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Divided by faith

07 October 2016

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AT THE conclusion of his ex­­cellent two-part survey Sunni-Shia: Islam divided (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Tarek Osman delivered a judgement that might have sounded chilling had it not come from such a level-headed commen­tator. Osman de­­clared himself to be optimistic about the future of the Middle East, once this present “agonising catharsis” was over.

It came at the end of a pro­gramme that included men­tion of most of the important Middle Eastern conflicts since the 1979 Iranian revolution — in­clud­ing the Iran-Iraq War, the Leban­ese Civil War, the Gulf War, and the Syrian war — and there was little in his, or his expert witnesses’, com­mentary to encourage us to hope for the easing of those ant­agonisms that generated the conflicts. To call this catharsis might be regarded at the very least as complacent.

On the other hand, Osman’s series had the virtue of being presented in the measured and restrained tones which are rarely in evidence when Middle Eastern conflict is dis­cussed in the West. The history of the Sunni-Shia divide is an in­­flammatory topic, and Osman is to be congratulated for engaging with his interviewees in a way that might elicit non-partisan answers.

Is the Sunni-Shia divide which is expressed in contemporary con­flicts the determining cause, or the collateral effect, of conflict? Osman highlighted the fluid interaction of sectarian and polit­ical impulses in recent Middle Eastern violence. Syria, the argument goes, was a relatively plural country where most people thought little of their Sunni or Shia ancestry. Nowadays, you would do well to carry two identity cards, carrying names such as Omar and Ali, designating re­­spectively ances­tral allegiance to Sunni and Shia traditions.
The same goes for Iraq. In the year of Saddam Hussein’s defeat, it is estimated that 30 per cent of the population of Baghdad came from mixed Sunni-Shia parentage.

Today, Baghdad is predominantly Shia. Therein lie lessons for today’s politicians and religious leaders, and for historians of past conflicts: religious sectarianism is as much a product as a cause of violence.

The same quality of restraint that characterised Osman’s deliv­ery was in evidence in Adrian Moore’s A History of the Infinite (Radio 4, weekdays). As with polit­ical reporting, we are becoming used to the breathless descriptions of scientific phenomena brought to us by the likes of Brian Cox; so Moore’s approach was refreshing.

In the first week of the series, he took us through Classical and medieval notions of infinity; but never attempted more than a couple of case-studies per quarter-hour slot. This approach was par­ticularly appreciated when it came to last week’s episodes, when the intellectual bucking bronco was likely to hurl most of us laypeople into the dust.

Monday’s episode, however, was about the closest I have got to understanding the notion of Cantor sets; although whether or not Cantor’s theory that infinities can come in all shapes and sizes is useful or meaningful, remains a moot point. Or was Poincaré right to describe such work on infinity as “a perverse pathological illness that would one day be cured”? Not yet it hasn’t.

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