on Iran at the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini‘s Iranian Revolution, recounts how totally unprepared we were for the sudden emergence of a theocracy in his book, All Fall Down…”

    “We”? Nope. I know of engineering school undergraduates who expected a Khomeini-founded theocracy to emerge in Iran. They kept predicting it in the student lounge against strident objections of all the Iranian students hanging out there who voiced any opinion on the matter of their own. Odd that all those kids had to go by was careful reading of the U.S. press and watching the 6 o’clock news broadcasts of the three alphabet networks. Maybe they had an edge because they weren’t poli-sci majors. Oh yeah, they were politically conservative too – way before Reagan and Rush made it cool.

    Meanwhile, Gary Sick had so much information at his disposal that he not only couldn’t see the obvious happening in Iran but could see things that weren’t even there. Sick, one may remember, was big in promoting the sore-loser Democrat conspiracy theory of the post-1980 period: October Surprise. There’s even a Sick book out by the same name.

  7. It’s the senior State Department guy asking Sick, “Whoever took religion seriously?” that I’m mainly pointing to — and like him or leave him, Sick reports that comment, and unless he made it up out of whole cloth, it suggests “we” (here, State) were unprepared.

    I attended some function at the time connected with the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, and got the impression that the US Embassy in Tehran had lamentably few Farsi speakers at the time of the Khomeini Revolution — this is purely anecdotal and subject to memory failure, but I carried away the sense that the Embassy was used to dealing with Iranians who had been “educated at Princeton or Yale” and wore business suits, and didn’t know what to make of the new lot, who wore mullah’s robes and were graduates of seminaries in Qom or Masshad.

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