Sunnis and Shiites: Behind the Split

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

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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."