Tuesday, December 30, 2008

After Bush, Islam's Real Challenge

December 29, 2008

At the Pew Forum's biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life, Vali Nasr, author of the 2006 book, The Shia Revival, surveyed the geo-political landscape of today's Middle East, arguing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq has fundamentally shifted the region's balance of power.

With Iran gaining influence, Iraq ruled by a Shia-led government and Hezbollah carrying the politically potent anti-Israeli mantle, Shia religious and political forces are displacing Sunni and Arab forces. While U.S. foreign policy has previously focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its neighbors, Nasr argued the most important conflicts of the Middle East now revolve around the Shia/Sunni sectarian divide. Jeffrey Goldberg, a long-time Middle East correspondent, related his experiences of interviewing Lebanese and Pakistani extremists, as well as breakfasting with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Vali Nasr, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Jeffrey Goldberg, National Correspondent, The Atlantic

Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In the following excerpt, ellipses and hyperlinks have been omitted. Read the full transcript at pewforum.org.

Vali Nasr


I want to raise a number of issues I think will be important in considering how a new administration may approach the thorny issues in the region and how religion fits into those. It goes without saying that two major challenges, or threat areas, face the new administration. One is encapsulated in the Iranian challenge, although beyond the nuclear issue we have very little grasp of what that actually means. The second challenge revolves around the question of al-Qaeda, which we know a lot more about and maybe have a better grip on.

A key issue that has bedeviled American foreign policy and is a challenge for the new administration is, first of all, to understand the nature of each of these threats, but more importantly to understand how they relate to one another: Are they the same, or are they different? And which is actually more of a threat, and in what regard? How do they impact one another? I think answering these questions are key, not just for American policy makers, but also for the American public, to bring us to a level of understanding beyond the one that we're currently at.

The world has changed significantly since 2003, as we know. The Middle East has changed in a very significant way. Part of the problem is we have never really understood we are dealing, post-Iraq, with Middle East 2.0: that there are some fundamental, and in my opinion irreversible, shifts in the balance of power of the region.

First, there is a palpable, significant, and, I think for the time being, irreversible shift of power and importance from the Levant -- the area of Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Syria -- to the Persian Gulf and the Afghanistan/Pakistan corridor. The region that for 50 years was the basis of our foreign policy -- we thought its conflicts mattered most, our alliances there mattered most -- does not matter as much to peace and security anymore. When the Lebanon war happened in 2006, the country that had most to do with it was not in the neighborhood. It was Iran. The countries in that neighborhood could do nothing to stop the war, and this was attested to by Israel, the United States and the regional powers themselves.

Once upon a time we used to think -- and some people still do -- that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to solving all the problem of the regions: terrorism, al-Qaeda, Iran or Iraq. I don't believe so. I think the Persian Gulf is the key to solving the Arab-Israeli issue. All the powers that matter -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even the good news of the region: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, et cetera -- are all in the Gulf. And all the conflicts that matter to us -- Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran -- are in the Gulf and then to the east. So the Arab-centeredness of the Muslim Middle East is gone. We haven't caught up to that in our foreign policy. The Middle East now is far more Iranian and Pakistani and Afghani in terms of the strategic mental map we have to deal with. Trying to deal with the Middle East as if we're in 2002, before the Iraq war, is one of the main reasons why we haven't been able to bring the right force to bear on the problems in the region.

The second shift, connected to this, is a palpable movement from the Arab world toward Iran. The Arab world has declined very clearly in its stature and power; Iran is a rising force. You don't hear the Iranians worried about the Arab world; you don't hear a single Iranian leader express any kind of anxiety; in fact, in a very patronizing way they constantly say to Arab countries, "Don't worry, we'll take care of you. You don't need to rely on the United States; we'll protect you."

Then listen to Arab leaders. The first thing every American official hears when he or she arrives in an Arab capital is worry about Iran. It's clear that the balance of power -- and a lot of power is a matter of perception -- has moved eastward. It's a problem for us because most of our alliance investments were to the west, in the Arab world. Now, those alliances have not done for us as much as we hoped they could, even in the Arab-Israeli issue, where they were supposed to be the ones providing all the help.

The third and, again, connected shift is that after Iraq there is a palpable shift in the religio-political sphere from the Sunnis to the Shias, a sect of Islam that has been completely invisible to us. We all of a sudden discovered them, but I don't think we quite understand what we discovered and what it means for us going forward. A fourth, related shift is that many of the conflicts we are dealing with, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, involve insurgent Sunni forces.

