November 19, 2006


DISCUSSION: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (Vali Nasr , Joanne J. Myers, October 18, 2006, Carnegie Council)

VALI NASR: Thank you. Good morning, first of all. It is a great pleasure to be here. Thank you, Joanne, for that kind introduction.

Everywhere we look nowadays in the news, particularly regarding Iraq, it seems we come across the terms "Shia" and "Sunni" and "sectarian violence." It seems to be the one issue that initially we did not think about in the context of the Middle East. Yet it is, as has been continuously mentioned, the defining factor for the future of Iraq, and in many ways it might become more so for the rest of the region as well.

Now, the question for a lot of policymakers, the American public, and also for a lot of people in the Middle East is: What does it mean, what is the depth of it, and how might it actually change the way things are?

In particular, it is important because in many ways the Shia-Sunni conflict is happening in Iraq, it is the epicenter of it; but it is changing many other things in the Middle East, or is converging with other things in the Middle East. It is a new conflict. Yet I would like to call it a new old conflict , because its roots go back through history. But it is a new conflict that is in many ways converging and interacting with other issues in the region.

For instance, this summer, when the Israel-Lebanon border heated up and a war broke out, it was a war that the world knew was an Arab-Israeli conflict. It had to do with the Palestinian cause. But, unbeknownst to most people, it very quickly became a Shia-Sunni conflict, when the Arab governments and a number of radical Sunni clerics on websites associated with Al Qaeda came out swinging against Hezbollah, arguing that this is a Shia power grab, and is illegitimate. One of the leading pro-Al Qaeda Sunni clerics called Hezbollah, which means the party of God, the party of Satan, and said that Hezbollah could not legitimately ware a jihad against Israel because it's a heretical organization.

The United States very quickly discovered that there was a Shia axis between Hezbollah and Iran that was now essentially deciding the direction of the Arab-Israeli conflict. So this was not just about Iraq, but it was the convergence of the newest conflict in the Middle East, which is the sectarian conflict in Iraq, with the oldest conflict in the Middle East, which is the Arab-Israeli conflict, in ways that were difficult for policymakers necessarily to comprehend or to respond to.

So the question is: What is occurring? I refer to this as "the Shia revival," because I think Iraq set in motion a major change that goes beyond the boundaries of Iraq itself. I believe that it is a consequence of two overlapping events. One is the rivalry that is coming out of Iraq between the Shias and Sunnis, which, as it becomes deeper and more violent, its reverberations are going to become louder in the region. The second is that it coincides with the rise of Iran as a major power in the region. Now, these two are interrelated, they have a lot to do with each other, and yet in many ways they are also separate. But the convergence of them means that it is a completely new Middle East in many ways—not that old conflicts have gone away, but that the rules of the game have changed, the power brokers have changed, the issues have changed, and the boundary lines within the region are changing.

Now, when Iraq happened, something symbolic happened in the Middle East, in the heartland of the Muslim world. Most people did not notice, but about half the population of the Middle East are Shias. Shias are about 10-to-15 percent of the entire Muslim world. We don't have accurate statistics because in much of the Middle East it is not convenient to have them, for ruling regimes in particular. But the estimates are that they are about 10-to-15 percent of the Muslim world, which puts them somewhere between 165-to-190 million people.

The overwhelming majority of that population lives between Pakistan and Lebanon. Iran always had been a Shia country, the largest one, with about 60 million population. Pakistan is the second-largest Shia country in the world, with about 30 million population. And, potentially, there are as many Shias in India as there are in Iraq.

But in the Arab world there are significant population centers. Iraq is a Shia-majority country. In Lebanon, the Shias are the single largest community; looking at anybody's estimate, they are from 35 percent to 45 percent of the population. Bahrain is a Shia-majority country; about 75 percent of its population are Shia. And then you have minorities of various sizes in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.

But, regardless of where these Shias lived in the Arab world, whether they were majorities or minorities, their political and economic situation was the same, and that was that they did not have a share of power that was commensurate to their numbers.

Iraq in some ways changed this, and it changed it in a very significant country, a country that is traditionally one of the three most important Arab countries. Its seat of power, Baghdad, was the seat of the caliphate which is most associated with the suppression of Shiism. That is exactly why there are so many Shia shrines in Iraq all around Baghdad. That's where the Shia leaders died at the hands of the caliphs and were buried.

