The Shiite banana

When U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak last week, he gave her this tip: she shouldn’t neglect the “Shiite banana,” extending from Iran through Syria, to Hezbollah and (?) Hamas. It seems that the phrase “Shiite banana” is Barak’s original creation. He used it last October in a speech delivered in America, where he said that Syrian president Bashar Asad is “a proxy of Iran in this Shiite banana that they are trying to create from Tehran through Baghdad, to Damascus to the south end of part of Lebanon.”

So how does this compare to the “Shiite crescent”? That’s the phrase used by King Abdullah of Jordan back in December 2004, when he accused Iran of seeking to dominate Iraq and the region. The Iranian press and some Arab papers promptly whacked the king for summoning forth the sectarian genie, and he retreated: “My statements on the Shiite crescent were blown out of proportion by some in Iran and interpreted to the contrary of my intentions.”

But by that time, the foreign policy punditocracy had latched on to it. In October 2005, the Middle East Policy Council (originally the American Arab Affairs Council) held a conference on Capitol Hill entitled “A Shia Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.?” In June 2006, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York held a big symposium on “The Emerging Shia Crescent.” And could the New York Times be far behind? Of course not; the next month it ran a map showing the “Shiite Crescent” as a belt running from Lebanon to eastern Saudi Arabia. From the beginning, the “Shiite crescent” resonated among the Bush-bashers, since it had this overtone: you invaded Iraq, and now look what you’ve done?

The Bush Administration never used it, instead preferring to warn us about the threat of “the Caliphate,” understood as the Qaeda plan for global domination. On the maps accompanying the “Long War” briefings by generals, this didn’t look so much like a crescent as a giant blob. It took some time for the Administration to discover that dissing the caliphate didn’t go down well with our Sunni friends, since they regard the classical caliphate (under the first four “rightly-guided” caliphs) as the golden era of Islamic history. That’s probably why you haven’t heard too many Administration warnings about “the Caliphate” lately. (Oddly, though, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama picked it up, explaining just last week that our enemies are “seeking to create a repressive caliphate in the Muslim world.”)

Both of these phrases are one part reality and two parts hype. They have an important element of truth to them: Iran does manipulate Shiites elsewhere, and Al Qaeda does dream about a global caliphate. But then they extrapolate that element to the point where it actually blunts understanding. The threat posed by Iran isn’t that it’s going to unleash a Shiite chain reaction, which is hard to do, but that it could set off a nuclear chain reaction, which may soon be within its power. And the real danger posed by Al Qaeda isn’t the possible establishment of a unified caliphate–no such thing has existed in well over a millennium–but its possible seizure of turf in a failed state, from which it might plot another 9/11 or something even worse. These are urgent and immediate threats, which get lost in dreamily abstract talk about crescents and caliphates.

Which returns me to the “Shiite banana.” This opens all sorts of possibilities. Is the banana green, or is it already dangerously ripe? Could Iran turn it into the “Shiite banana peel,” which would be even more hazardous? And if the Shiites are bananas, what are the Sunnis? (Given how varied they are, perhaps they’re a fruit platter; Al Qaeda might be nuts.) Alright, I’ll stop it.

But I don’t want to end this little diversion without a plug for my presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani, to whom I’m senior Middle East advisor. Someone actually did put down a Shiite banana peel for Giuliani. It happened in May, in MSNBC’s Republican debate in California. Giuliani was asked to explain the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. His answer:

The difference is the descendant of Mohammed. The Sunnis believe that Mohammed’s–the caliphate should be selected, and the Shiites believe that it should be by descent. And then, of course, there was a slaughter of Shiites in the early part of the history of Islam, and it has infected a lot of the history of Islam, which is really very unfortunate.

Giuliani’s answer hit the right nails–theological, political, and historical. Pretty good, I’d say.