Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Oct 28, 2006

Worm in the Sunni apple
The Shi'a Revival
by Vali Nasr

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Typical Western reference points for the Muslim world harp on such themes as authoritarianism, fundamentalism and women's rights but miss the basic fault line of sectarianism. Iranian scholar Vali Nasr's new book shatters this myopia through a masterly analysis of Shi'ite-Sunni rivalries that go back to the founding days of Islam and are currently playing out in the blood-stained streets of Pakistan and Iraq. Its central thesis is that the Shi'ite challenge to Sunni dominance will reorder the future of the Middle East and South Asia.

The book opens with Nasr's visit to the headquarters of Pakistan's Sunni-fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami in 2003, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The Jamaatis were aghast to watch on television defiant and jubilant Shi'ites near Imam Husayn's shrine in Karbala. The Iraqi Shi'ite challenge to Sunni power and monopoly of what it means to be a "true" Muslim opened fresh sectarian wounds in Pakistan. Despite periods of co-existence, Sunni-Shi'ite antagonism has lasted long and retains urgency in the form of a contemporary clash of identities. It is "a very old, very modern conflict" (p 20).

The war in Iraq threatens the millennium-long ownership of the Muslim world by Sunni establishments operating from "power towns" such as Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus. For centuries, Sunni popular prejudices and stereotypes of Shi'ites and their "wrongheaded" Islam have generated an iniquitous distribution of power. In Lebanon, Shi'ites are ridiculed for "low-class, tasteless and vulgar ways". In Saudi Arabia, shaking hands with a Shi'ite is considered polluting, necessitating ablutions. In Pakistan, Shi'ites are dehumanized as "mosquitoes". Violent Sunni extremism breeds on anti-Shi'ite bias that is neither imaginary nor irrelevant. Nasr warns against papering over genuine cracks in the name of pan-Islamic unity.

The actual bones of Shi'ite-Sunni contention are control of state resources and wealth along communal lines. Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, is the font of spirituality for the Shi'ites, who claim that the former anointed the latter as his successor at Ghadir Khumm. Initial usurpation of Ali's right to govern by the caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar and Usman is an affront to Shi'ite notions of ideal Islamic leadership. The martyrdom of Ali's son Husayn at the hands of Yazid in the battle of Karbala (AD 680) is confirmation to Shi'ites that the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates were illegitimate and oppressive. The Husayn story is often invoked to define Shi'ite troubles in modern times. Saddam Hussein is, for instance, likened to Yazid. Shi'ism's ideal is fighting for security against Sunni tyranny.

Shi'ites are not content with Sunni-style dutiful observance of laws. They emphasize rituals associated with charismatic imams and saints who are intermediaries for healing, blessing and forgiveness. They love visual imagery and accord a higher status to women in piety, characteristics that anger puritanical Sunnis.

The fear of revolts that Shi'ite imams instilled in the Sunni caliphs was met with persecution, imprisonment and killings of members of Islam's minority sect. Condemned as "the enemy within" and as "rejecters of the Truth" (rafidis), Shi'ites were branded as "a bigger threat to 'true' Islam than Christianity and Judaism" (p 54). Blaming Shi'ites for the decline of Sunni worldly power was the norm. For survival, ordinary Shi'ites had to hide their affiliations (taqqiya), and their imams escaped to Iran and India to seek refuge. The sufferings of the imams lie at the heart of the Shi'ite version of martyrdom (shahadat). Unless Sufism intervened in Sunni societies, tolerance for Shi'ites was weak.

Shi'ism tasted political power for the first time in the 16th century when the Safavids, who traced their ancestry to the seventh Shi'ite imam, consolidated their reign in Iran. They competed with the Sunni Ottomans for control of the Muslim heartland and patronized Shi'ite culture and learning. Shi'ite ulama attached themselves closely to the Safavids as landowners and courtiers and received elevation in status. It is unsurprising that when Saddam Hussein fell in Iraq, Shi'ite clerics emerged as the real powerbrokers.

Shi'ism underwent schisms over time and space into various offshoots such as Zaydis (Yemen), Ismailis (India, Egypt and Afghanistan), Druze (Lebanon), Yazidis (Iraq) and Alawis (Syria). Its spread was "inevitably tied to the way the faith has fared in the halls of power" (p 79). Wherever Shi'ite dynasties ruled, they shielded their flock from Sunni discrimination and assault. Once the Safavids fell in 1722, Shi'ites could not sustain their political confrontation with Sunni preponderance.

