A Faith Divided

August 31, 2006 by  


By Masood Farivar

August 22, 2006—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 Shi’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 “new Middle East”—but not yet the one hoped for. We are now seeing the Shi’a of Islam, newly empowered in Iraq and ever more militant in Iran, challenge the Sunnis—Islam’s dominant sect—in a conflict that will take years to resolve, if not decades.

Like many modern-day sectarian rifts, this one predates the modern era—in this case, by well more than a millennium. In the succession crisis that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad (s) in 632, the majority of Muslims followed as caliph one of the Prophet’s (s) closest companions. A minority dissented, arguing that the Prophet (s) had passed the leadership of his community to Ali (ra), his cousin and son-in-law. The dissenters became known as “Shi’at-Ali,” or Partisans of Ali. The followers of Prophet’s (s) sunna, or tradition, became known as Sunnis. In time, each side developed what Mr. Nasr calls a distinct “ethos of faith and piety.”

Will a new Middle East end up being the site of a war within Islam Sunni against Shi’a?

The Shi’a got their wish when Ali (ra) became the fourth caliph, but the pivotal moment in Shi’a history came in 680 when Ali’s (ra) son Hussein (ra) and 72 of his followers were massacred in the desert of southern Iraq. For the Shi’a, Hussein (ra) came to symbolize resistance to tyranny; his martyrdom is commemorated to this day as a central act of Shi’a piety.

With the exception of a few short-lived Shi’a dynasties (Iraq is not the first Shi’a Arab state), the Shi’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 “worldly success,” and a presumption of mastery, while furnishing the Shi’a underdogs with a narrative of “martyrdom, persecution, and suffering.”

Mr. Nasr uses this history to explain why Iraq’s Shi’a so eagerly embraced the fall of Saddam Hussein. Whereas the Americans saw regime change in Iraq as a harbinger of democracy, Iraq’s Shi’a viewed it primarily as the end to centuries of Sunni domination. And Saddam’s fall inevitably stirred hopes for a Shi’a revival elsewhere. The mantra “one man, one vote” has reverberated among the politically marginalized Shi’a of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s TV station has recited democracy’s shibboleths as part of its own campaign to win a larger political role.

All this agitation has alarmed the region’s Sunni leaders, Mr. Nasr observes, and not just the Sunni fundamentalists. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned about the emergence of a “Shi’a crescent” slicing across the region; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has questioned the Shi’a’s Arab loyalties. Certainly both Egypt and Jordan—and many other nations in the region—have reason to be concerned about the rise of a Shi’a-dominated Iraq allying with Iran, the Mideast’s other Shi’a powerhouse.

Mr. Nasr is at his best when he explains the historical ties among Shi’a, not least among Shi’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 Iran’s theocratic model—Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is the follower of the most vocal clerical critic of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s current theocracy. But ties between the Shi’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 Iran’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. Nasr’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-Shi’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.—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas—is half-Sunni and half-Shi’a. What is more, the region’s other great powers—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria—are overwhelmingly Sunni. Thus if the Shi’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-Shi’a movement.

Mr. Nasr urges the Bush administration to engage the region’s Shi’a before it worries about the spread of democracy. But it was democracy that brought the Shi’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.

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