TCS Daily

Overstating the Shiite Monolith

By Michael Young - February 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Even before elections in Iraq, it was a foregone conclusion that Shiites would come out of the process the dominant community. Yet, a more urgent question being posed today in the Middle East is, What happens to Shiites throughout the region once their brethren fully inherit Iraq?

The answers have ranged from the nervous to the blithe. King Abdullah of Jordan echoed Sunni angst when two months ago he told the Washington Post that he feared "a Shiite crescent" would form in the region that included Iraq, Syria and Lebanon -- not to mention Iran. Less concerned was Kamran Taremi of the University of Tehran, who, legitimately, took Sunni-majority Syria out of the equation in a recent article, before adding: "[W]hile there is every chance that an alliance will emerge in the wake of the elections between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, it would be wholly inappropriate to label it a Shiite crescent. This concept is the figment of the imagination of those inside and outside Iraq whose interests require them to present Iran as a threat to the Arab world."

The real issue, however, is not whether Shiites will form an ominous "crescent" of power -- ironically, the same contour once imagined by Iraq's pro-Western pre-1958 prime minister, Nuri al-Said, who dreamt of a "fertile crescent" under Iraq's aegis, uniting it with Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. Grand schemes invariably fail in the Middle East, so to evaluate Shiite clout on that basis is futile. Far more accurate would be to assume that the electoral victory of Iraq's Shiites will have definite, but different, impacts on their brethren elsewhere, while also identifying the dissonances permeating the Shiite community in the region.

Ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Shiites have been offered a radical model to advance their interests. However, the outcome was mixed. In Iraq, for example, Shiites continued fighting on the side of the Baath regime in the war against Iran. In Lebanon, Shiites, with Iranian help, asserted themselves in the aftermath of Israel's 1982 invasion of the country, without triggering significant opposition from other religious groups. In Bahrain, where 70 percent of the population is Shiite, during the 1990s the community used Iranian influence to sometimes violently oppose the Sunni-dominated regime -- to no avail.

With Iraq, however, something has changed. Iraqis are Arabs, dispelling much of the earlier reluctance to entirely embrace "Persian-influenced" religious militancy (which even post-Khomeini Iran has mostly jettisoned). There is also the fact that Iraqi sources of religious reference, centered on the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, are as potentially influential as those in Iran. Rather than collaborate, Iranian and Iraqi clerics may compete, and how religious Shiites in the Arab world react will partly be a function of which authority they listen to.

Shiite reaction will also be shaped by the specific contexts of each community. One might expect that in Bahrain Shiites will re-escalate demands for political and economic rights. Though there was hope in 2001 that the kingdom would introduce reforms and elections, this evaporated when King Hamad limited parliament's power and further reduced Shiite representation. The Shiites, poor and suffering from unemployment levels as high as 30 percent, remain divided over how to respond, with some wanting to avoid a confrontation. However, changes in Iraq may favor of those advocating more muscular behavior

In Saudi Arabia, where Shiites make up 10 percent of the population, one might expect a more restrained response. Crown Prince Abdullah has brought Shiites, whose religious and social rights remain restricted, into a so-called "national dialogue." However, this has not led to real change, even after Shiites petitioned Abdullah for equal rights to practice their religion. Because Shiites are concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province, the Saudi authorities must take care to factor in Shiite supremacy in Iraq when dealing with their own Shiites, even if the regime is far less vulnerable than in Bahrain.

Perhaps the most interesting place to watch will be Lebanon, where Shiites made substantial political gains during the 1980s. In the Lebanese system, different religious communities are guaranteed specific leadership posts. This balance sidesteps demographics, however, so that Muslims and Christians are represented equally in Parliament (whose speaker is always a Shiite), even though Muslims are a majority and Shiites are a majority of Muslims.

Under these circumstances, Shiite demands for more power would threaten to demolish the delicate consociational system. In the short term, Lebanon's Shiites, including Hizbullah, would certainly think twice before doing such a thing. Simultaneously, Lebanese Shiites may begin competing among each other over sources of religious legitimacy -- some seeking Iraqi clerical authority; others, like Hizbullah, sticking with Iran. Meanwhile, the growing sway of Iraqi Shiites and the traditional exchange between the Lebanese and Iraqi communities could generate cross-pollination that affects both countries in unforeseen ways.

It would be a mistake to regard Shiite influence in the Middle East as necessarily monolithic. Shiites will surely have been heartened by the outcome of the Iraqi vote, and this will be manifested in political behavior. However, domestic realities may just as easily curtail this enthusiasm as Shiites realize that asking for too much domestically may mean getting nothing at all.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.



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