Like many Americans, I had heard of Sunni and Shia Muslims but until recently had little idea what difference there was between two. Imam Qazwini’s book American Crescent (see my March 13 post) presented some basic material, but The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr tells much more.
Unlike Qazwini, who treats differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims as fairly minor, Nasr depicts the sectarian conflict between the two as the root of much political and military activity within and among Muslim nations. To Americans who for nearly three decades have associated Islam with the glaring face of Ayatollah Khomeini, it may come as quite a surprise to find out that he was a Shia Muslim, which makes him a member of a sect that is considered heretical if not downright apostate by many Muslim fundamentalists.
Nasr depicts the Shia tradition as one more given to emotional expression of faith, reverence for saints, and drama and ritual that make a large part of the Shia identity. In these ways Nasr sees similarities between them and Roman Catholics. The Sunnis, on the other hand, have a more intellectual religion, one based strictly on a plain reading of the Koran without esoteric interpretations, and they often see the Shia practices – especially in their visits to the shrines of the saints – as veering into polytheistic idolatry. (As the Sunnis put great emphasis on laws and on the need to strictly adhere to them, however, many Protestants would no doubt not want to be compared with them.)
Nasr relates the long history of Shiism, nearly all of which is the story of a persecuted minority. Only in Iran are Shiites a clear majority, and the power they wield there is seen as a threat to the Sunni leadership of other Muslim countries. Khomeini had hoped to lead all Muslims and usher in a new age of Islamic glory, but his Islamic Revolution in Iran resulted in a new militancy among Sunni groups – not to join him but to oppose him.
For Americans who can barely remember who are Shiites and who are Sunnis, it may come as a surprise to learn how many smaller sects/parties there are within those broad groupings. This confusion is compounded by the various nationalities involved, as the sectarian conflicts have played out slightly differently in each country, based on their history and the type of rulers they have had. While for the most part Sunnis side with Sunnis and Shiites side with Shiites, even across national boundaries, sometimes patriotism confounds expectations. Khomeini had expected Iraqi Shiites to help Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, but instead many of them fought for their own country against Iran.
Opposition to American forces in Iraq, while partly a result of people’s natural dislike for having foreigners in authority in their homeland (especially where there has been a long history of one foreign power or another doing so), is also sometimes a strategy to gain cooperation from other groups that are anti-American, or to prove one’s opposition to the Shiite leadership that cooperates with the Americans.
This is a very informative book, and not difficult to read if you have an interest in this subject. I did have trouble keeping track of all the different groups (which country is the Muslim Brotherhood in? Is Amal Shia or Sunni?), but the overall message is clear. Understanding the sectarian nature of the conflict in Iraq is essential. Sunnis who have been used to being in power oppose an elected government which puts heretics (as they view them) in charge of the country, while Shiites welcome the chance to use the democratic process to finally win the freedom to live according to the traditions they hold dear.
Nasr makes it clear that America cannot predict, much less determine, how the Shia-Sunni conflict will turn out. He is certainly not advising us to take sides.
Most Shias and Sunnis will look for ways to reach a state of peace, to live together and share political goals and aspirations. Democracy will be far more efficient than dictatorship at attaining that inclusive goal. Future stability must be based not on the hegemony of one sect over another but rather on an inclusive vision of Islam and the Arab world that will recognize the identity and beliefs of both Shias and Sunnis and distribute wealth and power in accordance to numbers.
But the process of getting there will involve violence. There are radical groups that do not want to live side by side in peace with those they consider their enemies. Nasr goes on to say that
Those forces that are most dangerous to Western interests and to the peace of the region are likely to thrive during this transition. It is in the interests of Shias, Sunnis, and the West to minimize the pains of transition and hasten its end.
And to do that, he says, we have to start by understanding the people and their diverse religious identities.