On Being with Krista Tippett

Vali Nasr

The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam

Last Updated

May 21, 2009

Original Air Date

November 20, 2008

We seek fresh insight into the history and the human and religious dynamics of Islam’s Sunni-Shia divide. Our guest says that it is not so different from dynamics in periods of Western Christian history. But he says that by bringing the majority Shia to power in Iraq, the U.S. has changed the religions dynamics of the Middle East.


Image of Vali Nasr

Vali Nasr is professor of international politics in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future.


May 21, 2009

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we seek fresh insight into the history and the human and religious dynamics of Islam’s Sunni-Shia divide. My guest, Vali Nasr, says that it is not so different from dynamics in periods of Western Christian history. But he says that by bringing the majority Shia to power in Iraq, the U.S. has changed the religious dynamics of the Middle East.

MR. VALI NASR: Iraq provided a model for all of the Shia communities — a transfer of power, getting more than what you have is actually possible. Now, I mean, obviously things in Iraq haven’t happened in a rosy fashion, but I still think that Iraq is an extremely powerful example. It’s the first Shia state in the Middle East. So there’s no way that it would not have a sort of jolting impact on the region.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. The Sunni-Shia divide remains a stumbling block to the creation of civil society in Iraq and a responsible U.S. withdrawal. This hour, we revisit an illuminating conversation I had about that last fall with political scientist Vali Nasr. He’s now become an influential voice in the formation of a new era of U.S. foreign policy. Vali Nasr brings erudition, an ancient Shia lineage, and a long global view of religion and politics. He suggests helpful analogies between current conflicts among different Muslims and conflicts that have marked periods of Western Christian history. And he offers a bracing perspective on the unfolding long-term consequences of U.S. military action in Iraq. How, for example, the U.S. has helped empower Iran and realign the religious dynamics of the entire Middle East.

From American Public Media this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

Today, “The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam.”

The Sunni-Shia split has its roots in disagreements over authority after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. These disagreements about the nature of an ideal Muslim leader eventually created two distinct and dominant sects of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims globally, around 90 percent, are Sunni. Shia Muslims correspondingly are minority members of most predominantly Muslim countries. But in Iraq and Iran that dynamic is reversed. Sixty percent of Iraqis and 90 percent of Iranians are Shia. Still, these kinds of facts and figures don’t really help modern observers understand sectarian violence among Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq or the implications of an ascendant Iran among its Sunni neighbors.

Vali Nasr is Iranian-American, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University, and a fellow on Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. As Vali Nasr analyzes global Islamic culture, he considers the roots and consequences of other religio-political events in history from the violence that surrounded the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979. That event intimately shaped Vali Nasr’s life. When he was a child, his father, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, was a preeminent Islamic scholar of pre-revolutionary Iran.

MR. NASR: I was born in Tehran. I lived in Iran until I was about 15, after which I went to school in England, although I visited Iran periodically while in England. And then the Iranian revolution happened in 1979. I was right at the time of going to university. My family left. We were exiles of the revolution in a sort of Dr. Zhivago-esque escape from Iran.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Your father was an important Islamic philosopher and thinker in pre-revolutionary Iran and is still an important Islamic philosopher and thinker, now based in the United States. And you, like he, you’re not just Shia, but of notable lineage. You are descended from the imams, right, and carry the title Seyyed.

MR. NASR: That’s correct. Among the Shia’s lineage from Prophet Mohammed matters more because it means that you trace your line to the Shia imams, to the Shia’s saints, whom the Shia venerate greatly and view to have been the legitimate heirs to the Prophet. You do have people in the Sunni world also who claim descent from the Prophet, for instance, most notably the king’s of Morocco and Jordan


MR. NASR: But in the Sunni world, it’s not given quite the same importance as it has in the Shia world.

MS. TIPPETT: And, I mean, as you say, you’ve spent now over half your life outside Iran or, you know, you’ve traveled a great deal there and in other parts of the world. But I just wonder, I mean, you were born in 1960, same year I was born, and I spent some of my 20s in divided Europe, which is — kind of, all those dynamics have vanished. I wonder if it has surprised you and been kind of personally dramatic that just in these last years, this part of the world and this tradition that’s so much a part of your identity has come into the forefront of world affairs.

