The Shia Revival
by Vali Nasr
Once Upon a Time in Karbala
With America bedeviled by reli gious dissension in Iraq, which has a Shia Muslim majority, and the challenges presented by Iran and Hezbollah, both also inspired by Shia traditions, a readable volume on the Sunni-Shia split is timely. And with a better editor and fact-checking, this work, by a distinguished Shia academic, could have been that book.
Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., begins his narrativewith the holy day of Ashura. On the 10th day of Muharrem, according to the Islamic calendar, Imam Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was martyred in 680 C.E.
Husayn was killed at Karbala (in Iraq), in a protest against corrupt rule over the Muslims. The deaths of Husayn and his father, caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib, marked the beginning of the division between the Shias, who supported Ali, and the community that became the vast Sunni majority of Islam.
Nasr plunges into the global political relevance of the Sunni-Shia divide, evoking the background from which, ultimately, the Khomeini scheme for clerical governance emerged. He outlines the history of radical Sunni bigotry against Shias, which can justifiably be described as genocidal, and includes extensive commentary on the origins of Hezbollah and the plague of underreported anti-Shia violence in Pakistan.
At the climax of this historical epic of the new Shia power, Nasr describes the U.S.-led intervention of 2003. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, the city of Karbala and Iraq's Shias were liberated from the long night of Sunni extremist oppression.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, although an Iranian by birth, suddenly stepped forward in Iraq as the theoretician of moderate Shia politics, without clerical rule. Ever since, the lines of power in the Arab states, and indeed in the broader Muslim world, have begun to warp.
It would have been helpful had Nasr clarified why it is that American and other coalition soldiers, as well as Iraqis themselves, are dying in Baghdad and elsewhere, at the hands of Sunni terrorists mainly financed by Saudi Arabia. But as Nasr declares in his preface, he has not set out to write about the Iraq war.
But while Nasr maybe right to disclaim any focus on the Iraq war, his book is a study of the background of that war: the relations between the new Iraq and Iran, the role of radical Sunni violence in the same war and the change in the Mideast that could not have taken place without that war.
"The Shia Revival" deserves reading and debate, since Americans and our allies put their lives in danger every day because of events at Karbala 1,300 years ago.