The Emerging Shia Crescent Symposium: Understanding the Shia

Monday, June 5, 2006

RICHARD HAASS (president, Council on Foreign Relations):  Well, good morning.  We’re only seven minutes late.   

This morning’s event is titled “The Emerging Shia Crescent: Implications for theMiddle East and U.S. Policy.”  This is part of a series of policy-oriented symposia that we’ve been holding here at the council.  Recently we had one onIranand U.S.-Iranians relations.  We have obviously this one today.  And the idea is to analyze what we think is an important phenomena and, if there are clear policy prescriptions, to try to draw them out. 

This is an on-the-record event.  It’s being webcast around the country and the world.   

It is in three parts.  This is the first, on the question of understanding Shia.  Then we’ve got the second session after a break, about whether this all ought to be a cause for a concern.  And then thirdly, the last session, over lunch, will be on the clear implications of all this for U.S. policy in the region. 

As you can see, looking at your program, we’ve assembled—at the risk of some immodesty—I believe, an extraordinary array of talent and expertise on this subject. 

Let me just make one other point.  Several people raised the question of the title, use of the words—phrase “Shia Crescent,” which has taken on certain consequences because it’s been used in certain ways in the region.  It’s not meant in any way to suggest there is a threat one way or the other.  Indeed, the entire purpose of this set of meetings is to examine what is behind the rise in Shia power, to the extent that there is such a rise; how to account for it; and how to think about it.  So there’s nothing in the title of the event in any way made to foreshadow or preordain the outcome. 

With that, let me turn it over to Dean Lisa Anderson, who is the dean of an institution up the road, and she will take it from there.   

And again, the way the day is set up is, we have these three sessions, and we’ve tried to block enough time between and among them so you all have a chance to talk over these issues with one another. 

But Lisa, over to you. 

LISA ANDERSON:  Thank you very much.  I’m delighted to be here and delighted to be with all of you.   

Lisa Anderson, Reza Aslan, Dale Eickelman, and Noah Feldman
discussing critical issues for understanding Shia, such as
intellectual tradition, thought, and identity.

I am instructed to remind you that you should turn off all wireless devices—(chuckles)—there’s a long list of them:  cell phones and BlackBerries and so forth—and again to remind you, as Richard said, that this is on the record.   

Now, we have a long, you know, robust agenda for this morning. 

And with us this morning to start us off are three quite remarkable people who will be offering their perspectives, really, on sort of the beginning of this kind of discussion. 

Reza Aslan is a research associate at the UniversityofSouthern California Center on Public Diplomacy.  He’s taught Islamic and Middle East studies at various places, writes fiction, is a regular op-ed editorialist, and author of “No God but God.”  His book has been translated into six languages. 

Noah Feldman is already well known to this audience.  He is an adjunct senior fellow here at the council, professor of law at NYU Law School, served as advisor to the coalition provisional authority and writes what seems to be about a book a year on law, religion, Middle East and other issues, is a regular to the contributor to The New York Times Magazine. 

And Dale Eickelman is the Richard & Ralph Lazarus Professor of Anthropology atDartmouth, past president of the Middle East Studies Association and currently adviser toKuwait’s first private liberal arts university, the American UniversityofKuwait.  He’s author of numerous books and articles that have shaped the way we all think about Islam. 

Reza, why don’t I start with you and start with the sort of basic question.  Most people in this audience know the answer to this question.  But just to make sure we’re all on the same page, what is Shiism? 

REZA ASLAN:  Well, when talking about the origins of Shiism, it’s a difficult topic to deal with because in some sense what we refer to as Shia thought or Shia religion represents trends of thought that have existed from the very beginning of the movement of Islam, in fact, even predates Islam in some ways.  But I think it’s very—it’s easier when talking about Shiism and particularly the difference between the Shia and the majority Orthodox Sunni community to divide it into three different categories—politically, religiously and ethnically—because, of course, Shiism arose as a distinct movement within Islam primarily as a political movement, as a political identity, as most of you know, regarding the question of the succession to the Prophet Mohammed. 

The Shia, or the Shiat Ali, which means the partisans of Ali, were just that, partisans of a particular movement that believed that the succession to the Prophet Mohammed should rest within the prophet’s immediate family, if not within his clan. 

So when we talk about that original split between Shiism and what will eventually become known as Sunni Islam, we need to recognize that at first there was very little religiously that separated these two groups.  This was surely political separation.  However, once the Shia political aspirations were more or less denied and the Muslim community transformed into an empire, a distinctly Arab empire, the Shia slowly began to withdraw from the larger political implications of their movement.  And it was at that point, particularly after a very important date, 680, and the events at a place called Karbala in Iraq, in which the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and the scion of Shia leadership was massacred by the Umayyad, the Arab empire at the time, that Shiism began to withdraw from society, particularly politically, and began to become distinctly a religious sect.   

And what was sort of interesting about this, particularly from a religious studies point of view, is that Shiism is one of very few religions in the world whose origins are sort of defined by ritual, not so much by mythology.  It was the lamentation rituals, the mourning rituals that arose out of this massacre at Karbala, that began to give Shiism its distinct religious definition, and only later on did the theological implications, almost the theological definition, I would say, of Shiism was formed as a result of these rituals that had already very organically been going on for quite some time. 

The last thing that—so now we have this—what began as a political split became very clearly a religious split.  But now at this point, from about 680 onward, Shiism comes to represent essentially the protest movement within the Islamic world.  It is the non-state version of Islam.  In essence, it becomes quite appealing, particularly to non-Arabs, though this is, at this point, still primarily an Arab movement.  As Islam began to spread beyond the Arab world, as it began to spill into Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent and into North Africa, it—Shiism became an opportunity for non-Arabs to become Muslim, to adopt the identity of Islam, and yet to maintain some sort of separation from what they saw as a domineering and sometimes oppressive state ideology. 

“In the Shia world…although there were moments where it
looked like the scholars might decline, they kept going and
they kept producing interesting and provocative scholarship.
And more importantly than that, they maintained an
important institutional role in their society,” said Feldman.

ANDERSON:  This sounds, to an uninitiated ear, a lot like Protestantism in Christianity.  Is that—I mean, again, is that a way for us to understand this is—is it comparable to that split in Christianity? 

ASLAN:  Well, I mean, I actually think it’s quite an interesting historical parallel insofar as the Protestant movement also began as a protest movement, a protestant movement against the official sanctioned state religion, that of Christianity.  And so in that sense, there’s very much a lot of historical parallels between the Shia movement and the Protestant movement. 

Theologically speaking, ideologically speaking, it’s sort of the reverse because the Shia, because of the fact that as it began to be adopted by non-Arabs, by Central Asians, by people who were once Christians or Manichaeans or Jews or Zoroastrians or Hindus, this sense of syncretism began to really take hold, and Shiism began to develop and flower into a wholly new kind of expression of traditional Islam.  It very eagerly absorbed these local and cultural and religious practices and made it very much a part of its own. 

And as such one of those practices was the idea of the devotion, devotion to the prophet Mohammed, which is something that traditional mainstream Sunni Islam tends to eschew in some sense, this idea of coming to Mohammed as a figure of devotionalism as opposed to as simply a messenger of God, somebody who should be revered, of course, but to whom devotion in the sense of almost—I mean, I don’t want to say worship, but almost in the sense of that kind of idea began to really take hold within Shiism. 

