Vali R. Nasr
Professor, national security affairs, Naval Postgraduate School
Chief minority policy adviser for South Asia, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Council on Foreign Relations
November 3, 2005
JONAH BLANK: Well, thank — thank you all for coming. Thanks for coming and thanks to Nancy for organizing this event. We’ve got a wonderfully full house. So let me just make a few introductory remarks and then we’ll get down to business.
First off, I’d just like to ask everyone to please turn off your cell phones. Also like to remind the audience that this, unlike other council meetings, is on the record. So anyone who has anything embarrassing to say, then please be aware that it will be on the record.
This is the third meeting in our nexus of religion and foreign policy series. And it’s a tremendously important topic — the interaction between religion and politics throughout the world, especially within the Muslim world — obviously a topic of importance in Washington and a topic of interest to our membership.
So I’d like to thank Nancy and all the rest of the members of the Washington staff for helping organize not only today’s session, but the entire series.
If you’ve got any thoughts on this topic or for other topics that you’d like to see covered, then please convey them to Nancy and other members of the staff.
We will end promptly at 1:30, so please, as a courtesy to Vali, then I’d ask you to refrain from leaving early and to enjoy the meeting.
Now, for the question-and-answer session, please wait for the microphone and please state your name and affiliation, and please keep questions and comments as concise as possible so that everyone can get a chance to speak.
Now, we’re very lucky to have with us Vali Nasr, professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of the forthcoming book, among other books that are already out there, the forthcoming book, “The Shi’a Revival: How Conflict in Islam Will Shape the Future,” which is coming out next year from Norton’s. So we’ll all be looking forward to that.
Today Vali will be talking about the Sunni-Shi’a religious rivalry, both in Iraq and beyond. So it’s always a delight to have Vali here.
VALI NASR: Thank you.
BLANK: I’m going to ask Vali to start us off with a few general thoughts about the division between Sunni and Shi’a Islam and how these divisions are playing out in Iraq today.
NASR: Well thank you, Jonah, and thank you Nancy and the council for putting together this session and inviting me.
The Shi’a-Sunni divide is perhaps the most important division within Islam. Its root go back to the first century of Islam. It occurred over succession to the prophet Mohammed. But more importantly, the two sects have developed along very different paths through Islamic history theologically, legally. They have their own interpretation of Islam. Essentially each really has a different approach to what is the essential, original meaning of the Islamic message and what is the ethos of the faith.
You could draw sort of gross parallels, say, between the division between Catholics and Protestants or between the Western church and the Eastern Church in Christianity. It began over a very minor dispute, but it has become essentially very different interpretation of Islam.
And the Shi’ites are particularly marked by ways in which they celebrate Islam, the commemoration of their saints, the visitations of shrines, which some Catholics may find parallels with visitations of the shrine of Virgin of Guadalupe or Fatima — the shrine of Fatima in Portugal — and the fact that the Shi’ites believe that there is intermediary between man and God, and particularly the saints perform that function, which the Sunnis do not believe in and hard-line Sunnis believe to actually be heretical practices.
And Iraq in many regards has brought this sort of simmering-below-the surface tension between the two sects to the surface for two reasons. One is that much of Middle East politics in the past 25 years, unbeknownst to the West, has really been about Shi’a-Sunni conflict. Iran was the Bastian of Shi’a power in the region, and it was contained by an alliance of Sunni powers with sometime support from the United States in the form of the Taliban-Pakistan-Saudi access on the east and an Arab alliance that backs Saddam Hussein overtly until 1991 and much more subtly then after.
And the rise of the Shi’a in Iraq and the practices that they perform, which is different from the rest of the Muslims, is happening at a time when the general tenor of the Sunni world is gravitating towards greater intolerance of pluralism in Islamic thinking itself.
In other words, the Shi’ites are claiming to be different Muslims, want to practice it, want to go by the millions into the streets of Karbala to celebrate events that the Sunnis are much less tolerant of seeing occur at this particular point in time.
BLANK: Thank you.
As we look around the world at Sunni-Shi’a conflict, not only in Iraq but in Pakistan, Afghanistan, throughout the Middle East, it sometimes can be confusing to sort out the difference between the theological disputes and the political ones. In the late 1990s in Afghanistan, for example, there was a celebrated slaughter of Shi’a by the Taliban. One could look at this as a Sunni-Shi’a fight. One could also, though, look at it as a Hazara-Pashtun ethnic fight. Or one could look at it as a proxy fight between one Afghan faction supported by Saudi Arabia and one Afghan faction supported by Iran.
To what extent is the Sunni-Shi’a conflict throughout the world a theological one versus a political one?
NASR: Well, the diversity that you mention has been traditionally true. But the significance of Iraq is that it’s serving as a lightning rod in making it much more clear that this is essentially about the Shi’ites and Sunnis, regardless of what else the original reason was.
For instance, the language coming out of Iraq, particularly that of the Salafists associated with Zarqawi and the like, and the sermons that are coming out of the Saudi Arabia on an every-Friday basis, depicting what’s happening in Iraq in terms of a Shi’a-Sunni Islam versus hereticism, is gradually obviously defining all those other conflicts.
But also we should think of the Shi’a-Sunni conflict — it’s about theology, but it’s about ethnicity and identity, the same way as in Northern Ireland. The clash between Protestants and Catholics is not about interpretation of the Bible. It’s about which side of the railway tracks you were born, what’s your community. And the Shi’ites and Sunnis are going to be defined in that way. It’s not a matter of whether you go to mosque or how you stand in prayer. Those become essentially your identity markers. But the much bigger fight that’s occurring everywhere — and Iraq has really begun this — is about who owns power and how are resources distributed.
