Worm in the Sunni apple: a review of The Shi’a Revival by Vali Nasr (Sreeram Chaulia, Asia Times)
Typical Western reference points for the Muslim world harp on such themes as authoritarianism, fundamentalism and women’s rights but miss the basic fault line of sectarianism. Iranian scholar Vali Nasr’s new book shatters this myopia through a masterly analysis of Shi’ite-Sunni rivalries that go back to the founding days of Islam and are currently playing out in the blood-stained streets of Pakistan and Iraq. Its central thesis is that the Shi’ite challenge to Sunni dominance will reorder the future of the Middle East and South Asia. […]
Shi’ites are not content with Sunni-style dutiful observance of laws. They emphasize rituals associated with charismatic imams and saints who are intermediaries for healing, blessing and forgiveness. They love visual imagery and accord a higher status to women in piety, characteristics that anger puritanical Sunnis.
The fear of revolts that Shi’ite imams instilled in the Sunni caliphs was met with persecution, imprisonment and killings of members of Islam’s minority sect. Condemned as “the enemy within” and as “rejecters of the Truth” (rafidis), Shi’ites were branded as “a bigger threat to ‘true’ Islam than Christianity and Judaism” (p 54). Blaming Shi’ites for the decline of Sunni worldly power was the norm. For survival, ordinary Shi’ites had to hide their affiliations (taqqiya), and their imams escaped to Iran and India to seek refuge. The sufferings of the imams lie at the heart of the Shi’ite version of martyrdom (shahadat). Unless Sufism intervened in Sunni societies, tolerance for Shi’ites was weak. […]
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was “a Sunni-Shi’a sectarian war cast in national terms” (p 141). The Saudi-Pakistani strategic relationship that underwrote the Taliban and jihadis in Kashmir was formed to “eliminate Iran’s ideological influence” (p 157). Pakistan’s state-financed “green fundamentalism” eulogized Sunni caliphs who killed Husayn and damned the Shi’ite festival of Ashoura as a heathen spectacle. Since 1989, Sunni-Shi’ite violence in Pakistan has claimed more than 4,000 lives as the “lines between jihad within (against Shi’as) and jihad outside (in Afghanistan and Kashmir) blurred” (p 167).
Sunni anxiety deepened in the face of recent gains by Shi’ites in Iraq that changed the sectarian balance of power. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s moderate style set the tone for Shi’ite ascendancy based on shared identity of millions of Iraqis, Iranians, Lebanese, Pakistanis and Afghans. Nasr argues that a transnational Shi’ite consensus is forming around the need to defend their power and identity. This is being enhanced under the onslaught of Sunni terror in Iraq. Today, Shi’ites demand more and get it through the democratic ballot box.
And guess who’s bringing them democracy?