JOANNE MYERS:Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs at the Carnegie Council. I would like to thank you all for joining us this afternoon. I would also like to welcome C-SPAN BookTV.
Today our speaker is Yitzhak Nakash. He will be discussing his book, Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World. This program is one of several we have had recently at the Carnegie Council on the topic of the resurgence of religion in politics.
Perhaps more than any region in the world, the events unfolding in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, personify the incredibly significant role religion plays in politics today. The recent bomb attack in Samarra on one of the most sacred Shi'i shrines was more than merely a symbolic gesture. It was a strike against religion itself. Although this has not been the only targeted bombing, it was the most provocative attack on a Shi'ite religious site since the American invasion began three years ago.
Although Shi'is and Sunnis have different approaches to religious law and practices and different notions of religious hierarchy, they both observe the same fundamental tenets of Islam. Yet mounting violence and the subsequent Shi'i reprisals against Sunni mosques and the killings of Sunni Arabs underscore their differences and the fierce struggle that is raging today among Muslims for the soul of Islam.
In Reaching for Power, Professor Nakash writes that for some time now, Shi'is across the Middle East have been searching for sociopolitical justice and for rulers who can uphold the law. This is a significant shift in the Muslim world, and this potentially could bring democracy throughout the Arab world. Whether in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or Lebanon, the Shi'is have been seeking ways to reconcile Islamic and Western concepts of government in order to reshape Islam to conform to modern times. It is exactly because of their seeming willingness to accommodate towards the West and the increasingly important role that they are now playing in Iraq that the Sunnis have been provoked into the current wave of violence there.
As one of the foremost experts on Shi'is in the Middle East, Professor Nakash's purpose in writing this book is to highlight the dialectics of change and the reciprocal influences that have shaped the development of Shi'ism in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon. His analysis covers the period from the mid-18th century to the current 2005 elections in Iraq.
More than likely, the reformation taking place among the Shi'is will not stop where it is today. But whatever happens, the repercussions will be felt throughout the Arab world and in the West as well.
Please join me in welcoming the very distinguished Islamic and Middle East Professor from Brandeis University, Professor Yitzhak Nakash.
YITZHAK NAKASH:Thank you very much. Good evening. Thank you, Joanne, for your kind words. I am delighted to be here.
When U.S. Marines stormed into Baghdad in April 2003, there was strong anticipation of political change among Shi'is in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. America had pledged to bring reform to the Middle East and put the region on course to democracy. Yet if Shi'is expected the war in Iraq to quickly change the political realities of the Middle East, they were proven wrong.
Within a year, it turned out that the Bush administration was poorly prepared for the mission that it had taken upon itself and unwilling to commit the necessary resources to implement its prewar vision of Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Arab world. Instead, Iraq became the cental front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and the initial goodwill shown by Iraqi Shi'is towards the United States has dissipated. At the same time, in countries as diverse as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, the governments rebuffed advocates of reform, depicting them as dissenters who undermine national unity.
Despite these setbacks, the argument I make in the book is that reform in the Middle East is still within reach. But the seeds of reform will be planted by the people of the region, not by an outside power, even one as mighty as America.
The U.S. experience in Iraq in the period leading up to the December 2005 elections underscored the fact that Iraq's Shi'ite majority is destined to lead the reform process, which is bound to be long and painful, and may take place amid a civil war in the country. Yet the U.S. experience also demonstrated that America is still haunted by memories of its encounter with Shi'ite radicalism in Iran and Lebanon in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Bush administration did not acknowledge the crucial changes that took place among Shi'is during the 1990s and failed to seize the momentum created by the invasion to build early bridges to those Shi'ite Islamists who sought to contain the radicals in their midst and fuse Islamic and Western concepts of government.
The desire of Shi'is to reach accommodation with the West may be gathered from the nature of the insurgency in Iraq, which is predominantly Sunni. We can also see this desire in the development of the Lebanese Shi'a organization Hezbollah from a movement entertaining revolutionary ideas into a political party that accepted the power-sharing arrangement governing Lebanon.
As part of that change, which began to take shape in the decade between 1982 and 1992, Hezbollah has mended fences with the West. The decrease in acts of violence by Hezbollah against Western targets since the mid-1990s has stood in contrast to the growth of Sunni-sponsored terrorism by al Qaeda and other militant groups, including the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the bombings in Bali, Madrid, Riyadh, London, and Amman, as well as the gruesome beheadings of hostages in Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—a strategy that all Shi'i groups have condemned.