And many regards, what happened in Iraq is that the Shi’as won. They won the power. And if they — particularly if they ask for federalism and get it, they’re also going to own the resources.
And this is in fact the model for this fight everywhere else in the Middle East, because if you look at the numbers of the Shi’as in the region, Shi’as are about 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim world. So that makes it about 130 (million) to 195 million people out of a population of 1.3 billion. But there are hardly any Shi’as in Indonesia and Nigeria. Ninety percent of the Shi’as are smack in the middle of the Middle East. And if you looked at the map, they actually sit on top of the richest oil reserves in the world.
And in the area between Pakistan and Lebanon, (gross ?) — (inaudible) — there are as many Shi’as as there are Sunnis, and around the Persian Gulf, there are 80 percent Shi’as. But if you thought about the Middle East, we’ve always seen it as a Sunni domain. Outside of Iran, the Middle East to us has been always a Sunni bastion.
Now this has changing. In other words, in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain, in Pakistan, in Lebanon, everybody’s now talking about the Iraqi model, one man, one vote.
And it’s not about the debate about theology. Theology is what separates these people. And it sometimes may be superimposed on tribal ethnic Hazara-, you know, Pashtun divisions, but ultimately is really the fact that Iraq has opened the door to many things in the Middle East — democracy, regime change, globalization, many things.
But one of the things that it’s opened the door to is recalibration of the sectarian balance in the region. And this will survive past Iraq, regardless of what happens in December and what kind of government comes to power.
BLANK: Let me draw you out a little bit, Vali, on a point you just made about the view within radical Salafi circles towards the Shi’a denomination. You’ve got essentially two points of view there. One could be labeled the Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi view, which is that the Shi’a are at least as dangerous to the purity of Islam and the survival and success of their vision of Islam as any outside force, and therefore first priority is to take care of this heresy, as they see it, which leads to, of course, a huge number of the attacks perpetrated within Iraq today.
Countering that, you have the remarkable letter that became public last month, from Ayman al-Zawahiri, advocating that while the division within Islam is important and the Shi’a heresy, as he sees it, should be dealt with, it’s at this point a distraction from the far larger and more important battle with the West.
Do you see this division as one that is going to go anywhere? Do you see one side or the other gaining ascendancy? And do you see either of these radical Salafi points of view towards the Shi’a community spilling out into the wider Muslim community worldwide — Sunni Muslim community worldwide?
NASR: The two viewpoints between Zawahiri and Zarqawi reflect, if you would, two different tactical approaches to how you win the hearts and the minds of the Muslim world or how you deny the United States making inroads into the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.
But beyond that, it’s reflective of a more fundamental division. Zarqawi speaks the language of Salafists who’ve lived with the Shi’a and have a power struggle with the Shi’a. Zawahiri speaks of the language of Salafists for whom the Shi’a is a distant thing, not an imminent issue. And Zarqawi’s arguments have far closer resonance with the Wahhabi view of the Shi’a, who are far more intolerant and for whom the Shi’a is a problem.
Essentially, Zawahiri is really saying that the Shi’a are not a problem, in the main sense, but as Zarqawi’s saying that they are the front and center problem, and in fact they’re the sort of the tip of the iceberg of confronting the U.S.
There is also an argument implicit in this debate, is that there is evidence for many Salafists from South Asia, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, that actually anti-Shi’ism is a very powerful driver for mobilizing support for Salafi extremism; that it’s — and I would debate that actually there are more likely that Saudi youth are going to Iraq to fight because it’s a fight against the Shi’a, rather than because it’s a fight against America. It’s much more easy to mobilize them to fight against the heresy within, rather than against the enemy without.
And so Zarqawi at some level believes that actually anti-Shi’ism is really the ace in the sleeve of Salafis; that it’s a mistake actually to back away from attacking them frontally; and that the deeper you divide the two communities, the better it is. And in fact, he says this in a very non-theological language. If you’d read his very first open letter where he compared the Shi’as to scorpions and serpents and the like, he very openly says that regardless of the theological difference, there is a very tactical, instrumental logic to trying to get the Shi’a — provoke the Shi’a into a civil war, because then that will mobilize the Sunni community; that will awaken the average slumbering Sunni to take a position. And that ultimately is what the Salafis want. They want the bystanders to join the fight.
Zawahiri believes the bystanders will join the fight if the fight is squarely focused on America, but as Zarqawi believes they’re more likely to join the fight if the fight is squarely focused on the Shi’a, because that is a fight that’s tangible. It’s about tangible power, it’s about tangible control of government, it’s about tangible resources, whereas the fight against the United States is much more of a nebulous ideological fight, which is more difficult to mobilize populations around.
BLANK: Let me take you to Iran briefly, since you’ve got a forthcoming book coming out on that topic as well. The popular impression within U.S. decision-making circles tends to see the Iranian model, the modern-day post-revolution Iranian model, as the one that is normative for Shi’a Islam; the idea of rule of the jurist, of a theocratic rule, as something that is part and parcel of Shi’a history.
Now that would have come as a big surprise to most Shi’a for much of history between the Safavid Empire, at least, and the Iranian Revolution.
The countertradition of Quietism, you know, is very powerful. The community of the Shi’a community — Ismaili Shi’a community — that I did my field work among in India and Pakistan, for example, has been steadfastly quietistic for about 900 years, but before that, of course, they had ruled the Fatimid Empire.
Is the quietistic tradition in Shi’ism still alive and vibrant, or was that merely a matter of convenience for power — for Shi’a communities that don’t actually have power, and as soon as the Shi’ite community gets power, then the Iranian model is more likely to be what we can expect?
