Wow. Occasionally I find a book that unwinds my mind and rethreads my head. This is one: The Shia Revival, by Vali Nasr.

By now people often know about the Sunni/Shi`i distinction and even know where each is concentrated.  And you can hardly get your pundit license without knowing that the conflict derives from a 1300-year-old succession dispute: the Shi`ites believe that only descendents of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali can rightfully rule.

But Nasr makes this come alive.  He starts with the celebration of Ashura in Karbala in 2003, which Americans took as Iraqis celebrating some kind of religious festival Saddam had prohibited, thus a victory for “freedom”.  In fact Ashura is an emotional ritual commemorating the martyrdom of Ali’s son Husayn, and this gathering of two million Shi`i marked the transformation of the Middle East not according to Bush’s neocons, but in the direction of Shi`a revival.

Bush– like many of the leaders Nasr describes, ancient and modern– didn’t know what he was stirring up.  More confusion has reigned in Bush’s support for the Iraqi premier’s attacks on Moqtada al-Sadr in Basra, which has been depicted as a struggle against Iran… although in that fight Iran supported the government.  Similarly McCain’s confusion of al-Qaeda with Iran isn’t just a minor point; it’s a failure to understand what’s going on in the region.

Unwittingly, the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan empowered the Shi`ites, who were oppressed by Saddamn and the Taliban, and has greatly strengthened Iran, which saw two neighboring enemies disappear.  It had no need to meddle to secure influence in Iraq; shared Shi`ite values and relationships gave it that on a platter.  At the same time Iraq created a new Shi`ite hero in Ali al-Sistani, who is more moderate and conservative than the Iranian leadership. 

As Nasr shows, it’s useless to talk about Islamic fundamentalism… we have to ask instead which Islamic fundamentalism: Sunni or Shi`i.  In recent years the most dangerous variety is the Sunni, which is responsible for 9/11, the insurgency in Iraq (directed as much or more against the Shi`i taking power as against the US), and violence against Shi`i in Pakistan.  Some Sunni clerics have declared that Shi`i are not Muslims and can be attacked with impunity; it’s common to consider them a fifth column supporting either US or Iranian influence, depending on which enemy is more despised at the time.

 At times Nasr seems to hold out the tantalizing possibility of a US-Shi`a alliance.  The interests of the Shi`i are close to ours, in that they benefit from democracy and oppose Sunni terrorism.  This would have to mean some kind of rapprochement with Iran.  Isolating and demonizing its leaders is a losing proposition, and Iraq is likely to fall into chaos without Iran’s help.  On the other hand, being too pro-Shi`a would only intensify the Sunni extremist backlash against both us and the Shi`ites.

On the whole Nasr isn’t very hopeful; he considers that the alliance of convenience with Sunni leaders, for instance, was a mistake, convincing many Iraqi Shi`ites that the US would not protect their interests.  What’s certain, however, is that a whole lot of events in the next few years, from Lebanon to the Gulf states to Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Pakistan, will be determined by the Sunni/Shi`a divide.