Live Webcast--Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World
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Yitzhak Nakash, Author; Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Brandeis University; former Wilson Center Fellow
Yitzhak Nakash's talk, which was a summary of his recent book Reaching for Power: the Shi'a in the Modern Arab World, revolved around four main theses. First, Nakash argues that although there have been several setbacks in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, reform in that country and the Middle East is still feasible. However, "the seeds of reform will be planted by the people of the Middle East, not by an outside power." Second, there has been a drastic shift in Shi'a ideology and pragmatism; one geared away from extremism and towards accommodation. Third, Shi'a communities around the Middle East have the potential to lead the reform process in the region. Finally, these reforms "are likely to focus on issues relating to constitutional politics, government accountability, and women and minority rights—issues that have been at the heart of the political debate in the Arab world and in Iran."
Nakash highlights the fact that Iraqi Shiites anticipated radical political changes and reform after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The hopes for reform in Iraq and in the region are "still within reach," he contends.
Since the mid-1990's, the Shiites in the Middle East have shifted their ideology away from violence towards more politicization. This is most evident in Lebanon through Hezbollah's transformation from a militia group to a dominant political party- despite some rare encounters with Israeli forces. Shiites want to play a more instrumental role in politics to counter, what Nakash highlights to be, a long history of marginalization whether in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, or Bahrain.
Nakash provides a brief history of how the Shi'a sect came to exist after Ali Bin Abi Taleb, the nephew and son-in-law of the prophet, was denied the caliphate, at first, and then later assassinated. The history, states Nakash, helps explain the hierarchy in the Shi'a clergy and the importance of the imam, or Ayatollah, who is the main sovereign. This is in contrast to the Sunnis who have an imam appointed by the state.
Ayatollah Ali El-Sistani has been the lead Ayatollah in Iraq for a long time now. While he might seem 'worrisome', states Nakash, he does not compare to Ayatollah Khomeini, who called for the domination of the State's instruments by the clergymen. El-Sistani, as a matter of fact, has been, for the most part, very 'quiet' about matters of policy. He did, however, issue several fatwas against the interim government and the constitution it drafted. Nakash also stated that if El-Sistani was to pass away, the nature of Shi'a hierarchy constitutes the emergence of another leader. This leader will probably be chosen from among Basheer Najafi, Ishak Fayyad, or Mohamed Sayed El-Hakeem. "The good thing," states Nakash, is that "all three see things in the same fashion."
Nakash briefly highlighted some of the challenges Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been facing. In Saudi Arabia, Shiites are a minority ruled by the Wahhabi Saud family which believes Shiites are extremist. However, the Shiites have allied themselves with movements that call for minority rights and further socio-economic reform. In Bahrain, Shiites constitute around 70% of the population, yet they are still ruled by the Sunni, Al-Khalifa family. Reforms have stalled due to the reluctance of the ruling family to construct a strong parliament. However, Nakash contends that if reforms were to take place in Iraq, this would provide neighboring Shiites with a strong boost towards forcing further reform implementation.
Nakash states that the U.S. is still "haunted by memories of its encounter with Shi'a radicalism in Iran and Lebanon in the late 1970's and 1980's." One has to recognize the "crucial changes" that took place among Shiites in Iraq. In regards to future U.S. policy, Nakash affirmed that "it would be a mistake to radicalize the Shi'a, once again."
Drafted by Ahmed Salkini