Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Shia Revival: A book review

First off, I must make a confession. I'm rubbish at book reviews. I get this icky feeling inside like it's Sunday night and I have to prepare a book report that's due first thing Monday morning.

That being said - I've just finished reading The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr- and I think this book is pretty darn important, so I'll make my attempt.

The book isn't that long (254 pages), but I'd say it's kind of slow going. Mostly it's slow going because there are a lot of Arabic and Persian sounding names to get your head around - and there's a rather long and arcane introduction to the history of the Shiism which is important - especially for Western readers unfamiliar with the sects of Islam - to understand the thesis of the book. The thesis is: Sunnis and Shias hate each other, they always have, they always will. This conflict has been going on since nearly the beginning of Islam and usually the Sunnis have been on top - but the Shias have had enough and won't take it anymore - and this is going to make a big difference in the Middle East. The US doesn't understand this clash of faith and doesn't seem to think through how its actions will impact on the balance of Sunni-Shia power and how that will affect our objectives in the Middle East [and beyond].

After the introduction (the first 100) pages, it does start to read a little bit faster. And it is a compelling read in one sense, but I took it on holiday with me and didn't touch it once, so I wouldn't say it's exactly a fun read. I do think that the book has fundamentally changed the way that I look at American and British foreign policy and events in the Middle East - and I believe that has brought a new subtlety to my analysis.

As a service to my readers, I've looked around for better book reviews.

Here's a good one by Irshad Manji
Ingrid at Blogger Roundtable provides not so much a review as links for further reading.
And at Kicking Over My Traces, cehweidel points out a pro-Shia bias:

The major weakness of the book is the author’s effort — intentional or not — to paint puppy eyes on the Shiite community, an attempt to exploit the American tendency to empathize with the underdog. This might play well to some folks, but I am underwhelmed. Two counter-examples: Hezbollah (a Shiite militia running southern Lebanon) starts wars and the so-called moderate Iranian President Ahmadinejad threatens the destruction of Israel.

and provides a list of questions that the book didn't address:

The book I want to read might have a title like How to Knock Muslim Heads Together to Keep the Peace. It would have chapters on cleric-shopping (“The Best for the West — and the Rest”), historical events and their current importance (”How Zaynab Influenced the Iraqi Elections — Despite Being Dead for 1300 Years”), and a discussion of major tenets of Sunni and Shia Islam with an eye to providing an Islamic theological basis for peaceful co-existence (“Establishing a New Caliphate Without Exterminating or Enslaving Everybody Who’s Not Muslim,” “Why Worldly Success May Not be a True Sign of God’s Approval — a Sunni Perspective” and “What would the Hidden Imam Do?”)
Although, Vali Nasr hasn't perhaps answered these questions - he does explain how anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism are sometimes used as a unifying approach to bridge the sectarian divide.

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