Shia Power and the West

Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World by Yitzhak Nakash (Princeton University Press, 226 pages, $19.95)

The Shia Revival: How conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr (W.W. Norton, 287 pages, $25.95)

The rise of Shia political parties in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's violent verbal attacks on Israel, the controversy over Iran's nuclear program, and the war in Lebanon have put political Shiism back on the world's agenda. Political Shiism made headlines when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979, and it stayed on the front pages during the 1980s, with Shia Hezbollah taking Western hostages in Lebanon. After Khomeini's death in 1989, however, Western political concern about Islam focused more on Sunni movements engaged in jihad worldwide -- most notably, al-Qaeda.

Not only did attention to Shiism fade during the past decade. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, just when a clear grasp of Shia politics was most needed, partisanship also overshadowed informed analysis, and that may well be one reason why there was such a discrepancy between the expected outcome of the invasion in 2003 and the present unforeseen mayhem. Ideologues are of little use in helping us understand why the United States now finds itself entangled with friendly Shia-dominated Iraq in chaos and hostile Shia Iran in the nuke race. Are Shias friend or foe? What about their relation to their Sunni co-religionists? Are the radicals in each sect ready to join forces in a sweeping Islamist tidal wave all across the Middle East, or are the divisions and hostility so deep that we are likely to see more of the strife that has turned Baghdad and other Iraqi cities into a slaughter field?

Two new books by prominent scholars of the Middle East shed light on these questions and bring us up to date on developments in Shia Islam. While Yitzhak Nakash's Reaching for Power deals solely with Arab Shias, Vali Nasr's The Shia Revival encompasses the broader Shia spectrum, including Iran and the Indian subcontinent, where the majority of the world's Shia live. Both Nakash and Nasr have superb academic credentials, but they aim their new books at nonspecialist readers -- a welcome choice, given how great a need there is to raise the quality of public debate.

Nakash has a rather upbeat view of the role that Shias in the Arab world can play in bringing about a reformation that could allow the region to move toward accommodation with the West. He contends that Ayatollah Sistani, the leading senior Shia cleric today, will have a pivotal role in that process. Many in the Bush administration also share the opinion that Shias could become the best allies of the United States in the Gulf region -- after 9-11 demonstrated, in their view, that long-trusted Sunni monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, were unable or unwilling to rein in their radical jihadists. But such a shift in alliances, as implemented by the invasion of Iraq and the political empowerment of its Shia majority, was based on the ideological assumption that secular or liberal individuals and parties could take leading roles. Actually, neither Ahmed Chalabi nor Iyad Allawi -- Washington favorites and longtime exiles in the West -- was able to deliver for long, and the axis of Shia power in Iraq turned toward religious parties.

Here Nakash's book, based on a vast array of sources in Arabic, is a precious guide to understanding the real stakes in the conflicts among different religious and political tendencies in Arab countries. After a chapter titled “The Burdens of the Past,” which puts into perspective the plight of the Shias as a dominated group in the Ottoman Empire, Nakash assesses the balance of forces in the three Arab areas with significant Shia presence: the Gulf monarchies, Lebanon, and Iraq.

In the Gulf, the Shias were, and still are to a large extent, contained politically. As a share of the total population, they range from 10 percent in Saudi Arabia -- mainly in the oil-rich Eastern province -- to 70 percent in Bahrain. Wahhabism, the prevalent interpretation of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, is especially harsh on Shias, whom the Wahhabists persecute as infidels. In Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni royal family, Shia uneasiness has led to a strong protest movement. In both countries, after socialism and nationalism had their heyday among the Shias until the late 1970s, and after the Iranian Revolution became a magnet in the 1980s, Gulf Arab Shias increasingly turned for guidance toward Najaf-based Ayatollah Sistani, whom they consider their authoritative marja' (referent).

Politically, after long being the underdogs, the Shia have now assumed more power in Lebanon, where they represent 40 percent of the population, and in Iraq, where they represent two-thirds. Demographic growth and Iranian help were factors in the Lebanese Shia revival; in Iraq, the American invasion ended Baathi rule, officially secular but Sunni and tribal-based. In both countries, as in the Gulf, religious movements captured the hearts and minds of the Shia masses, but the movements in Lebanon and Iraq remain divided in their political loyalties. Some of their leaders, such as Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanese Hezbollah and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and his Badr brigades in Iraq, pay allegiance to the Iranian leadership. Others such as Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon are closer to Sistani, and some such as Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq are operating on their own. Even the radicals, Nakash contends, have moderated their views and accepted Western values such as democracy. Discarding the idea of an Islamic state, they now participate in the Western-leaning Lebanese and Iraqi governments.