Now, this important Arab country has become Shia, as a consequence of American intervention. It is the very first Shia Arab country. In many ways, as a result of the fight against the United States from the beginning, the insurgency was as much anti-Shia as it was anti-American. They are the two sides of the same coin, because from the very beginning the perception was that one of the big sins of the United States was to facilitate transfer of power from one sect to the other.

Now, what Iraq did was that it essentially opened hope in the rest of the region, particularly among the Arab populations, about what was possible. When the most senior Iraqi ayatollah, Ayatollah Sistani, came out with a very simple mantra, "one man, one vote," the writing on the wall was very clear: "One man, one vote" benefits the Shia, because where they are a majority, as in in Iraq, that transfers power to them. Where they are a minority, they get a lot more than they had before: they get a seat at the table; they get a share of the wealth.

In most of the region, there is no panarchism, there is no single political leadership, there is no single movement. There is no Ayatollah Khomeini in the Middle East—there is no single pope, if you will, for the Shias. What is fortuitous for the Shias is that because these Shia communities all have the same problems, the same aspirations, and they have the same attitude towards power, the reaction to what happened in Iraq was somewhat similar, and that is to expect more and demand more.

There is a sort of a confidence that began to seep into Shia politics. For instance, in a country in which their political situation is particular dire, namely Saudi Arabia, they began to demand of the king far more than what they had. They are about 10-to-15 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia. They sit on top of Saudi oil, a lot of the oil workers are Shias, but their situation is somewhat like those who live in the Niger Delta in Nigeria: they don't get any of the oil income.

They had been relatively dormant and now they have gotten many concessions from the Saudi government. When the first municipal elections took place in Saudi Arabia last year, Shia voters' participation exceeded those of Sunnis by a margin of two-to-one. In Shia areas about 45 percent of the people voted. In Sunni areas across Saudi Arabia, it was about 25 percent. So it was very clear that the Shias were responding to the opportunity that Iraq had presented—not that they favored the invasion, not that they necessarily favored U.S. intervention, but it had benefited them.

A consequence of that is also evident in Iraq, where the Shias have, by and large, not engaged in insurgency; they have not turned anti-American. They are fighting, but they are not fighting against the United States. For now, they are giving the United States the benefit of the doubt.

But the other side of the equation matters also. From the very beginning in Iraq, it was clear that the Sunnis in Iraq were going to draw the line in the sand. They were not willing to give up power. There is a line in Bob Woodward's book [State of Denial] where Ambassador Blackwell was encouraged by the UN emissary to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, to talk to Sunni leaders. When he talked to them and he told them that the United States would guarantee that the Sunni population would have rights and privileges in accordance to its numbers, they told Blackwell: "You don't understand. We've ruled in Iraq. We want to rule again."

I have been told by many who have talked to American and British officials and to Sunni insurgents in Amarah, that the demand number one all along was Sunni restoration in Baghdad, and that Shia rule over Iraq is simply unacceptable. There is a sort of refusal to allow this transfer of power. So whereas from the very beginning for us this was about Iraqi people and freedom, Iraqi people and dictatorship, the question for the Iraqi people was "which Iraqi people?" and "who defines freedom?" So the Shiites' definition of Iraq is very different than it is for Sunnis.

It became increasingly clear that the Sunnis, both within Iraq and also outside Iraq, do not view Iraqi Shias as legitimate spokesmen for Arab identity and Arab nationalism.

The only folks having more trouble adjusting to the reality that the Shi'a are our allies in the Middle East are the neocons.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2006 11:03 PM

Those that bless Israel, the God will bless and
those that curse Israel, the God will curse.

Shias have cursed Israel.

Posted by: Bisaal at November 20, 2006 2:38 AM

It shall be as though we had won World War Two by watching the Prussians, Bavarians and Saxons slaughter one another: it is Sun Tzu's acme of excellence

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 20, 2006 8:03 AM

Maybe the Shias need a little convincing, too. . . .

Posted by: Twn at November 20, 2006 1:55 PM