When did leaders last surprise us - by doing what's right?
I just saw the movie "Invictus" — the story of how Nelson Mandela, in his first term as president of South Africa, enlists the country's famed rugby team, the Springboks, on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup and, through that, to start the healing of that apartheid-torn land.
The almost all-white Springboks had been a symbol of white domination, and blacks routinely rooted against them. When the post-apartheid, black-led South African sports committee moved to change the team's name and colors, Mandela stopped them. He explained that part of making whites feel at home in a black-led South Africa was not uprooting all their cherished symbols. "That is selfish thinking," Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, says in the movie. "It does not serve the nation." Then speaking of South Africa's whites, Mandela adds, "We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity."
I love that line: "We have to surprise them." I was watching the movie on an airplane and scribbled that line down on my napkin because it summarizes what is missing today in so many places: Leaders who surprise us by rising above their histories, their constituencies, their pollsters, their circumstances — and just do the right things for their countries.
I tried to recall the last time a leader of importance surprised me on the upside by doing something positive, courageous and against the popular will of his country or party. I can think of a few: Yitzhak Rabin in signing onto the Oslo peace process. Anwar Sadat in going to Jerusalem. And, of course, Mandela in the way he led South Africa.
But these are such exceptions. Look at Iraq today. Five months after its first truly open, broad-based election, in which all the major communities voted, the political elite there cannot rise above Shiite or Sunni identities and reach out to the other side so as to produce a national unity government that could carry Iraq into the future. True, democracy takes a long time to grow, especially in a soil bloodied by a murderous dictator for 30 years. Nevertheless, up to now, Iraq's new leaders have surprised us only on the downside.
Will they ever surprise us the other way? Should we care now that we're leaving? Yes, because the roots of 9/11 are an intra-Muslim fight, which America, as an ally of one faction, got pulled into. There are at least three different intra-Muslim wars raging today. One is between the Sunni far right and the Sunni far-far right in Saudi Arabia. This was the war between Osama bin Laden (the far-far right) and the Saudi ruling family (the far right). It is a war between those who think women shouldn't drive and those who think they shouldn't even leave the house. Bin Laden attacked us because we prop up his Saudi rivals — which we do to get their oil.
In Iraq, you have the pure Sunni-versus-Shiite struggle. And in Pakistan, you have the fundamentalist Sunnis versus everyone else: Shiites, Ahmadis and Sufis. You will notice that in each of these civil wars, barely a week goes by without one Muslim faction blowing up another faction's mosque or gathering of innocents — like last week's bombing in Baghdad, at the opening of Ramadan, which killed 61 people.
In short: the key struggle with Islam is not inter-communal, and certainly not between Americans and Muslims. It is intra-communaland going on across the Muslim world. The reason the Iraq War was, is and will remain important is that it created the first chance for Arab Sunnis and Shiites to do something they have never done in modern history: surprise us and freely write their own social contract for how to live together and share power and resources. If they could do that, in the heart of the Arab world, and actually begin to ease the intra-communal struggle within Islam, it would be a huge example for others. It would mean that any Arab country could be a democracy and not have to be held together by an iron fist from above.
But it will be impossible without Iraqi Shiite and Sunni Mandelas ready to let the future bury the past. As one of Mandela's guards, watching the new president engage with South African whites, asks in the movie, "How do you spend 30 years in a tiny cell and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there?" It takes a very special leader.
This is also why the issue of the mosque and community center near the site of 9/11 is a sideshow. The truly important question "is not, "Can the different Muslim sects live with Americans in harmony?" but, "Can they live with each other in harmony?" said Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on interfaith relations and author of "Beyond America's Grasp: a Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East."
Indeed, the big problem is not those Muslims building mosques in America, it is those Muslims blowing up mosques in the Middle East. And the answer to them is not an interfaith dialogue in America. It is an intrafaith dialogue — so sorely missing — in the Muslim world. Our surge in Iraq will never bear fruit without a political surge by Arabs and Muslims to heal intracommunal divides. It would be great if President Obama surprised everyone and gave another speech in Cairo — or Baghdad — saying that.