The losers in America's battles in this region are not evenly distributed among the actors I'm mentioning. The Sunni powers, the Arab powers, have clearly lost as a consequence of our wars of choice and necessity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran and its allies and the Shia forces have clearly gained. So when we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, we're essentially facing revanchist forces -- forces who lost and refuse to accept what has happened and believe they can come back. All of these dynamics are now embedded in the power structure of the region, namely this Shia-Sunni issue. The Arab-Iranian issue is encapsulated in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry around the Gulf and in Iranian-Arab rivalry over the future of Lebanon and the Palestinian issue. These conflict-area issues are going to continuously reflect those dynamics.

Connecting these geo-strategic issues to what's happened in this region religiously is very important. We talk about Iran and Saudi Arabia as countries in secular terms, the way we think of France or Germany or a power play in Europe -- that is, in terms of realpolitik -- but in the mental map of Muslims, they also represent two large civilizational blocks within Islam. Namely, Iran stands for Shia power, whether or not it wears it on its sleeve. Saudi Arabia and the Arab world essentially represent the Sunni face of Islam.

There is an intense rivalry between these two sects of Islam, between both the radical elements and the establishment elements of each. This civilizational or cultural or religious battle within Islam is now very clearly tied to everything that's happened after Iraq. Therefore it is not going to stop, because it's not a matter of getting a couple of clerics in a room to say nice things about one another; it's not an ecumenical exercise. There is a huge power play associated with this.

We all know how Iraq opened this fissure. It ended up being a turning point for a variety of reasons. First, it is of symbolic value: Post-Saddam Iraq is the first Shia Arab state in history. That represents a major turning of the tide. Now, 60 to 65 percent of Iraq is Shia, which means about 80 percent of its Arab population is Shia. In Lebanon, 30 to 40 percent of the population may be Shia, which makes it the single largest community in the country. Seventy-five percent of Bahrain is Shia, and 10 percent of Saudi Arabia is Shia, roughly speaking. Shias makes up between 20 and 25 percent of Pakistan, 30 percent of Kuwait, 20 percent of the United Arab Emirates and about 20 percent of Afghanistan. Yet for so long, when we looked, we didn't see the Shias, particularly in the Arab world.

What the U.S. did in Iraq was to show a path to empowerment for the Shia, first through regime change and secondly through elections. The Shias took to elections very aggressively after Iraq. I remember the very first thing Hezbollah's television stations said after elections in Iraq was, "We want exactly that -- one man, one vote -- not this democracy where at the end of the day the minorities end up ruling." The Shias in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain said the same thing.

So Iraq is symbolically very important. But the process in Iraq broke down; they ended up fighting one another. The fighting was very polarizing because the Sunnis in Iraq and their supporters in the Arab world cast the Shias as the cat's paw of Iran; they referred to the Maliki government and its predecessor as Iranian stooges. And the Iranians did invest heavily in creating these ties within Iraq.

But it's not just about Iraq. We should all take heart in the fact that violence has stopped, although I for one don't believe we're out of the woods. We have a ceasefire in Iraq; we don't have a deal yet. And when you don't have a deal between fighting factions, ceasefires are, by definition, unstable. The reason for fighting hasn't gone away, partially because it goes to exactly what I said: The final solution in Iraq will either confirm Iran's ascendance or confirm some kind of Arab restoration.

Therefore a lot rides on that final solution. In fact, it's a singular mistake to think you can have a deal by having only Iraqis agree to it, because what they agree to will have much broader implications for where the power in that region will lie. A final deal in Iraq will be the deal that decides the shape of the Middle East. But we don't think in those terms; we think extremely narrowly, as if it's a matter of getting two warring factions in the room.

As a side note, we should have learned by now from Afghanistan and Iraq that Middle Eastern governments have enormous amounts of patience to wait us out. Just because we beat Pakistan out of Afghanistan didn't mean they agreed to give it up, and, seven years later, they are taking it back whether we like it or not. Therefore a deal that doesn't reflect some buy-in from these neighbors is not going to last, and -- maybe not next year or the year after but eventually -- we'll go back to having fighting in Iraq.

Only two months ago the eminent Sunni cleric, popular on al-Jazeera, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, gave a very nasty fatwa against the Shias, arguing they are on a binge to convert Sunnis to Shiism. He came under very severe criticism, and then he refined his arguments, saying he was really referring to Iranian Shias. He went to the heart of the matter. He was saying not that the Shias are a threat, but that Iran is a threat. We don't have a sense of whether any Sunnis are converting to Shiism, although we do hear a lot of rumors of that, particularly after the Lebanese war in 2006. The aura of power is with Shias, and there is now talk of communities emerging in Algeria, in Senegal, in Nigeria and in Syria. Even in Saudi Arabia there is talk, including among high society, that there are either nominal or real conversions to Shiism going on. Some of it has to do with the [role] the city of Qom is now playing as the Oxford of religious studies in the Muslim world.

