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Revivalism, Shi‘a Style

Revivalism, Shi‘a Style

Mini Teaser: Energized Shi‘a represent a powerful challenge to Sunni extremism and jihadism.

by Author(s): John O. Voll

For some Sunni militants in Iraq, especially those under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the "final reckoning" with the Shi‘a is to take place in the present. Nasr does not give much attention to the tensions that this created within the broader framework of global Al-Qaeda. One of the first indications of possible differences between global Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden and Iraqi Al-Qaeda led by Zarqawi came from a December 2005 letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leading ideologue associated with Bin Laden, to Zarqawi. In this letter, Zawahiri reaffirmed the Sunni position that Shi‘a Islam is "based on excess and falsehood" but warned Zarqawi that the majority of Muslims do not understand the difference. He noted that "many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shi‘a." The basic advice was to avoid sectarian fighting in order to avoid divisions among the people in the war against the foreign unbelieving forces. A letter captured by American forces in June 2006 and released in September reaffirmed this tactical position. However, even though tactically the Sunni militants might think that Sunni-Shi‘a conflict might need to be postponed, it is an inevitable part of current and future dynamics in the struggles for power and control in many parts of the eastern Arab world.

Nasr's conclusion examines "the battle for the Middle East" within the framework of his basic conclusion that the heart of this battle is the historic conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘a. In this conclusion, Nasr tends to speak of Sunni extremism and argues that the "Shia revival constitutes the most powerful resistance and challenge to Sunni extremism and jihadi activism within the region. Shia revival is an anti-Wahhabi and anti-extremist force." In this picture of the Sunni-Shi‘a conflict, Nasr gives less attention to Shi‘a extremism as manifested in the actions of the Mahdi Army of Moqtada Sadr. While the senior Shi‘a leadership in Iraq, as represented by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is a significant force in reducing extremism and providing support for democracy, the more radical Shi‘a elements are also a major factor in determining the level of sectarian violence.

The Shi‘a revival is an important element in the battle for the future of the Middle East. The two major events in this development are the Islamic revolution in Iran and then, more dramatically, the Shi‘a responses to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. Vali Nasr presents a persuasive case for the necessity of giving attention to the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘a resulting from this revival. He rightly places these tensions in the context of virtually 14 centuries of contestation. However, he paints a picture of historic continuity while providing the information to show that while the Sunni-Shi‘a conflict has important continuities, many of the elements of the current conflict are manifestations of new factors, especially in Iraq. The current conflicts between the militant Sunni successors to Zarqawi and activist Shi‘a, like Moqtada Sadr, may have old labels and arouse old prejudices, but they are also new-style conflicts utilizing old symbols to mobilize support.

However, in the current competition, as Nasr emphasizes, democracy is now the policy advocated by Shi‘a in many areas. He argues that "democracy will unleash the full extent of the Shia challenge to Sunni extremism. Democracy will bring to power Shia majorities and give greater voice to Shia minorities." The transformation of the political position of Shi‘a from marginalized minority to advocates of democracy is a remarkable development reflected in the novelty of the current Shi‘a revival.

John O. Voll is a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University.


[1] Jeff Stein, "Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?", The New York Times, October 17, 2006.

Essay Types: Book Review