ANDERSON:  One of the distinctions that’s often made between—and you sort of imply this, I think, between Shia and Sunni Islam —is the relative emphasis on the rule of law in Sunni Islam, and that for Shia, this is not as significant.  And so I’d like maybe, just almost as a segue into some questions for Noah, you to tell us a little bit—we talk a lot about the rule of law, you know—the question is, what law? 

ASLAN:  No, that’s an excellent point, and I think a lot has to do with the issue of power dynamics.  Sunni Islam—and by the way, Sunni just means tradition—traditionalist.  So in a sense, the idea of Sunni Islam is very much tied to the development of Islamic law, which, while it has its primarily foundations within the Koran, the bulk of Islamic law, particularly in the Sunni world, involves the Sunnah, the traditions of the Prophet. 

Within the Shia world, because they were so removed from any kind of political power and because in many ways they separated themselves from the larger ummah, the larger Muslim community, and of course, the clerical institutions of those communities; and also, because within Shiism there was a great deal of emphasis on the charismatic leader, the imam, the true successor to the Prophet Mohammed, who, by the fact of his very birth had a spiritual connection, an esoteric knowledge, if you will, of things that go beyond simply tradition or law—the idea of law and particularly the role of the traditions within the law played a different role in Shiism than it did in Sunni Islam with the result that Shiism was able to adapt and to evolve, I think, at a far greater pace than traditional Sunni law. 

Part of the reason for this is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  You hear it actually quite a lot these days in this notion of ijtihad, which is a source of law that means independent juristic reasoning.  The idea is that a qualified cleric has the ability to use nothing more than rational conjecture in order to interpret Islamic law.  This tradition existed both in Sunni Islam and in Shia Islam. However, within the Sunni world, it began to fall out of favor slightly; sometimes we talk about it coming to an end in Sunni Islam. That, I think, is a false way of presenting it.  But it did fall out of favor within the Sunni Islamic legal traditions, whereas in Shia Islam, it not only remained major source of law. 

But I would say that it remained the major source of—the primary source of law, which, of course, allowed for a great deal of innovation and adaptation.  And I think we see this very much playing out in the modern world with regard to countries such as Iraq and Iran, in which we see a great deal more political experimentation and perhaps an even easier time of reconciling traditional Islamic values and ideas and traditions with modern conceptions of democracy or pluralism or human rights or what have you. 

I think the Shia legal tradition has a bit of an easier time with that reconciliation than most traditional Sunni schools of law do. 

ANDERSON:  Noah, I don’t even have to ask you that question. That’s a question.  You know, we start more than a thousand years ago. Do these traditions—are they lively today in this sort of way? 

NOAH FELDMAN:  There’s no question that Shi’ite intellectual tradition is extremely lively right now. I think the key point here is that the scholars/clerics played a major role in both Sunni and Shia Islam, but in the 19th century—second half of the 19th century, first half of the 20th, in the Sunni world the scholars really declined.  And it’s a whole complicated story of its own, which is not our topic today, of how that happened, but it did happen.   

In the Shia world, by contrast, although there were moments where it looked like the scholars might decline, they kept going and they kept producing interesting and provocative scholarship.  And more importantly than that, they maintained an important institutional role in their society.  So if you look at the world today, what you see is that essentially Shia clerics have much more organization and much more influence over ordinary Shia believers than do most Sunni clerics over Sunni believers. 

Now, there’s a particular religious component to this and then there’s an institutional component, so I’ll just mention them quickly. The religious component is that under the contemporary reception of Shia doctrine, each individual Shi’i is supposed to choose for himself one cleric who will be his model of emulation.  There’s, you know, an Arabic term for that, the marzhak dapliv (ph), but it’s essentially the person to whom one chooses—whom one chooses to emulate.   And you actually have free choice to choose one of the great scholars as the person whom you’ll emulate.  That means that that person has real influence over you.  And this is not an institutional model that exists in exactly the same way in the Sunni world.   

So the most obvious example of this is Ayatollah Sistani today, in Iraq, whose name we all know and whose website we’ve probably all visited,, who has enormous influence over people all over the world who choose to ask him questions.  And in theory, his answers are binding on those people. 

The second component is that the various Shia scholars are organized into institutional schools in certain actual locations, and  the two most important or famous in this century are Qom, in Iran, and Najaf, inIraq.  And they have been both up and down at different points in history.  Right now there was a lot of hope a couple years ago that Najaf was going to rise, and in certain ways maybe it has, in terms of the individuals there, but it hasn’t really risen because the country is in such a shambles.  Qom, it was said, oh, it’s about to decline.  It actually hasn’t declined in quite the same way. 

So those remain important centers, and in those centers you have a lot of very smart people who are lawyers and philosophers and theorists, sitting around and arguing about ideas.  And that can be pretty exciting to see. 

ANDERSON:  Does that then suggest the dynamism in the Shia world is largely a result of this sort of intellectual life, or are there other elements that we need to be thinking about if we think about the relations—well, the Shia in general and related to the Sunnis? 

FELDMAN:  I think the key player in the answer to that question is Ayatollah Khomeini.  

I think what happened under—in Khomeini’s own move is that he took the clerics out of the seminaries and said that what they had to teach was relevant to actual political action.   

And in the process of doing that, he really accomplished two huge changes in—that are directly relevant to today’s dynamism in the Shia world.  I think the first thing that he accomplished is that he made the clerics into political actors, into active political actors, and thereby made Shiism itself into a political force, which, if you look at the old textbooks, is described—it’s described in the opposite way.  Shiism is described as a quietistic denomination where you just sit back and let the government do its thing.  And after Khomeini, the opposite could now reasonably be said. 

And the second thing that he did is that he further consolidated in his own theories the importance of the most respected senior ayatollah as a crucial figure in what was going to happen in the Shia world.  And even though other senior scholars didn’t agree with him—so today—in today’s version, again, Sistani wouldn’t agree with the idea of Khomeini that the person who’s authorized to rule ultimately is the best jurist—it’s the rule of the jurist, the idea that if you’re the smartest jurist and the most pious, you’re qualified to actually tell people what to do—even though Sistani doesn’t agree with that, nonetheless, the idea that this central figure has a big role to play has sort of rubbed off, even on people in the Shia world who would disagree with Khomeini’s actual formulation. 

ANDERSON:  I want to ask you a question, which is, as I did before, really to Dale, but I want you to answer it and then we’ll—you did something interesting when you were talking about place.  On the one hand, there are these two major centers, one inIranand one inIraq, that are associated with development of Shiism.  But then you said “”  To what extent is—are these discussions located in these places?  And to what extent are these discussions transcending those in this new media and—

FELDMAN:  That’s a deep question.  I think that it’s really in play right now.  You know, if you look over on the Sunni side, I think it’s pretty clear that except for a handful of places where people are training good scholars, it’s all—the Web is hugely important.  You know, serious scholars are disseminating things on the Web.  Non-serious people are disseminating things on the Web. Everyone’s arguing on the Web, and it’s become much—was already decentralized.  It’s become further decentralized. 

On the Shia side, if you want to rise through the ranks of the Shia clerics, you still have to study, in a system that is—it has got—it’s like a university.  It’s tiered.  You have to go through all the ranks in the university.  And that’s still necessary to accomplish significant influence in the formal religious sphere.  But there are moves to decentralization.  So it’s significant that it’s not, you know, “”  It’s Sistani.  It’s personalized to “”  So I think that still matters.  And the people who are around him still matter.  And who becomes the head of the hawza, or the clerical establishment, in Najaf after he dies, which I hope will not happen too soon, will actually really have, I think, practical import. 