Hezbollah's transformation is part of a shift of focus among Shi'is in the Middle East since the 1990s from violence to accommodation, coupled with a desire to carve out a political space for themselves. That shift is evident not only in the Arab world, but also in Iran, which has acted as America's silent partner during the Gulf War of 1991 and in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran today is very different from the embattled Islamic republic of the early 1980s, with the vast majority of Iranians now clamoring for reform and socioeconomic justice and a widespread women's movement overshadowing its Sunni counterpart in the Arab world.
What's more, the hardline clerical establishment in Tehran shares the U.S. goal of a stable and unified Iraq with a Shi'a-led government, a fact that should not be obscured by the debates over Iran's nuclear intentions, its aid to Shi'i groups in Iraq and the election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's president in June 2005.
As I illustrate in the book, the trend within Shi'ism away from confrontation and towards a dialogue with the West is evident in the struggle that is raging today between Shi'is and Sunnis for the soul of Islam, a struggle that is taking place at a time when America is playing an increasingly assertive role in the Middle East and as the geopolitics of the region are shifting. The outcome of this war of ideas within Islam will have a profound impact, not only on the people of the Middle East, but also on relations between Muslim and Western societies, which, as you all know, have recently come under severe strain.
The shift of focus among Shi'is since the 1990s from violence to accommodation raises a critically important question for American foreign policy. The Shi'is, who have been a minority within Islam, take the lead in inspiring reform in the Arab world. The distinct history and organizational features of Shi'ism that I discuss in the book suggest the Shi'is certainly have the potential and motivation to do so.
Shi'ism grew out of a quarrel among Arab Muslims over the question of succession to the Prophet Muhammad. When Muhammad died in 632 AD, one group asserted that legitimate succession belonged to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, and after him, to the Prophet's descendants. But Ali was passed over for succession three times in a row before he became caliph. In 661, Ali was assassinated in Iraq, and the caliphate subsequently shifted from Iraq to Syria, whence the Umayyad dynasty ruled for the best part of a century.
Some twenty years after Ali's death, his partisans in Iraq, known as the Shi'a, encouraged his son Hussein to challenge the Syrian claim to the caliphate. Hussein raised the banner of revolt in 680, but the people of Iraq failed to rally to his side as they had promised, leaving him to meet his death at the Battle of Karbala, at the hand of forces loyal to the Umayyads. Shi'ism was born of Hussein's defeat in Karbala. It developed as the minority sect, while Sunnism grew to be the majority sect in Islam.
At the core of Shi'i history, then, lies a tale of betrayal and political dispossession and of people seeking justice. The drama of Hussein's martyrdom has become the focus of religious devotion for the faithful, comparable to the passion of Jesus in Christianity, reenacted yearly in rituals of lament and remembrance among the world's 170 million Shi'is.
The impulse to redress historic wrong is important in distinguishing Shi'ism from Sunnism. But more crucial in explaining why Shi'is could lead a reform today is the special relationship between clerics and followers in Shi'a Islam. The main Twelver branch of Shi'ism came to believe in a line of twelve imams, stretching from Ali to Muhammad al Mahdi, who is hidden from view and is expected to return one day as a messianic figure.
The imam is the religious and political leader of the community. He is believed to be immune from sin. Unlike Sunnis, who in theory are expected to obey their rulers, and even tolerate a tyrant in order to avoid civil strife and preserve the cohesion of the Muslim community, observant Shi'ites recognize no authority on earth except that of the imam. In his absence, there can be no human sovereign who is fully legitimate.
Yet in reality, the Shi'i clerics have long acted as the representatives of the imam and fulfilled some of his functions. Those clerics who are well advanced in their religious studies can become mujtahids, meaning doctors of Islamic law and jurisprudence. Yet only a few mujtahids have succeeded at any given time in gaining acceptance of a large number of followers. Such a mujtahid is known as a model who can give authoritative opinions on disputed questions to his followers and bears the title of ayatollah.
Although in theory only the attributes of knowledge and piety should play a role in advancing one mujtahid over another, in practice charisma and the ability to lead played a part in the competition and affected the number of followers that a mujtahid could gather around himself. This special relationship between clerics and followers in Shi'ism has helped Shi'i mujtahids to maintain independence from the government.
Whereas Sunni clerics are usually appointed and paid by the government, which thereby confers legitimacy on them, in Shi'ism, the followers select the mujtahid of their choice, pay their religious dues to him, and abide by his rulings. While this process has empowered Shi'a followers to bring clerics in line with their interests, it also enabled the religious leaders to build up their intellectual and financial strength in relation to the state. In this duality lies the essence of democracy: the freedom of ordinary people to play a prominent role in deciding who is to have religious authority, an authority that in turn can be used to check the executive and hold rulers accountable.
