THE SHIA REVIVAL : HOW CONFLICTS WITHIN ISLAM WILL SHAPE THE FUTURE by VALI NASR (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007 edition).
This book has a great deal going for it. To start with, the paperback edition which I bought at Waterstones is beautifully published and is a work which book lovers will enjoy handling. Then, the author, Vali Nasr has a compelling, readable and intelligent style. From the introduction onwards we come across memorable phrases, such as "(w)e live in an age of globalisation, but also of identity politics. It is as if the world is expanding and contracting at the same time."
Above all, the book has a compelling theme. It deals with the Shia of Islam, who account for some 10% of the world Muslims compared to the Sunni's 85%. But as the sub-title indicates we are at a cross-roads in history where the Shia are struggling for their place in the sun. Modern developments in Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon where the Shia have prominence, illustrate this.
Although Vali Nasr centres upon the above major trends amongst the Shia, he provides well crafted and helpful background details about Shia history and its wider international canvas. The significance of the festival of Ashoura is handled sympathetically and the spread and variety of Shia activities is shown to accommodate to (amongst others) Hindu practices in India.
Amongst the insights I gained about Shia politics was that they learnt lessons from the growth of the Iraqi Communist Party which had reached its peak in 1959. The bulk of the labourers who moved into work in the oil industry, Baghdad's factories and Basra's port were Shia. An appeal to their class interests and help for them via Shia social services became part of the religious communities conventional wisdom.
The author takes the side of the moderate, quietest and reflective Shia tradition, rather than of the revolutionary, terrorist and totalitarian tradition. So Sistani's advocacy of the power of the franchise in Iraq (then elsewhere) to extend the Shia's political influence is seen as the big hope for peace and prosperity. He looks to this as an avenue to counter the impact of the Khomeini revolution in Iran. If the only solution is to take sides in this internal Shia debate, then it is (of course) the correct side.
Unfortunately as the book progresses, the author's hopes for the Sistani transformation seem to me to falter in two respects.
First, Vali Nasr sees the Shia's struggle for political space as mainly being directed against Sunni influences. So Sunni politics is presented as being one-sided and oppressive, whether it operates under secular Arab leaders or via bodies such as Al-Qeada. The Sunni are never shown to have their own quietest or democratic-leaning side. Yet whilst Sistani was active from the south of Iraq, Jamal Abul Karim al-Dabban was the senior Sunni religious leader in Tikrit from 2004 until his death in 2007. He was considered to be a moderate. (The nearest Vali Nasr gets to sympathy for the politics of the Sunni camp is his admiration for the influence of King Faysal of Saudi Arabia before his death in 1975.)
Secondly when the first edition of this book was published in 2006, it left us with high hopes for coming Shia democratic and civic practices. However, by the second edition arrived in 2007, the author had to accommodate his views to the seriously deteriorating security position which arose across Iraq following the destruction of the Shia Mosque at Samarra. So he produced an "Afterword" which finds Sistani retreating to his tent to concentrate on religious texts, whilst Sunni-Shia sectarianism bounds forth. If matters have improved somewhat recently (with the tactics around the US surge), they have not yet put Vali Nasr's initial high hopes back on track.
There are only just over 250 pages of text in the book and the two problems I have listed above did not come to my attention until I reached the final 50 pages. In the meantime, Vali Nasr work impressed as a readable and worthwhile introduction to an essential topic which otherwise would be difficult to grasp. For once, I read a book mainly about the Middle East where I didn't become confused by names of the secondary characters, for each argument and analysis fitted into the books overall framework. It was only in the "Afterword" that the author was forced into a fresh situation. It was at least good to see that he did not duck from this task.