MR. NASR: Yes, it has. I mean, the Middle East has been a source of concern for the United States for many years, particularly at least since the Iranian revolution. And the issue of Islam first came to the fore for the American public and decision makers at that time. And since then, it’s just never gone down, and the U.S. keeps coming back to the problems of the Muslim world and problems of the Middle East. And I think periodically we lay the blame on Islam. We lay the blame on dictators. We lay the blame on all sorts of things, and we also come up with all kinds of solutions, everything from promoting democracy to promoting war to promoting dictatorship to promoting Islamic reformation, hoping that there’ll be a Martin Luther.


MR. NASR: But at the end of the day, we’re still at a loss. And as a result, it always comes up with this idea that somehow it can fast-track Islam from what it is into some idyllic secular moderate reformed position that then would solve all of these other problems.

MS. TIPPETT: So it has seemed to me in hindsight as I’ve thought about this these last years that — and as you — you write about this a lot — this is an incredibly cathartic moment internally for Islam and it’s an important moment that’s going to go on for generations. And other traditions have had these moments. You know, the Christian Reformation took hundreds of years resolving itself.

MR. NASR: And it wasn’t a liberal process.


MR. NASR: Much of the liberal democratic capitalist consequences of Protestantism were really unintended consequences.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right, right.

MR. NASR: It’s not as if Martin Luther or Calvin actually set out to create modernity as we know it.


MR. NASR: In fact, Calvin’s Geneva was a horrible place.


MR. NASR: In many ways it’s much more like the Taliban state that we so fear.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. A theocracy.

MR. NASR: A theocracy of the worst kind

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I think that this Protestant/Catholic analogy is excellent, although in American culture where these divisions are not so sharp or people are not as steeped in the tradition of their childhood and not aware of it, I mean, I think it really works if people can think back 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

MR. NASR: Well, even when I was a student in the United States, I remember the previous pope, John Paul II, came to the United States. And for the first time, he went to the South. I don’t remember where. And I remember watching on television, the streets were deserted. Nobody came out to greet him. And there was this person standing on a sidewalk with a placard in his hand which said, “Antichrist Go Home.”


MR. NASR: And therefore, you know, things don’t matter enough here for people to be killing one another but many, many years ago when Boston was dominated by Protestant English establishment and you gradually had an influx of Irish Catholics who came to Boston, you had a very clear sense of a difference, that the Catholic Church belonged to the Irish and belonged to the poor and the Protestant churches represented the Anglo-Saxon establishment in the city. Now, the differences were not so much theological as they reflected the fundamental identity division in Boston.

MS. TIPPETT: Socioeconomic and ethnic.

MR. NASR: It’s socioeconomic. If we go to Northern Ireland today, you know, IRA fighters may go to church, may not go to church. I don’t think they’re really concerned with liturgy and what the Vatican says.


MR. NASR: Catholicism is not faith; it’s who they are. It defines what side of the tracks they were born.


MR. NASR: You know, who they are, what share of the wealth they get. And you have that in the Muslim world as well. I mean, in Lebanon or Iraq or in Pakistan, the Shia-Sunni difference is not necessarily theological. It is who you are. So the Shia in Pakistan are like the Catholic Irish of Boston.


MR. NASR: Or in Iraq, they were like the Catholic Irish of Boston. They were not the “in” crowd. They were the “out” crowd. And then above this, you obviously have the theological difference and the major difference is the following: that the Shias believed that when the Prophet Mohammed died that his legitimate successors were his son-in-law and cousin Ali who’s buried in the shrine in Najaf and that God had willed that the charisma of the Prophet would run through his bloodline, and his bloodline would be the legitimate leaders of the community. So you could only have true Islamic leadership if the family of the Prophet ruled.

The Sunnis, essentially, who became the majority and whose writ ultimately carried, believed that the most suitable of the companions of the Prophet would be chosen by the early Muslim community, and he would be the leader. And from that disagreement over succession, over the years the two faiths evolved very differently.


MR. NASR: They have a different historical experience, and then the two communities developed a very different ethos of Islam and they practice the faith differently.