For well over a century, Shi'i clerics have led movements advocating constitutionalism, parliamentary rule, and just governance in the Middle East. In post-Baath Iraq, clerics have again taken the lead, in large part because there scarcely exists a secular civil society in the country today that can act as the nucleus of an Iraqi democratic system. In its 35 years of rule, the Baath wiped out all forms of civil organization not directly controlled by the party.
To make matters worse, the twelve years of sanctions that preceded the U.S. invasion of 2003, reinforced by insecurity and an unemployment rate of some 50 percent in its wake, have reduced the Iraqi middle class to bare subsistence. It will be years before a viable secular middle class can reemerge and check the power of the religious groups, who are now the most vocal, organized, and politically mobilized force in Iraq.
The participation of clerics in Iranian politics from 1978 to 1979 resulted in a theocracy. But, as I argue in the book, clerical participation in Iraqi politics today may give birth to a strong parliamentary system in the country and to an elected government accountable to the electorate, a development that could transform relations between people in the government in Iraq and in the larger Arab world.
Amid the turmoil that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and in the absence of a national leader with the stature to unite Iraqis, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has asserted himself as the most revered leader of Iraqi Shi'is, a kind of a Shi'i "pope" who has provided counsel to his followers and responded to the political aspirations of his constituency.
For many of us, who still remember the rise to power of the virulently anti-American Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, Sistani's growing power may seem worrisome. Yet unlike Khomeini, who articulated the idea that clerics should rule and allowed it to be implemented in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sistani represents the quietest school of thought within Shi'ism, and he has been reluctant to get directly involved in worldly affairs.
Still, despite his basic belief that clerics should stay out of politics, Sistani was drawn into the power vacuum in Iraq, and he has made clear his opinion on government and constitution-making. On several occasions during 2003 and 2004, Sistani bumped up against the plans of Paul Bremer, the top American administrator in Iraq. In June 2003, Sistani issued a ruling forbidding the appointment of drafters to write the constitution, sanctioning their election by Iraqis instead. This move dealt a blow to the American plan to quickly introduce a new constitution to Iraq. When in November Bremer unveiled a plan to elect a transitional national assembly through caucuses, Sistani insisted on direct elections and forced the Americans to scrap their proposed system.
Sistani also objected to the interim constitution signed by the Iraqi Governing Council in 2004, stating that the elected assembly would not be bound by a document written by an institution appointed under occupation. His objection, in effect, annulled the interim constitution.
In his actions, Sistani has engaged reluctant U.S. policymakers in a debate over the meaning of democracy. As it turned out, his clout has fundamentally altered Washington's plans for Iraq, resulting in the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, to which Sistani gave his conditional approval, the elections to a national assembly in January and again in December 2005, and the rise of Shi'is as the politically dominant community in post-Baath Iraq.
Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Shi'is around the globe have been eagerly anticipating the revival of the shrine city of Najaf in southern Iraq as the leading Shi'ite academic center. Their hope is that a renaissance in Najaf will embolden the reform movement in Iran and encourage Sistani and the clerics around him to adapt Shi'ism to modern times. Shi'is have argued that change must begin in the religious leadership itself, advocating that the religious leadership in Najaf should evolve into an institution similar to the papacy in the Vatican. The reforms that Sistani and his successors choose to introduce will therefore have a profound impact on Shi'is, particularly those in the Arab world who are the focus of my book.
Let's look at the examples of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia, the challenge that the modern state posed to the small Shi'i minority has occasionally manifested itself in open religious hostility directed by the rulers against Saudi Shi'is who live mainly in the eastern province of Hasa, where the country's oil is found. The Saudi rulers' adoption of Wahhabi-Hanbali Islam as the religious ideology of Saudi Arabia has had direct bearing on the inferior status of Shi'is within the kingdom. From the Wahhabi point of view, Shi'is are considered either extremists or infidels. The severe restrictions imposed on Shi'i sociopolitical mobility in the state, as well as on basic Shi'i religious practices, have led Shi'is to consider themselves as second- and even third-class citizens.
In a religiously oriented and politically conservative monarchy, where the strategies of the ruling family of Al Saud seem intended to isolate rather than include the Shi'is, the dilemma of the Shi'i minority has been how to survive as a viable group while maintaining a clear distinction between their dislike of the dominant Sunni Wahhabi religious ideology and their loyalty to the state. The major survival strategy assumed by Saudi Shi'is has been manifested in their attempts to attach themselves to ideological movements that promise sweeping sociopolitical change. The upheaval created by the U.S. invasion of Iraq has energized Saudi Shi'is, who have joined other Saudis in calling for reforms. Although the government has cracked down on the reformers, in the long run it will not be able to ignore the political change in Iraq and is likely to introduce reforms that would improve the sociopolitical rights of all Saudis, including the status of the Shi'ite minority.
