Sunday, February 18, 2007

Our Current Reading:

The Shia Revival:
How Conflicts within Islam
Will Shape the Future

By Vali Nasr

W. W. Norton
August 5, 2006

$17.13 on Amazon

(Purchasing through Cawi's Amazon Store, last page,
at helps us a bit)

Vali Nasr is Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He joined NPS in 1993 after teaching at the University of San Diego, University of California, San Diego, and Tufts University. He is the author of Democracy in Iran (Oxford University Press, 2006); The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future (W.W. Norton, 2006); The Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power (Oxford University Press, 2001); Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (Oxford University Press, 1996); The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama`at-i Islami of Pakistan (University of California Press, 1994); editor, Muslim World, Special Issue on South Asian Islam, 87:3 (July-October 1997); an editor of Oxford Dictionary of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2003); and co-editor with S.H. Nasr and Hamid Dabashi of Expectation of the Millennium: Shi`ism in History (SUNY Press, 1989).


Carl Davidson said...

Short Reviews from Amazon:

About 15 percent of Muslims worldwide are Shia. In Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain, Shia constitute a majority or plurality of the populace, and areas of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (in the latter, the oil fields) host Shia majorities. Iran's Islamic Revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini, which rushed Islam to the forefront of non-Islamic consciousness internationally, was a Shia phenomenon. Iranian Middle East researcher Nasr, who teaches, consults, and writes in the U.S., says that Khomeini was rather a maverick who discountenanced the quietism, ritualism, and celebratoriness of mainstream Shia. If that is a revelation to Westerners, so, probably, are Nasr's arguments that the Shia have been persecuted and oppressed by the Sunni majority ever since the divergence of the two Islamic strains more than 1,300 years ago, and that Islamic terrorism from well before 9/11 to the current insurgency in post-Saddam Iraq is a tactic of intransigent Sunnism. Nasr never pontificates or accuses, always choosing to show both sides' reasons for even the most heinous actions. He never so much as hints at what many readers must infer from his presentation--that the U.S. should think again and again and again before attacking Iran. So enlightening and perspective altering that no one concerned about the Middle East should miss reading it.

--Ray Olson, Copyright American Library Association. All rights reserved

Karen Armstrong

This is indispensable reading for anybody who is trying to make sense of the tragic conflict in the Middle East.

Customer Reviews:

I wish everyone in our government would read this book. Many of the current authors who write about Islam stand accused of Islamophobia, but Vali Nasr is not one of this group of hard-line conservatives. He can be labeled as pro-Shia, although not as particularly anti-Sunni. He comes across (to me at least) as an apologist for the minority religion within Islam.

He also comes across as supporting the current U.S. invasion of Iraq, as better than doing nothing and letting the Sunni extremist groups such as Al Qaeda slaughter the Shia majority. This book will make clear many of the mysterious and murderous conflicts that are taking place in Iraq, including the recent attempt on Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual leader of Shias, by a group of `End of Days' coreligionists.

According to Vali Nasr, the Shia are the butt of jokes and stories about stupidity and bad hygiene in the Sunni world (85 - 90% of Muslims), and in some countries, e.g. Saudi Arabia, they are not granted full citizenship. They split off from the majority Sunni twenty-four years after the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 A.D. Sunnis accepted the rule of elected caliphs, while Shias recognised only imams, descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and his cousin and son-in-law Ali (descendants, who like Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi militia in Iraq, wear the black turban). The Twelfth Imam, who disappeared in Samarra in 874 A.D. is the `Hidden Imam' who is expected to return in the 'End of Days' (by some Shia, at least) to re-establish Islam throughout the world.

In the 16th century, the Shia Persian Safavid dynasty battled Sunni Ottomans for control of Iraq, and Sunni militants in Iraq today describe still Shia opponents as "Safawis". Ever since the overthrow of the Shah in Iran by Shia militants, orthodox Sunni Arab leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah have been warning of a "Shia crescent" stretching from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon (where Iran is supporting the Shia Hezbollah), and destabilising the world's oil supply. Anti-Shia paranoia seems to be sweeping through regions where Shia and Sunni lived in peace (although not necessarily in equality) for many centuries.

"The Shia Revival" is up-to-date (08/2006) and very readable. It educated me and at the same made me crazy at our government's ignorance of the conflict we got ourselves into. Americans obviously didn't cause the Sunni-Shia rift. We seemed to have blundered into Iraq for the wrong reasons, accidentally empowered the Shia majority, and are now being pressed by our Sunni allies to fear the so-called `Shia Crescent.' This book could go a long way toward alleviating that particular fear, especially in the case of Iran. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in how conflicts within Islam will shape our future, regardless of our own religious beliefs.

Excellent Backgrounder on Modern Shi'ism

This is a much needed book, and I recommend it to lay readers wanting more background knowledge on the Shia part of the Muslim world, and the role the Shia play in current events. I give the book four stars rather than five because I think that Nasr draws some conclusions which fit well with fashionable academic thinking in Middle Eastern studies but which do not spring at all from his research, and which I in fact think are contradicted by much of what he writes in the book.

This book is first and foremost a backgrounder for modern Shi'ism. Even those with significant background in the Middle East will likely find a good amount of new information, especially in the sections dealing with the Indian and Pakistani Shia (on which Nasr has done much of his own original research). Nasr discusses the history of the Shia in the Arab and Indian subcontinent, and provides much insight into the intra-Shia dynamics.