At the same time, you know—and here I should just mention Muqtada Sadr, because we—he’s a sort of weird counterexample to what I’m saying—there are people who—like Muqtada Sadr, who come from fancy families of academia, as it were.  I mean, he’s from a very important family, who’s—and his father and grandfather were significant figures in—especially his grandfather—significant figures in Shia religious life.   

He himself, though, is a young guy—he’s around my age—and he’s not risen up high through the ranks, nor does he have any prospect of doing so.   

So he’s been trying to generate political authority for himself and religious charisma by going outside the traditional organization and sort of being the kind of angry young cleric on the ground.  The web is less central, obviously, for him, but it’s another—like the web, which is a form of decentralization. Muqtada al-Sadr is trying and has done pretty well of trying to create an alternate route to authority, a kind of charismatic rout to authority outside the institutional route. 

ANDERSON:  Okay.  Dale, where are Shia?  What are the important places, including perhaps the web, that we should be thinking about? 

DALE EICKELMAN:  Okay.  Let me start by looking even at the title for this conference, which I have not fully adapted with enthusiasm, the Shia Crescent, which, I presume, has replaced the Islamic Crescent, at least this week, as a focus of interest.  The problem with a title like that, I think, it’s neglecting the extent to which one is becoming decentralized in some ways, but on the other hand, as both Reza and Noah have pointed out, you have in Shiism something that is not so much defined just by doctrine, but by a convergence of a certain type of institutional identity, very strong, practical sense of ties with whom one follows his religious leader to talk about personal issues, family issues, household and community issues and just about everything else.  And then on the other hand, an identity shaped sometimes by rituals, which allowed many, many different interpretations and other things. 

I did a very easy sort of exercise and went to a chart which should show you how one should distrust certain types of figures.  I went to a very open source,, figuring that the open source, CIA, would tell us where the Shia are.  And it’s fascinating when you look at it in detail because for the places that are politically very sensitive such asLebanon, they fudge, they say nothing; they abrogate the Shia with lots of other Islamic sects and do nothing. 

The Yemen is a tricky thing that only people schooled when I was in the mid-20th century would notice.  What you do with the Zaidi Shia who have no ties with Shia, really, in the rest world?  It’s something unique to (Oman ?).  The CIA fudges it; they don’t bother saying anything.  They just say they’re all Muslims, and they move on from there. 

In some places, the figures are very useful.  There seems to be a good faith effort to show where the Shia or least how many Shia there are in Iraq, something that has been of concern for many, many years, when people know the figures are very, very awkward.  But now it’s plus or minus 5 percent, at least for the CIA’s public figures. 

Likewise, Iran, 89 percent.  But that reminds us that there’s a lot of Sunni there, as well as representatives of other religious traditions in rather significant communities—Jews and Christians, amongst others.  Nineteen percent or so for Pakistan and Afghanistan .  A very, very interesting figure to watch because, number one, it’s a significant minority; number two, it’s a political flash point where there’s numbers of riots, and so forth; and number three, where there’s very active Shia groups, especially the Ismailis, trying to reach out in very many different ways to improve the level not only of Ismaili communities, who are Shia, but many other communities as well.   

And this brings me, I think, to the more important thing than trying to figure out where things are, and still use, the World Factbook, as a place to begin, but then be extraordinarily critical of using other things.  There’s another site a student brought to me called, that claims to tell you where all the sects are in the world.  And as somebody who has spent years and years in the Sultanate of Oman, where my estimate of the number of Shia is under 1 percent, but really nice people, they came up with 80 percent because somebody just didn’t know how to read all these funny figures and decided to get on with it.  But may God help us when such figures then become part of somebody’s policy decisions. 

But what one has now is a combination, I think, that is unique to the Shia way of practicing Islam.  It’s this combination I was talking about of intense local ties that are highly flexible in terms of retaining people’s confidence in very different situations.  Quite often in Iraq, although no one knows this better than myself, sometimes it’s the Shia who provide community and government services where there is no government to speak of, at least for their own communities.   

Now, combined with that, one has attempts of many Shia to recognize that part of the modern world requires explaining yourselves not only to your followers, but to others, which means, quite often, a Web presence, which can be a very, very strong sort of thing.  It may be certain Shia groups based out of London, for instance, that also play a role, a very strong role in Iraqi politics.   

It may be groups inIranlearning to represent themselves in other languages and to try to spread.  They have a hard doing it.  As I’ve talked with Indonesian clerics, for instance, they’ll have people from Iran come to them from time to time—and they’re polite because the Iranians who come are Arabic speaking and the senior Indonesian clerics are Arabic speaking, so they have a language in common—but after that, it doesn’t go anywhere. 

The late Raholish Madgi (ph) told me that in 1985, he was trying to explain to the Indonesian security services exactly what the difference was between Sunni and Shia, and after the first week of such lectures, the occasions was the first time that non-Muslims were allowed to come in to talk about Islam to groups, and most people I noticed didn’t wear nametags, just like Washington.  So then I’d start asking, “Who are they,” when they were giving us photographs, and I found out it’s—(name inaudible)—then a major security service. But he said, “Oh, we’ve gotten very far.  I’ve now told them that the Shia are not Sunni,” and that was a start.  But he said, “That’s about as far as we ever got, and they’re not going to be likely to have much influence here.” 

The important thing, however, is that for outreach to other Muslims, the Shia community, including the Ismailis, tend to mute the religious element of it so that they can do what they do well—intellectual propagation, if you wish, first-class, world-class universities and public works services.  For other groups, there’s a little bit more limitation to the other. 

But on the other hand, when I have gone to seminaries in Iran and elsewhere, the level of debate and contestation, the really exciting joining of intellectual issues with the issues of the day, is something that I rarely have seen elsewhere. 

ANDERSON:  Let me draw you out a little bit on this. 

You pointed out, as we know, but I think it’s worth making more explicit, that the—what we’re calling Shiism is actually very internally complex, that there varieties of schools and sects and so forth within Shiism.  To what extent are we seeing something that’s developing that is a more self-conscious, transcendent identity as Shia as opposed to Ismaili or Zaidi or any of the other internal divisions? 

EICKELMAN:  We’re seeing lots of some groups, at least, claiming an overall mantle of authority. 

Here you have a paradox, I think.  Groups such as the Ismaili do not claim to represent all Muslims.  They do some things, they do them very well, period.  With other groups with a strong territorial base and a lot to lose if they don’t defend themselves, as in Iraq, one has a strong emphasis on holding up one’s own and trying to speak for other groups with whom one might come into a coalition, plus lots of outside forces that sometimes help push you into a certain thing. Example:  When you decide to have a parliament and you say you’re going to allocate—this is why the CIA, for instance, won’t say too much about what they might know about the statistics for Lebanon, where numbers are very, very tricky sorts of things.  If you have a parliament where you say X number of people are going to be Shia, X are going to be Sunni, that forces you into boxes.  Think back to what the League of Nations would do in places such as Alexandretta in, I believe it was the early 1930s, where you’d have local elections where thugs would go around and try to convince people to be either Arabs or Kurds or Turks so that you could boost the numbers and then have territory allocated.  In a somewhat analogous way, one has now the problem of creating something for the purposes, perhaps, of representation, but if that box is a big abstract box, then there’s something very concrete that allows people of smaller groups to try to claim the mantle of authority to speak for that group.  That can go either way.  Sometimes it can work for the good, sometimes it can be a very, very dangerous thing to do. 