NASR: Well, this is actually at the heart of the debate within Iraq itself and as we’re seeing sort of evidence that Basra, for instance, is operating more like a little Islamic republic than, say, Najaf or (Baghdad ?) is.
And there is an argument that ultimately when clerics rule, the environment is likely to be more Islamic than when they don’t. But that does not mean that it will necessarily subscribe to the exact blueprint of the Islamic republic in Iran. In other words, you might have different shapes of Islamicly oriented government than the one that it is in power in Iran.
What is at least evident in Iraq is that Ayatollah Sistani has put forward a new model of government. Now whether this takes flight or not remains to be seen. And it has to do with Iraq, and it has to do with elsewhere.
And the model of government is very simple. It’s based on preserving and protecting and furthering Shi’a interests and Shi’a identity and accountable government. And it has made implicitly a very powerful argument that the best protection for Shi’a identity across the region — not in only one country, but across the region — is actually through representative government rather than through theocracy.
And in fact, there is — many Shi’as do believe that Khomeini failed to do what Sistani is doing or what Shi’a revival in Iraq is doing exactly because of the rigidity of his structure of government.
And therefore, Sistani’s argument is that what is imperative for Shi’as is to make sure that their voice is heard because that voice translates into power when it’s heard. When you have elections, whether or not they’re liberal democratic or whether or not the Shi’as believe in liberal democracy, the result is that they get power.
And Sistani, in many regards, has actually relied on the model of the Iranian constitution of 1906, which the Quietist ulema wrote, according to which they essentially said they didn’t know whether there was a perfect Islamic government. They knew what was not Islamic, and therefore any government can be elected and rule, and it will have their support so long as it does not legislate or behave in an un-Islamic manner.
And the Olama reserved the right to interpret what is Islamic and what is not. And you could see the reflection of this essentially in the language of the Iraqi constitution. And Sistani actually tried to go further to give certain kind of veto power for the ulema and was not successful in that.
And to that extent, actually, the Iraqi constitution will put to debate the Iranian constitution within Iran as well. It is — the Sistani model, in a sense, is the most sort of important propeller of Shi’a revival because it’s very difficult also for Sunni countries to resist because it is not calling for a theocracy; it’s calling for democracy, knowing fully well that it benefits the Shi’a.
But having said that, it is important to know that there was a lot made about the fact that once Iraq is free, there will be a rivalry between Najaf and Qom. And that has not happened. In fact, the opposite is true. The two are standing on each other’s shoulders. Sistani has actually generated a great deal of enthusiasm for the ulema again — Ulema of the quietist kind in Iraq. The cynicism in many circles of society is sort of washing away. There is a generational — enormous amount of money is now going to his coffers, particularly, for instance, the bazaar in Qom, of all cities, is extremely pro-Sistani, and gives him a lot of money.
And at the same time, Sistani relies on Qom in order to shore up the regional power of the Shi’a. I mean, Sistani’s whole Internet operation, which is sort of the virtual side of the Shi’a revival, is actually stationed in Qom.
If we — in other words, we’re not seeing that these two are going to go at it in a very aggressive way of debating Khomeini’s theory. The changes that are happening among the Shi’a is far more subtle. And for the Shi’a, and Sistani’s argument, is that the focus right now is still gaining power. The debate about how you exercise that power should come later. And they have not won it yet, and it’s too premature for them to sort of break ranks or get into fights.
And you see the same debate, actually, with the other side of the Shi’a world between Hezbollah and Sistani. And that is also equally important and intense. For instance, Hezbollah has been extremely supportive of Sistani in their television program, in their literature. They’ve celebrated the one-man, one-vote formula in Iraq, believing that at some point in time, they can translate that into Shi’a power in Lebanon.
But they very sort of cordially and courteously rejected the Ayatollah Sistani’s call for the ulema in Lebanon to withdraw from politics.
BLANK: Looking a few years into the future in Iraq, do you see the Sistani model — sort of a top-down view of Shi’a politics, which is in accord with Shi’a tradition, but is challenged, of course, by Muqtada al-Sadr and potentially by other younger leaders who are mobilizing Shi’a communities on the basis of identity and perhaps on personal charisma, but lacking some of the theological credentials of the older leaders.
Do you think that right now Shi’a politics are so bound up in the personality of Sistani that there isn’t a base being formed for quietistic politics, or do you see a few years down the line perhaps an anything-goes scenario?
NASR: I think we’re still in a period of unknown. An enormous amount, in my belief, rides on the person of Sistani. He sort of fell on our laps unbeknownst to us at the beginning. We all sort of wanted to shoo him away. He was an unwelcome surprise in Iraq. I mean, sort of I’ve now gradually learned that actually he’s the best thing that happened to us in Iraq.
But he’s old. He could pass away. He could be blown away. And if he passes away, the rest of the magi in Najaf just does not have his wherewithal. It takes them a number of years to produce a leader of that stature. And you’re going to have a vacuum, and that’s a vacuum in which you can have a militant essentially make a bid for power.
The other issue is that Sistani has been extremely important in restraining the Shi’a, subtly as well as overtly, of constantly telling them not to respond overtly to the baiting of the Salafists; that — to keep their eyes focused on the big prize.
If Sistani goes, it’s much more likely that the Shi’a militia may begin to flex their muscle. And it’s always in the environment of civil war and violence that militancy and extremism is going to gain ascendence.
