Vali Nasr

The Shia-Sunni conflict is at once a struggle for the soul of Islam — a great war of competing theologies and conceptions of sacred history — and a manifestation of the kind of tribal wars of ethnicities and identities, so seemingly archaic at times, yet so surprisingly vital, with which humanity has become wearily familiar. Faith and identity converge in this conflict, and their combined power goes a long way toward explaining why, despite the periods of coexistence, the struggle has lasted so long and retains such urgency and significance. It is not just a hoary religious dispute, a fossilized set piece from the early years of Islam’s unfolding, but a contemporary clash of identities. Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today’s concerns with power, subjugation, freedom, and equality, not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues. It is, paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict.
For the quarter century between the Iranian revolution in 1979 and September 11, 2001, the United States saw the Middle East far too often through the eyes of the authoritarian Sunni elites in Islamabad, Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh, who were America’s major local allies. Even in Western scholarly tomes on Islam, the Shia received only cursory treatment. As the Middle East changes and the Sunni ascendancy continues to come under challenge, the U.S. perspective on the region must change as well. Responding to European objections to the war in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished the “old Europe,” which opposed the war, from the “new Europe,” which was more likely to support it. The war has also drawn a line (albeit in a different way) between an “old” and a “new” Middle East. The old Middle East lived under the domination of its Arab component and looked to Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus — hose ancient seats of Sunni caliphs — as its “power towns.” The region’s problems, ambitions, identity, and self-image were primarily, if not exclusively, those of the Arabs. The dominant political values of the old Middle East are a decades-old vintage of Arab nationalism.
This Middle East, now passing uneasily away, was at its core a place by, for, and about the Sunni ruling establishment. The new Middle East coming fitfully into being — its birth pangs punctuated by car bombs but also by peaceful protests and elections — is defined in equal part by the identity of Shias, whose cultural ties and relations of faith, political alliances, and commercial links cut across the divide between Arab and non-Arab.

1 thought on “Vali Nasr

  1. shinichi Post author

    shiarevivalThe Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future

    by Vali Nasr


    For my friend there was a twist of irony to all the talk of Shias and Sunnis that was beginning to fill the airwaves, clearly confusing those in the West who thought that all that mattered in Iraq and the Middle East was the fight for democracy.


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