Among the worst members of the it's-all-a-conspiracy pack are those who insist that every Muslim is in on a vast Jihadi conspiracy to make Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks wear a chador (not a bad idea, aesthetically speaking).

But those most anxious to condemn Islam in its entirety skip over annoying facts: Overwhelmingly, the victims of Islamist terror have been other Muslims; even the Taliban or the Khomeinist regime never rivaled the Inquistion's ferocity; and Europeans, not Muslims, long have been the heavyweight champions of genocide.

All monotheist religions have been really good haters. We just take turns.

But the biggest obstacle to establishing the Caliphate in California is that Shi'a "Islam" never bought into the Caliphate at all. At bottom, it's a different religion from Sunni Islam. They're not just different branches of a faith, as with Protestantism and Catholicism, but separate faiths whose core differences are more-pronounced than those between Christians and Jews.

Technically, Sunni militants are correct when they label the Shi'a "heretics." Persians and their closest neighbors, with long memories of great civilizations, were never comfortable with the crudeness of Arabian Islam, which the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss aptly called "a barracks religion."

The struggle has never ended between the ascetic, intolerant Bedouin faith of Arabia, with its fascist obsession on behavior, and the profound theologies of Persian civilization that absorbed and transformed Islam. While Shi'ism only prevailed in Persia within the last millennium (nudging out Sunni Islam at last), "Aryan" Islam had long been shaped by Zoroastrianism and other ineradicable pre-Islamic legacies.

Persians made the new faith their own, incorporating cherished traditions — just as northern Europeans made Christianity their own through Protestantism. It's illuminating to hear Iran's president rumor the return of the Twelfth Imam, since the coming of that messiah figure is pure Zoroastrianism with no connection to the Koran or the Hadiths.

Even the rhetoric of Iran's Islamic Revolution, condemning the United States as the "Great Satan" divided the world into forces of light and darkness — Zoroaster again, as well as Mani, the dualist whose followers we know as "Manicheans." Iranians excitedly deny such pre-Islamic influences — then worship at the ancient shrines of re-invented saints, celebrate the Zoroastrian New Year, and incorporate fire rites into social events.

The Prophet's attempt to discipline Arabian hillbillies produced a faith ill-fitted to Persia's complex civilization — or to Mesopotamian Arabs, who despised the illiterate desert nomads. Islam was bound to change as it occupied this haunted real estate.

What we've gotten ourselves involved in today is an old and endless struggle between the desert and the city, between civilization and barbarism. Long oppression may have made Shi'ism appear backward, but it's inherently a richer faith than Sunni Islam. With its End-of-Times vision, founding martyrs and radiant angels, its mysticism and wariness of the flesh, Shi'ism is closer to Christianity than check-list Sunni Islam ever could be.

Further confounding the strategic situation, there are other, parallel struggles within Shi'ism and Sunni Islam. Over the centuries, both faiths developed sophisticated urban classes that are now under assault, as they periodically have been, by intolerant simplifiers preaching the reform-school Islam of seventh-century Arabia.

Simultaneously, there's been some bizarre cross-fertilization: Usama bin Laden, a Sunni who hates the Shi'a more fiercely than he does Americans, has grafted a Shi'a End-Of-Days vision onto Sunni Islam. Meanwhile, the mullahs who locked down Iran obsess about behavior — a Sunni approach to faith — at the expense of Shi'ism's tradition of inner luminosity (in the Sunni world, the persecuted Sufis were the mystics).

We're a fringe player in multiple zero-sum struggles: Persian Zoroastrianism in Muslim garb vs. Bedouin fascism; multiple insurgencies within the Sunni global campaign to re-establish the Caliphate; an interfaith competition to jump-start an apocalypse; an old ethnic struggle between Persians and Arabs; and a distinctly Zoroastrian struggle between good and evil (alert the White House).

Many will reflexively reject this interpretation of Shi'ism and Sunni Islam as two separate faiths with profoundly different inheritances. Blog Bedouins and "scholars" alike will feel threatened. That's part of our problem: We're often as close-minded as our enemies. The greatest power in history thinks small.

As I remarked to an Arab-American friend last week, faiths are like bad neighbors — they borrow a great deal, then deny it. There is no such thing as a pure faith today. All have been influenced by their predecessors and peers, by internal evolutions and their historical environments. But even individuals who reject such a view when it comes to their own faith do themselves no favors by refusing to contemplate Islam's complexity.

What does all this mean to us? First, wherever there are irreconcilable differences, there are strategic opportunities. Second, our insistence on seeing the Middle East through the eyes of yesteryear's failed statesmen has been disastrous — we need to reinterpret the Muslim world.

Third, we've entered a new age when all the great faiths are struggling over their identities. As the religions most-immediately besieged, Shi'ism and Sunni Islam are the noisiest and, for now, the most-violent. But all faiths are in crisis — even as every major faith undergoes a powerful renewal.

In my years as an intelligence analyst, I consistently made my best calls when I trusted my instincts, and I was less likely to get it right when I heeded the arguments around me. Today, those surrounding arguments damn Iran.

My instincts tell me our long-term problem is with Arab Sunnis, whose global aspirations have veered into madness. We have a problem with the junta currently ruling Iran, but not with Persian civilization. Meanwhile, the Bedouin fanaticism gripping so much of the Middle East has no civilization.