Shi’ite re­vival roils the Mideast

Hezbol­lah’s war ef­fort is blow to West, the Sun­nis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By David R. Sands

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.

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