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Reaching for Power:
The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World
Yitzhak Nakash

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Book Description

A Q&A with author Yitzhak Nakash

Who are the Shi'is, and what are the differences between Shi'is and Sunnis?

There are two major sects within Islam. Sunnis are the majority. Shi'is are a minority of 11 percent, or about 170 millions. But Shi'is form almost 80 percent of the population of the Persian Gulf where oil is found. Shi'ism grew out of a quarrel among Arab Muslims over the question of succession to the Prophet Muhammad. When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., he didn't appoint a successor. One group asserted that legitimate succession belonged to 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and after him to the Prophet's descendants. But 'Ali was passed over for succession three times in a row before he became caliph. In 661 'Ali was assassinated in a mosque in Kufa in southern Iraq, and the caliphate subsequently shifted from Iraq to Syria. Some twenty years later, his partisans in Kufa, known as the Shi'a, encouraged his son Hussein to challenge the Syrian claim to the caliphate. Hussein raised the banner of revolt in 680, but the people of Kufa failed to rally to his side as they had promised, leaving him to meet his death at the battle of Karbala at the hand of forces loyal to the Syrian Umayyads. Shi'ism was born of Hussein's defeat in Karbala. It developed as the minority sect while Sunnism grew to be the majority sect in Islam. At the core of Shi'i history, then, lies a tale of betrayal and political dispossession, and of people seeking justice.

Why have Iraqi Shi'is been willing to cooperate with America, and why have they shown restraint in the face of targeted killings by the Sunni rebels?

Before the U.S. invasion, a Sunni minority of about 17 percent of the population all but monopolized power in Iraq. The Iraqi Shi'is know that as the majority in the country they stand to benefit in the new Iraq and therefore have by and large cooperated with the U.S. authorities and have avoided being dragged into civil war. But there are other important reasons that explain the tacit Shi'i cooperation with the United States as well as their restraint thus far. Since the early 1990s, there has been a shift of focus among Shi'is in the Middle East from violence to accommodation, coupled with a desire to carve out a political space for themselves. This development is in contrast to the growing militancy among Sunni groups. The decrease in radicalism among Shi'is is evident in the development of the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr. Both in April and August 2004 Sadr rebelled against the U.S. presence in Iraq. Yet Sadr eventually succumbed to the call of Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Sistani to end the rebellion, and agreed to a truce with the coalition forces. Sadr's followers have since entered politics--in contrast to the Sunni rebels, who renounced the political process, and were willing to push Iraq into civil war and fight the Americans to the bitter end.

The development of the Sadr movement is reminiscent of the transformation of the Lebanese Shi'i organization Hizballah from a populist movement entertaining revolutionary ideas into a mainstream political party that accepted both the power-sharing arrangement governing Lebanon and the new political reality created by the departure of Syrian troops from the country in April 2005. The decrease in acts of violence by Hizballah against Western targets since the mid-1990s has stood in contrast to the growth of Sunni-sponsored terrorism by al-Qaeda and other militant groups, including the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the bombings in Bali, Madrid, and Riyadh, as well as the gruesome beheadings of hostages in Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia--a strategy which all Shi'i groups, including the Sadr movement, have condemned.

Who is 'Ali Sistani, and how important has he been in steering Shi'is away from rebellion and towards participation in the political process?

Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Sistani is a cleric. For well over a century, Shi'i clerics have led many of the movements advocating constitutionalism, parliamentary rule, and just governance in the Middle East. In post-Baath Iraq, clerics have again taken the lead, in large part because there scarcely exists a secular civil society in the country that can act as the nucleus of an Iraqi democratic system.

Amid the turmoil that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and in the absence of a national leader with the stature to unite Iraqis, Sistani has asserted himself as the most revered leader of Iraqi Shi'is. This reclusive cleric, who enjoys the largest following in the Shi'i world today, has assumed something of the role of a Shi'i "pope," providing counsel to his followers and responding to the political aspirations of his constituency.

Sistani is not a Khomeini, and unlike Khomeini he does not advocate that clerics should participate directly in politics. But despite his basic belief that clerics should stay out of politics, Sistani was drawn into the power vacuum in Iraq. And he has made clear his opinion on government and constitution-making. In his actions, Sistani has engaged reluctant U.S. policymakers in a debate over the meaning of democracy. And as it turned out, his clout has fundamentally altered Washington's plans for Iraq, resulting in the elections to a transitional national assembly in January 2005, and the rise of Shi'is as the politically dominant community in post-Baath Iraq.

Why are clerics so important today? Where are the secular groups?

Nationalism and Communism, the two ideologies most intimately associated with secularism, have been in decline for a number of decades throughout the Middle East. Their decline has coincided with the rise of Islam as the dominant political force, and the emergence of clerics as communal leaders. In post-Baath Iraq clerics have taken the lead simply because there scarcely exists a secular civil society in the country that can act as the nucleus of an Iraqi democratic system. We saw it in the January 2005 elections when Iraqi communists and Arab nationalists won only a few seats of the 275 seats in national assembly. In its thirty-five years of rule, the Baath wiped out all forms of civil organization not directly controlled by the Party. To make matters worse, the twelve years of sanctions that preceded the U.S. invasion of 2003, reinforced by insecurity and an unemployment rate of some fifty percent in its wake, have reduced the Iraqi middle class to bare subsistence. It will be years before a viable secular middle class can reemerge and check the power of the religious groups, who are led by clerics, and who are now the most vocal, organized, and politically mobilized force in Iraq.

Are we witnessing a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi'is in Iraq?