MS. TIPPETT: Vali Nasr.

[Sound bite of chanting]

MS. TIPPETT: This is the sound of a religious ritual in Tehran commemorating the Muslim holiday of Ashura, when Shia Muslims honor the martyrdom of Hussein. Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and is a key figure in Shia history and identity. Led by a popular Iranian singer, Mahmoud Karimi, this audience of Shia men is chanting about beloved members of the Prophet’s family while rhythmically striking their chests.

[Sound bite of chanting/singing]

MS. TIPPETT: Watch a video of this ceremony at speakingoffaith.org.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a very different piety. For example, Shia Islam has a much more hierarchical — I mean, a very different development of authority.

MR. NASR: We have a very different development of authority because the Shia are like minority Catholic communities of Eastern Europe or minority Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. These kinds of minority communities tend to gravitate around their religious leaders. Whereas in the Sunni world, it was the sultans and the caliphs who really carried political authority and protected the community. The clerics were dependent on them. So the Shia religious establishment is much closer to the Vatican, whereas the Sunni religious establishment is much more like the Protestant pastors and clerics. They more are functionaries rather than carrying a sort of political religious charisma. And the Shias, at the popular level, believe in visitation of shrines. They believe in saint worship. They believe that saints can be intermediaries between man and God.

I would say a Shia would approach the shrine of Karbala or Najaf in the same way as a Catholic would approach the Lourdes in France or the Fatima in Portugal or the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. They believe that shrines of their saints are places of grace, places where prayers would be responded to.

But even nowadays in the Muslim world it’s very typical. Everybody in the Muslim world wants to deny that this sectarianism exists. And they say, ‘No, no. Shias and Sunnis agree over 90 percent of Islam.’ But how they interpret that 90 percent is quite different. The Shias and Sunnis both accept the Qur’an and follow the Qur’an. But if you put two pages of the Qur’an next to each other, the Shia and Sunni commentary on it is vastly different. The Shias have their own school of law, and after all, Islam is a religion of law. And ultimately you’re not a Muslim by faith; you’re always Muslim by practice.


MR. NASR: And therefore the differences between Shia law and Sunni law means that on an everyday basis, you follow a different set of practices that defines you on an everyday basis as to who you are.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s something that’s been important to me to understand and also to sometimes communicate to others, that Islam is really not a faith of — you can’t even talk about it in terms of what you believe the way Christians talk about what they believe, that it is about daily-lived piety.

MR. NASR: You know, look at it this way. It’s very easy to become a Muslim. All you have to say is that, “Ilaha illa Allah, Mohammadan rasul-Allah.” “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet.” That’s all it takes for you to …

MS. TIPPETT: That’s the confession.

MR. NASR: … convert to Islam. But then the rest is practice. And Islam in that sense is much more like Judaism, where it is not an orthodoxy, as is the case with Christianity, it’s really an orthopraxy. It’s about proper practice, not proper belief. That’s not what defines a Muslim.

MS. TIPPETT: Iranian-American political scientist Vali Nasr. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re seeking to better understand the nature and consequences of the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam.

I’m drawing Vali Nasr out on the insights he’s gained through many years following the complex geopolitics between the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. He’s had a special focus in recent years on Iraq, Iran, and what he calls a “current Shia revival.”

The modern state of Iraq was carved out by British colonial authorities after World War I, and they intentionally excluded the majority Shia from power. Gertrude Bell, one of the British administrators primarily responsible for this, had a long and deep association with the Sunni Arab world and she viewed Shia clerics with suspicion. She wrote once in a letter, “I don’t for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis in spite of their numerical inferiority. Otherwise,” she wrote, “you will have a theocratic state which is the very devil.”

Again, Vali Nasr.

MR. NASR: It’s become a common refrain these days to say, well, you know, under Saddam, there were Shias in government and there were Shia-Sunni intermarriages and Shias did well in Iraq. Yes. But a good Shia in Saddam’s Iraq, in Sunni Iraq, was a Shia who didn’t act as Shia, didn’t claim to be Shia, didn’t demand Shia things. And Shias could go up only so far. And still over the years, things got worse and worse for Shias.

