07
Dec
07

The Shia Revival

The Shia Revival
Vali Nasr
Military Review, May-June 2007

The most significant development in the middleEast today is the rise of sectarian conflict. This is a process that has begun in Iraq, but it will not end there. In Iraq it has become the single most important determinant of that country’s future. However, it has already spread beyond Iraq, threatening stability in Lebanon as it shapes regional alignments and the regional balance of power.

The rise of sectarianism is an outcome of the Shia revival that followed the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. The war broke down the sunni minority regime that had ruled that country for decades and empowered Shias, producing the first Arab Shia government in history and setting in motion a region-wide Shia revival. What began in Iraq quickly translated into a regional political dynamic as Shias everywhere looked to Iraq with hope for positive changes in their own countries.

In the wake of regime change in Iraq, the Shia have made their mark on regional politics. From Lebanon to the Persian Gulf, through peaceful elections and bloody conflicts, the Shia are making their presence felt. Shia politics were initially supportive of developments in Iraq. Senior Iraqi Shia leaders endorsed the political system the United States introduced to Iraq.
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Iraqi elections also received support from Iranian and Lebanese Shia religious leaders. Following the elections, Shias joined the American-backed government in Baghdad, and Shias joined the new Iraqi security forces in droves. Post-Saddam Iraq presented an opportunity for creating stable relations between the United States and Iraqi Shias and, by extension, with the Shia populations across the region.

Shiism split off from Sunnism in the seventh century over a disagreement about who the Prophet Muhammad’s legitimate successors were. Over time, the two sects developed their own distinct conception of Islamic teachings and practices much as Catholicism and Protestantism have in Christianity since the medieval period. Shias are a minority of 10-15 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

The overwhelming majority of Shias live in the arc from Lebanon to Pakistan-some 140 million people in all. They account for about 90 percent of Iranians, 65 percent of Iraqis, 40-45 percent of Lebanese, and a sizable portion of the people living in the Persian Gulf region (and around the region in East Africa, India, and Tajikistan). There are small Shia communities in southern and western africa, south and north America, and Europe-mostly migrants. Iran is today the largest shia country followed by Pakistan. Most Shias live from Iran to the east, where Arab Shias constitute only a minority of the faith. However, importantly, in the strategic arc stretching from pakistan to lebanon, there are as many shias as there are sunnis, and in the persian gulf region Shias clearly predominate.

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