The Shia Revival: How Conflict within Islam will impact Israel
M. Eliany (C)2006 All rights Reserved
A review of Vali Nasr ‘s book:
The Shia Revival: How Conflict within Islam will Shape the Future
2006 W.W. Norton & Conpany, N.Y.
Convinced of the significance of their sacrifice, thousands of Iranian volunteers swarmed Iraqi positions empty handed, forcing Sadam’s forces to retreat (p.132). This show of faith, together with the rise of the Shia clerics in Iran, mark a Shia revival, which announces unavoidable changes in the balance of power between Sunnis and Shia in Moslem nations, with consequences for Israel, America and Western countries.
Faith and the promise of a place in heaven to martyrs have proven equally important, when Hezbollah’s Shia suicide bombers forced the Israeli army out of Southern Lebanon. It also made Islamic extremism and terrorism more lethal elsewhere (p. 133).
Israel’s delayed withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, hastened the radicalization of the Lebanese Shia, leading to the crystallization of Hezbollah as a powerful force, not only to discourage long term Israeli occupation but also to change the balance of power in Lebanon to the favor of the Shias. Hamas adopted a similar strategy in Gaza subsequently (p.142).
Hezbollah’s success opened the door for Iranian influence in Lebanon, as well as, in the region, by creating an alliance, which includes the Shia in Iraq and Lebanon, and the Allaouis in Syria (p.143).
In the beginning, the Shia revival wore a cultural and religious character (p.170), but soon it translated into a powerful political resurgence with transnational ties (p.171). Shias from Lebanon to Iraq, the Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as, Saudi Arabia and Yemen sought to use this power to advance communal interests (p.173). Interestingly, the most influential leader of this political resurgence is not Iran’s Khomeini or other radical ayatollahs, but the quiet Sistani, who stood for non-sectarian violence and democratic values (p.178). It shows that the Shia revival is not associated with a single form of government and that Shias can be more demanding anywhere they live and get results without being excessive (p.179). Amal and Hezbollah, for example, demonstrated they can rely on their political weight to gain a strong voice in the Lebanese parliament and possibly gain power at the expense of Christians and Sunnis (p.232). In Bahrain, Shia youth followed Sistani’s call for ‘one man one vote,’ to demand full-fledged democracy (p.235). These experiences disposed Shias to debate Islam’s relations with modernity, democracy and economic development. This debate is of essence and consequences on the nature of the regime even in theocratic Iran (p.180, 183-184). The same is not observed in Sunni countries, where fundamentalism is growing.
The Shia revival is pluralistic and far from being subject to a single authority. It rests on the empowered Shias of Iraq, Iran’s rise as a regional power, and the empowerment of Shias elsewhere in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Yemen. It gives the Shias a greater influence in Middle East politics. It also creates more balance between Shias and Sunnis in the region (p.184).
The Shia revival, hastened by the destruction of the Taliban and Saddam regimes, courtesy of the Western coalition intervention, weakened the Sunni axis to the east and west of Iran and bolstered Iran’s regional influence. This is tied to Iran’s nuclear ambition to maintain its regional role, bridge between Shias in the region, as well as, contain Sunni pressure (p. 222). The more Shia influence in the region, the more secure Iran and other Shias feel (p.225).
The Shia revival produced Sunni hostilities. Hostilities of the Shia against Sunnis grew in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and the Saddam persecution of the Shias in Iraq. Although one cannot ignore the existence of Sunni resentment among revolutionary elements of the Iranian regime and other Shias, influencial conservative leaders aim to reduce sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis. For this purpose, Iran and other Shias demonstrate hostility towards and Israel and the USA to divert attention from sectarian divisions (p.226). After forcing an Israeli withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, Lebanese Shia embraced Lebanese nationalism, defining themselves as the defenders of Lebanon, Palestinian rights, as well as other Arab causes, such as the occupation of Iraq (p.233). Elsewhere, Shias anchor their interests in respective national identities (p.234).
Sunni extremism has been on the rise for at least a decade prior to the intervention of the Western Alliance in Afghanistan and Iraq, in all likelihood due to the spread of Wahhabism and Salafism, which produced jihadi activists of the Al-Qaeda brand. The intervention of the Western Alliance in Afghanistan and Iraq only provided venues to Al Qaeda and extremists like Zarqawi, to turn local sectarian conflicts into a regional one, and undermine American and Shia interests (p. 243). Sunni extremis is supported by Wahhabi fatwas, which declare Shiism as heresy and considers it as dangerous as Christianism and Judaism (p.246). Paradoxically, this extremism may prove harmful to the Saudi regime, which supports Wahhabism, as it is perceived as an ally of the Americans and complicit to the Shia revival. Down the road, extremists may move out of Iraq, to threaten not only the Saudi regime, but also Jordan and Israel’s occupied territories (p.247, 249). These developments indicate that intervention of the Western Alliance cannot shape the future to its liking and that it may also precipitate unforeseen conflicts (p.250).
Similarly, the Shia revival poses challenges to Sunni extremism and Wahhabism and as a consequence, a sectarian conflict of which the Western Alliance cannot shape or contain (p.251-252). Extremism may thrive during a transition period, with consequences in and outside the region. Sectarian conflicts have been part of the Middle East for centuries. A new balance will have to be reached between the feuding parties to reflect the rise of the Shia. Historical domination by Sunnis and dictatorship may not provide satisfactory solutions, while democracy and pluralism may provide a more promising peaceful new balance. Otherwise, as long as sectarian conflict hangs over the Middle East, its future will not be brighter than its past (p.254).
Implications for Israel
Israel’s policies have been led by the military establishment for many years. This elite, whether in military or civilian clothes, tends to rely on force to resolve conflicts with neighbors, while lacking the insight that forceful solutions breed extremism with unforeseen consequences. Israel must avoid entwining itself in regional sectarian conflicts, as well as, recognize that the rise of the Shia may bring a new balance to the Middle East. Such development, if democratic and pluralistic, and characterized by a fair distribution of resources, may be beneficial to Israel, if it too opts for a peaceful solution to conflicts with its neighbors.
Israeli elites have been claiming that the Shia revival, i.e., the alliance between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, pose a significant threat to Israel’s existence. As a consequence, Israel has been preparing to deal with such a threat with military means. Responding to abuse with abuse is counter-productive. To end this destructive cycle, Israel must avoid the use of force, unless it is absolutely necessary for self defense, while making every effort to maintain open channels of communication with Shias and Sunnis alike, in an effort to enhance peace prospects, as well as, a more democratic and pluralistic Middle East, characterized by a fair distribution of resources. Israel must also distinguish between real and mute threats, as feuding parties in the Middle East tend to demonstrate hostility towards and Israel (and the USA), only to divert attention from sectarian divisions. In other words, Israel must look for creative peaceful alternatives to the use of force to resolve problems with neighbors. Such alternatives lie in a vision of a more balanced democratic and pluralistic Middle East, characterized by a fair distribution of resources.