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Author Vali Nasr Discusses Growing Political Power of Shi'a Muslims

Vali Nasr, author of the recently published book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, says that, by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, the U.S.-led coalition unintentionally strengthened Iraq’s Shi’a majority and helped launch a broad Shi’a revival that could upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and in the Middle East for years to come.

Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA, Vali Nasr, who is Professor of Middle East and South Asia politics at the Naval Post-Graduate School in La Jolla, California, explains that the split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam dates back to the period after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when there was a dispute over his rightful successor. And over time, each of the two sects developed its own approach to law and to interpreting the faith. Early in their history, Professor Nasr says, the Shi’a were marginalized by the dominant Sunni majority, and many of their leaders were killed. Only in Iran, whose Persian population converted to Shi’a Islam in the 16th century, were the Shi’a able to dominate politically. Professor Nasr says what binds the Shi’a together today is their attachment to the shrine cities of Iraq and to the clerics and the ayatollahs, the most important of whom is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Vali Nasr notes that Iraq is the only Arab country where the Shi’a currently hold political power. In Bahrain, the Shi’a are a majority, and in Lebanon, they have a plurality. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they represent a sizable minority. In the non-Arab world, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan have large Shi’a minority populations. And Azerbaijan is actually a majority Shi’a nation. .

But Professor Nasr says that, with the current “Shi’a revival,” the Shi’a are demanding a “place at the table.” And he adds, Iraq has “set the stage,” showing that the shift from Sunni to Shi’a power will “not happen easily.” He notes that in Saudi Arabia, where the conservative Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam formed an alliance with the House of Saud in the 19th century, there is an especially “bloody legacy” between the Sunnis and Shi’a. Furthermore, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran was particularly threatening to Saudi Arabia, and since then the rivalry between the two nations for influence in the Middle East has increased.

Vali Nasr says that in the recent war in Lebanon the “sectarian card was put on the table” by the Sunnis - when Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt initially criticized Hezbollah for its cross border raid into Israel. But Iran and Hezbollah had bet on rising above that sectarianism by “rallying everyone around Israel,” Professor Nasr says. Professor Nasr adds that in Lebanon, where the Shi’a are actually the largest confessional group (45 percent), they lack commensurate political power, a situation that could ultimately lead to civil war.

Professor Nasr says Washington’s greatest challenge in the region is to promote stability – first by encouraging a “sustainable” ceasefire in Lebanon, next by preventing Iraq from descending into a deeper conflict, and then by engaging with Iran and determining just what “carrots and sticks are available.” Vali Nasr argues that talking with Iran does not mean “recognizing” Iran, but it does mean adding a “diplomatic channel” to the current U.S. “arsenal.” He suggests that it will be necessary for the Iraqi Shi’a and the Kurds to make “serious constitutional compromises” with the Sunnis. Professor Nasr says it was Sunni resistance to Shi’a power that has pushed Iraq in Iran’s direction.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.