So when the United States arrived in Iraq in 2003, it essentially shattered the Iraqi state, which was an apparatus that was simultaneously sectarian in its nature but also was preventing sectarianism from spreading into the streets.


MR. NASR: With no authority there and with Washington being completely ill-prepared for this, you had this sort of — the violence came out. In other words, Iraq went from a forced disequilibrium, from a political system that did not reflect its numbers and was forcibly keeping a situation in place, it has to go to an equilibrium. But the period in between inevitably ended up being extremely violent and maybe unnecessarily violent, because of absence of preparation for it. So Iraq went from being a Sunni-dominated minority country, sometimes brutal, sometimes not, now to a country that’s actually being ruled by its majority. And we went to Iraq not thinking at all that this may well happen. And that’s exactly the problem, that we went in thinking democracy. We went in thinking extremism versus moderation. We thought about everything other than the fact that the single most important consequences of our intervention would be to force Iraq to go through that transition from minority rule to majority rule. And that has always been an extremely disruptive and messy and violent process whenever it’s happened in the world, and Iraq was not going to be an exception.

MS. TIPPETT: And perhaps especially dramatic and difficult when the minority-majority divide falls along lines of religious identity.

MR. NASR: Yes. And I think in the case of Iraq it’s more important because it also elicited the response from everybody else, not only in the neighborhood around Iraq, but also the larger Muslim world. For people in Indonesia or Nigeria, this was a shock because they don’t have Shias there. And that this kind of a schism existed and that it could be so violent was something new. When I wrote my book on the Shia revival, I would travel to these kinds of places farther from the Middle East and often I heard this, that, ‘We really didn’t understand that this existed.’

MS. TIPPETT: Really. Or that it mattered in that way, or that it could matter in that way.

MR. NASR: And even, I mean, I’ve heard this from Indonesians, from Malaysians, that ‘We didn’t even know what Shiaism is.’

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MR. NASR: ‘We’re as clueless as Westerners were.’ This was some distant thing. And then closer to around Iraq in the Arab world and in Iran where you do have a historical legacy of Shia-Sunni coexistence as well as conflict, and you have the same kind of minority-majority divisions in many countries, Iraq very quickly became much bigger than Iraq. It became a much broader regional dynamic. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that even the sectarian war in Iraq had not even begun when the King of Jordan began talking about a Shia crescent.

MS. TIPPETT: So let’s talk about what you call the Shia revival and some of this larger dynamic. Now, I mean, would you say that that began with the Iranian revolution?

MR. NASR: Yes, it did. But it never went anywhere, first of all, because the Iranian revolution never proclaimed itself to be a Shia revolution.


MR. NASR: But once they took over power in Iran, Khomeini, he never fashioned himself to Saudis, to Pakistanis, to Indonesians, Malaysians, Nigerians, as a Shia leader. He always wanted to be recognized as an Islamic leader


MR. NASR: So he never openly advocated the cause of the Shia. Secondly, he was Iranian and the revolution was Iranian and that always immunized the Arab world from the influence that Khomeini could have. And thirdly, is that the Arab world found a way, whether through Saddam’s war against Iran or through propaganda, to contain Khomeini’s influence. So the Arab world learned revolution from Khomeini but would not accept Khomeini as their leader.


MR. NASR: But Iraq was different, because you did not have an Islamic revolution in Iraq. You had a Shia community openly saying that as Shias they now claimed power. They very clearly were not trying to wage a larger Islamic cause or Islamic movement. They basically wanted a transfer of power from a minority community to the majority community. Now in that sense I think Iraq was more important than Iran because there are many other Arab communities which have the problem of Iraq, namely, Lebanese Shias believe that they are far larger in numbers than Sunnis or Maronites, but the power and the parliament or the representation in the Cabinet is far less than that. And therefore, Iraq provided a model for all of the Shia communities that, you know, transfer of power, getting more than what you have, is actually possible.