Only about a month ago Pakistani/Taliban forces put a complete siege on a parrot's beak of a territory in northwest Pakistan called the Kurram Agency, which protrudes into Afghanistan. That's a Shia region, with a Shia population of about 250,000, whom the Taliban have basically been starving to death for the last six months. It ultimately took Ayatollah Sistani and a major campaign to at least bring it into international news. But as we speak the territory is still under siege, and it's a purely sectarian issue.

Then within Pakistan you have now essentially a Shia government. President Zardari is Shia; his prime minister is Shia; and his foreign minister is half Shia. Zardari is a very staunch Shia and many of his people in power are Shia. Part of the clash between the civilian government and the jihadis and extremists is sectarian. It's a sub-current of what's going on. It's not a coincidence that the king of Saudi Arabia for the longest time refused to meet Zardari.

For those of you who might not know the difference between Shias and Sunnis, let me give you a quick sense; at some levels it matters and at others it doesn't. The reason they separated early on probably looks trivial now; namely, they disagreed over who would succeed the prophet Muhammad. The Sunnis said the community would choose the best among them, while the Shiites came to believe the charisma of the prophet would go by bloodline through his progeny, which was then his cousin and son-in-law Ali, who's buried in the shrine of Najaf, and then Ali's children. Regardless of where it began, as with all religious divides, the split grew and they developed a very different sense of history and theology. There are basic ways that they differ: for instance, Shias stand differently in prayer than Sunnis do.

The Shias and Sunnis [also] differ on points of law, which is very important because Islam is fundamentally a religion of law, much like, say, Judaism. You're a Muslim not by faith. You're a Muslim by practice. So the everyday life of the Shia is guided by Shia law. Much of the law is the same as the Sunnis' but there are points of difference. For instance, Shia law is far more permissive on inheritance to women and that's why in countries like Pakistan the feudal lords all become Shia right before they die because they want to give inheritance to their daughters, and it's permissible under Shia law, or much more so than under Sunni law.

One of the most important differences is that Shia law, like Anglo-Saxon law, is open-ended. Namely, the clerics, or ayatollahs, continuously interpret the law going forward, whereas Sunni law is much more like French law: It's canonical; it's closed. So Ayatollah Sistani will make new law on a daily basis if he's asked, much like the Supreme Court, whereas Yusuf Qaradawi or al-Azhar cannot make new law. Ayatollahs hold far more authority than Sunni clerics do. Sunni clerics are like your Protestant bishops. They minister to the affairs of the community and advise on law whereas as the Shia ayatollahs are more like Catholic bishops or the rabbis in Eastern Europe. They have a very powerful communal relationship with the population, in part because Shias have been a suppressed minority but also because they carry within them a certain religious charisma that Sunni clerics do not. At the popular level, the [two sects are also] very different. As you may have seen in Iraq, Shia believe in the visitation of shrines. There are parallels with Catholicism; Shias visit their shrines and have a sense that they will be healed, or that their prayers will be heard.

At a time in the Middle East when religion matters, then what religion you are, by definition, must matter. You should put aside the rhetoric of the Arab world that this is all in the mind of the West or that somehow the U.S. did this. I don't believe that. I'd seen this long before, particularly after 1979, when Islam became so important to the Middle East. It's impossible that as more and more people practice Islam, whether it's in Egypt or Iran or Pakistan, that the way you practice doesn't become an issue.

This is about a game of power. The Shias in the Middle East are far more numerous than official numbers suggest. Globally Shias are about 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim world, but about 90 percent of that Shia population lives in the Middle East, right there between India and Lebanon. They are not few, but they have not held on to power. Iraq has opened up a discussion about a power shift, as has the rise of Iran. Iran benefits from the fact that a large population outside of its territory, without necessarily receiving direction from Tehran, benefits from the rise of Iran and therefore will support it and give Iran soft power on the streets. By the same token, those who resist Iranian power are very worried about this cultural extension of Iran outside its boundaries.