I think everything rides on Sistani remaining in the scene and Sistani succeeding in Iraq. The entire revival of the quietist movement really rests on his shoulders. And as he succeeds also, Sistani’s going to be under enormous pressure to deliver to other Shi’a communities. In fact, I think he’s been more of a thorn in the side of Sunni capitals than he’s likely to be the thorn in the side of Qom because he has not put forward a model. He’s telling the Shi’a that if you follow this model, you’ll get what you want. Where Khomeini failed you, you can succeed in this model. He was not able to liberate the Shi’as in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Bahrain, despite demonstrations, riots, you know, assassinations and the like. But the ballot box may give you what the 1980s failed to deliver.
And there are many indications that they are buying into this. For instance, the Saudi Hezbollah, which, you know, has been fingered for the Khobar Tower bombings, many of its members have now sort of backed away following the Sistani model, putting their hopes in an inclusive, democratic process in Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is sitting right on the edge between, you know, following the Sistani model or following a Muqtada al-Sadr, which may very well emerge in Bahrain if the system doesn’t open up.
So I mean, Sistani’s back is to the wall in a sense of continuing to convince his constituency that this is the way to go, but its success will hinge on, as I said, first of all that he remains there. Without him, Quietism will sort of definitely be dwarfed. And secondly is that he succeeds in Iraq; that, in the end of the day, the Shi’as end up on top, and he’s able to prove that it was not revolution that empowered the Shi’a, but it was keeping their head down and engaging in the political process and embracing democracy that delivered power to them.
BLANK: Well, I think that’s an excellent jumping-off point for going out to the membership.
So please wait for the microphone and please identify yourself when asking questions.
Gentleman over here. Microphone’s on this side.
QUESTIONER: Henry Precht. I would like to ask about Shi’a solidarity within Iran and outside Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq War, some people were surprised that the Iraqi Shi’a fought against Shi’a Iran. Now, if you were to ask the average mosque-going Shi’a in Iran across the Gulf or in Lebanon or elsewhere — an average mosque-going Shi’a — what he thought of the other side — that is, how much do the Shi’a outside Iran care what happens to Iran should the United States and Israel attack? Will they respond? On the other hand, how much do Iranians care what’s happening in Lebanon or across the Gulf?
NASR: There is no, if you would, feeling of pan-Shi’ism in the region among these Shi’as. It’s rather the coming together or enveloping of local issues and local struggles for power that matters.
But there are a few things that have changed — one is that the network of pilgrimages, mosques, seminaries and the people who are involved in religion has been tightened and strengthened in Iraq — through Iraq mainly. But there is definite support, if you would, for a sense of Shi’a revival and the fact that the Shi’as everywhere, other than in Iran, essentially face the same problem and that potentially they may have the same solution.
There are networks that are actually emerging as we’re speaking, and these are likely to have dynamics of their own. For instance, there are more than 100,000 Iranian, Pakistani, Lebanese Shi’as who were in Karbala last year when the bombs went off in that city, killing 143 people between Baghdad and Karbala. And with them, they are bringing business; they’re bringing investment; they’re bringing money; and also they’re trafficking in flow of ideas. I mean, people go to Najaf and come back as followers of Ayatollah Sistani. You have a lot of that occurring.
If there is bombings of places, if there is a(n) overt push, sure, there is going to be a flexing of muscle, for two reasons. One is that there is sympathy. Secondly, there is awareness among many Shi’as, particularly where they’re a minority, that they don’t necessarily trust the West and the United States on these issues.
The memory of 1991 is extremely strong among the Shi’a. I mean, they’re not going to trust until this thing is finished and the keys are given to them. And therefore, any kind of a rollback attempt or anything that looks like a rollback is likely to have a very, very strong reaction. And it’s for that very reason that, you know, when the Saudi foreign minister at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and then in Washington began to speak about the danger of giving Iraq to the Shi’a, it brought such a visceral, strong reaction from the Iraqi Interior minister, Bayan Jaber, because of exactly that sense that, once again, maybe the Sunni regimes may prevail on Washington to change its course.
So it’s going to rattle, if you would, the Shi’as if there is a very strong action. Iran does still have assets in the — among the Shi’as in the region, particularly among the militia from Hezbollah to SCIRI to Mahdi Army to Sipah-e-Mohammed in Pakistan that can, if you would, rally the troops, rally the Shi’as into some kind of protest.
But it also is important to know that Iran also learned a lesson of its 1980s, is that it does not want to sort of assert control over Iraq, Bahrain or Lebanon in the manner that Saddam wanted to assert control over Kuwait. What the Iranians want is essentially a Shi’a government in Iraq that’s friendly to Iran and that it’s open to business and investment to Iran. I mean, the biggest — Iranians are investing in militias and in clients in Iraq, but they’re also investing in hotels, land and varieties of sorts of business opportunities.
I mean, most of the land in Najaf has been bought by Iranian business interests, including Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s business empire, in anticipation of boom in trade in pilgrimage. If you look at the highway between the city of — border city of Mehran in Iran and Najaf, there is enormous amounts of traffic in goods and services.
So the perception of a Shi’a — political perception of a Shi’a revival — is not pan-Shi’aism; it’s rather a Middle East in which the Shi’a voice culturally and politically is much more amplified without being controlled by any one actor directly because this benefits all of them anyway.
BLANK: Gentleman over — oh, wait — yes, Jackson Diehl.
QUESTIONER: Hi, Jackson Diehl.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the relationship between the Shi’ite Arab community in Iraq and across the Middle East, and the traditional pan-Arab nationalist/socialist ideology that’s prevailed in so much of the region over the last few decades.
Does the Shi’ite community see that as an alien Sunni implant at this point? Is there any part of it they subscribe to? Is a Shi’ite-led government in Iraq in any way going to be interested in the traditional Nasser-ous (?) type of politics sort of of the past?