The case of Bahrain, where Shi'is form as much as 70 percent of the native population, illustrates the challenge of attempting to introduce constitutional reforms and a strong parliamentary system in the Arab world. Bahrain is a small archipelago off the eastern shore of Saudi Arabia and the home port of the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf. The Shi'i majority on the islands has been dominated by the Sunni al-Khalifa ruling family ever since their conquest of Bahrain in 1783. The tension between the Shi'is and the rulers came to a head after the emir suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament in 1975, and during the uprising from 1994 to 1999, which led the government to introduce reforms.
Yet the reform process has stalled, largely because of the refusal of the government to allow a strong parliamentary system in the country. Like their Saudi counterparts, Bahraini Shi'is have been eagerly anticipating the political outcome in Iraq, hoping for the development of a strong parliament in the country.
In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the stakes are high, as evident in the recent bombing of the Shi'i shrine in Samarra, as well as in the mounting tensions between Muslim and Western societies. Iraq could descend into an all-out civil war that may lead to partition and reshape the Middle East, or it could end up with just governance based on a compromise among Iraqis.
America's pledge to bring democracy to Iraq turned out to be hollow in the face of events on the ground. It was left for Sistani and his followers to take the lead in charting the political future of Iraq and the larger Middle East. They can hardly afford to fail.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Are you stating that the overriding concept behind any government is religious? In your opinion, iIs a possibility in the Middle East, sometime in the near future, of Sunni and Shi'ite cooperating to have the so-called democracy that the Bush administration would like to have in Iraq or in other countries? Or does it always have to be one dominating the other, Sunni or Shi'ite?
YITZHAK NAKASH: Obviously, the case of Iraq is the test case. Can Iraqis reach a compromise? My point is that a strong parliament or a strong national assembly in the case of Iraq is the key to the success of a compromise. If men and women—Islamists, secularists; Shi'i, Sunnis, and Kurds—can reach compromises, forge alliances, and have their battles in parliament, and have a parliament that is representative, a parliament that can check the government, a parliament that can respond to people's desires, that means that there would be some cooperation. That also means that the political process will gain legitimacy.
As far as influences from one country to another, if the political process is going to succeed in Iraq, it will resonate in countries outside Iraq. So a success that is led by Shi'ites in Iraq can also inspire Sunnis in other countries to push for constitutional reforms. This is the kind of cooperation, I guess, that you seem to suggest and that I am talking about.
QUESTIONER:I was asking, if you have Shi'ites successful in Iraq, will there always be a Shi'ite government in Iraq and will a Sunni party come to the lead in Iraq, which we haven't seen in this election? It was strictly a religious breakdown, along with the Kurds, of course.
YITZHAK NAKASH:What we have seen thus far, in the last three years, is that the major three groups in Iraq organize themselves along sectarian and ethnic lines. That's what we saw. Although in the short run sectarianism and ethnic politics obviously have a lot of drawbacks, in the long run—again, assuming they can cooperate and reach compromises—in the long run, Iraqis might be able to shift their allegiances from selecting rulers according to sectarian consideration and elect them according to professional qualifications. That is the point we want to reach, the ultimate result. It's not going to happen overnight, for sure.
QUESTION: First reports from Basraand the south of Iraq, where the Shi'ites basically predominate, suggest that they are introducing in those places the kind of religious practices that characterize Iran. A lot of the secular influences in Baghdad don't exist anymore, and Basra women have to go veiled. In addition, it appears that most of the police forces in Basra are controlled by Shi'ite militias. It appears, again, that what we have in Basra is, in fact, a theocracy. Is Basra an indication of what will happen throughout Iraq—at least the Arab Iraq—when a government that is basically controlled by the Shi'ites take control?
YITZHAK NAKASH:What will happen in Basra over time would be a result of a number of developments, including the future of Iraq, the nature of federalism in Iraq. If Iraq is going to have one state, is it going to be a loose federalism or a federalism where you have a strong government? If Iraq splits or disintegrates, I would say that in the south, which would have a kind of mini-Shi'i state, chances are that we will see a state that is more religious in nature than we would like to see, which is why it is in our interest, I think, to keep Iraq unified and have a very strong parliamentary system and a strong central government, so that it can have some influence over the Shi'i south.
Remember, the road from the U.S. invasion to a decent government that is more secular, along the lines that you seem to aspire to, is not going to happen overnight. As I mentioned in my talk, the religious groups are now the most organized, most politically viable groups, and you see it in Basra. But what we do have to aspire to is an Iraq that has a strong parliamentary system, an Iraq that forces the people from Basra to be part of the political game in Baghdad, where they would have to make compromises over the nature of the Iraqi state.
