The latest developments in the Mideast have surprised that small remaining percentage of observers who mistakenly assumed that the Muslim religion was unified. That delusion portrayed Islam as a tight-knit, disciplined body of believers who regard Islam as the only true faith and all other religions as misguided assemblages of infidels, worthy only of contempt and ultimate extinction.
But in the past few weeks we have learned (or re-learned) that Islam is just as fractured as Christianity. The two warring branches are the Sunnis and the Shiites, whose primary purpose is to kill one another, take control of Iraq, and then go on to conquer the world in the name of Allah (provided, we must assume, that Allah can be shown to be either a Sunni or a Shiite.)
The argument between the two sects goes back to 632, when Islam’s founder, the prophet Muhammad, died. Leadership then went to a Sunni. But the Shiites felt their man should have been named boss. That started the feud. Today most Muslims are Sunnis. But Shiites dominate in a significant number of other countries. And guess who’s trapped in between the two factions? Good old Uncle Sam.
While we’re thinking of the Sunni vs. Shiite contest, let’s take time to think about some of the other large and small rivalries that have enlivened our history books.
PROTESTANTS vs. CATHOLICS. Both branches of Christianity venerate God and Christ, but the agreement pretty well stops there. The opposing armies no longer kill each other, but the skirmishing continues in the form of competitive fund-raising, recruitment and the number of church suppers. Within the Protestant wing, mutual contempt thrives between Episcopalians and Southern Baptists, Presbyterians and Unitarian Universalists, and (always) between those Christians who believe in praying quietly in their closets and those who glory in 10,000-member megachurches with TV evangelist clown-ministers ranting for hours on stage.
HATFIELDS and MCCOYS. These two families on the Kentucky-West Virginia border began feuding at the close of the Civil War. Using shotguns, rifles and whatever other weapons seemed handy, they kept on sniping and ambushing each other for the next 30 years or so. Origins of the disputes ranged from Civil War loyalties to bootlegging and contested love affairs between members of the two clans. Books, songs and movies tell about these mountaineers, who finally made peace. Today they hold annual joint reunions attended by thousands of Americans, few of whom become violent in their support of either side in the ancient squabble.
BOSTON RED SOX vs. the NEW YORK YANKEES. This may be the greatest rivalry in the world of sports. Both of these major league baseball teams have histories filled with glory, pride and disappointment. Some experts believe the competition began in earnest when, in 1919, the owner of the Red Sox sold slugger Babe Ruth to the Yankees. This began an 86-year stretch (nicknamed “The Curse of the Bambino”) in which the Red Sox failed to win a single World Series. Boston and New York fans have long been famous for the intensity of their devotion. Two of their outfielders – Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees – were perhaps the greatest players in baseball history. In a related rivalry of sorts, scholars of American speech argue about which urban accent – New York (think of actor William Bendix) or Boston (think of the two mechanic brothers on Car Talk) – grates most heavily on the ears of those unsophisticated Americans born or reared west of the Hudson River.
LOS ANGELES vs. SAN FRANCISCO. Residents of California, when searching for a conversational topic, can always fall back on the age-old rivalry between the state’s two dominant cities. Persons who love L.A. will rave about its sunny and warm climate, the superior beaches, the many available theme parks, the stimulus of the movie and TV industries, and the relatively lower cost of living. Angelenos will complain about San Francisco’s roller-coaster hills, its fog, and how the plutocratic digital techies have pushed rentals and other living essentials far above the reach of average working stiffs. S.F.’s rebuttals will include the city’s low incidence of 10-mile traffic jams and its high level of public transport. Both cities can claim excellent universities and architectural achievements. Professional sports teams? Don’t even think of entering those discussions unless you have hours to squander, plus a doctorate in statistics.
Like love, conflict makes the world go round. Without it, great novels and plays would not be written. Cable TV news could not exist without politicians and entire nations fighting with each other. Even so, I rejoice every time I’m able to reach for my personal “conflict” button and switch it off for a while. Happiness consists of eliminating or reducing conflicts in our own lives while ignoring the hundreds of other brawls raging around us.