MR. NASR: They were not talking this sort of lofty goals that Khomeini put forward, an ideal Islamic government and world revolution, et cetera. This was something much simpler: that governments can change, power can be transferred, and that created an expectation of better days and better things to come for the Shias and a sense of anxiety and fear among Sunnis. Now, I mean, obviously things in Iraq haven’t happened in a rosy fashion. I think there’s been some rude awakening because of the violence in Iraq, but I still think that Iraq is an extremely powerful example. It’s the first Shia state in the Middle East. So there’s no way that it would not have a sort of jolting impact on the region.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Some of what Vali Nasr knows so well can be challenging to visualize. To help put images to his ideas, we’ve taken information from a 2006 article he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine and we present it as a map on our Web site. And on our staff blog, SOF Observed, I’ve written about my first meeting with Vali Nasr at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the lucid analogies he used in that meeting with policy makers also found their way into my full interview with him for this program. Download the MP3 of that unedited conversation, read my blog entry, and see these political dynamics illustrated at speakingoffaith.org.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, we’ll explore Vali Nasr’s sense of how the U.S. has established Iran as a regional superpower and why the failure of secularism, as much as the volatility of religion, is a core dynamic behind contemporary world crises.

MR. NASR: We have a crisis of secularism that, increasingly, populations are turning to religious values and are bringing religious values into the public sphere. They are challenging the constitutional boundaries that had guaranteed secular society’s survival, even in the United States.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.

[Sound bite of music]


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett.

Today, we’re seeking to understand the nature and the practical geopolitical importance of the Sunni-Shia divide in Islam. We are revisiting my conversation from last fall with Vali Nasr, who has now become an influential adviser in a new era of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the Muslim World. He is a leading policy expert on Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East and is himself Iranian-American of ancient Shia lineage. He’s been describing how recent U.S. policies, in Iraq in particular, have led to a new chapter of Islamic history — more important, he believes, than Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979. In fact, Vali Nasr says, U.S.-led action in Iraq has established Iran as a regional power in a way that Ayatollah Khomeini never did, and that is changing political dynamics across the Muslim Middle East and beyond it. Here’s a reading from Vali Nasr’s 2006 book, The Shia Revival.

READER: The Shia-Sunni conflict is at once a struggle for the soul of Islam, a great war of competing theologies and conceptions of sacred history, and a manifestation of the kind of tribal wars of ethnicities and identities, so seemingly archaic at times, yet so surprisingly vital, with which humanity has become wearily familiar. Faith and identity converge in this conflict, and their combined power goes a long way toward explaining why, despite the periods of coexistence, the struggle has lasted so long and retains such urgency and significance. Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today’s concerns with power, subjugation, freedom, and equality — not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues. It is, paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict.

For the quarter century between the Iranian revolution in 1979 and September 11, 2001, the United States saw the Middle East far too often through the eyes of the authoritarian Sunni elites in Islamabad, Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh, who were America’s major local allies. The new Middle East, coming fitfully into being — its birth pangs punctuated by car bombs, but also by peaceful protest and elections — is defined in equal part by the identity of Shias, whose cultural ties and relations of faith, political alliances, and commercial links cut across the divide between Arab and non-Arab.

MS. TIPPETT: Again, Vali Nasr.

MR. NASR: Not only the Arab governments were not enthusiastic about a democratic Iraq, but they very well understood that tinkering with Iraq’s government would bring the Shias to power and Shias will be more friendly to Iran than Saddam ever was.


MR. NASR: And the Iranians also understood that any kind of a shift in regime in Iraq would bring their friends to power in Iraq, and Iraq would be more friendly to Iran than it ever was under Saddam. It seems like everybody knew this other than the United States. So what we did is that when we went into Iraq, as I mentioned, the most fundamental consequence of our intervention in Iraq was to change the balance of power between the Shias and Sunnis.

MS. TIPPETT: Globally, you mean. Really. I mean, not just regionally but globally.

MR. NASR: Well, first within Iraq.


MR. NASR: But that immediately decided how the rest of the region was going to array against Iraq.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. NASR: And react to it. So in a way, it’s like putting a bowl in water. It’s impossible that it won’t come out wet. There was no way of intervening in Iraq without making sectarianism a focal point of Iraqi politics and then by extension Middle East politics and, as you mentioned, globally. And we really have not been able to rise above that until now. I mean, just very recently the King of Jordan is the first Arab head of state to visit Iraq. That’s about five years after the U.S. invasion. Iranian leaders have been visiting Iraq almost from day go. It’s very clear as to the fact that the Arab world has viewed what’s happened in Iraq with far more trepidation and worry than Iran has.

