When the Shiites Rise
By Vali Nasr
The war in Iraq has profoundly changed the Middle East, although not in the ways that Washington had anticipated. When the U.S. government toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it thought regime change would help bring democracy to Iraq and then to the rest of the region. The Bush administration thought of politics as the relationship between individuals and the state, and so it failed to recognize that people in the Middle East see politics also as the balance of power among communities. Rather than viewing the fall of Saddam as an occasion to create a liberal democracy, therefore, many Iraqis viewed it as an opportunity to redress injustices in the distribution of power among the country's major communities. By liberating and empowering Iraq's Shiite majority, the Bush administration helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come.
There is no such thing as pan-Shiism, or even a unified leadership for the community, but Shiites share a coherent religious view: since splitting off from the Sunnis in the seventh century over a disagreement about who the Prophet Muhammad's legitimate successors were, they have developed a distinct conception of Islamic laws and practices. And the sheer size of their population today makes them a potentially powerful constituency. Shiites account for about 90 percent of Iranians, some 70 percent of the people living in the Persian Gulf region, and approximately 50 percent of those in the arc from Lebanon to Pakistan -- some 140 million people in all. Many, long marginalized from power, are now clamoring for greater rights and more political influence. Recent events in Iraq have already mobilized the Shiites of Saudi Arabia (about 10 percent of the population); during the 2005 Saudi municipal elections, turnout in Shiite-dominated regions was twice as high as it was elsewhere. Hassan al-Saffar, the leader of the Saudi Shiites, encouraged them to vote by comparing Saudi Arabia to Iraq and implying that Saudi Shiites too stood to benefit from participating. The mantra "one man, one vote," which galvanized Shiites in Iraq, is resonating elsewhere. The Shiites of Lebanon (who amount to about 45 percent of the country's population) have touted the formula, as have the Shiites in Bahrain (who represent about 75 percent of the population there), who will cast their ballots in parliamentary elections in the fall.
Iraq's liberation has also generated new cultural, economic, and political ties among Shiite communities across the Middle East. Since 2003, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, coming from countries ranging from Lebanon to Pakistan, have visited Najaf and other holy Shiite cities in Iraq, creating transnational networks of seminaries, mosques, and clerics that tie Iraq to every other Shiite community, including, most important, that of Iran. Pictures of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Lebanese cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah (often referred to as Hezbollah's spiritual leader) are ubiquitous in Bahrain, for example, where open displays of Shiite piety have been on the rise and once-timid Shiite clerics now flaunt traditional robes and turbans. The Middle East that will emerge from the crucible of the Iraq war may not be more democratic, but it will definitely be more Shiite.
It may also be more fractious. Just as the Iraqi Shiites' rise to power has brought hope to Shiites throughout the Middle East, so has it bred anxiety among the region's Sunnis. De-Baathification, which removed significant obstacles to the Shiites' assumption of power in Iraq, is maligned as an important cause of the ongoing Sunni insurgency. The Sunni backlash has begun to spread far beyond Iraq's borders, from Syria to Pakistan, raising the specter of a broader struggle for power between the two groups that could threaten stability in the region. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned that a new "Shiite crescent" stretching from Beirut to Tehran might cut through the Sunni-dominated Middle East.
Stemming adversarial sectarian politics will require satisfying Shiite demands while placating Sunni anger and alleviating Sunni anxiety, in Iraq and throughout the region. This delicate balancing act will be central to Middle Eastern politics for the next decade. It will also redefine the region's relations with the United States. What the U.S. government sows in Iraq, it will reap in Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.
Yet the emerging Shiite revival need not be a source of concern for the United States, even though it has rattled some U.S. allies in the Middle East. In fact, it presents Washington with new opportunities to pursue its interests in the region. Building bridges with the region's Shiites could become the one clear achievement of Washington's tortured involvement in Iraq. Succeeding at that task, however, would mean engaging Iran, the country with the world's largest Shiite population and a growing regional power, which has a vast and intricate network of influence among the Shiites across the Middle East, most notably in Iraq. U.S.-Iranian relations today tend to center on nuclear issues and the militant rhetoric of Iran's leadership. But set against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, they also have direct implications for the political future of the Shiites and that of the Middle East itself.(read the rest of this very informative and provocative analysis in the new issue of Foreign Affairs.
I've been raising similar points in my writings. See for example Don't Expect Shi'ites to Toe American Line from February 4, 2005. One of Nasr's main recommendations is that the U.S. needs to reach a strategic deal with Iran as part an effort to stabilize Iraq and prevent the spread of Shiite-Sunni tensions to the entire Greater Middle East, again, a point I've been making for quite a while, including in Target: Tehran? By placing Iran on the Axis of Evil, Bush made an enemy of a would-be ally. And if you haven't done so yet, please get hold of my Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.