NASR: The simple answer to that is no. And you can look at the text of the Iraqi constitution and the blatant absence of the usual oath fielty to Arab identity. I mean, as close it gets is that Iraq is a member of the Arab League and is committed to its charter.
And if you look at the language of Hezbollah is that it’s interested in Lebanese nationalism, which means that they are Lebanese; they are Arab to the extent they are Lebanese, but they’re also Shi’a and they can have relations with a non-Arab part of the Middle East, including Iran.
I think that one of the things that happened in Iraq, and that probably was intentional on the part of this administration, was to shatter Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism, which was a leftover of the 1950s and ‘60s. And that in many regards has happened because Iraq was one of the three most important Arab countries. It was a claimant to the Arab leadership. It’s a seat of power of the Abbaside Caliphate, which since the medieval period asserted Sunni hegemony in the region.
And look at Iraq today. I mean, it has a Kurdish president. It has closer ties with Iran than it has with Jordan or Saudi Arabia. The Iranian foreign minister can get in a car without a bullet-proof vest and drive right through from Iran to Najaf, whereas the Arab countries can’t even hold an embassy open in Baghdad.
And the definition of Arabism that the Hezbollah or SCIRI or Sistani — and Sistani’s actually not even Arab. And of the four major ayatollahs in Najaf, only one is an Iraqi Arab. One is Pakistani; one is Afghan; and one is Iranian — that the definition of Arabism is very different. It’s part of Iraqi identity, and it’s part of Iraqi Shi’a identity.
But that language of a single Arab community, a single Arab nation of the 1960s and ‘70s is gone. It’s not part of the language of the Iraqis. The only Shi’as that talk about this in an indirect way is Muqtada al-Sadr and then Iyad Allawi, if you would want to think in terms of as a way to reach out to Sunnis. But they are not a majority voice within the Shi’a community. And Sadr, to the extent that he has an audience, is more because of Iraqi nationalism than it has to do with any oath of fielty to the larger Arab nation.
BLANK: Pauline Baker up in the front here.
QUESTIONER: As you pointed out, the stability of Iraq depends upon, in part, Sistani staying on this new model and the ballot box, but it also depends upon getting Sunni buy-in. And it seems as though it’s a zero-sum game in Iraq now.
What is your view of how to keep on the track of the model without so permanently alienating the Sunnis that that loss actually torpedoes the experiment altogether? How do you bring the Sunni on board under the model that Sistani has outlined?
NASR: Well, I think that actually the terms on which the Sunnis want to come on board at this point in time are untenable or unacceptable to the Shi’a. And pushing hard — too hard — on that level would also run the risk of losing the Shi’a, which we’ve been taking for granted for quite some time.
And there is a point at which we have to realize we can’t win both communities. And the price that the Sunnis want for essentially a buy-in still is rather high. And the way it would work ultimately is that Iraq would be cobbled together much like India was after partition of Pakistan. The Muslims are there. They even had a nominal first president of India, but, you know, they should be worth 20 percent of the Indian power structure, no more, no less. And the Hindus, who are 80 percent, essentially took over the country. And in fact, ever since the 1990s, they’ve been far more assertive in saying that this is essentially a Hindu country and the Muslims should assume their subservient position in accordance to their numbers.
The Muslims in India tried to run the same bargain as the Sunnis did. The founder of Pakistan wanted an inordinate amount of representation in the constitutional drafting committee and as part of the parliament, and ultimately Jawaharlal Nehru said you’re free to go, but that’s not going to happen.
And that’s the kind of negotiations that’s going to occur now that the constitution’s still open to revision after the December election.
I’m not actually optimistic about being able to bring the Sunnis in. One is for the reason that the price that they’re commanding is too high.
Secondly, I believe that the Sunnis are relying on the regional Sunni power, which gives them a over-estimation of their power in Iraq which is not in accordance to their numbers, because they really are relying on the fact that the United States, in particular, has to watch out with the rest of the Arab world, and that gives them certainly negotiating power.
And thirdly, I think that psychologically the Sunnis are not there. The Sunnis have always sort of — until very recently, believed that the Shi’a numbers were inflated, that they’re not really a majority, that they cannot rule over Iraq. I think the operating assumption of the insurgency was that if you hit the United States hard enough that it gets out quickly, then the Shi’as will collapse. They can’t rule Iraq without the Sunnis. And therefore — and that assumption is still there. That’s the assumption behind, you know, attacking security, attacking infrastructure, making sure that the Shi’as don’t — are not able to consolidate power.
Now they’re trying to stymie state building at any point in time, believing that the Sunnis still have an opening to get back on top or at least to get a lot more than what a routine negotiation in the constitution would give them. I don’t believe that they’re ready mentally to have a negotiation that would realistically produce a political outcome.
BLANK: The gentleman also in the front here. And maybe if — and if the questioners — if I could remind questioners to identify yourself and your affiliation as well.
QUESTIONER: Garrett Mitchell from The Mitchell Report.
Given what you’ve just said, I want to ask you about what appears to be the latest news coming from Iraq, which is that the interim government is going to recall the officer corps of Saddam’s army.
And I wonder if you could comment on the extent to which you think that’s going to change the political dynamic, the extent to which you think it will influence the power of the insurgency?
And given your earlier comments about sort of fighting each other, as opposed to fighting the enemy from without, I’d love to hear you comment on this news.
NASR: Well, I mean, there — it is possible that it makes an impact on the tactical capabilities of the insurgency. We’ve heard reports that Zarqawi, in particular, has been recruiting among the unemployed, destitute officer corps of Iraq, and that has helped his capabilities with surveillance and bomb making and attacking and the like.
So potentially, it could make an impact.