MS. TIPPETT: So you talk about the dominant political values of the old Middle East. And I think that what you’re referring to there is the Middle East that we in the West think we know. That that is connected with Arab identity, with Arab nationalism, and that’s another way of describing how events in Iraq and their ramifications for Iran are completely shifting that map of the world around.

MR. NASR: Yes, absolutely. In other words, the Iraq war had a consequence of, I think, shifting a lot of power and a lot of importance away from the Arab world towards non-Arab actors. I mean, this also includes Turkey, which has become a far more important player in Middle East politics because of Iraq.


MR. NASR: We gave birth in Iraq. The United States was the midwife to the emergence of another non-Arab political entity, which is the Kurdish part of northern Iraq, which potentially can become an independent state as well.


MR. NASR: The Kurds are the fourth most important population group in the Middle East, the one which until now had no political representation in the form of a state or a territory. Now it has. And then also the Iraq war empowered Iran, not just because the Shias took over Iraq, but also because the Iraqi army fell apart …


MR. NASR: … because Iran found a real foothold in southern Iraq. Iran went from being threatened by Iraq for over five decades to now essentially running the show in Iraq by and large. And also a lot of the U.S. attention now shifted to containing Iran. So it’s very clear that Iran has become far more important than it was in 2003, that the Kurds have now become a big player in the Middle East, and that the Turks have become an important player in the Middle East. So division of the Middle East essentially being the Arab world with sort of Iran and Turkey, et cetera, being irrelevant and that all we needed to do was to manage the Arab world. And to manage the Arab world, all you need to do is to be involved in the Palestinian issue, and to subsidize dictatorships is no longer will give us everything we want. It will give us only part of what we want.

MS. TIPPETT: So I want to get back to the religious dynamic a bit. And I think it has been easy for some people in this last decade to look at what’s happening in the world and say that the religious dynamics and religious identities that are embedded in these different alliances and conflicts make everything worse. That religion has become the problem, that religion is the problem of the 21st century like, I don’t know, ideology was the problem of the 20th century. I wonder how you think about that, how you respond to that idea as a Muslim.

MR. NASR: Well, you know, at one level I think it’s a simplistic view of looking at the Muslim world because it’s true that the text, and by this I mean religious ideas, values, piety, matter a lot to the Muslim world and maybe they shouldn’t and maybe that’s not a good approach. But text only matters and is interpreted in a context. And we’re not going to get the Muslim world right unless we understand the relationship of the text to the context in the Muslim world.

At another level we could say, you know, generally religion is resurgent not just in the Muslim world but also in the United States.


MR. NASR: Also in Israel. Also in India. In fact, if we really looked at it, Europe alone is a secular world.


MR. NASR: And we could say that the issue is not the rise of religion in the Muslim world, but that we have a crisis of secularism, of the post-Enlightenment assumptions about secularism everywhere. That increasingly, populations are turning to religious values and are bringing religious values into the public sphere. They are challenging the constitutional boundaries that had guaranteed secular societies’ survival, even in the United States, on a continuous basis. Now the U.S. Constitution may be stronger to resist such encroachments. The Turkish Constitution or the Indian Constitution or the Tunisian Constitution, what you may have, may be far weaker. But if you look at it at that level, then the Muslim world is not as unique. It is really Europe that is now unique.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s right.

MR. NASR: And we have to really ask not why Islam is ascendant, not what is wrong with Muslims, but what is wrong with secularism. Why is secularism sick? Why is it waning? Particularly in the most advanced country in the world, the United States. Why is secularism under siege?

MS. TIPPETT: Iranian-American political scientist Vali Nasr.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I asked Vali Nasr whether in his wide travels and discussions across the world he’s encountering reconciliatory figures amidst the Sunni-Shia tension at the heart of what he calls “a struggle for the soul of Islam.”

MR. NASR: I think it’s too soon. You know, part of the problem is that, when based on European history, you have a vision of what ought to happen, you try to sort of look for immediate results.