The rise of modern states fostered secular trends among middle- and upper-class Shi'ites in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. Urbanization loosened the grip of tribal leaders and motivated the masses to demand a direct voice in politics. Turbaned Shi'ite ulama such as Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah and the Azeri Abol-Qasem al-Khoi benefited from this radicalization and became prominent. After World War I, Shi'ites also embraced nationalism, imagining a community where sectarian divisions would not matter. This proved to be an illusion, as old institutionalized viciousness against Shi'ites continued under the guise of Arab nationalism and secularism. Discarded as disloyal agents of Iran, Shi'ites remained quasi-outsiders, "an undesirable and heathen minority" who were never admitted into bureaucracies or officer corps of Sunni-ruled states.

Sunni fundamentalism lent new intensity to the anti-Shi'ite bias. Condemnation of Shi'ism was a part of the Saudi-led revivalist project of regaining lost Sunni glories. Jihadis in Afghanistan and Kashmir were viscerally anti-Shi'ite. Massacring Shi'ites in Gilgit was a "practice run for attacks on India in Srinagar" (p 160). The polemics of even Sunni modernizers was openly anti-Shi'ite in Arab countries and Pakistan. "Sunnification of the political sphere" renewed repression of Shi'ites in the late 20th century.

Once Shi'ites abandoned their blind subservience to the Arab cause and organized their own militias and parties, Sunni suspicion of their "treason" worsened. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution in Iran rang big alarm bells for Sunni fanatics by converting Shi'ite ulama into the ruling class of a state. Sunnis did not buy Khomeini's attempt to be the paladin of a global Islamic awakening. Incensed by Tehran's support for Shi'ite demonstrations, riots and militant movements against Sunni ruling regimes, "they saw mostly Shi'a mischief and a threat to Sunni predominance" (p 144). Khomeini's frontal face off with Saudi Arabia was framed as a "Shi'a plot" to take over Mecca and Medina.

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was "a Sunni-Shi'a sectarian war cast in national terms" (p 141). The Saudi-Pakistani strategic relationship that underwrote the Taliban and jihadis in Kashmir was formed to "eliminate Iran's ideological influence" (p 157). Pakistan's state-financed "green fundamentalism" eulogized Sunni caliphs who killed Husayn and damned the Shi'ite festival of Ashoura as a heathen spectacle. Since 1989, Sunni-Shi'ite violence in Pakistan has claimed more than 4,000 lives as the "lines between jihad within (against Shi'as) and jihad outside (in Afghanistan and Kashmir) blurred" (p 167).

Sunni anxiety deepened in the face of recent gains by Shi'ites in Iraq that changed the sectarian balance of power. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's moderate style set the tone for Shi'ite ascendancy based on shared identity of millions of Iraqis, Iranians, Lebanese, Pakistanis and Afghans. Nasr argues that a transnational Shi'ite consensus is forming around the need to defend their power and identity. This is being enhanced under the onslaught of Sunni terror in Iraq. Today, Shi'ites demand more and get it through the democratic ballot box. Although pluralism within Shi'ite ranks exists, "there is a basic shared vision of regional Shi'a interests" reflected in the "Nasrallah-Sistani-Khamenei axis" (p 184). Illuminating the broadness of this vision, Sistani's aide, Ahmad al-Safi, dared the ulama of al-Azhar in Egypt (citadel of Sunni beliefs) to break their silence and condemn the insurgency in Iraq.
Iran's present-day political and clerical brass are more anti-Sunni and anti-Wahhabi than usual and see opposing Sunni hegemonism as central to Tehran's regional ambitions. Riyadh, Amman and Kuwait (but not Damascus) have their national interests aligned with the Sunni insurgency's goal of wrecking the Shi'ite-led Iraqi state. The breadth of the al-Qaeda in Iraq network attests to the regionwide web of Sunni linkages. Despite US accusations, Nasr portrays Syria's Alawi leadership as a victim (not facilitator) of the growing Sunni extremism in Iraq.

A primary source of conflict in South Asia and the Middle East is sectarian, underlined by unequal allocation of power and resources that do not square with demographic realities. Nasr's forecast is that the worm in the Sunni apple, Shi'ism, will build on the grievances of its past suppression and cannot be prevented from getting its due share. The dust from the sectarian war will not settle until the underdogs, the Shi'ites, obtain justice.

The Shi'a Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr. W W Norton, 2006, New York. ISBN: 0-393-06211-2. Price US$25.95, 287 pages.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

The state versus society in Iran (Sep 23, '06)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110