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Books

Within the Boundaries of the Shi’ite Crescent

Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival (Norton & Company, New York-London, 2007).

‘The Shi’ite crescent’ is a phrase that has enjoyed growing success over recent years. This phrase evokes the special geographical distribution of the Shi’ite minority which, from its specific centre in Iran, goes westwards towards Iraq, Syria, the Lebanon, and eastern Turkey, then to go southwards towards the Gulf and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia and eastwards towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, making up about a half of the population of the central Islamic lands.

 

 

To this crescent, to its present realities and near future, is dedicated this book by Vali Nasr, an influential American analyst. After an introduction in which with some concessions to the picturesque the principal characteristics of the ‘other Islam’ are outlined, the book concentrates on contemporary politics with special attention being paid to post-Saddam Iraq and the Iran of the Khomeini revolution onwards. The thesis of the author is that the so-called Shi’ite crescent, about whose relevance for the future scenarios of the Middle East he has no doubts, is in reality thread through with rival currents: ‘The prospect of a monolithic pan-Shia polity or regime model dominated by Iran is remote’ (p. 184).

 

 

Born in Iran to an important family, Vali Nasr describes in a clear way the fracture with tradition introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini: ‘His was a new Shi’ism, interpreted by someone who claimed direct knowledge of the Truth’ (p.121). From certain anecdotes as well, such as the mysterious silence observed by Khomeini when receiving the question from a member of parliament as to whether he were the occulted Imam, one understands the revolutionary importance of his movement which has been profoundly different from Sunni revivalist fundamentalism. The ambition of Khomeini was to expand the revolution beyond the Shi’ite world by playing the card of opposition to Israel and the West, but this strategy in the long run failed to produced the hoped-for results. In very interesting pages Nasr describes the current condition of the Islamic Republic of Iran which is half way between perpetuation of the revolutionary regime and calls for change advanced by a society that is ‘fed up with being forcibly taken to heaven’ (p. 219). One particular says a great deal: Persian is the third most widely used language on Internet after English and Chinese. The attitude of Hezbollah in the Lebanon, in the judgement of the author, remains authentically revolutionary.

 

 

However, argues Nasr, the invasion of Iraq (the other country which has a Shi’ite majority) introduced a potential competitor as regards the hegemony of Tehran. One of the merits of this book is certainly that it goes through recent Iraqi events, connecting a series of episodes (the Sunni insurrection, the attacks on Shi’ite sanctuaries, the army of the Mahdi of Moqtada al-Sadr etc.) which have had a broad resonance but one often of a fragmentary character. Great emphasis is given to the position of Ayatollah Sistani, the highest Shi’ite authority of the country but also a point of reference beyond the borders of Iraq. In the view of Nasr, his position demonstrates that the ‘Shia revival is favourably disposed towards democratic change’ (p. 179). The analysis stops at 2007 and it would be interesting to know if for the author the last four years of Iraqi politics have confirmed this assessment or put it in a state of crisis.

 

 

This book, which is declaredly pro-Shi’ite, is written with great ability. It is readable and rich in anecdotes, but it is also strongly constructed. One could, however, complain about the almost complete absence of references to the Christian minorities, with the exception of a rapid allusion to the Lebanon. Although this volume is on inter-Islamic tensions, some words on the Iraqi Christians, who have also been the targets of terroristic fundamentalism, might have been useful.

 

 

Nasr concludes that ‘giving up on commitment to political change – change that brings more freedom and more democracy, even at the risk of some Islamist success – is not a good start’ (p. 272). To judge by the recent decisions of the American administration, one would say that this has been accepted.

 

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