MR. NASR: And that, as I said, has always been our problem with the Middle East. We want long historical processes to be fast-tracked. The reality is that the Middle East is not a static picture. It’s not a still picture. It is a movie. It comprises of a series of pictures that are unfolding. At any one time we look at it, we don’t see the whole movie, because we look at only a snapshot of that moving picture. So we may not find an identifiable character maybe for another 10 years, or there may not be a major conference of the kind that brought resolution in Christianity for another 10 years. But that doesn’t mean that there is not sort of intellectual fermentation happening in people’s minds and in some circles. But it might not be immediately discernible. After all, we’re not that far away from the epicenter of the conflict …


MR. NASR: … which is 2003 Iraq.


MR. NASR: In historical terms, that’s not a very long time, and Iraq hasn’t even finished. Will the Iraqis manage actually to produce a model for the Muslims to build on or will they return to civil war and prove to us that this will be decided by blood and guns rather than talking? I think how Iraq finishes is going to be very important in terms of deciding how the Middle East deals with this.

MS. TIPPETT: So back in 2003, I spoke with someone named Ahmed al-Rahim. He’s at Harvard and he’s Iraqi-American. He’d been brought over by that early coalition provisional authority and was advising on the educational system. I mean, he’s a secular Muslim but he said to me, ‘Why aren’t the Americans starting Muslim chambers of commerce? Don’t they remember that back in the early American republic — and in fact, into the 20th century — the fundaments of civil society, even in the United States, often started with religious organizations, even things like the YMCA and the Rotary Club?’

MR. NASR: I think he’s correct.


MR. NASR: I think he’s correct. I think there’s a peculiar thing, is that we have a very good system of government, but whenever we go abroad we promote and implement the French one, the French system of government.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. The secular, yeah.

MR. NASR: There is no reason why when we defeated the Taliban, we didn’t opt for an American federal system that would’ve given a lot more autonomy to various regions of Afghanistan, which would’ve been a far more workable solution. And why did we insist on creating a centralized French model of government in Afghanistan …

MS. TIPPETT: That’s interesting.

MR. NASR: … that is now falling apart?

MS. TIPPETT: Now, I think I heard you when we met in New York a few weeks ago — weren’t you talking about the middle classes in Iraq and how the commercial business people, how they in fact have to be and might be a force in countering extremism?

MR. NASR: Well, the evidence of it is in the south. In other words, where does Muqtada al-Sadr have his base of support? It’s in the slum areas of Basra or Baghdad. He has no support among the shopkeepers in the shrine cities in Najaf and Karbala, who are essentially businessmen.


MR. NASR: Who want piety, who want Shia power. But they also know that you only can do business and make money if there is peace and security, and they have no support or tolerance for him. And it’s very clear that people support stability and security if it serves their interests. I mean, we again often in the West forget that Muslims, like all people, are interest maximizers. It’s very clear. You look at Algeria. You look at Tunisia. You look at Egypt. You look at Iraq. There’s no part of the Muslim world that I’ve gone to where the merchant class supports violence, breakdown, and insecurity. So therefore, they’re behaving the same way as any entrepreneurial merchant business class would behave, which is to serve their own interest. Faith is faith, but business is business. And just like the Rockefellers found, or the early American capitalists found how to create bridges between capitalism and faith, so will the Muslim capitalists.


MR. NASR: And find ways of being both pious and also supporting the kind of piety that also serves their business interest.

MS. TIPPETT: Vali Nasr.

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MS. TIPPETT: I think one of the frustrations of recent years has been how powerless people have felt as things in Iraq have spiraled out of control. And there’s a sense of culpability and yet not any idea of what kind of contribution one might make. So what we’re talking about, and one of the phrases you use is this battle for the soul of Islam. What would you want to say about how it might matter or why it might matter that people are informed or engaged? How would you want to talk to people about their response to these issues and the world we’re moving into? It’s a big question.

MR. NASR: It’s a very good point. I mean, first of all, is that Islam is a 14th-century civilization. It’s a very complex civilization. It’s as complex as Christianity or Chinese civilization. It has 1.3 billion followers. I mean, the idea that Americans can decide the outcome of a battle for the soul of Islam or there actually will be a nice, neat, and desirous outcome in the short run is rather simplistic. I think the very first thing we have to do is to disabuse ourselves of this.


