Vali Nasr: Understanding the Shia revival
As some have posted in the blogosphere, Bush did not know (and probably still can't understand) the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Nor can I imagine that he'd know or understand, or even could give a hoot on the history of other people's countries, religions, sectarian strife etc. When you grow up in a Western culture, automatically, you will be steeped in its traditions and presumed shared knowledge of certain historical events, grievances and accepted beliefs. Naturally, we do not at all understand any other major cultural and religious entity other than our own, unless we pursue Asian studies, or Middle Eastern politics, which will inevitably include Islam, political Islam, the history of Islam.
Up till now, I could only claim to understand the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims superficially, inspite of having lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, in the Eastern region where the majority of the minority of Shia live. I knew about the persecution and discrimination of the Sunni government (I won't include all Sunnis as that is dependent on the familial and governmental relations)against the Shias. I was there, shortly after the (first) Gulf war when all Shias in any security position (even guards at the gate of the Aramco compound) were en masse fired over a shia uprising/protest against the Saudi government. I also witnessed the supposed difference in Saudi between Shia women being completely covered, even second veils, black gloves and black stockings with open toed shoes, and outside the region in Jeddah for example where women were at least more visible.
In the context of the war and current occupation in Lebanon, the situation with the perceived victory of Hezbullah, and the notion of Israel and Hezbullah playing out a proxy fight between the US and Iran, I think a bit more background and explanation of the Shia Revival is in order.
Vali Nasr has spoken with the White House and hopefully left some seeds for a different approach to Iran in the hearts and minds of the lesser hawks; Iran is easier to handle when engaged (diplomatically and economically) than isolated and pursuited for war:
Yet the emerging Shiite revival need not be a source of concern for the United States, even though it has rattled some U.S. allies in the Middle East. In fact, it presents Washington with new opportunities to pursue its interests in the region. Building bridges with the region's Shiites could become the one clear achievement of Washington's tortured involvement in Iraq. Succeeding at that task, however, would mean engaging Iran, the country with the world's largest Shiite population and a growing regional power, which has a vast and intricate network of influence among the Shiites across the Middle East, most notably in Iraq. U.S.-Iranian relations today tend to center on nuclear issues and the militant rhetoric of Iran's leadership. But set against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, they also have direct implications for the political future of the Shiites and that of the Middle East itself.
So what about this Shia crescent we've been hearing about? This is an excerpt of The Emerging Shia Crescent Symposium: Implications for U.S. Policy in the Middle East in which Vali Nasr participated;
The late Eli Khadduri (ph) described the order that emerged in Iraq as, he said it was an Anglo-Sunni regime. Now the question was raised recently as to whether the new order inIraqwould be an American-Shia regime. It’s not an American-Shia regime, but what the American invasion of Iraq has given the Shias is a chance, if you will, to lay a claim to power in their own country. They can’t monopolize Iraq, and they don’t. Trust me, I’ve been in Iraq in six times. I’ve met with everyone, up and down the line, from Ayatollah Sistani to ordinary Iraqis. This idea of this Shia monster running away with Iraq is a legend. It’s a legend.Read the full transcript HERE.
So now into this enter these two characters, the ruler of Jordan and the ruler ofEgypt. They both are peddling the thesis of the Shia crescent. One problem with the Shia crescent is factual. This is empirical. When the King of Jordan said there is a Shia crescent that runs from Iran to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, there is only one little problem with that, small little problem. Guess what. There are no Shia inSyria. (Laughter.) It’s a little problem. The thesis is too good. We don’t—how could we allow this little fact to interfere with the thesis?
There are Alawites inSyria, and there is enormously bad blood between the Alawites and the Shia. The Alawites are not Shia.
So what exactly is Hosni Mubarak—what does he mean by the Shia—that the Shia are loyal to Iran? It means he’s applying for a job from the King of Saudi Arabia and from Pax Americana.
What does it mean when King Abdullah says the Shia crescent? It means help me. Invest in me, and I will be the praetorian guard of the Sunni order.
So yes, there are some Shia communities. They are laying claim to their country. The Shia are almost a majority in Lebanon alone—practically a majority today. How could we deny them their rights? And the rest I think you are familiar with.
So there is a Shia claim, but it’s a claim on their own lands. And we are caught up—I mean the Pax Americana is caught up in that, and we can—that’s what we want to get into.Fouad Ajami
Read Vali Nasr's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
As if there is not enough to read, another opportunity to further your understanding;
Vali Nasr's interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor with the Council on Foreign Relations.