Book Reviews: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future

Author:Major Joseph J. Jankunis

2007] BOOK REVIEWS 179



The CNN commentator was gleefully boasting that Iraqis were free at last-they were performing a ritual that the audience in the West did not understand but that had been forbidden to the Shia for decades. What Americans saw as Iraqi freedom, my hosts saw as the blatant display of heretical rites that are anathema to orthodox Sunnis. Iraqis were free-free to be Shias, free to challenge Sunni power and the Sunni conception of what it means to be a true Muslim; free to reclaim their millennium-old faith.3

  1. Introduction.

    10 September 2001. Looking across the Islamic world, Sunni regimes dominate the landscape. From Afghanistan to Egypt, evidence of the "Sunni ascendancy" abounds. Even majority Shia countries, such as Iraq and Bahrain, are ruled by Sunnis. It is with this Sunni majority that America is familiar. Some are even our allies. In contrast, encircled to the north of this Sunni ring lies the center of the "other Islam," Shia

    Islam. Outside of being infamous for the Iran hostage crisis, spawning of Hezbollah, and virulent anti-Americanism, this is a group largely unknown to most Americans. From the 1979 Iranian Revolution through

    10 September 2001, America had few ties with this "other Islam." With its revolutionary fury spent during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran and Shia populations within Sunni dominated countries remained largely cut-off from the United States and the broader Sunni Islamic world. Operation Enduring Freedom, and more dramatically Operation Iraqi Freedom, shattered this façade of Sunni dominance. The "other Islam," unencumbered and empowered by the initial U.S. success in Afghanistan and Iraq, began to awaken. The "Shia revival" had begun.4

    The Shia Revival provides a powerful, vivid, and ultimately unnerving account of the Shia revival and Sunni backlash resulting from the U.S. occupation of Iraq and its imposition of a democratic system. The United States invaded Iraq with the intent "of changing the region's politics for the better."5 Instead, U.S.-led military actions rubbed raw the millennium long rift, at times visceral and violent, between Sunni and Shia Muslims and precipitated a broad and dynamic power struggle that has been dramatically reshaping the Islamic world.6

    Casting a wide net over the Islamic world, the book provides a broad framework for understanding the origin and direction of the Sunni-Shia conflict. The framework broadly outlines the political, historical, economic, religious, and cultural interface between Sunnis and Shias from the birth of Islam to the present. An understanding of this framework alone makes the book well worth reading. However, the book's true strength lies in the application of this broad framework to specific historical, political, cultural, and religious friction points to show why the "Sunni ascendancy" in the late twentieth century has been forced to respond to the painful birth pangs of a region-wide "Shia revival."7 Vali Nasr persuasively brings the reader to an understanding of where the Islamic world has been, where it is heading, and the

    implications for the United States in its future relationships with the Islamic world as a result of the recent "Shia revival."8 In accomplishing this task, Nasr makes The Shia Revival a must read for military professionals.

    This review begins with an in-depth overview of the book. A discussion of democracy as a U.S. policy goal at the time it invaded Iraq to contextualize Nasr's assessment of U.S. policy flaws follows. Finally, the book's relevance to Judge Advocates is highlighted.

  2. In-Depth Overview

    In The Shia Revival, Nasr weaves countless swatches of cultural, religious, historical, and political fabric from across the entire Islamic world into a complex but intelligible tapestry that transcends time and geographic location. The breadth and richness of the tapestry is truly remarkable and clearly woven by a master in Middle Eastern affairs.9

    Consistently relating past to present, Nasr highlights how different conceptions of the role of government, forms of worship and religious practices, intrusions from the non-Muslim world, and ebbs and flows in power have impacted Sunni-Shia relations and serve as a predictive model for future behavior.10 One need only consider Nasr's treatment of Sunni and Shia reactions to various Ashoura festivals throughout the book to appreciate his skill in making the past relevant to and partially predictive of the future.11 He uses this predictive model to discuss the current power brokers in the Islamic world, to include various extremist groups, stretching from Lebanon to Afghanistan.12 By the end of the book, the reader is left with a broad history-based understanding of the way ahead for the United States in its relations with the Middle East.

    The war in Iraq is ancillary to Nasr's purpose in writing The Shia Revival.13 He treats it initially as a causal mechanism, and ultimately as an effect of dynamic and (from the U.S. perspective) unexpected regional change.14 Nasr's purpose in writing this book is more complex. He writes to explain the resurgent conflicts between Sunni and Shia that the "war and its aftermath have unleashed and how those conflicts will shape the future."15 His conclusion is chilling-the Iraq war marked the end of a period of "Sunni ascendancy" and empowered Shias within Iraq and concomitantly across the entire Islamic world.16 Nasr labels this empowerment the "Shia revival."17 Overnight, Iraq transformed from a Sunni bulwark against Iranian (Persian) Shiism into a Shia dagger wedged in the heart of the Sunni Arab world.18 Iran greatly benefited from this change. Formerly hemmed in by...

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