ANDERSON:  One more question to you, but this is really to all three of you, and then we’ll open it up to questions from the audience.  This question of how people choose, if you will, their identity—in other words, are they going to be Persian, are they going to be Shia, are they going to be Ismaili, you know, all of that seems to me, judging from what you’ve said and what we read in the papers, very much in play.   

So what are the kinds of things that are shaping those decisions of how people deploy various identities that are available to them? And most particularly, you mentioned, Dale, social service delivery as something that groups do, presumably that is in part to encourage people to identify with those sorts of groups.   

So what are the sorts of things we ought to be thinking about, about how people make those choices of, you know, the priority of their various identities? 

EICKELMAN:  If I were an Ismaili inChitral, Pakistan, a very remote area, perhaps I would get a little better chance at a scholarship or a little better chance to get outside of my own community to make something of myself.  I think I would foreground that part of my identity. 

If I were living in Basra and a very insecure sort of situation—it’s not just individual choice—but I might want to go with the group whom I felt might be able to protect me and give me the resources, so that I could just survive, more than another.  

Those are extreme cases.  In most cases, in the ones I know a little bit better, that I’ve seen amongst Shia in Oman and, to a more limited extent, in Iran, it’s a combination of things.  If your father, your grandfather and so forth have had—have followed the teachings of one individual, you may very well go with that same family or group, and talk with your community.  It’s not like an election, where you can switch political parties, but sometimes there are switches, and sometimes you will vote with your feet and join some other group. 

In a sense, as one Mustahid (sp) said to me in Iran, “We’re more democratic than you.  We talk about our decisions and then we move forward.” 

ASLAN:  I think that’s very interesting.  I think Dale brings up a very good point in emphasizing geography and context in how one defines oneself as either Shia or Sunni or what have you.   

Nowadays, because we are so embroiled in this emerging Sunni- Shia conflict, we tend to think of these two identities as very distinct and separate and even at odds with one another. 

But I think it’s important to recognize that throughout history, this has been a much more fluid issue of identity than it has been quite recently.  Particularly to the Arab world, it’s—I mean, Shia and Sunni intermarry.  There is—it’s often the case where identity has far more to do with one’s tribe than it has to do with one’s sect. And in many ways it has been a direct result of outside forces and this attempt by, particularly, the Western powers to impose a sense of  identity upon primarily colonized peoples that has solidified this real difference. 

I think Iraq is a wonderful example of this.  Really, at the beginning of the war, when we started seeing some of these conflicts, I and a lot of other scholars were saying stop talking about this as some kind of civil war between Shia and Sunni; that sense of identification is not nearly as strong as other ideas of identification, particularly tribal notions.  And yet, in a very strange way, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy has occurred insofar as there’s been so much emphasis on the division of Iraq in these sectarian lines that Iraqis themselves have begun to absorb that identity, and precisely that conflict that we were so afraid of has in some ways come to pass. 

FELDMAN:  I disagree a little bit at least with the end of what Reza said.   

I mean, I think that right now in the Middle East, two things are—two related forces are driving this identity game, and they’re both related to destabilization.  One is a sense of insecurity—and this is especially true in Iraq.  And I entirely agree with Professor Eickelman, that if you’re looking around for someone to protect you because the government can’t, you need some big strong group to do it, and if that turns out to be a religious denomination, so be it.  If the tribes were bigger and more effective, people might look to those. 

The other, though, is participatory politics.  And participatory politics drive people to look for new identities.  And there are identity entrepreneurs out there who present themselves and say: Here’s an identity, latch on to this one.  It will get you stuff, or it will give you security, it will give you a political role, or it will give you dignity. 

And we’ve got people doing that not just in Iraq, where the destabilization on both fronts is very extreme, but also in Lebanon, where there has been political doubt, and that always leads to the greater strengthening and rise.  And of course, it started in Lebanon—Shia identity as a powerful identity in Lebanon really began to rise politically during the civil war there, another form of instability.  The so-called dialogue that’s been taking place in Saudi Arabiahas involved for the first time Shia leaders in Saudi Arabiafrom the eastern province, again a kind of participatory politics. It’s not like an election, but still some form of participation. 

And just to close this thought, you know, in Iraq, in Baghdad, within about 48 hours of the fall of Saddam’s statue, there were bedsheet posters all over Baghdad that said, in Arabic, “Not Sunni, not Shi’i, Islamic unity.”   Now, those were very ambivalent posters. On the one hand, they were saying let’s be united, let’s transcend our particular ethnic identities.  On the other hand, the people who wrote those banners were already worried that the implicit division between Sunni and Shia in the country was about to burble up.  And they weren’t—I mean, at this point, believe me, the United Stateshad no role to play, realistically, in the country.  We were offering no form of stability, security or anything.  So I don’t think it was a imposition from without.  I think that everyone sort of had this instinct that as destabilization emerged and as new political formations were created, these identity lines were going to be important ones. 

ASLAN:  Well, I guess what I just wanted to emphasize is that a lot of these identity politics and these conflicts within these identities have far more to do with the geopolitical fragmentation that has occurred in that region as, in many ways, a direct result of colonialism and Western aggression, than with a real theological or ideological conflict.  Now, I’m not saying that that does not exist, nor—it has existed.  It’s existed for 14 centuries.  But I think nowadays we have a tendency to see some of these conflicts taking place between Shia and Sunni communities as representing an ancient and inherent animosity between these two groups.  That’s not necessarily the most productive way of thinking about it.   It does, I think, have far more to do with some of the geopolitical issues. 

FELDMAN:  I agree on the geopolitics, (one word ?) on this. But if you look, for example, again in Iraq now, you have Sunni insurgent groups, some of them Iraqi, but some of them from outside Iraq, who are—they’re called—they don’t call themselves, but  they’re called Takfiris. They’re called Takfiris because takfir is the action of declaring someone else to be an infidel.  These guys declare Shi’is to be infidels.  Now again, if you go back through the historical sources, you can find some arguments made by classic Sunni scholars to say that Shi’i are infidels. 

That’s not crazy as a theological matter.  But it’s also largely not been the norm among Sunnis pretty much all of the time, for the last 1,3(00) or 1,400 years, because for practical reasons it wasn’t a good idea to declare people infidels when they lived next door to you or whether they lived across the border.  But these folks are using this theological justification to justify killing innocent Shia civilians. 

So, again, I agree that this is generated by geopolitics in a complex way, but it’s also embedded in and connected to religious tradition. 

EICKELMAN:  Let me jump in with a brief historical analogy that might help us remember—help us, remind us the extent to which these things are historically situational.  In what is now Bangladesh, in the last 19th century, there were big attempts in an Islamic rival, and it was a very interesting sort of thing because you’d have preachers competing with one another trying to show that they can speak Arabic better than others.  And since virtually nobody knew Arabic, quite often both of them were slubbing it and just trying to deceive the villagers. 

