First, in the spirit of full disclosure: Vali Nasr is a former
student and now a colleague. Having said that, I would state
unequivocally that followers of the religions of Abraham - Judaism,
Christianity and Islam - or of any of the world's great religions,
as well as people of no faith should all make this book required
reading. Nasr tells the critical story within Islam: the historical
1,400-year split within the Muslim world, where today approximately
85% adhere to the dominant Sunni theological creed and 15% belong
to the Shia tradition, a numerical (and power) imbalance which is
in the process of a tectonic shift because of the American
intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Operation Iraqi Freedom eliminated
the two greatest obstacles to a Shia revival: the Sunni chauvinist
Saddam Hussein, who kept his minority in power while tyrannizing
the Shia majority in Iraq; and the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan.
The American invasions awakened a dormant Shia sense of entitlement
that created a concentrated arc of power that now sweeps from Iraq
to Afghanistan. After nearly 14 centuries of humiliation and
subservience, Shiism finds itself empowered in a critical part of
the Muslim world, and the West seems politically and militarily
unable to cope.
But what makes Nasr's study so
compelling and timely is his detachment. He has found what few
scholars in the field of contemporary Middle East studies have: a
capacity for disinterested objectivity. As a result, in the United
States he is asked to visit the Pentagon and the White House. His
observations can be found in official State Department memos as
well as in the investigative diggings of Seymour Hersh.
Nasr is a historian who brings a
religious and political perspective to his analysis that is
transparent, written for a general audience, gets to the heart of
the sectarian conflict raging in the region, and points to the
implications for the West as well as for the Muslim world. He
penetrates to the core issues driving the Saudis, Pakistanis and
the shifting sands of power (and oil) in a world where the
historically powerless Shia suddenly have found strength as well as
a leader in Iran. Nasr's analysis can aid a shell-shocked America
in understanding exactly what forces have inadvertently been
unleashed, and shows us how the new power will shape the future of
the region. This expatriate Iranian who now lives in America could
also help a disbelieving Sunni audience face the reality of a new
Shia power structure.
The text provides no solutions. Nor
does the author assign any blame. He merely says: Here is what has
happened; now live with it. The Shia Revival is a very good
teacher's guide in comparative religion, history and the geography
of the Middle East.
Nasr answers many questions; also, without intending to, he leaves
the reader pondering one formidable puzzle: Why, for six thousand
years, have the religions of Abraham, each in its turn, fought and
killed in the name of God?