Friday, April 15, 2022

Review The Shia Revival, How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future

Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006


The Shia Revival, How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future was written by Vali Nasr in response to King Abdullah of Jordan claiming that a Shiite crescent was forming from Iran to Lebanon. The king feared that Shiites were gaining across the Middle East and working at the behest of Tehran. Nasr attempted to counter that by arguing that Shiites were mostly interested in gaining their political and religious rights. The book serves as a good introduction to some of these issues, but it also has its own problems.


One of Nasr’s main points is that the Shiite revival as he calls it isn’t about pan-Shiism or an Iranian Trojan Horse. Regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and more all claim that Iran is behind Shiite activism in their countries. The Shiites taking power in Iraq after 2003 for instance, was considered an Iranian takeover by many. Nasr did not believe this point of view. He argued that Shiites want to defend their power, demand their rights and increase cultural and religious ties across nations to sustain their gains. That didn’t mean Nasr didn’t see Iranian proxies at work like the Badr Brigade in Iraq. What most Shiite groups and notables were pushing for however was their inclusion in their national politics. This has been backed up by other books and researchers who have looked at Iraq and the Persian Gulf states. That means they are asking for things like positions in the government, religious freedom and the end of the glass ceiling that exists in many countries.


Another good thing about The Shia Revival is that it does not see sectarian conflict as a constant in the Muslim world. In the wake of the Iraq War many Westerners wrote that the divide between Sunnis and Shiites has existed since the early days of Islam and has always led to violence and division. In contrast, Nasr points to periods of competition and cooperation between the two sects. For instance, after Turkey ended the caliphate Sunnis and Shiites came together to come up with a response because both believed this was a setback for their faith. In 1920 the two groups also cooperated in a revolt against the British Mandate in Iraq. There were other periods when sectarianism was prominent. This is an important point to make because many have taken the sectarian war that broke out in Iraq as the way things have always been in the Muslim world instead of the result of a specific set of conditions and period in time. Not enough has been said and written to counter that narrative.


At the same time the book runs into several problems. One is that it makes generalities about Shiites to find commonalities and ignores many of the differences. For example, the author writes that Shiites are marginalized across the Muslim world. That’s not true in Kuwait where leading Shiite families consider themselves part of the founders of the nation and have been included in the government and economy. That doesn’t mean Shiites haven’t been excluded but there are variations. Second, Nasr believes that Shiites were a democratizing force in the Middle East as they demanded their rights. That may not always be true either. In Iraq there are elections which has given the Shiite majority control of the government, but it’s an open question of whether they believe in democratic norms or just Shiite hegemony. The Shiite elite do not believe in freedom of speech, the right to protest, the rule of law, etc., and often resort to violence to deal with dissent and differences. Again, the commitment to democracy must be assessed country by country, group by group. That’s the main fault with The Shia Revival, in trying to make a thesis about such a large topic it emphasizes trends and glosses over variations. Again, being an introductory book it’s understandable that Nasr didn’t delve into things in more depth.


Despite its faults The Shia Revival is still a good jumping off point to understand one of the major changes taking place in Muslim countries. It counters some of the major stereotypes such as the role of Iran and how prevalent sectarianism has been. It also includes central Asian countries such as Pakistan, India and Afghanistan instead of just focusing upon the Middle East. That makes it much better than many books that looked at Iraq and saw that as how Sunnis and Shiites had always interacted.


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