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Behind the rise of the Shi'ites

Author: Vali R. Nasr, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
December 19, 2006
Time.com

The most significant challenge facing the U.S. in an increasingly unstable Middle East, today, is understanding the rise of the Shi’ites across the region. The U.S. invasion of Iraq unleashed a process of Shi’ite empowerment that won’t be confined to that country: From Lebanon to the Persian Gulf, through peaceful elections and bloody conflicts, the Shi’ites are making their presence felt. The headlines of 2006 have been dominated by the likes of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army as sectarian warfare surged in Iraq; by Hizballah, emboldened by its summer war with Israel to challenge Lebanon’s fragile political order; and by Iran’s defiance of international demands over its nuclear program.

When the U.S. destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, parties based in the Shi’ite majority—brutally suppressed for decades—were quick to stake their claim to the shape country’s future. They embraced the American promise of democracy and, ordered to vote by their most respected spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they turned out in their millions at the polling booths to elect the Arab-world’s first Shi’ite government. And that inspired Shi’ites across the region to clamor for more rights and influence, challenging centuries-old arrangements that had kept them on the margins.

There has always been a political dimension to the Sunni-Shi’ite split, which originated in a seventh century dispute over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of Islam’s faithful.

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