But the point of the exercise was that from that point onward, villagers who didn’t know what Hinduism was or what being Muslim was had to start choosing sides as then the Hindus would start responding with their own preachers.  And soon a villager could not be just going to shrines as they had, not worrying too much about whether they were Muslim or Hindu.  They were taught what it was, and it got worse and worse, of course, as time went on. 

And perhaps what we’re seeing now in Iran is something that we’ve already seen in the Balkans and elsewhere.  Once upon a time, it didn’t matter too much.  Now your life is at stake if you don’t choose sides and choose it right.  And the analogy with Lebanon, I think, is perhaps the bloodiest and the one that would come to our attention best of all—Lebanon during the civil war.  Sorry. 

ANDERSON:  Tempted as I am to continue being the only questioner—I have a whole list here—in fairness to everyone else, I’d like to give the audience an opportunity to pose some questions.  Please wait for a microphone—Professor Bulliet will be first—and identify yourself, if I haven’t done it already. 

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, Richard Bulliet,ColumbiaUniversity.  A couple of quick notes.  First, no one’s mentioned the Shiite population of Turkey—a very substantial portion of the population.  When you talk to Turks and ask them about Shiites in Turkey, what is universally told is that they are very much on the left and they are very secular and they do not play a major religious card, and yet it’s right next door to Iraq.  So that’s one element.  They also are not of the same sectarian identification as the Shiites in Iraq and Iran. 

The second point is that when I go to various parts of the Muslim world and I talk to Sunnis, what I’m struck by is the almost universal profound ignorance of Shiaism among Sunni Muslims, and accompanied by a level of popular disdain and hatred that I only can compare to what we had in this country toward blacks in the white community before the civil rights movement.  And I think that when we talk about Shiaism in its various complexities, which the three of you have done very well, I think we have to also keep in mind that for many, many Sunnis this is not a complex community, this is simply an inferior community, and that it has been that way for a long time.  The ease of marriage between Sunni and Shi’ite is not obvious; there are countries where they cannot easily intermarry.  In the Ottoman Empire, it was prohibited for Sunnis and Shiites to intermarry. 

So I think that just to talk about Shiism without talking about Saudi views, Bahraini views, Sunni Pakistani views, Sunni Lebanese and Christian Lebanese views, which are absolutely poisonous, is a mistake.  I’m not going to talk aboutIraqbecause I don’t know the current situation in Iraq.  But in other countries, this hatred of Shiism is very profound on the Sunni side. 

ASLAN:  That’s a very good point, Professor Bullet, and thank you so much for bringing that up, because it has a lot to do with how Shia identify themselves and the very consciousness of what it means to be a Shia is to be this persecuted yet righteous minority surrounded by a persecuting and unjust majority.  It has had a profound effect not just on the development of Shiism as a religion, particularly the conceptions of martyrdom, et cetera, et cetera, but very much the way that Shia define themselves.   

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten into a cab somewhere in the Arab world, and of course they ask me where I’m from, and I say that I’m Iranian, and then that essentially means that I’m Shia.  And now, I will say that I have had both experiences.   

I have had cabdrivers who have begun just the most disgusting litany of lies about, you know, Shiism and who have actually pulled over and tried to convert me back to Islam right there and then, as I’m sitting in the back of the cab. 

On the other hand—

FELDMAN:  That was in New York, though, that that happened. (Laughter.)   

ASLAN:  That was actually inNew York.  Right.  That was right here. 

On the other hand, I will say that I’ve had the opposite experience to—not just people who have said, “Well, we’re brothers regardless, and—“ et cetera, et cetera, but who very specifically bring up Khomeini and bring up Iran, which they may disagree with in some sort of religious way—I have to say, by the way, this was before the Iraq war—who—they may disagree religiously or ideologically, what have you, but the notion of Khomeini as this paragon for an anti-Western identity and this exerting of strength, of Muslim strength, regardless of whether it’s Shia or Sunni, really created a bridge in a lot of my discussions with Sunnis in the Arab world.  So that’s very important. 

The other—I’m sure Noah and Dale will talk about this as well, but—I think it’s very common for Shia to be considered the secularists or the Marxists or the leftists; that that, I think, throughout, particularly modern Islamic history, has been a fairly common thing, to associate Shiism with Marxism or with leftism. 

FELDMAN:  Partly, I think, because of your—I mean, this is also true of—if you were Christian Arab, you’re more likely to be an Arab nationalist or a left—I mean, again, it’s probably if you’re a minority.  And I think, just in response to Professor Bullet’s point, this point is extraordinarily well-taken, especially for the Gulf, over any country where there are people—where there is a substantial but oppressed Shia minority. 

The question ofIran, as Reza suggests, sort of throws this off a little bit, because Iran might be a geostrategic enemy if you’re sitting elsewhere in the Gulf, but on the other hand, it’s a country that’s accomplished a lot in certain respects and has this revolutionary tradition. 

And I think you saw this ambivalence in the Arab League meetings recently when the issue of Iran and the bomb arose.  And on the one hand, is this an Islamic bomb, which might be more useful than the Pakistani bomb has turned out to be for other Muslims, or on the other hand, is this a bomb associated with a distinctively Shia power, which might in some ways threaten Sunni dominance?  I mean, these are—and I think both of these things were at work in a very ambivalent way. 

ANDERSON:  Zach?  

QUESTIONER:  Zachary Karabell, Fred Alger.  On the point of Iran, there was a conference two weeks ago in Sharm el-Sheikh, and the prevailing sort of Sunni-Egyptian, to some degree, Gulf attitude was that the net effect of the U.S. invasion ofIraqwas to hand Iraq to Iran.   

Now, three years ago, most scholars and most people who knew about this region thought it was unlikely, given the past centuries of history, that Iraqi Shias would have any real affiliation, except maybe some scholarly, with Iran.  I’m wondering, from all of you, whether the result of the past three years is literally to change that identity, so that it’s not Iraqi Shias and tribal, but it is in fact more of a Shia—I mean, would Muqtada al-Sadr really approve or like to be answering to Iran, or is it a convenient allegiance because it provides him with resources? 

And clearly the Sunni attitude now or a lot of the Sunni attitude is, oh, this is now just a—it’s going to be a Shia Crescent, regardless of whether we think that’s an appropriate title.  So I’m curious as to whether this has really changed or whether this snapshot will prove untrue in the greater scheme of things. 

FELDMAN:  Well, I mean, it’s a long—there’s a long tradition within Iraq, in fact, of thinking of the Iraqi Shia, who are Arabs, as in some way Iranian.  And in fact, for a long time, the identity cards that you carried if you were an Iraqi said that you were—there were only two categories for Muslims.  You were either an Ottoman—it said on your card “Ottoman,” which meant a Sunni, or “Persian,” which meant Shia.  And of course they were not Persian, they were Arabic-speaking people. 

And when things are relatively calm in Iraq, elites do intermarry, actually, relatively freely, and people start talking about how we can transcend identity.  And then when things get tense, suddenly you start hearing again this idea that all of the Iraqi Shia are really in league with the Iranians.   

Added to that is the fact that Muqtada does have support from Iran and lived much of his life in Iran; that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq—a name that was not invented out of whole cloth, a name that was invented in Tehran, because it sounded a lot like, you know, some kind of a—it’s got all the key words there:  “Supreme,” “Council” “Islamic” and “Revolution.”   

You just have to change one letter and you’ve got something that sounds like it’sIran.  Right?  And they are very closely tied to Iran.  So, you know, this issue recurs.   