“The shift of focus among Shi'is since the 1990s from violence to accommodation, and the assertion of Shi'i power in Iraq, have signaled the rise of the Shi'is as a force that could potentially spur reform in the region,” Nakash argues. “The United States would need to accept the consequences of that development, recognize that not all Islamists are alike, and develop a broad strategy for the Middle East that actively engages the moderates as part of the solution.”

This optimistic view plays down the role of Iran's new radical president, Ahmadinejad, elected in the summer of 2005, and Iran's potential influence on Arab Shia networks. Both the Badr and the Sadr movements in Iraq, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, receive Iranian funds, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has played a central role in training and equipping their paramilitary. With the West at odds with Iran's nuclear policy, couldn't Tehran fan the flames and unleash its allies and clients against the United States and Europe -- as happened in Lebanon in the 1980s? Indeed, isn't Iran doing that again in Lebanon now? Is the religious Shia accommodation stance to be taken for granted, or is it a temporary attitude out of weakness, tantamount to taqiyya (dissimulation) -- the traditional Shia way of paying lip service while facing oppression until the day of empowerment comes?

Nasr's The Shia Revival takes a broader perspective and attempts to deal with Shiism as a whole. His aim is “to explain why there is a Shia-Sunni conflict, why has it become more salient of late and what it will mean for both the future of the Middle East and the Muslim world's relations with the West.” The Iraq War and the unprecedented Shia majority rise to power, he contends, have so changed political realities as to require a fresh assessment of Shia identity and the fault lines with Sunni Islam.

The book starts with an outline of the peculiarities of the Shia way in terms of creed and rituals, its emphasis on martyrdom and mourning, and the history of persecution that many Shia have suffered at the hands of hard-line Sunni powers, boosted by a vehement polemical literature dating from the Middle Ages (which one could find unchanged on the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Web site). Nasr also examines the role of the Shia dynasties, such as the Fatimids of Egypt and the Safavids of Iran, where Shiism blended with Iranian identity and created the only lasting political stronghold of the sect. In other countries, Shias also played a key political role. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, its ill-fated prime minister, were both Shias, though the more numerous Sunnis eventually brushed Shia influence aside. In the 1980s, under General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan turned toward a politics of Islamization that was tantamount to Sunnification and set sectarian conflict ablaze.

Nasr rightly assesses the pivotal role of what he calls “Khomeini's moment” in creating Shia pride worldwide: Shiism had to be reckoned as a force of its own, even if Khomeini attempted to play down its specifics so as to turn the Iranian Revolution into the vanguard of radical Islam, irrespective of sectarian differences. Outside of Iran, however, the revolution's only lasting impact was on the Shias of Lebanon. And the radical-cum-Shia threat led to that unholy U.S.-Sunni alliance -- the jihad war in Afghanistan -- where CIA-backed and Gulf States–funded Sunni jihadist militants outmaneuvered the Iranians in championing militant Islamism. That “Battle of Islamic Fundamentalisms,” as Nasr calls it, was won by Sunnis, far beyond the American godfather's expectations: The Afghan jihad was Osama bin Laden's training ground. As Washington had backed Sunnis against (revolutionary) Shias in the 1980s and 1990s, so it would play Shias against (jihadi) Sunnis after September 11.

Might the newly empowered Shias turn against their American sponsor, as happened with Sunni jihadis? Or will they side with democratic and Western worldviews against Sunni radicals? Much depends on the outcome of the Iraq War and the confrontation with Iran. To a large extent, Nasr and Nakash share the view that the fait accompli of Shia power in Iraq has tilted the Shia-Sunni balance toward a fairer distribution of forces and that Shias need to continue leaning toward the West, lest they again lose ground to their Sunni adversaries.

Although both authors completed their books after President Ahmadinejad's election, they were not able to take account of his later vitriolic statements on Israel or his nuclear blackmail policy. They recommend engaging Iran, on the grounds that its interests as a state will prevail over a worn-out Islamist mystique. Tehran will have to find a way to accommodate the West if it wants to develop its nuclear capacity and benefit fully from the Shia revival. Whether or not the West ought to accommodate Ahmadinejad's government is another matter, well worth a debate, which ought now to be far better informed thanks to Reaching for Power and The Shia Revival.

Gilles Kepel is a professor at the Institut d'Études Politiques in Paris and the author of The Revenge of God, Jihad, and The War for Muslim Minds, all available in English as well as French.