But we often have really talked about Iraq as if everything there is about bread-and-butter issues. They do matter and they do have an impact, but there is a larger issue here, which is the perception of each community of the power that it deserves and whether it’s willing to accept a certain power arrangement or not.
And I don’t think, you know, bringing officers to potentially serve under Shi’a commanders, because I don’t think that the Shi’as would accept putting in charge the Sunni — Ba’athist Sunni — officers in charge of the army. They are willing to give them a salary, but I think ultimately it would mean in a subservient position is really going to take the angst out of the insurgency. It may force them to redirect and regroup and recalibrate their fight.
But I don’t think that in the very short term it’s going to have an impact at all. It’s more symbolic.
BLANK: Yes — in the back? The gentleman over here in the back?
QUESTIONER: Yes, I’m Tim Phelps with Newsday.
I was in Basra this summer, and as you know, there is a very strong separatist movement, for lack of a better term, in Basra that eventually was joined by Najaf, at least by the Hakim branch of Najaf.
So could you comment on the division within the Shi’a community in Iraq in terms of peeling off as a separate region in the south or being really committed to Baghdad as the central means of control?
NASR: Well, early on the push for federalism in the south potentially actually was foisted from the outside, and there are arguments that there were Internet campaigns and the like that pushed the idea. But it actually hit a fertile ground within Iraq for two reasons.
One is that Basra generally always believed that Baghdad discriminated against it in terms of resources and the like. There’s an enormous amount of distrust if you (went ?) towards a powerful center. Federalism has appealed because it allows Basra to determine its own destiny, and there is historical reason, before 1921, where Basra may think of itself as a separate entity. It was a sort of a mini governorate, much more tied to the Gulf than it was to the Syrian or middle Iraq provinces of the Ottoman empire.
The other reason why this sort of had traction with a lot of Shi’as in the south was that at some point — and this argument has been made in an implicit way because otherwise it violates sort of Iraqi national sensibilities. Why would you want to keep Iraq together at all? At what cost? I mean, if these guys don’t want to play ball, if they’re going to kill you, what are you going to gain actually by keeping Iraq together? I mean, that’s an important question to ask.
What is being won here by the Shi’a? Other than those Shi’as who happen to live in Ramadi or in Kirkuk or in Baghdad or in different parts of Al Anbar in the north where they fear being an absolute minority in a federal entity where the Shi’as are a majority. The argument is that, well, if the United States can’t bring this thing to heel, how would — you know, how would a young Iraqi government be able to deal with this insurgency? For how many years?
And why would you want to pay the cost? I mean, it is a typical political argument you have where, you know, at some point you sit down and you reevaluate the policy you have in the face of the costs that you have. And this has sort of became a debate that ultimately you might want to think of Iraq quite differently.
And then, the other issue is that the elections of January 30th really essentially confirmed that Iraq will be ruled as three entities from Sulaymaniyah, from Najaf and from somewhere in Al Anbar. And that the fact that the Kurds are there and they’re constantly pushing for federalism and, in fact, probably more is a very, very powerful example within the constitutional discussion for the Shi’as to follow.
And this has gradually become a very powerful (cap ?). And, you know, it remains to be seen what the elections in December will produce, what will be the face of the insurgency and what would really the Kurds do after the election? And I think that’s far more important than arguments about, you know, why you need to keep this thing together.
BLANK: Jim Moody has a question up front.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Jim Moody.
Your comments certainly are so different than I thought the operating assumptions were in the U.S. government through our policy. You know, I remember when we — when Yugoslavia holding together was an absolute article of faith and suddenly we switched and realized that it’s not going to happen and we — you know the world moved on.
Can you see a time when — let me ask you to expand on your comments regarding what are the implications for U.S. policy at this crucial moment? What is likely to happen? And what — and if what happens what you describe, where will the U.S. go next or where could they go?
NASR: It is not an easy answer, the reason being that the difference between Iraq and Yugoslavia is that Iraq is sort of — it’s tied into the rest of the Arab world.
The Shi’as don’t have to care about what Jordan, you know, Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis may think about the federal (south ?) in Iraq or dissolution of Iraq. That’s our problem; it’s not their problem. It’s not the Iranians’ problem.
We have a dilemma, and there is no easy solution. We have an ascendant community in Iraq and across the region, and we have a community that’s being downsized in Iraq and in the region. The ones that are being downsized were traditionally closer to us. The one that is being ascendant we haven’t talked to really in the past 25 years. I mean, Ja’afari is the first Shi’a leader we’ve had a conversation with the past 25 years.
The dilemma for us is that how do we handle these two factors in the Middle East — an ascendant Shi’a community and a downsizing Sunni community within the framework of the same policy?
I mean, potentially you could say the simplest dilemma we have is that is that for things to go right in Iraq means that it will go wrong everywhere else. In other words, in order for things to go right in Iraq means an orderly Shi’a takeover of power or an orderly dissolution of the country, whichever it is — like your Yugoslav scenario, you have a date and agreement. You know, you can negotiate and have them take their sides. But the ramification of this elsewhere is the one that we have to deal with. In other words, a successful Iraq might mean the dissolution of Saudi Arabia. I mean, if the Shi’as in Iraq — in Saudi Arabia began to ask for what — they don’t want to separate. They don’t want to — they want to be citizens of Saudi Arabia.
I remember the saying of a Saudi leader — a Saudi Shi’a leader — he said I’m voting in these elections to prove I am a human being in the Saudi election. Well, the rest of Saudi Arabia will fall apart. I mean, Saudi Arabia is a hegemony of of Wahhabi Najdis over unwilling or willing, you know, Hijazis, Jaufis (ph), Assyris and Shi’as.
Once the Shi’as begin to, you know, poke their finger in Saudi Arabia, things will go haywire.
