Author and scholar Vali Nasr gave a talk in Washington on Monday titled “The Revival of Shia Islam,” offering insightful explanations into the divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and how religion is affecting political events in the Middle East and beyond.
In his lecture, a transcript of which is available online, Mr. Nasr examined how the sectarian dimensions of the Iraqi conflict are having an effect in Lebanon and Iran right now and, by extension, in Israel, and how they could affect the political scenarios in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt.
Mr. Nasr certainly has the credentials to address the topic. He recently wrote the book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future, and is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate chair of research at the Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School.
Islamic sectarianism has given rise to complex and delicate interactions between the world’s majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites, the two major Islamic sects that initially divided by following different successors after the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 A.D.
In Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror, the ruling Sunnis had kept the Shiites suppressed for decades, but the Shiites have been regaining power recently through the electoral process.
While there are only 130 million to 190 million Shiites among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, virtually all are in the Middle East where Shiites and Sunnis are relatively equal in numbers, Mr. Nasr said.
The Shiites also have been kept out of power in most Middle Eastern nations, but after seeing how the elections in Iraq opened the door for them to gain political influence they are looking to Iraq as a model. In Saudi Arabia’s recent elections, Mr. Nasr said, the Shiites turned out in far greater numbers than did Sunnis (45 to 25 percent), giving Shiites positions of authority on municipal councils for the first time.
The ramifications for U.S. relations with Iran, Lebanon, and Hezbollah are hanging in the balance of sectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Mr. Nasr said.
A transcript of the lecture, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a nonpartisan “fact tank” based in Washington, is available online at www.pewforum.org and is well worth reading for anyone interested in getting a handle on such a complicated and challenging topic.