Are Sunnis more extremist than the Shiites


There is a great longing for the simplest possible explanations for the smoldering crises in the Near and Middle East. Instead of the old catchphrases, including »modernization, democracy, fundamentalism and secular nationalism«, which are no longer sufficient to understand the region, according to Vali Nasr in his book »The Shia Revival« it is now rather the »old contrast between Shiites and Sunnis, who shapes views, defines prejudices and draws political boundaries ”(p. 82).

Politics, too, requires simple explanations in order to remain able to act. This happened before the Iraq war, when President Bush put Iraq on the axis of evil in his "State of the Union" speech in January 2002 and enacted the vision of a liberated Iraq as the birth of a new, democratic Middle East for the largely autocratic region. Although numerous experts in the usa warned of the incalculable consequences of an invasion, the us administration ignored the difficult situation in Iraq. The war in Iraq actually created a new Middle East, which became the nightmare of the us president: the terrorist threat has risen rapidly, Islamists of all stripes are on the rise, Iraq is sinking into civil war and another member of the »axis of evil «Has risen to become the biggest regional winner: Iran.

In his book about the Shiite rebirth ("The Shia Revival"), Vali Nasr analyzes the new dynamic that the Iraq war unleashed and which, in his opinion, will shape the near future of the entire region: It has recently also been the focus of the media Shiite-Sunni opposition invoked everywhere. "In the next few years," said Nasr, "Shiites and Sunnis will compete for power, first in Iraq, but eventually in the entire region" (p. 24). He regards the fact that, after decades of Sunni rule by the Baath party, Shiite parties and the Shiite majority of the population are now dominating politics in Iraq, as a deep and momentous turning point.

Nasr, an Islamic expert, political professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and foreign policy advisor, first reminds us that US policy has traditionally relied on Sunni allies, including deeply problematic ones: with the support of the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the basis for strength became the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, who represent backward-looking and violent versions of Sunni doctrine. It was only after September 11th that Usama bin Laden, the old ally, rose to become the new enemy "number one". After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the focus shifted to Saddam Hussein, another former Sunni ally, whose actually secular Ba'ath dictatorship was accused by the US of being linked to the Al-Qaeda terror network.

With its removal, the hour of the Shia, which was suppressed in Iraq, struck; and international politics, too, Vali Nasr concluded, must react to this. Because of their specific traditions, he considers the Shiites to be important dialogue partners in the future, while he sees “militancy and violence” on the rise among the Sunnis. Nasr, who already tried to explain the difference between Shiites and Sunnis to US President Bush in a personal conversation, is therefore calling for the usa to have "broader and deeper relations with the Shiites," who are among the disadvantaged minorities in many countries in the region (p . 27). Such a paradigm shift has not yet taken place: the US administration has instead made Shiite Iran the central enemy in the region and tried to forge an alliance of so-called "moderate" Sunni states to contain Iran. "Moderate" refers solely to the attitude in the Arab-Israeli conflict, by which Jordan, Egypt and, since the submission of the "Saudi peace initiative" adopted by the Arab League, also the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - of all things, the traditional protective power of the Sunni extremists.

The US administration has said goodbye to the desired democratization of the region anyway, because from Egypt to Pakistan (Sunni) Islamist parties threaten to come to power in genuinely free elections. The tenacity with which, for example, the democratic victory of Hamas in free elections was boycotted, has accelerated the loss of credibility of Western politics in the region. Only in Iraq does the occupying power usa work closely with Shiite parties, and here, of all places, with radical parties such as the Dawa party and the lunatic Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (siic), whose Badr militias are accused of massive ethnic cleansing.

In nine chapters, Nasr describes Shiite traditions, the history and specific origins of the Shia. He first describes the religious origin of the "community of Ali" (Arabic: "Shiat Ali"), the fourth caliph whose successors, the imams, consider the Shiites to be the rightful successors of Muhammad. Since the death of his son Hussain on the battlefield of Kerbala against the Sunni majority, who did not recognize Ali, Shiites around the world have been celebrating their mourning with bloody passion plays and have developed their own theology over the centuries. The focus is on the belief that the imams are the rightful successors of the Prophet and the protectors of the true Islamic faith. Since the twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi was "hidden" by God according to their belief and disappeared without a trace, the Shiites have been waiting for his return ever since, which gives the Shia a specific messianic character. Not least because of this, Nasr draws several parallels between Christianity, especially Catholicism and Shia: The Passion Play, the tendency towards mysticism and immersion and the hierarchical order of the clergy also give rise to this. The Shiites differ significantly from the Sunni tradition in their own legal traditions, their own rites and festivities, a veneration of Islamic "saints" and their orientation towards religious authorities.

Nasr describes the political birth of the Shia under the Safavid rule in Iran in the 16th century and the beginning of the political opposition to the Sunni Ottoman Empire. In the age of nationalism, especially after the First World War, the Shiites also embraced the national idea, but remained marginalized in the mostly Sunni-dominated Arab countries. In the course of the aggressive Sunni fundamentalism since the 1970s, which mostly assumed Wahabi and explicitly anti-Shiite proportions, the Shia became radicalized and politicized. Leaders like Musa as-Sadr in Lebanon and Khomeini in Iran rose to become political leaders of the Shiites, who established themselves alongside the classical Shiite scholars who were limited to religion. Khomeini's system of "rule of the legal scholar" (Velayate Faqih) established in Iran was and is viewed with suspicion by many Shiite scholars, but was nevertheless able to establish itself firmly in Iran. Since then, Iran has been at least the undisputed political center of the Shiites.

Due to the increasing political charge of the Shiite-Sunni antagonism, which Nasr himself describes, his analysis categories are also blurred, because the theological differences between Sunnis and Shiites take a back seat to political and ethnic differences. The question arises whether the contrast emphasized by Nasr does not result in a rivalry between the Shiite regional power Iran and the Arab states rather than an internal Islamic split. His thesis of the cultural-religious dividing lines that will lead to future Shiite-Sunni conflicts is in a way reminiscent of Huntington's "clash of civilizations". However, Nasr emphasizes several times that there are no monolithic blocks to be seen in Shiites and Sunnis, thus relativizing even the rigidity of these dividing lines. Nevertheless, he probably overestimated the overall consequences of the "Shiite rebirth": The religious, social and ethnic compositions of the Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia, post-Soviet Azerbaijan, Iran and even within Iraq are far too different. The fact that he generally assesses Sunni organizations - including the Muslim Brotherhood - as "future threats" and carriers of a militant Islam will lead to reform processes such as those in B. going through moderate Sunni Islamists is also not fair.

The author's recommendation to the US administration to focus more on Shiite minorities in the interests of democratization is not enough on its own. More important than changing alliances and a one-sided reference to the Shiite-Sunni conflict, which in turn only threatens to intensify it, would be a sustainable strategy against the moderate Islamist movements, be they of Sunni or Shiite origin. Unifying should be emphasized, balancing should be promoted, because a major ethnic conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the entire region, as Nasr describes it as a real possibility, would in fact be a catastrophe. It is correct, however, that most Shiites, especially Iran, have an interest in containing fanatical Sunni extremists, because for them the Shiites are to be fought as "infidels" just like the entire West.

Nonetheless, Vali Nasr's book is a good introduction to the complexity of the phenomenon of Sunni-Shiite opposites. It also shows that if you want to understand the complex conflicts in the region, you have to live with the fact that there will be no simple answers and explanations for the time being: the labels "moderate" and "more radical", but also "Sunni" and " Shiite "movements are fuzzy and, like other concepts, are only of limited use as categories of analysis. As a hasty basis for political approaches, they should be treated with particular caution.

René Wildangel,