In this regard, Nasr does an excellent job of setting forth the differing theologies and political philosophies of the major Shia marjayia, or religious authorities, most of whom are centered in Najaf, Iraq or Qom, Iran. Superficially the ayatollahs may appear to be all the same, but understanding the differences between the theofascist ideology of Iran's Ali Khamanei (velayat e faqih) and Iraq's pluralistic democracy-supporting Ali Sistani and the other senior clerics is where real understanding of modern Shi'ism comes.

The major point is that the opening up of Iraq has begun a religious revolution in global Shi'ism, as the quietist Sistani has come to command the allegiance of 80 percent of the world's professed Shia. Support for Sistani is blooming in Iran and elsewhere. Not that Khamanei's Iran hasn't been fighting back; they have, and Iran has used its wealth to fight back at home and to build constituencies in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Lebanon. Anyone interested in a more detailed look at the way money and the Shia seminaries of Iraq and Iran work should look at a policy focus report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies titled "The Last Marja." In short, there is an intra-Shia war going on, and if Khamanei defeats Sistani and like-minded clerics, all hope of avoiding full-scale war with Iran will be gone. But if Sistani wins, we will likely not need to bomb those Iranian nuke sites after all.

Nasr's key argument is that democracy will empower the Shia in Iraq and Bahrain where they are a majority, and bring fresh pressure for democratic change and more religious freedom where they are a minority, and that this is a good thing. I largely agree. Lebanon is an exception, where Iran's client Hizballah is well entrenched and would benefit from more open politics. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are countries with significant Shia minorities where the Shia are the natural allies of democratic reformers. This is certainly a good thing in Iraq, which is arguably the only Arab country of consequence in which the senior religious authorities are pro-pluralism. The most respected religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Sunni Iraq are firebreathing jihadists.

As an aside, it does come as something of a surprise then that Nasr so fervently condemns the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, until one remembers that in the academy making sure that the United States gets its share of the blame for the world's ills is the litmus test of sophistication. Much of the book is spent explaining how the peaceful and democratic side of Shi'ism as been taking root precisely because of the removal of the Baathist regime. Yet take out a few pages near the end and one could imagine the Bush administration passing this text around to advance the argument that Iraq is truly pivotal and that standing by the Iraqi government, even given current human and financial sacrifice, will be paying dividends for decades to come.

Origins of the civil war in Iraq...

This is an illuminating perspective on current Middle East politics by an Iranian-born and U.S. educated writer, who has credentials as a member of the faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School and associate chair of research at the Department of National Security Affairs. The overall argument of his book is that the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the war in Iraq have set in motion the reversal of an age-old balance of power between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East. After a millennium or more of sometimes brutal suppression by Sunni Arabs, Shias are experiencing a "revival" that will fundamentally change the political structure of the Muslim world.

Written chiefly for the lay reader, the book helps non-Muslims understand both the historical and cultural differences that separate these two branches of Muslim faith. It charts the existence of the divide between them over the centuries, finally focusing on the years since WWI, and the deepening animosities that have found expression in the bloody excesses of Islamist fundamentalism, which Nazr attributes primarily to Sunni rage at losing political power and influence to Shias, whose center of power in the region is now Iran. Meanwhile, the American-led invasion of Iraq and its resulting democratization is seen as a handing over of that formerly Sunni-dominated country to its Shia plurality. Civil war in Iraq, as the situation is described by Nazr, seems not to have been the effect of American bungling, but an inevitable outcome of regime change. Nazr describes the scenario being played out at the time of writing as that of democracy-embracing Shias being targeted by various terrorist groups committed to murder and mayhem in the effort to not only return ascendancy to Sunnis, but wipe out Shia Muslims once and for all.

There is a Shia-Persian bias throughout the book, and Sunni Arab political analysts would no doubt offer another view of the people and events Nazr discusses. However, they may be in agreement on one subject - the character and aspirations of Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Nazr characterizes as a political opportunist with a self-aggrandizing agenda that put him briefly near the center of the world stage but left him finally as something of a walk-on in a very different kind of unfolding Shia drama.

Nazr's prognosis for the future is not encouraging. He sees continued bloodletting and violence and the potential for armed conflict to emerge elsewhere, notably in Saudi Arabia, but he believes that a Shia world view will eventually triumph in the Middle East. As an introduction to the subject, this book may be heavy-going for some readers. Though highly readable, it is packed with information and analysis. With such a large cast of characters and political groups, it's sometimes necessary to flip back to the index for help. But the book is definitely worth reading for its insight and perspective on the complexities of the Middle East.

Bill Baar said...

I recommend his book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.

Also worth noting Bush's press conference with Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, Leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Also Ralph Peter: Sunni vs. Shi'a: It's Not All Islam.

...we've entered a new age when all the great faiths are struggling over their identities. As the religions most-immediately besieged, Shi'ism and Sunni Islam are the noisiest and, for now, the most-violent. But all faiths are in crisis--even as every major faith undergoes a powerful renewal.

In my years as an intelligence analyst, I consistently made my best calls when I trusted my instincts, and I was less likely to get it right when I heeded the arguments around me. Today, those surrounding arguments damn Iran.

My instincts tell me our long-term problem is with Arab Sunnis, whose global aspirations have veered into madness. We have a problem with the junta currently ruling Iran, but not with Persian civilization. Meanwhile, the Bedouin fanaticism gripping so much of the Middle East has no civilization.

Many agree with you here Carl. They're just not were you think you would find them.

Carl Davidson said...

We learned a great deal from this short book. It's an argument an a case-builder more than a strict history. The author, connected to high policy making circles, in the end, argues for a lighter touch on Iran combined with seeing the extremists among the Sunni as a growing danger to the stability of the region.

But one thing is clear from it. Simplistic Texas oilmen and the Neocons hadn't a clue about what they were getting into by invading Iraq.