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?

4 Responses to WE'VE CHOSEN OUR SECT:

  1. Lou Gots says:

    I am still waiting for a copy of the Vali Nasr book to hit my library. I had been hoping
    that, at long last, I might read of some difference between the beliefs of the principal muslim
    factions. Everyone talks and writes of these factions as being analogous to Roman Catholics
    and Protestants, as having differences in “beliefs,” as being more or less amenable to “reformayoion>
    Surely the above book could fill in the blanks left by all those books I have sought out,
    searching like Diogenes for theological distinctions.

    Surely there has to be a difference in what these “sects” believe. Someone is going to help
    me past the mountain of evidence that they are factions only, fighting for a thousand years
    over who is to be capo di tutti capi of a spiritual jailhouse.

    Alas, the Asia Times review portends that my hopes are to be dashed again, for if Nasr draws
    the awaited differences, the reviewer has missed it.

  2. Orrin says:

    The difference isn’t that between Catholics and Protestants but between Christians and Jews.

  3. Lou Gots says:

    Wonderful. Once again we behold the tacit admission.

    One could state the difference between what Jews believe and what Catholics believe in a few shjor lines.
    It should be a simple matter, then, to lay out what separates Shias from Sunnis in terms of beliefs
    and not just in terms of political power.

    Beliefs now, no cheating by just saying that the Shias “believe” that their own people should
    be in charge rather than the other guy’s people. What do they belive that is different from
    what other factions hold concerning God, man, salvation, justification, that sort of thing.

  4. Orrin says:

    Yes, they’re the same lines.

    As Jews so too do the Sunni deny the Messiah, which is why both were incapable of developing the End of History and separation.

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