August 22, 2006â€”As violence rages in Iraq, it has become ever more difficult to make sense of it all. Undoubtedly some is the work of terrorists bent on disrupting the democratic process, some the work of Sunnis and Baathists angry at their loss of power. But to Vali Nasr, author of
The Shiâ€™a Revival
, most of the current violence is part of a broad sectarian conflict. The fall of Saddam Hussein, he argues, has indeed given birth to a â€œnew Middle Eastâ€â€”but not yet the one hoped for. We are now seeing the Shiâ€™a of Islam, newly empowered in Iraq and ever more militant in Iran, challenge the Sunnisâ€”Islamâ€™s dominant sectâ€”in a conflict that will take years to resolve, if not decades.
Like many modern-day sectarian rifts, this one predates the modern eraâ€”in this case, by well more than a millennium. In the succession crisis that followed the death of the Prophet MuhammadÂ (s) in 632, the majority of Muslims followed as caliph one of the Prophetâ€™sÂ (s) closest companions. A minority dissented, arguing that the ProphetÂ (s) had passed the leadership of his community to AliÂ (ra), his cousin and son-in-law. The dissenters became known as â€œShiâ€™at-Ali,â€ or Partisans of Ali. The followers of Prophetâ€™sÂ (s) sunna, or tradition, became known as Sunnis. In time, each side developed what Mr. Nasr calls a distinct â€œethos of faith and piety.â€
Will a new Middle East end up being the site of a war within Islam Sunni against Shiâ€™a?
The Shiâ€™a got their wish when AliÂ (ra) became the fourth caliph, but the pivotal moment in Shiâ€™a history came in 680 when Aliâ€™s (ra) son Hussein (ra) and 72 of his followers were massacred in the desert of southern Iraq. For the Shiâ€™a, HusseinÂ (ra) came to symbolize resistance to tyranny; his martyrdom is commemorated to this day as a central act of Shiâ€™a piety.
With the exception of a few short-lived Shiâ€™a dynasties (Iraq is not the first Shiâ€™a Arab state), the Shiâ€™a never really wielded political power, living mostly as a marginalized minority under Sunni rule. This historical experience, Mr. Nasr observes, has long imbued the Sunnis with a sense of â€œworldly success,â€ and a presumption of mastery, while furnishing the Shiâ€™a underdogs with a narrative of â€œmartyrdom, persecution, and suffering.â€
Mr. Nasr uses this history to explain why Iraqâ€™s Shiâ€™a so eagerly embraced the fall of Saddam Hussein. Whereas the Americans saw regime change in Iraq as a harbinger of democracy, Iraqâ€™s Shiâ€™a viewed it primarily as the end to centuries of Sunni domination. And Saddamâ€™s fall inevitably stirred hopes for a Shiâ€™a revival elsewhere. The mantra â€œone man, one voteâ€ has reverberated among the politically marginalized Shiâ€™a of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon, where Hezbollahâ€™s TV station has recited democracyâ€™s shibboleths as part of its own campaign to win a larger political role.
All this agitation has alarmed the regionâ€™s Sunni leaders, Mr. Nasr observes, and not just the Sunni fundamentalists. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned about the emergence of a â€œShiâ€™a crescentâ€ slicing across the region; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has questioned the Shiâ€™aâ€™s Arab loyalties. Certainly both Egypt and Jordanâ€”and many other nations in the regionâ€”have reason to be concerned about the rise of a Shiâ€™a-dominated Iraq allying with Iran, the Mideastâ€™s other Shiâ€™a powerhouse.
Mr. Nasr is at his best when he explains the historical ties among Shiâ€™a, not least among Shiâ€™a in Iran and Iraq. It was thought, before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, that a new Iraq would turn away from Iran because of the profound cultural differences between Arabs and Persians and because of their widely different historical experience. It is true that Iraq is unlikely to follow Iranâ€™s theocratic modelâ€”Iraqâ€™s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the follower of the most vocal clerical critic of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iranâ€™s current theocracy. But ties between the Shiâ€™a of Iran and Iraq have grown stronger since the invasion, Mr. Nasr notes, and Tehran, he believes, holds the key to stability in Iraq. Thus Mr. Nasr urges the U.S. to normalize its relations with Iran, despite the heated rhetoric of recent months and quarrels over the intent of Iranâ€™s nuclear program.
It must be said that Mr. Nasr supports his arguments by over-citing extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide. There is no doubt that such extremists play a role, intensifying the crisis and propelling the violence. But such an approach, on Mr. Nasrâ€™s part, has the effect of playing down unfairly the many moderate participants in these debates who aim at reconciliation and who respect the normal give-and-take of politics. In short, the Sunni-Shiâ€™a divide does not yet even begin to approach the division, within Christianity, that incited the long and bloody Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.
More importantly, Mr. Nasr minimizes a reality at odds with his thesis: Religious extremism and anti-Americanism cut across sectarian lines. The strategic alliance directed at the U.S.â€”Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamasâ€”is half-Sunni and half-Shiâ€™a. What is more, the regionâ€™s other great powersâ€”Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syriaâ€”are overwhelmingly Sunni. Thus if the Shiâ€™a are to gain rights in these countries, they are going to have to do so as citizens of each rather than as members of a pan-Shiâ€™a movement.
Mr. Nasr urges the Bush administration to engage the regionâ€™s Shiâ€™a before it worries about the spread of democracy. But it was democracy that brought the Shiâ€™a to power, and it will be democracy that will redress their centuries-old sense of injustice.
Mr. Farivar is a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires.