The Iranian author, Vali Nasr, has written an interesting book called The Shia Revival: How conflicts within Islam will shape the future. Its argument is exceptionally pertinent at a time when European governments are edging toward arming Sunni extremists in Syria.
Nasr portrays Shiism as the more liberal, palatable strand of Islam and a religion for underdogs. He makes his point persuasively, although putting a progressive gloss on the regime in Iran and Hezbollah does undermine his thesis.
A lot of the material is focussed on Iraq, where there is a Shia majority, which was suppressed during the presidency of Saddam Hussein. The leading cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, is depicted as a moderating influence, who opposed retaliation as Sunni extremism threatened to cause sectarian civil war.
The book’s opening chapter provides an erudite and fascinating history of factions within Islam. The split dates back to the origins of the faith and a dispute over the prophet Mohammed’s successor. The Sunni are shown as a rigid, dogmatic group of believers, while the Shia are more ritualistic, according to Nasr.
The author thinks that the dominant Sunni faith views success and power as an endorsement from Allah, while Shiites are inclined to revel in martyrdom. He argues that the difference in temperament has political implications, which have been played out across the Middle East.
Nasr certainly knows his subject intimately and makes challenging points. The difficulty is that the argument that most Shiites are relative moderates can appear strained when specific examples are discussed. Nasr deals with this by presenting the likes of Ayatollah Khomeini as aberrations, who have distorted the true character of Shiism.
He is more convincing discussing Iraq and the influence of Sistani. Indeed the book is an excellent primer on sectarian conflict after the second Gulf War. It should also be required reading for the politicians who are responsible for foreign policy decisions regarding the Middle East.