A conflict of civilizations may be raging between Islam and the West, but a sectarian battle within Islam itself could turn out to be the main event.
When American politicos boasted not so long ago of bringing the light of freedom to the Arab world, writes political scientist Nasr, “it was in effect the old Sunni-dominated Middle East that they were talking about democratizing.” The question of whether those Sunnis want democracy in the first place notwithstanding, Sunnis do control the most powerful nations in the Arab world, particularly ultraconservative Saudi Arabia. Nasr likens the Sunnis to Protestants (perhaps hardshell Baptists), with their faith in documents and direct experience, whereas the Shia, like Catholics, place more value on the authority of clerics and textual interpreters. Sunnis outnumber Shias ten to one in the Islamic world generally but are roughly even in number in some parts of the Middle East, while Shias predominate around the Persian Gulf—and have now attained power, if tenuously, in Iraq, where they were formerly excluded. Much of the violence now taking place in that country, writes Nasr, is directed against Shias, and the anti-American insurgency there is predicated on what its leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, calls “a difficult, fierce battle with a crafty enemy who wears the garb of a friend.” Interestingly, Nasr shows, other political events in the Muslim world can be explained in sectarian terms: In 1977, for instance, a coup to overthrow Bhutto—a Shia—was led by Sunni fundamentalists whose draconian campaigns inspired the fledgling Taliban in next-door Afghanistan.
Much blood has been spilled over the doctrinal dispute between the two factions, a gap that continues to widen. Nasr’s book is a helpful footnote to the headlines, now that “war on America is war on Shi’ism, and war on Shi’ism is war on America.”