Sunnis and Shiites: Behind the Split

Washington's view of Shiism is outmoded, many say.


Vali Nasr, an expert in Islamic politics at the Naval Postgraduate School, argues that "Khomeini was an aberration of Shiism." Kho-meini nevertheless indirectly contributed to the spread of radical Islam among Sunnis. Saudi leaders were so alarmed that Iran's Shiite revolution might gain traction among Sunnis that they bank-rolled the spread of Wahhabism as a countermeasure. Ironically, the Iranian revolution imploded under the draconian and often ruinous policies of the mullahs and is considered a spent force. "Shiism as a revolutionary idea is exhausted," Nasr says. He likens Iran and Hezbollah to the Soviets of the Leonid Brezhnev era: "These guys are not inspiring anyone."

Certainly, Sistani and Iraq's Shiite leaders seem unimpressed with the outcome of Iran's revolution. Says Winter: "The mixed record of the Iranian experiment next door is evident to them." The Shiites' tradition of re-evaluating the Koran to fit modern sensibilities makes them comfortable with such political notions as compromise and flexibility. And Sistani has proved a pragmatist. He has embraced democracy and indicated a willingness to include the Sunnis as an effective minority. Moreover, Iraq's Shiites have, so far, reacted with restraint to violent provocations by Baathist and Wahhabi elements hoping to foment a civil war. But, Nasr says, one should not mistake Sistani's reasonableness for altruism: He sees democ-racy, and the accommodating of the Sunnis, as a means of ensuring Shiite control in Iraq. Nonetheless, the pragmatism of Iraqi Shiites could give the democratic process some necessary breathing room there.

A peaceful solution in Iraq is, however, unlikely to improve Shiite-Sunni relations elsewhere. "The irony of Iraq," says Ali Ansari, a Middle East historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, "is if it's a success, it will cause other problems." Shiite majorities in Bahrain and Lebanon may agitate for a more central role. And Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere could point to the political inclusion of Sunni minorities in Iraq and demand similar treatment. "The Shiites have a fundamental interest in democracy," Nasr says, "whether they are in the majority or in the minority. 'One man, one vote' will give them more power than they had before."