This game of power, as I said, is likely to play itself out until we know where the ultimate lines will fall. This Shia phenomenon in the Middle East -- I call it the Shia revival -- is of extreme importance in this region but it's one that by and large flies under our radar. We still don't understand it beyond the narrow sectarian fight in Iraq. I think it is one of the most significant trends in this region, the other one being the rise of violent al-Qaeda-type Salafism. That one, as I said, is all across our headlines. It is easily visible to us, and we at least think we understand it.

But the rise of this Shia issue has also provoked a Sunni response. We saw it in 2004 when the King of Jordan talked about a Shia presence, while in this country nobody had yet begun to talk about Shia-Sunni issues. The president of Egypt spoke, after the 2006 Lebanon conflict, of all Shias being loyal to Iran, and therefore being like disloyal Arabs. When Lebanon happened, we had a group of Arab countries for the first time in history break with an Arab force in the middle of a fight with Israel, calling the entire Hezbollah enterprise a Shia power play. You have people like Qaradawi repeatedly talking about an Iranian effort to convert Muslims to the wrong Islam. You can go to the websites of multiple pro-al-Qaeda Salafis and find more anti-Iranian rhetoric there than anti-Israeli rhetoric. There is more talk of a Sassanid-Safavid conspiracy against Arabs than there is of a Zionist conspiracy. It's almost like there is a part of the Arab world that's trying to construct Arab nationalism as anti-Iran as opposed to anti-Israel, which has been the case previously.

Now, Iranians know the Shia-Sunni issue is a problem for them, and that's exactly why forces that resist the Iranian rise are investing so much in the sectarian war, whether it's in South Asia, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Iraq, on the airwaves or on the internet. In all those places there is a concerted effort to heighten attention to the Shia issue. When the Lebanon war happened and Hezbollah became so popular, Hezbollah's line was, essentially, "The Sunnis have failed to deliver Palestine; the Shias will."

Ahmadinejad may have started this vitriol against Israel for a variety of reasons but it has political capital for the Iranian government. That's one of the few reasons why he may still endure as a politician in Iran, because he addresses this fundamental issue for the Iranian power play in the region: to rally people around the region who are not Shia but who learned after the execution of Saddam and the sectarian war in Iraq to distrust and dislike Shias and who continuously read anti-Shia literature and hear anti-Shia sermons from Riyadh to Beirut to Damascus. The one reason they may accept Iranian leadership is the Israel issue. So the Iranians, at the same time as they're benefiting from the Shia card, don't like to play it. They like it to be implicitly supporting them. But they would like to explicitly divert the region's attention to the one issue that brings them together.

Therefore there is a method to the Iranian madness over Israel. Let me put it this way: Confronting Israel represents the potential for gaining an enormous amount of political capital and soft-power for an aspirant Middle Eastern power whose national and religious identity is not that of the Arab world. Iran needs a cause to lever in the Arab world.

Iranians would like to focus this on Israel. So the two forces are competing to define the struggle. Money is going to Salafis because Salafis are the sharp edge of anti-Shiism. You can see that in Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the Arab world. And the Iranians are matching that radicalism with an anti-Israeli radicalism of their own. These two sides are egging one another on, and we, in some ways, are collateral damage here, because this is essentially a play for the hearts and minds of the Arabs. It's power politics on the world stage.

Jeffrey Goldberg


Our great debate in Washington now about the engagement of Iran -- whether we should or shouldn't -- and the subsidiary discussion of, can we engage, in some way or another, the Taliban; in both cases, the conversation is unidirectional. It assumes Iran wants to be engaged. It assumes various forces in the Middle East, who are our adversaries, want this kind of engagement. This, I think, is an assumption we have to guard against as we move into this next phase, when we're trying to figure out a way to talk to, among others, the Iranian leadership.

All of this points to a central question for me: If you could recommend to the Obama administration to work on only one issue of import in the next four years in the Muslim world, would it be the Takfiri challenge, meaning the Sunni extremist challenge, or the Twelver challenge? The Twelvers are people who believe that the Twelfth Imam went into occultation 1,000 years ago and is coming back. These are Shia who are very millenarian, very apocalyptic, and who believe the Mahdi is coming back with Jesus.

Obviously, Ahmadinejad is a huge Twelver. So the question is, when you have these two very, very complicated challenges -- this challenge from Sunni extremism and this challenge from Shia radicalism -- which one is more important to grapple with? I ask this question for the obvious reason that America, very often, is not good at doing even one thing at a time.