And I agree with you, I hear the same thing, not just in Iraq but in the rest of the Sunni Arab world, about this allegation of loyalty to Iran.  But I think it can be, in certain ways, overstated, in that these Iraqi Shia do not want to answer to Tehran, but are also constrained by the fact that they are funded by Tehran to some extent, and we’re going to go home eventually and the Iranians are not going anywhere.  Right?  So if you look 20, 25, 30 years down the road, they have to maintain some kind of close relationship with Iran.  And quite probably we’re not going to leave them in the geostrategic strength where they could fight a war against Iran, so they need to be on (good ?) terms. 

ANDERSON:  Either of you, comment? 

ASLAN:  Well, I think we all know that the invasion of Iraq has completely changed the power dynamics of the region.  I think Iran is unquestionably the new power in that area.  And it has done a marvelous job of taking advantage of the changes.  It has used the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon to essentially fill the power vacuum there.  It’s used the cut in funding of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority to really play a far larger role, I think, in the future of any Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.  Its greatest enemies, the Saddam Hussein and Taliban, are gone, and it’s done a really wonderful job of making sure that its security interests are guaranteed in the new Iraq and the newAfghanistan . 

So, I mean, I can understand where this fear would come from, but, you know, I think it’s the new realities of power in that region. And in many ways I think that the U.S. government would be far better off as soon as we kind of kind of acknowledge it and move forward. 

ANDERSON:  Go ahead. 

EICKELMAN:  I just find it fascinating that the one area in which, as I understand it, anyway, theUnited States does have direct negotiations with Iran is our ambassador inIraqhaving them concerning matters specifically related to Iraq and Iran and nothing else.  In other words, there’s even a recognition in a highly polarized and politicizedWashingtonthat this is one area so crucial that absolute realpolitik has to outweigh every other type of battle that might be going on in Washington .  

That’s a start.  I think it might be very nice to recognize that Iran has—is—has been pointed out already quite often, simply realistically done, filled a vacuum left by inconsistent and often very contradictory policies that the United States—that have been led by the United States.  

ASLAN (?):  Iran is no longer a rogue state teetering on the verge of another popular revolution, and it’s time to stop thinking of it as such. 

ANDERSON:  Dick.   

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike)—I think this lady behind me— 

ANDERSON:  Wait.  Mike. 

QUESTIONER:  I think this lady behind me has—(off mike). 

ANDERSON:  Go ahead. 

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike.) 

QUESTIONER:  I’m Suleiman Khan fromIndia, a Shiite.  I’d like to just make one observation here, which is—I think takes off from what Professor Bullet earlier said:  that we have not mentioned a very important part of the world for several reasons, from—in which there is a very large presence of Shiites, and that is India.  And the population of India, of—which is nearly a billion or just over a billion, it’s—the Shiite population is estimated to be between 15 to 20 million people.  Now that is not an insignificant number.  It may be a minority in India, but as far as their role is concerned, in the past, in terms of scholarship, in terms of the clerics that they have produced, in terms of the books that they have written, which are used, such as “Ahmad ul-Islam” (ph) by Ruf Hamad (ph); Saddin al-Ali (ph); such as the “Abhatat al-Anwar,” which is in 24 volumes, published and republished and republished in Iran. 

It is important not to forget India and the role that is played by the Shi’ites in India in respect to a secular state, as a part of it, their role earlier on in the freedom movement, which was—one could say was secular in the sense that they did separate or did manage to separate certain areas completely from religious practice to—from what was political practice and recently in what has been happening. 

But what is, nevertheless, important, and the reason why they should be considered also a part of this entire thing, and therefore, with all humility, I would say that as far as the crescent is concerned, it’s a wonderful title to have, but one doesn’t know where the first horn is and the second horn is, and where the biggest part of the crescent is.  I mean, I, by training, am a mathematician, so I try to think in terms of figures, and I just couldn’t make out where is the fattest part of the crescent. 

So the question is that—the question which ought to be taken into account is how do the Shi’ites of Pakistan and India—Bangladesh is a very, very small minority and hardly any there—but how do the Shi’ites of Pakistan and India, who are related to each other by marriage, by all kinds of people who have traveled between the two countries, how do they relate to the Middle East?  What effect will their policies now have, begin to have, because there is growing polarization.   

I mean, this is something that will spill over into the other sessions, but I would like to present, you know, this question to you. And I would say that this is an important point that ought to be borne in mind, and what would you say to that.  

Thank you very much. 

EICKELMAN:  I think you’re bringing up a very interesting point, and one of these concerns things such as these figures that I’ve been waving about.  Twenty-six million might be a minority for India, but in terms of the scale of most of the Arab world, it’s a rather significant sort of figure.   

You also bring up inter cross-border sorts of things.  One thing that would strike me, as somebody who very much has a view from 40,000 feet ofSouth Asia, is that almost never does anybody talk about cross-border Shia ties resulting in violence of any sort.  It’s been a force for everything except that type of politicization.  

I think as minorities in India go, there’s probably more of a tendency in India than elsewhere, given a real attempt to—despite religious conflagrations from time to time, to abide by a rule of law, and that means that Sunni and Shia, when people think of themselves in these abstract categories, tend more to work together. 

As for other things, what we know basically is the sort of thing that we see from propaganda—I, for one, try to follow the various video casts of al Qaeda to see how they try to at least appeal to wider audiences, and there’s attempts to link everything from—(word inaudible)—to Chechnya, to events in Southeast Asia and everyone else, to bring them together.   

The response to these sorts of things I don’t think has been very strong in—certainly not for India or anywhere else.  But the extent to which there are such appeals to things specific to the Middle East, including control of Jerusalem, the Palestinian issue, and so forth, I haven’t seen too much of it from the Indian Muslim community.  On the other hand, Hindu right wings, some of the nationalist parties, are virulent in terms of the threat from Islam.  So far, fortunately, the effects, so far as I can tell, on the Indian subcontinent of this sort of propaganda has been relatively limited. 


QUESTIONER:  I’m Augustus Norton fromBostonUniversity.  I have an observation and a question.  The observation is that one aspect of identity that we haven’t talked about is class, and class is very important in the Shia community.  When we look at the big communities in the Arab world, in places like Lebanon—not geographically—I mean not absolutely big, compared to India, for example, but certainly big proportionate to population—places like Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, what we find is that about 40 or 50 years ago these communities were being mobilized by the parties of the left.  And in fact, the Communist party was the most successful mobilizer of Shia communities in the Arab world.  In fact, the impetus for the Da’wa party in Iraq was precisely the desire on the part of the clerics to have a counterweight to the Communists. 

In fact, if you go back and look at the materials that were being used to mobilize people in the ‘50s and ‘60s used by both clerics and communists, they are remarkably similar.  So I mean, they were appealing to people largely on a class basis, appealing to ideas about exploitation and so on, and we still see significant aspects of class mobilization today.  And I think Muqtada al-Sadr is a good example of this.  In fact, if you look within the context of Shia politics inIraq, we find significant class tension within the Shia community, especially between Muqtada’s Mahdi Army, for example, and Dawa and some of the other Shia parties. 

