Skip to comments.From Lebanon to Central Asia, the rise of Shia Muslims
Posted on 08/08/2006 10:11:32 AM PDT by NYer
ROMA, August 8, 2006 – Coming on the heel of one another, a book and an essay in “Foreign Affairs” by Vali Nasr, a report by Peter Waldman in “The Wall Street Journal” and an editorial in Italian daily “la Repubblica” by Khaled Fouad Allam are drawing attention to an historical shift now underway in the Islamic world: the Shia revival.
“The Shia revival” is in point of fact the title of Vali Nasr’s book on the issue. Born in Iran, the 46-year-old scholar is the son of another well-known expert on Islam from an important family that can trade its ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad. Both father and son lived in Tehran till Khomeini’s 1979 revolution upon which they immigrated to the United States. Vali Nasr’s father, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, teaches at George Washington University, while he is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
In both his book – published in the United States by W.W. Norton & Co. – and his essay which appears in the July-August issue of “Foreign Affairs”, the prestigious US journal of geopolitics, Nasr substantiates his thesis with an impressive array of data.
The greatest novelty has occurred in Iraq, where majority Shiites were largely powerless till the fall of Saddam Hussein. No more! Now they occupy most command posts. The holy city of Najaf is now more than ever the religious capital of the world’s Shia community. From near and afar pilgrims come in increasing numbers to visit the shrines of Najaf and Karbala. And ties with Iran’s Shia regime are growing tighter as ever.
But similar changes are taking place in a wider area that runs from Lebanon to Central Asia. Power over Shia Islam is no longer a prerogative of Iran and Persians. From Iran and Iraq Shia power has spread to Lebanon thanks to the ‘Party of God’ – Hezbollah –, to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Pakistan, and is taking in increasingly transnational forms. As Nasr writes in “Foreign Affairs”:
“Ethnic antagonism between Arabs and Persians cannot possibly be all-important when Iraq’s supreme religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is Iranian and Iran’s chief justice Mahmoud Shahroudi, is Iraqi.”
Khaled Fouad Allam is an Algerian-born expert on Islam who now lives in Italy where he teaches at the universities of Trieste and Urbino. He is held in high esteem by the Church of Rome and what he has to say easily finds ears that listen. His analysis goes further than Nasr’s. Largely inspired by Khomeini’s revolution, the Shia revival is for the first time finding significant support amongst Sunni Arabs and threatens to spread across the entire Middle East. Politically, Iran might become what it never was in Khomeini’s lifetime, a great regional power.
So what is in store for international politics? In a report that appeared in the August 4 issue of the “The Wall Street Journal”, Peter Waldman writes that the Bush administration is increasingly paying attention to what Nasr is saying. Two White House foreign policy officials attended one of his conferences in Washington in early August and Condoleezza Rice had a meeting with him. “But his influence on U.S. policy is unclear,” for now.
Nasr argues that the United States must accept that Iran is going to play the role of regional power and ought to start talks with its leaders. Instead of trying to overthrow the regime in Tehran, it should work in ways to contain it.
In other words, Nasr is suggesting the US follow a realist policy of “containment.” This runs against the advice proffered by Bernard Lewis, an Islamic history specialist and hitherto the neo-Conservative voice with the greatest influence in the Bush administration, his idea being that the democratization of Iraq would lead to the collapse of neighboring dictatorships, first of all that of Iran.
In Nasr’s opinion, US policy has created in Iraq the first Shia-dominated Arab state, and this has unleashed the aspirations of 150 million Shiites around the world, and yet U.S. policy is still operating under the “old paradigm” based on Sunni predominance in the “Great Middle East”.
The Sunni-Shia split goes back to Muhammad’s death and the problem of his succession. Those who became “Shiites” were initially “Shi`at `Ali”, i.e. followers of Ali (in Arabic), the prophet’s son-in-law. Ali’s adversaries were able though to prevail and appoint the first three caliphs before he finally donned the prophet’s mantle. But in the end, he was still killed. His son Hussein was defeated and killed as well. But his martyrdom in what is now Iraq has left an indelible mark in Shiites’ memory – the commemoration of his death constitutes the most solemn religious observance in the Shia calendar. In addition to the issue of succession, Sunnis and Shiites come down on different sides on important matters of doctrine to the extent that some radical Sunni groups consider Shiites heretical.
In his “Foreign Affairs” essay, Nasr provides the following percentages indicating the size of the Shia population in various countries:
Iran 90 %
Saudi Arabia 10%
United Arab Emirates 6%
These percentages include only the main Twelver branch of Shia Islam. Other Shia groups include Alevis, well-represented in Turkey; Alawis, who run Syria thanks to the Assad clan, and the Ismailis, who recognize the Aga Khan as their leader and have a large community in Afghanistan and even a larger one in Pakistan.
The Holy See and Iran have regular diplomatic relations. Traditionally, Vatican diplomacy has been closer to the realist approach advocated by Vali Nasr rather than the “regime change” policy associated with US neo-conservatives.
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Very interesting and analytical article--thanks for Pinging me on it !
I agree that more realistic approach needed in fighting the Global Jihad. The idea that democratic institutions, like free elections, will make the Islamic World civilized clearly unworkable. The elections of Hamas in "Palestinian Autonomy" and the electoral victory of Islamists in Algeria in 1992 (that was cancelled by Algerian military and followed by bloody civil war) are the perfect examples. Islamists are simply exploiting democratic institutions to gain power, so definitely the other approach is needed in dealing with Islamic world.
Its scary. A lot of these nations in Central Asia still house Russia's nuclear weapons and other WMD sites left over from the Cold war.
Traditionally, Vatican diplomacy has been closer to the realist approach advocated by Vali Nasr rather than the regime change policy associated with US neo-conservatives.
No offense but the Vatican coudn't orchestrate regime change in berkely let alone Iran.
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