Now, what happens in Saudi Arabia is not the concern of Abdul Aziz Hakim or Sistani or Ja’afari, but is our concern.
And this large dilemma we have is we have to think about policies that are not atomized and just focused on Iraq. We have to think regionally about this thing, and we have to sort of figure out the way that we can hand-hold the Sunnis as they’re being (downsized ?) and be able to hand-hold the Shi’as as they are ascending, and to think in terms of a regional policy, which I think is what’s lacking. In other words, we really don’t have Middle East policy in the sense of regional policy. We have policies on particular problem areas, but not a regional policy.
BLANK: All right, let me press you on that a little bit. It raises an interesting question about whether the Shi’a could actually be at the forefront of a larger revolution within the Muslin world. The years immediately proceeding the Iranian revolution, a number of Iranian clerics — Ali Shariati, for example — were putting forward the idea that the Sunni/Shi’a division is not really the most important aspect and reaching across to Shi’a leaders to Shi’a — to Sunni masses, as well, and being received well as perhaps the spearhead of a movement to overthrow repressive dictatorships from the Shah on downward.
Is there a possibility of a similar movement being created today?
NASR: It all hinges on, as I said, like Sistani’s success on what happens in Iraq. The potential is there for varieties of reasons. One is that the Shi’as, by and large, are done with the revolutionaries. As they — I would say that as they’re coming off of the dark years of revolution, but actually many Salafis are just entering it. There are no Shi’a websites recruiting suicide bombers. There are no Shi’a jihadis, you know, attacking London or Paris. At least for now that’s the case.
The model — the operating model — right now is actually the one that the U.S. would like to see for the rest of the region, which means embracing democracy. And that does not mean that the Shi’as are democrats, you know, in the sense of liberal democrats. But the very fact that they see democracy as a tool, means there is a beginning there. And also, it happens that the most interesting debate culturally within the Muslim world are among the Shi’as. I mean, look at Iran. Look at the debates within Hezbollah or among the clerics in Lebanon. I mean, Hezbollah has joined the democratic process. If you read the fatwahs of Lebanese Shi’a clerics, there’s more on nail polish and place of women in the workforce than it is on the kinds of things you read on Salafi websites.
But that does not mean that, you know, everything is done. The problem is, there is sort of one link missing between this sort of cultural server on political opening among the Shi’as becoming actually a tidal wave. There is the fact of the Iranian regime still being there. There is the dangers in Iraq in the form of, you know, the whole process being derailed and militants taking over. But — and that’s again — looking at the Shi’as regionally is important for the U.S., because you can see the contours of this. At least half the population in the Middle East is not Salafi or is not interested in Salafi.
That’s an important bulwark against the rest. If you thought about September 11th, there were only — within days there was all outpouring of support for people in New York and Washington and denunciation of terrorism among populations in two places. One was in Tehran, where hundreds of thousands came out in the streets in a candlelight vigil. The other one, which was not reported, was in Karachi among the Shi’as, which were organized by a Shi’a-driven party, MQM, who defied the Pashtun and the, you know, pro-Jihadi element in Pakistan to gather in the center of Karachi to denounce terrorism in New York.
I mean, that might be just a straw to hang on, but I don’t think we have too much else to sort to try to push forward. And in many regards, I think that’s important for us to take the Shi’a revival and what it means seriously, beyond the sort of micro managing the sectarian conflict in Iraq.
BLANK: Well, even a straw is something worth hanging onto.
Let’s see, back on this side.
QUESTIONER: Clay Swisher with the Middle East Institute.
I’m wondering if you could comment to what extent — what do you make of the argument, rather, that U.S. national security interests will actually benefit in the long run with a federal Shi’a-dominated Iraq that does not follow the Velayat-e-Faqih, does not have an emphasis on Qom, but looks inward at Najaf. Will U.S. policy benefit vis-a-vis Iran in that outcome?
NASR: It could potentially, but the ideal that you describe is difficult for us to force to happen, and it’s not likely to happen very quickly or easily. And we cannot really sort of micromanage what happens between Najaf and Qom. And it might be an underestimation or overestimation of Najaf’s capabilities at this time. Qom is a — I mean, the rivalry between the two is more like a Yale-Harvard rivalry than sort of actually throwing stones at each other.
But also, Najaf is in many regards about 20 to 30 years now behind Qom. I mean, in terms of wealth, resources, number of students, the sort of infrastructure of education and power, Najaf has been languishing through sanctions, through wars, and now through insecurity. Also, in many regards, currently the Shi’a, at least at multiple levels — and I’m not talking about the Iranian government; I’m talking about the Shi’a clerics — are most interested in consolidating gains they’ve made because of opening of Iraq. When those gains are consolidated, it is possible that then they would begin to openly bicker about issues of theology and the like.
But I think the far more important lesson in Iraq is actually the success of Shi’a empowerment through participation and the ballot box. And then what it does to theology, we should let the Shi’as decide themselves. And I think pushing this thing too hard, trying to force Najaf as a model, is actually likely to backfire. This is sort of a kiss of death. You don’t want to have Najaf too tightly theologically because then it could lose its legitimacy.
BLANK: Vali, we’ve got about 10 minutes left. So why don’t we take two groupings of several questions and let you then respond. We’ll start out on the aisle over here.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Steve Myrow, Department of Defense.
In light of the increased public attention that Syria has been receiving lately, although it’s historically been relatively secular, how do you see the Sunni-Shi’a divide playing out in the upcoming months or years in some type of potential change in the Syrian regime?
BLANK: Let’s take a couple more. How about the gentleman over here? Oh, do you also have a question, ma’am? Okay.