That’s an observation, but my question has to with education—patterns of education.  And each of the speakers in their own way alluded to the importance of “ijtihad” and the importance of emulation and the role of Shia scholars and so on, and what I’m wondering is how the patterns of education may have changed in terms of where people are going to school.  My anecdotal observation is that many places—many Shia villages that I happen to know—in the past, when people would go to Najaf in the Arab world, these people are now going to Iran.  So I wonder what we know systemically about changing patterns of education, because this is absolutely crucial. 

And if I may, just a final observation on “ijtihad,” or independent judgement.  I’ve had the privilege of sitting down in meetings with leading Shia thinkers and Sunni thinkers, and what is extraordinary about these men, and in some cases women, is—the Shia men and women—is the extent to which they draw very broadly from all kinds of literature.  I mean, you can be sitting down talking with a Shia scholar and he might ask you what Dale Eickelman’s been writing recently.  I mean, they’re reading political science journals, they’re reading newspapers, whereas the Sunnis are much more narrow. So I mean, there’s a kind of creativity that’s inherent in this kind of independent thinking that really is something to marvel at sometimes. 

But in any event, to go back to the question, what do we know systematically about changing patterns of education? 


EICKELMAN:  I wish I could really sound like Dr. Pangloss and say that the more educated you get, the more liberal you get. Unfortunately, I know enough of the subject to know that that isn’t the case. 

Of the things that we can say, the more educated you get, the more able you are to listen to a wider range of appeals.  If—

QUESTIONER:  But that doesn’t answer the question.  The question is, where are people being educated? 

EICKELMAN:  Where are people being educated?  Quite often—at least from areas I’ve seen—anywhere where they can get the scholarships to go out.  In the case of Iraq, I very strongly believe that if you can get across the border and go to Iran, quite a few people probably are. 

There’s a small elite.  The ones I’ve met in the United States tend to be Green Zone Iraqis who find their way to the United States, where they can do different sorts of things, but it’s rather hard to get out. 

As adviser to a university in Kuwait, we are trying to develop a small scholarship program for bringing—for bringing—making a place for bringing Iraqi students out, but it’s extremely hard to do because it's the same sort of problem you have of selecting people as you would have from, let us say, Dagestan or somewhere like that. It’s catch as catch can. 

In other areas it’s an easier sort of thing.  All I can say, and very much for the record, is that theUnited States still has a long way to go to reconcile our national interests with a consistently inept visa process, which discourages people from seeking higher education in the United States.  It’s very hard to link despite the best efforts that we have.  So one place I can say they’re not going in numbers is theUnited States, but believe me, that’s a boon to Great Britain, Australia and other places.  Perhaps that’s what we want to do in education, is have a coalition of the willing to divert people to other countries.  I hope that policy changes, but unfortunately they’re not able to come to us, where I still think we have quite a bit to offer in terms of education. 

ANDERSON:  Noah, go ahead. 

FELDMAN:  I’d just add one quick word on this.  Right now, the preeminence of Qom is—remains unchallenged.  And one of the many disappointments associated with Iraq—not the headline one, obviously, because there’s a lot more important things—is that in just in the first few months after the fall of Saddam, Najaf really began to open up.  And people were starting to come across the border and start to say exciting things there, and there was this sense of this center, which had really declined tremendously from its historic preeminence.  You know, Qom doesn’t really become a really important center until the 1920s, really, but that obviously hasn’t happened. And I think the reason is not that people wouldn’t feel free to say what they wanted there if they worried about getting shot.  And obviously there’s not scholarship money either, whereas with the rising price of oil there continues to be scholarship money available for study in Iran. 

ASLAN:  And this, you know, influx of Shia scholars and students into Qom might on the surface indicate that this distinctly Khomeinist version of Shiism, which really is a religious innovation within Shia thought, is becoming the primary ideal of Shiism throughout the world and that that is what a lot of these students are being fed.  And that’s not necessarily that case.   

Having been to Qom and having spoken to a lot of the clerics there, I—what we tend to not hear in the U.S. is the very vibrant and profound dialogue taking place, not just, you know, as what is traditionally part of Shiism, this idea of dialogue and debate and discussion, but specifically about this idea of the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardianship of the Jurist, the religio-political ideology that is at the center of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  There is a great deal of debate, particularly with the younger clerics, those in their 30s, about—it’s about, you know, the viability of this idea, both as a religious and a political idea.   

And I think it’s not—I mean, I agree with Noah.  I mean, I was very excited about the idea that Najaf would become, you know, the center that it has historically been, and particularly because it would challenge Qom for ascendancy in the Shia world.  But I do want to emphasize that we needn’t be necessarily alarmed that because Qom has maintained its ascendance, that this necessarily means that this distinctly Iranian Khomeinist version of Islam is becoming widespread as the dominant form of Shiism and Shia political thought. 

ANDERSON:  Thank you. 

EICKELMAN:  A 10-second addition.  I think one advantage—if one were a young Iraqi faced with an educational system that hasn’t been very functional recently, it’s easier to get over toIran, not only because of the money, but because of the language.  The chances of finding a place where one can work in Arabic without having to learn a second language is much higher there—and then to learn Farsi at a certain speed—than it would be in many other places which one can think. 

ANDERSON:  Okay, thank you. 

Right here. 

QUESTIONER:  Nancy Bird, Council on Foreign Relations.  I was wondering if the panelists could comment more on the intra-Shia divisions, particularly in Iraq.  We’ve heard about Muqtada al-Sadr going a different path.  But also particularly in Basra recently there’s been a great deal of violence between Shia groups. and I was wondering if you could talk about how this intra-Shia violence might lead to more instability in Iraq. 

ANDERSON:  Noah, that’s yours. 

FELDMAN:  Okay.  Well, like every local conflict, this conflict, the Basra conflict of the last couple of weeks, can be read on multiple levels.  It’s partly between rival gangs for control over neighborhoods; it’s partly between two larger militias, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades—so the militia of Muqtada and the militia of the Supreme Council—for who’s going to control local institutions like police forces.  So that’s a slightly higher level.  It’s partly between the politicians in Muqtada’s political apparatus, such as it is, and the SCIRI political apparatus for who’s going to be most influential.  And last, but not least, it’s about their jockeying—those two parties jockeying for control of the parliament itself, because as you know, as probably everybody here knows, the prime minister, who comes from the Da’wa party, a third, and over time increasingly smaller and less influential party, essentially became prime minister because Muqtada wasn’t prepared for the prime minister to come from SCIRI.  And Muqtada himself didn’t have sufficient political influence to generate a prime ministerial candidate from within his own political apparatus.  So Da’wa was kind of a—they’re Shia, but they’re to some extent—they’re not really neutral because they’re closer to Muqtada, but they’re a counterweight that Muqtada is putting up over and against SCIRI.   

And all of these levels are at play simultaneously, and what you’re seeing here are sort of flashpoint moments of violence that reflect tension up and down the system, again, from the level of control of neighborhoods and blocs, to the control of local municipal institutions, to control ultimately of the national political apparatus. 

ANDERSON:  Please. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Rita Hauser.  Reference was made before to class, and I would like to come back to that, because at least my experience in Lebanon, which, like our prior speaker was extensive, I represented most of—as a lawyer—most of the wealthy Christian and Sunni families over a long period of time. 

I never represented a wealthy Shia family.  There was some wealthy Shias, certainly; there was some elites, but the overwhelming pattern was that the poor, the downtrodden, the lower class was Shia and were looked at that way by both the Christians and the Sunnis, and the dialogue was very reminiscent of other kind of downtrodden people. And when the politics of a region is in upheaval, the downtrodden often rise up.  That’s a characteristic. 

