- Peace Garden: The Real Islamic War

The Real Islamic War

Sunday, August 13, 2006

'The Shia Revival,' by Vali Nasr was reviewed by Irshad Manji in today's NY Times Book Review. This book sounds like one that should be read by all U.S. citizens. It will give us a better understanding of Iraq, Lebanon, Hezbollah...

Nasr argues that Operation Iraqi Freedom has tilled the soil for a “new” Middle East — one fueled less by the ideal of democracy than by an age-old animosity between Islam’s two major sects, the majority Sunnis and minority Shiites.
Their split has a violent history, initiated in A.D. 632 by a feud over who should succeed the prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims supported the prophet’s cousin Ali. More Muslims endorsed the prophet’s elder companion, Abu Bakr, and they won. Grudges died hard, however, and the disgruntled murdered three of the first four successors to the prophet. These assassinations spawned a hunger for stability, even at the price of tyranny.
Sunnis historically considered worldly success as a sign of Allah’s favor; political engagement and empire-building have been religious callings for them. Shiites tended to emphasize moral victories rather than political ones, taking as their central narrative Hussein’s valiant but failed fight against a dictator — the Saddam Hussein of yore. Through this and related stories, Shiites have found meaning in physical hardship, material loss, social exclusion and personal martyrdom. Suffering has helped them cultivate faith that their messiah (another of the prophet’s descendants) will usher in the End of Days and bring justice to people everywhere. But what Shiites treat as essential Islamic virtues, Sunnis regard as post-prophet corruptions. That’s why, Nasr observes, “Saudi textbooks, criticized for their anti-Semitism, are equally hostile to Shiism, characterizing the faith as a form of heresy.”
Aah, that old "messiah" issue that rules W's days.
Still, George W. Bush has been na├»ve in underestimating the Sunni-Shiite chasm, especially in Iraq. Despite adopting the slogans of a secular nationalist, Saddam Hussein, like most Arab leaders, was actually a Sunni chauvinist. (Nasr reports that he approached the shah of Iran for permission to kill the ultra-Shiite Khomeini, then an exile living in Paris. The shah declined Hussein’s offer.)
The problem is that liberating Iraq’s Shiites has stoked their hopes for domination — not just representation — in the new Middle East. Witness the upstart militancy of Hezbollah, in alliance with Iran. Nasr says a showdown could be coming between Iran, the Shiite heavyweight, and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni behemoth. “Ultimately,” he predicts, “the character of the region will be decided in the crucible of Shia revival and the Sunni response to it.”
So where do we fit in?
One suspects that far from being a superpower, the United States is about to become a superpawn. Whatever the final chapter of this drama, Washington won’t write it. Muslims will.

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