QUESTIONER: David Apgar, Corporate Executive Board.
Could we see the politics of the divide change? For example, could we see some Salafists outside Iran rallying to Ahmadinejad?
BLANK: Okay, and why don’t we take one more question. The gentleman in the back.
QUESTIONER: Hasan Hazar, Turkey Daily.
What do you think about the Turkish model of Turkish Islam? How can it be a model for the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East? The reason why I’m asking this question is there’s a huge misunderstanding about the tamnerejei (ph), the definition of Islam. For example, Turks and Kurds are Sunni, but Saudis who — they call themselves Sunni — don’t accept them as Muslim. So this is why I must give this question.
BLANK: Okay, so we have a question on Syria, a question on Turkey. I forget the central question —
NASR: It was on Iran.
BLANK: On Iran, okay.
NASR: On Ahmadinejad and Salafists.
NASR: Syria can have, actually, a major impact in multiple ways. One is that, at least formerly, there always has been a regional quote, unquote, “Shi’a access” between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. And in the sense that Syria sometime in the 1970s, through a fatwa by Imam Musa al-Sadr of Lebanon and Ayatollah Khomeini, its leadership was given the status of Shi’as and therefore Muslims.
But it’s the reverse of Iraq in this sense. You know, the Shi’a minority — if you call them Shi’a — minority government, Ba’athists ruling over a majority Sunni population. Now, if Syria was to unravel, it has impact on the kind of decision-making that Hezbollah would make, now being sort of completely isolated from this access. It also has implications for the whole discussion we’re talking about, namely the kind of Sunni-ism that is likely to be resurgent in Syria is likely to be more driven by Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
And in fact, that’s the whole dilemma of the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime is threatened by Iraq in multiple ways. One is the example of fall of the minority regime and empowerment of a majority through a political opening — or first of all through regime change, followed by political opening. Secondly, there is the threat of the United States to Syria, which continues to be taken very seriously by the Syrian regime. And as a result, I think Syria follows the same model that Iran does in Iraq, which is a policy of controlled chaos; in other words, keep the U.S. busy for as long as we can to avert its attention being focused on you.
But also, the Syrians, much like the Saudis, know that playing with the insurgents is also a dangerous game. The same thing that happened in Afghanistan could happen here. In other words, the Syrians are threatened by Shi’a revival in Iraq. They’re also threatened by Sunni extremism emerging out of Al Anbar. And I would think the Syrians would look at Al Anbar and see Lebanon 1975, when a radicalizing ascendent Palestinian regime threatening a minority Christian regime in Lebanon was seen as a threat to the Syrian regime in multiple ways. But problematic is that, you know, they cannot bring all of this into sort of a coherent picture.
The Salafists, Iranian regime is actually in big debate about this, much like metering, if you would, the Zawahiri-Zarqawi debate. They don’t know quite how to handle, essentially, the Shi’a revival beyond this point, the U.S. role in it, and also the Sunni reaction that the Shi’a revival in Iraq is generating. Taking for instance, again, the trip of the Saudi foreign minister to New York and Washington generated enormous amount of debate in Iran because the Iranians thought that the Saudis were pitching a new position to the U.S., which would mean sidelining the Shi’a.
But the Iranians essentially view the Salafists as a danger. There already are a Salafic group in Baluchestan, which has, you know, carried out the beheading of an Iranian security official and actually, sent — the video said that this was a gift for the inauguration of the President Ahmadinejad. There are bombings on a continuous basis in Iran’s Khuzestan Province as well as in its Kurdish area. And in many regards, the Iranians ultimately look at the Salafists as the remnants of the same alliance that had sort of caged them throughout the 1980s and 1990s. They’re happy for the Salafists, essentially, to take on the U.S. and to bog the U.S. down in Iraq. But much like the Syrians or the Saudis, they would very much worry if they would actually become clearly ascendant.
And then, the final question about Turkish Islam. It’s only relevant, really — it was relevant to the Iranian discussion about democracy because the Turkish — the AK Party’s to power, at least the way in which it was understood by others, rested on civil society activism and rested on giving up on the notion of an Islamic state and essentially arguing for presence of Islam in the political process, sanctioned by democracy. It is not a powerful voice in the Arab world. You could say that the Sistani model is a sort of a variation in this in the sense that democracy would empower Shi’a identity. But you don’t see much debate at all about whether or not that’s feasible or doable in Iraq.
BLANK: Okay, we have time for maybe one or two final comments and then a final comment from Vali. Anyone have any brief comments or questions? Or even better, we can just let Vali leave us with a few — just a few closing thoughts and with the most important things to take away from the meeting.
NASR: I think the most important thing is to think about this issue regionally. I mean, Iraq is a dilemma for us, but Iraq is only the tip of the iceberg. Everything that happens in Iraq really has a regional implication that will play itself out long after, even if Iraq itself is quiet. And it is important to take that seriously, whether in it’s in the global war on terror and on the issue of what happens to Salafis and jihadis.
And secondly is really to take the issue of Shi’a revival very seriously. I think if we don’t, it will imperil our foreign policy. We really cannot have an Iran policy, a Saudi policy, a Lebanon and Syria policy, and an Iraq policy unless we have a holistic view of the region. I mean, these are all sort of tied together, woven together, and will have a bearing on one another. And I think that’s the most important thing.
I mean, we went to Iraq having a regional vision, believing that Iraq would change the region. That’s still true, and we somewhere along the line have stopped thinking regionally and have begun only thinking about Iraq and how to put it together. But we have to continue to keep our eyes on the larger picture.
BLANK: Great. Well, please join me in thanking Vali. (Applause.)
NASR: Thank you very much. (Applause.)
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