MR. NASR: We’re dealing with a world civilization and world civilizations move on glacial pace in unpredictable ways and there is no single event or single thing we can do to alter the outcome. I mean, obviously we went into Iraq under the false pretense that this is the key to changing the whole soul of Islam and the direction the Muslim world is going.


MR. NASR: It actually seems like Iraq has done more to change the direction that the United States is going than the United States changing the direction the Muslim world is going. These debates about where the Muslim world goes, how is it going to resolve, is going to continue beyond Iraq. And I think one of the issues which is very key in the next few years is to separate individual problems that we have to solve — the nuclear issue with Iran, the Arab-Israeli issue, the Iraq war — from somehow assuming that we can decide the outcome of a civilizational change within Islam itself.


MR. NASR: And I think the more the United States has sort of realistic expectations of what it can do and what is happening, the less frustrated the average American will feel. And I think just as any people, Muslims, Chinese, Indians, I think one of the worst things for Americans is to have raised expectations or heightened expectations that are then not met. And I think that’s one of the problems with Iraq where it’s not just the matter of blood and treasure we’re putting into that country, it is that so much hope was vested on Iraq that it’s going to be an easy, simple war that is forever going to take care of the Muslim problem.


MR. NASR: And it’s that failure that has left many people feeling a great deal of frustration.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Feeling fearful and powerless.

MR. NASR: Fearful, powerless, but also of betrayed expectations, of expectations that have fallen short.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. It’s a matter of generations, isn’t it? And that’s a hard, hard way for Americans to think.

MR. NASR: It’s a matter of generations, and it’s also a process that’s impossible to control.


MR. NASR: It’s almost like trying to control the climate.


MR. NASR: We can always get an Arab government or a Chinese government to change a policy, but we cannot decide how the Chinese as a people are likely to think and are likely to act and are likely to move forward.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So that’s a very sober note to end on, and I think it’s probably the only note to end on. I would be curious where you look for sources of hope in this, maybe conversations you have, events you know about through your travels that simply aren’t on the radar amidst the headlines.

MR. NASR: Well, I think, everywhere you go in the Muslim world, the Muslims have very strong opinions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, about U.S. intentions towards the Muslim world. They’re very cynical about American intentions. But the reality of it is that the Muslims are also pursuing on an everyday basis business, commerce, economy, education. They are aspiring to do better in the world when given a chance. When things go right they behave the same way as people everywhere else do.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. NASR: I mean, you can go to Dubai and go to any shopping mall and you will see Arabs behaving just as Americans would do at a mall.


MR. NASR: And I think that’s a hopeful thing. That we’re not really at some level separated so much by these civilizational religious things we don’t understand about one another, but there is a lot that is common between us. And that’s very clear around the Muslim world: that Muslims want things that are quite understandable by us. They want jobs, they want prosperity, they want a share of power, they want to go places, to get to do well. And I think those are ambitions that we can identify with and we can take heart in. That ultimately it’s not the Bin Ladens that will set the agenda for a billion people, but it is the same kind of dynamics that Chinese, Indians, Americans, Europeans respond to as well.

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MS. TIPPETT: Vali Nasr is Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and he is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. His books include The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

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MS. TIPPETT: My complete unedited conversation with Vali Nasr featured more insight into the complicated picture of Middle Eastern religion and politics, including how the growing youth population in countries across the Middle East will affect the future of the region. Download an MP3 of that unedited interview and this produced program through our Web site, podcast, and e-mail newsletter.

MS. TIPPETT: During the past year, we’ve created a space for listeners’ voices and stories to be told and to be heard online and on the air. We’re calling it our first-person initiative. Last May, we reached out to Catholics, now we’re asking Muslims to share their perspectives for a project we’ll be working on during the coming months. If you are Muslim, we’d like to understand more about the complexity and diversity of the Muslim world as it is often called. What does being Muslim mean to you? What do you find beautiful about Islam and how does this find expression in your daily life? What hopes questions and fears are on your mind as you ponder the future of your tradition? Find the Share Your Story link on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.

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MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our technical director is John Scherf; our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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