I have no certain answer to that myself. I tend to think the Takfiri challenge is ultimately a bigger problem for the United States than the Shia challenge. I also tend to think the Shia challenge is probably the one to work on because it's more concrete; there's something to be done with it. Let me use just one more example to frame a way to think of these two challenges: The challenge of Twelver extremism -- of Shia extremism -- is the challenge of the Iranian nuclear program, and asking yourself, can the world -- can the West -- live with an Iranian nuclear bomb?

The Takfiri challenge is also a nuclear challenge. It asks the question: What would be the consequences of a Takfiri takeover of Pakistan, and what would that mean for Pakistan's nuclear program? Another way of asking the question is: Would you rather have Ahmadinejad in charge of a nuclear weapon, or would you rather have Lashkar-e-Taiba in charge of a nuclear weapon? You don't have to answer the question now.

I don't know the answer. I do think -- and maybe this is an issue of debate -- that the Shia side of this equation is something that can be worked on. I'm not overly sanguine about it; I'm particularly not overly sanguine about it because I had this very bizarre breakfast a couple of months ago in New York with Ahmadinejad and several other journalists. I had never met him before, and going into it, I just assumed that he was crazy; I came out of it realizing he was just cunning, which is scarier, in some ways, than crazy.

I think his presentation was, from a Shia perspective, ahistorical, and I'll give you a couple of quick lines from him, just to illustrate this point that he is as global and insatiable, in some ways, as bin Laden or Zawahiri: "We are here to give the news that the American empire has come to an end. This is helpful to the American politicians; it's really a help to them so that they can change their behavior. They need to know the empire is coming to an end."

And he goes on, "Of course, you can see the signs very well. We see the news. Like a vehicle that's about to drive off a cliff, if a traffic sign that says there's a cliff here, the driver shouldn't object to the traffic sign," and he was equating himself to the traffic sign. And then he went on in this very triumphalist, arrogant discourse about the end of American power. He said, "Western countries believe that they can solve all issues with force and the power of weapons and economics. This is a big mistake. These tools belong to the past. The history of our region has no recollection of a foreign military group entering Afghanistan and leaving it victorious, or entering Iraq and leaving victorious. I'm surprised. What sign have they found that they think they -- the Americans -- are the exception?"

So he's talking in enormous terminology, in a way we're used to hearing Salafist extremists talk. Nevertheless, for a couple of reasons, I think that, unlike the very chaotic and diffuse Salafist threat, which manifests itself across the Muslim world and in Europe, the Shia threat has an address. It has concrete problems. The address, of course, is Tehran, and the concrete problems are problems of uranium enrichment. I also think -- and I hope if you disagree, you'll tell me -- that in Shia history and theology, there are seeds of moderation. Because what we're going through now, in the last 30 years, is a very ahistorical process in the Shia world.

We talk about who the leading clerics in the Sunni world are, and why they aren't speaking up against Takfiris and Salafists, and that's because many of the leading clerics are Salafists. I think in the Shia world, you have much more of an antidote to extremism in the person of Ayatollah Sistani, who is really one of the most remarkable figures in the Muslim world right now and who stands as an antidote to some of the extremism that emanates from Tehran. I think there are fruitful areas to explore with Shia extremism that don't exist on the Sunni extremist side.

Let me end by mentioning a couple of points that mitigate or undercut the whole idea that there's anything we can do about these problems. This is about the need for American or Western humility.

We are, in many ways, collateral damage. Islam, in many ways, has become its own enemy. The radicalism of the extremists is, generally speaking, not met by enthusiastic moderation. [I]t's really quite remarkable when you sit back and think about it, how the incredible savagery and cruelty that's committed in the name of Islam is not met by a revolt of the silent majority of Muslims. There are things we can do, I think, to mitigate the damage the West suffers as Islam goes through this very long and very deep crisis, but I'm not confident we are sophisticated enough to influence the outcome of this cataclysmic debate in the Muslim world, and I'm not sure there's much we can say or do to affect the outcome even if we had the sophistication to try.

Fighting Takfirism means dealing with Saudi Arabia and its export of Salafist, Wahhabi ideology. It's very hard to convince the Saudis to do things when we're essentially their client state, depending on them in ways they don't depend on us. I don't mean to be overly depressing at the end, but I think we're in for a 20- or 30- or 50- or 100-year period in which we, essentially, stand by and watch the world of Islam, in all its complexity, with two mainstreams and other subsidiary streams, decide what it is. And the job of an American president, at a certain point, is to figure out ways to encourage moderation without drawing too much attention to our role. These are very, very hard things to do for Americans, who believe there's a solution to every problem. What I'm suggesting is there might not be an American solution to the problems we are facing in the Middle East.

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