Shi’ite revival roils the Mideast
Hezbollah’s war effort is blow to West, the Sunnis
The world’s Shi’ite Muslims, traditionally second-class citizens in the Islamic world, may be having their day.
The strong performanceby fighters of Lebanon’s radical Shi’ite Hezbollah movement in the fiveweek war with Israel is just the latest sign of a resurgence for the branch of Islam that has long been dominated militarily and economically by the more numerous Sunni Muslims.
But the Shi’ite revival also poses major problems for the Bush administration and for Sunni Arabdominated regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while presenting a strategic opportunity for the world’s most-populous Shi’ite state — Iran.
Vali Nasr, Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new book, “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future,” said the popular perception across the Islamic world of Hezbollah’s suc-
cess was a blow to the Sunni regimes and could force even moderate Shi’ite leaders to take a more radical stance against Israel and U.S. interests.
“The Shi’ites can say, ‘We performed better than the Sunnis in standing up for our interests,’ ” he said. “Hezbollah defended little villages in southern Lebanon better than Saddam Hussein defended Baghdad.”
Even before the Lebanon clash, events across the Muslim world had inspired debate over a new “Shi’ite Crescent.”
Following U.S.-backed elections, Iraq’s Shi’ite majority dominates the government in Baghdad for the first time in a millennium, while Shi’ite militias battle largely Sunni insurgentsforcontrolofthecountry.Iran’s Shi’iteIslamicRepublichasseentwo regional rivals — the Sunni fundamentalistTalibaninAfghanistanand Saddam’s Sunni-dominated secular dictatorship in Iraq — crushed by U.S.-ledmilitarycampaigns,while its Hezbollah ally is the strongest and best-armed force in Lebanon.
“FreedfromthemenaceoftheTaliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam in Iraq, Iran is riding the crest of the wave of Shi’ite revival,” according to Mr.Nasr,“aggressivelypursuingnuclear power and demanding international recognition of its interests.”
Shi’ite Muslim communities in Sunni-dominated Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — which has a Shi’ite-majority population — have recently begun to demand greater rights and economic opportunity.
The world’s 120 million Shi’ites represent about 10 percent of Muslims worldwide, and are a majority of the population in just a handful of countries, including Iran (90 percent), Iraq (60 percent), Azerbaijan (75 percent) and Bahrain (75 percent).
Shi’ites make up an estimated 45 percent of Lebanon’s population, and are smaller but still significant minorities in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf states.
Shi’ite Muslims, with a religious tradition that did not focus on state power,havelongcomplainedofmarginalization at the hands of Sunnis, evenincountriessuchasIraq,where Sunni Muslims were a minority.
Someofthemostopenfearsofrising of a rising Iran, have come from the Arab world’s Sunni leaders.
In December 2004, Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned of rising Iranian influence on Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims, referring explicitly to a “Shi’ite crescent” stretching from Lebanon to Iran that could destabilize existing governments and challenge U.S. interests.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in April accused Shi’ite radicalssuchasIraqiclericMuqtada al-Sadr and Hezbollah leader Sheik HassanNasrallahofputtingreligious ties — in particular, allegiance to Iran — above national interests.
“Shi’itesaremostlyalwaysloyalto Iran and not to the countries where they live,” he said.
But some regional commentators say such comments inflate the danger of a pan-regional Shi’ite alliance andreflecttheSunnileaders’fearsof Iranandoftheimpacteventssuchas theLebanesewarcouldhaveontheir populations at home.
“Clearly, throughout the Gulf and beyond, there is an effort on the part ofArabregimestousethisspecterof a Shia crescent for their own purposes,” said Council on Foreign RelationsMiddleEastscholarStevenA. CookatacouncilsymposiuminJune on the Shi’ite resurgence.
Islam scholars say the Shi’iteSunni clash is a complex mix of religion, politics and class issues, and that the schism has never been fixed or permanent in Islam’s 1,400-year history. But the sectarian fighting in Iraq and Hezbollah’s war in Lebanon have forced ordinary Muslims to choose sides.