There are actually two wars that are taking place at the same time. And they are somewhat interrelated. One war is led by Baathists determined to block the rise of Shi'is to power. This war has not reached yet a full-scale sectarian conflict because of the restraint shown by Shi'is. The other war, in which foreign jihadists are playing a major role, is a war for the soul of Islam. It is a war about the nature of governance and leadership in Islam, about the relations between Islam and modernity, and about the meaning of democracy. The outcome of this war of ideas within Islam-which is not confined to Iraq and the Middle East-will have a profound impact on Muslims and on the relations between Muslim and Western societies in the twenty-first century.

What role has Iran been playing in Iraq?

Iran acted as America's silent partner during the Gulf War of 1991 and in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to engage the Iranians. Iran today is very different from the embattleled Islamic Republic of the early 1980s, with the vast majority of Iranians now clamoring for reform and democracy, and a widespread women's movement overshadowing its Sunni counterpart in the Arab world. What is more, the hard-line clerical establishment in Tehran shares the U.S. goal of bringing stability to Iraq--a fact that should not be obscured by the debates over Iran's nuclear intentions, its aid to Shi'i groups in Iraq, and the elelection of the conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president in June 2005. The U.S. occupation of Iraq brought American troops to Iran's door, and as such it was bound to raise tensions between America and Iran as they vie to be the dominant power in the Persian Gulf.

Although Iran has been active in southern and central Iraq, the Iranians have by and large urged Shi'i opposition groups to be engaged in the political process and help in the reconstruction of Iraq. The Iranians don't want a civil war in Iraq, and so far they have dampended the shift towards a full-scale conflict. Iran, with its 65 million Shi'is, ultimately shares the U.S. goal of a unified Iraq with a Shi'i-led government, and it could play a supportive role in Washington's effort to bring stability to Iraq. Yet during 2003-05 the U.S. administration maintained an unyielding position on Iran, focusing on its nuclear intentions and on its aid to Shi'i groups in Iraq. In so doing, the administration diverted attention from the more important problem of Sunni radicalism, with its sources in Saudi Arabia and in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the danger that it poses to long-term U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. It is time for a serious attempt on the part of Washington to engage Iranian leaders and reach an understanding with them over a range of issues, icluding the need for stability in Iraq.

What needs to happen for the political process in Iraq to succeed?

We need to see a large number of Sunnis participating in the December 15, 2005 elections to the national assembly, which would increase their presence in the national assemly. The experience of the referendum of last October, when Sunnis voted in an attempt to defeat the draft constitution, is somewhat encouraging because it suggests that some Sunni groups are eager to influence the politics of post-Baath Iraq . The December elections could kick off an Iraqi political process. The key institution that ought to emerge out of the elections, and evolve in the coming years, is the national assembly. This assembly should be allowed to develop into an institution capable of checking the executive and guaranteeing the rights of women and minorities. If ordinary Iraqis can feel that through the assembly they can put pressure on the government to address their concerns, the political process will gain legitimacy. For its part, the U.S. government would need to accept the development of a strong assembly in Iraq even if this means that its members might pass laws that are not always to the liking of the United States, just as the Turkish parliament in 2003 denied the U.S. military the right to use Turkey as a platform to launch a ground offensive against Iraq. What is at stake in post-Baath Iraq is the creation of a strong legislature and a representative government accountable to the voters--a contentious issue that stands at the heart of the political debate in Iran and the Arab world. A dynamic political process in Iraq, even if influenced by Shi'i and Sunni Islamists, could reinvigorate the reform movement in Iran and inspire change in the Arab world. And it could counter those Sunni militants who have been fighting Muslims seeking to build bridges to the West and willing to cooperate with Americans to realize sociopolitical change.

How is the new Iraq likely to influence the larger Arab world?

An Iraq that ends up with a representative national assembly-put in power by free elections and capable of checking the executive-will be a radical departure from the political realities in both Iran and the Arab world where rulers have controlled the outcome of elections and imposed their will on legislatures. Obviously, such a development will not occur overnight. But overtime it could lead to a real sociopolitical reform in Iran and the Arab world. Therefore a lot of people in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iran have been eagerly anticipating the outcome of the political process in Iraq. The stakes are very high. Iraq could descend into a civil war that would quash the aspirations of people in the Middle East for reform, or it could end up with just governance based on a compromise among Iraqis. How the U.S. handles Iraq and its people in the coming years will therefore be crucial for both that country and the entire Middle East.

How soon can America leave Iraq?

The circumstances leading up to the war in Iraq have resulted in an unprecedented loss of U.S. credibility in the international arena. Yet the war has also provided America with an opportunity to establish a relationship of trust not only with the Shi'is, but also with other people in the Middle East who have been craving change. Iraq has become the nexus where many critical issues are converging, most notably relations between Muslim and Western societies. Having gone to war in Iraq, and then proceeded to dismantle the Iraqi army, the U.S. has committed itself to staying there until Iraq can stand on its own feet. Nevertheless, any attempt to turn Iraq into a more permanent U.S. protectorate, and any failure to accept the leading role that Shi'i and Sunni Islamists are likely to play in the new Iraq and in the larger Middle East, will spark a brand of religious nationalism with strongly anti-American overtones, badly inflame relations between Islam and the West, and seriously undermine America's interests in the region. Success would mean an independent and unified Iraq with a representative government and a strong legislature. Achieving that goal will help restore America's standing in the world, and, at the end of the day, will at least enable U.S. troops to leave Iraq with a sense of political accomplishment.

How the U.S. government handles Iraq and its people in the coming years will therefore be crucial not only for the future of that country and the Middle East, but also for America's global stature.

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File created: 1/22/2008

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