I think that’s very much the case of Hezbollah, and I don’t know Iraq—anywhere as well asLebanon, but I would suspect the same pattern is true.  And I’d like to hear some comment about class and poverty and all of that. 

ASLAN:  Well, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right.  That is the case in places like Lebanon and places likeIraq.  Although, I think it is interesting that the reverse is true in other places, like, for instance, in the subcontinent, where Shia families tend to be the land owners, the higher class in some cases. 

I guess you disagree with me.  Yes, go ahead, please. 

QUESTIONER: Mahnaz Ispahani:  It’s a very mixed portrait.  I mean, you have in certain parts—

ANDERSON:  Wait, wait.  Let’s get a microphone—

QUESTIONER: Mahnaz Ispahani:  Just saying it’s a very mixed portrait in the subcontinent. You have some land-owning classes in very specific parts—there’s Pakistan or north India—that you have extremely poor Shia communities.  You also have founders of Pakistan being Shia; you have national leaders being Shia today.  And yet, you have no Shia ever leading in the Pakistan army, and you have routine Shia massacres, as you know very well, by largely jihad groups using this illogical notion of infidelism, et cetera. 

So I think it’s quite a complicated picture and particularly in Pakistan, and I just use this opportunity to clarify one thing.  When we started talking here about the Shias of South Asia or of Pakistan in particular, Mr. Eickelman, you started to speak of the Ismailis, who are actually a very small, very global and very unique sect of Shias.   

But the mainstream Shias across the Muslim world are Twelvers, and nobody really referred to Twelver Shias because that really is—there are sects and schisms and many sects.  And in fact, Ismaili Shias are the ones who most effectively use a relationship with the state and with governments to be able to be so successful, which the other Shias are not able to do as well. 

MR.     :  Mm-hmm.  Thank you.  It’s well said. 

ANDERSON:  Anything else on class? 

MR.     :  I think it’s said. 

ANDERSON:  Okay.  This is the last question. 

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  My name is Moushoumi Khan.  I’m an attorney. 

I have a question on what do you think the implications for the Sunni-Shia conflict—I actually don’t think there is that much of a conflict—is for Western Muslims?  As a Muslim-American, you know, I grew up not really knowing whether I was Sunni or Shia or understanding what the differences were.   

And this weekend, I went to a conference on understanding Sunni- Shia conflict within the context of Iraq, and not a person participating even dealt with the question whether they’re Sunni or Shia, including the participants in the audience.  And yet as a civil rights attorney now, I’m really seeing a disturbing trend where Muslim-Americans are starting to face the conflicts of what happens, you know, when there’s a bombing, then a—(word inaudible)—mosque here in New York feels threatened.  So I’m really wondering, what is the effect of these larger conflicts on Western Muslims, particularly within theU.S.? 

FELDMAN:  To me, it really turns on whether the sort of low- level—you could call it a civil war; I don’t have a big stake in whether it’s called a low-level civil now or not—but whether what’s going on in Iraq right now becomes a full-blown civil war. 

Every day, we’re getting closer and closer to it.  I used to say every day we’re getting a little closer.  Now, every day it’s not a little closer; we’re getting a lot closer to it every day.  It that blows up to—if it—let’s just say if it continues to grow at the rate that it’s growing now, we are going to have a conflict that is  going to push Muslims throughout the world, including in the West, to think of themselves to some degree as Sunni or Shia, just because you’re watching television and it will no longer be, you know, X kills Y.  It will be this many Shias killed by Sunnis, this many Sunnis killed by Shias, and already this is the way the reports are, I think accurately, depicting what’s often happening. 

So I think that will have an effect.   

And I think one of the great worries in the Gulf is that traditionally oppressed Shia communities will use this as a mode of galvanization to challenge traditional authorities much in the same way that the Lebanese Shia community galvanized itself politically during the years of civil war.  And so I think there’s a fear that this oppressed class could rise up.  With respect to the West in particular, that would be the dynamic.  It won’t be a class dynamic in the same way, but I think you will see deepening rifts within Western Muslim associations as people do to some extent feel that they need to take sides.  And I think that will be yet another one of the many tragic knock-on effects or externalities of the conflict that’s brewing. 

EICKELMAN:  Thank you for the very—the autobiographical fragment we gave, including what you did last weekend, because I think this is pointing to something that’s very important, is when people in the Muslim community, in my judgment, or elsewhere, begin seeing reports of these conflicts, quite often, unless they’re professionally following these things, the next question is, how do we explain this, especially how do w explain it to others?  Because the default position for most Muslims is to say “we’re all one” and to downplay all sorts of differences.  And when the differences occur, then the question is, how do we do it?  And whether it’s Ibadi Muslims from the Sultanate of Oman who find that they get chucked out of mosques in Arizona by Egyptians saying, “You can’t lead prayers because you’re a heretic,” or something like that, then what happens is you call upon your own leadership to explain in English and in Arabic who are we, how do we relate to the rest of the world. 

And this is one of the long-term things with rising education that I think is happening in the Sunni and Shia community, and for that matter, with other communities.  So that divisions, for instance, of Twelvers and Ismailis and other things become a little bit easier for people to understand, both parts of the movement, and then those trying to understand what’s going on. 

ASLAN:  And I think at the same time—and with hopes to end on a positive and optimistic note—the American-Muslim community is in a very unique position.  By most accounts, Muslims are the largest religious minority in the United States.  And while we have here—we don’t see the same kinds of ethnic isolation that we see inEurope. The vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. are solidly middle class; I believe some 60 percent own their own homes.  And really, since September 11th, because this country has—you experience, you know, Islam at almost—in every way, in all of its beautiful diversity in this country.  Since September 11th, there has been a real attempt—and I’ve been very much a part of this attempt to put aside those divisions of sect or ethnicity or even the major divisions between Muslim-Americans and American-Muslims, particularly the African- American community, which makes up some 30 percent of the Muslims in the United States, I have been a part of a number of groups that have come together to try to build these bridges, to really separate a lot of these traditional divisions that we see in large parts of the traditional Arab and Muslim world, and to carve out a distinctly American-Muslim identity that is based on unity out of this kind of diversity.   

Now, I think Noah’s right, if the situation in Iraq worsens, and especially if it begins to spill beyond Iraq into the rest of the Gulf region, then you’re going to see some of those stresses occur in this country as well. 

At the same time, I think what’s unique about American Islam is really what’s unique about religion in America, and that is this sense of individualism.  I jokingly say sometimes that regardless of what religion you are, if you’re American, you’re more or less Protestant. And that’s true of Muslims as well, very much so.  And I think that hope of creating a sense of unity that could in many ways become a model for Muslims throughout the world really rests within the American-Muslim community here.   

And I can tell you from firsthand experience that that identity is already being formed and is already playing a large role in not just the way that theU.S.government begins to address the larger Muslim issue, but also the way American Muslims are reaching out to Muslims in the Arab world and beyond. 

ANDERSON:  Thank you very much.  I want to thank all of the panelists for having sort of set of the table for the rest of the day. We now have to decide whether everything you’ve said is a cause for concern.  That is the title of the next panel, which will start in about seven minutes—

STAFF:  No, we’ll make it 15 minutes. 

ANDERSON:  Fifteen minutes.  (Applause.) 











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