So it is very possible that Basra would be, for a period of time—possibly a very long period of time—more Islamic in nature than parts in central Iraq, not to mention the north, which might be much more secular in nature. But that's the reality, and it would be very, very difficult to fight this reality and change it. So we have to make the best out of that reality.
QUESTION:I would like for you to please explain to us, if you can, the differing sects among the Shi'a. Everybody speaks of them as though they are all alike. Yet you have, in your conversation here, described the fact that the Iranian Shi'a under Khomeini are very different from those Iraqis who are following Sistani in Iraq. Aren't there many different sects? This is like saying the Protestants are all the same, is it not?
YITZHAK NAKASH:Essentially, as I mentioned, Shi'ism has a main branch called the Twelver branch of Shi'ism. It is those Shi'is—by the way, the vast majority of Shi'is—who believe in the line of twelve imams.
But there are two things to remember. First, there are ethnic differences. You have Arab Shi'is. My book deals mainly with the Arab Shi'is. The Iranian Shi'ites are by and large Persians. So ethnically they are different.
The vast majority of Iranians and the vast majority of Arab Shi'is adhere to the Twelver branch of Shi'ism. However, over a period of almost thirteen centuries, we have seen a number of offshoots, groups that split, basically, from the main branch. The Alawis in Syria are a heterodox offshoot, and the Zaydis in Yemen. The Druzeare a heterodox sect. So you have here a number of examples. It's not monolithic. But by and large, the large majority of Shi'is adhere to the Twelver branch of Shi'ism.
QUESTION:Could you explain how the Kurds have been relatively successful staying out of the middle of the Sunni-Shi'a confrontation?
YITZHAK NAKASH:There are a number of reasons. One reason has to do with the nature and history, the political history, of modern Iraq. Iraq was created in 1921 by the British. The British basically created an artificial state that was ruled by a Sunni minority that held sway over a Shi'ite majority and over the Kurds up in the north. What the U.S. invasion did was to completely transform power relations between the Sunni minority and the Shi'ite majority. The first years since the invasion saw an attempt to give power to the Shi'ite majority. This is something that the Sunnis were not willing to accept.
In the eighty-two years that preceded the U.S. invasion, there was a struggle for power in Iraq between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, a struggle for defining the nature of the state and the meaning of nationalism, a struggle over the right to rule.
The Sunnis and the Kurds did not have this kind of struggle. The struggle between the Sunnis and the Kurds, the dispute between the Kurds and the Shi'ites and the Sunnis today, is over the question of how much autonomy the Kurds could have in Iraq and whether the Kurds can secede from Iraq. So it's a different ballgame altogether.
QUESTION:Professor Nakash, I wonder if you could comment for a moment on Iran, specifically the fact that you have a very strong hard-line president now who seems to be less and less in touch with the people of his country, at least from what one can gather from the Western press, and specifically with the youth—we hear figures that 50 percent are under twenty-five years old. What do you think is going to happen there over the short and the long term?
YITZHAK NAKASH:I think that you rightly observe that the hard-line clerical establishment is growing increasingly isolated.
We have to observe a certain development that is taking place in this region of the Persian Gulf. Iran is attempting to emerge as a regional power. It is attempting to emerge as a regional power at a time when the geopolitics of the Middle East are shifting, at a time when reformers are on the defensive, at a time when America is playing an increasingly assertive role in the Middle East, at a time of mounting tensions between Muslim and Western societies. The question is to what extent the international community would allow Iran to emerge and develop as a power.
It may very well be that the hard-line clerical establishment gave its blessing to someone like Ahmadinejad, who is far from being experienced in politics and who made some very, very unfortunate comments, including a denial of the Holocaust. It could be that the hard-line clerical establishment understood that there is going to be a very tough bargaining session between Iran and the international community over the question of the degree to which Iran would be allowed to emerge as a power, and understood also that there may be, down the line, some form of confrontation. So they wanted to have a tough guy at the front.
Now, is compromise possible with Iran? It is very possible, precisely because of what you said; precisely because of the fact that there are many, many young Iranians clamoring for change and reform. As part of a compromise—again, these things are not going to happen overnight—Iran would have to show that it is serious in cooperating with the United States on achieving stability in Iraq. There would have to be even a broader understanding regarding Iran's role in the entire Middle East. Iran would have to tone down its rhetoric on Israel, acknowledge the Holocaust as a historical fact, and accept Israel's right to exist in peace.
This is not going to happen overnight.
QUESTION: I want to thank you for the exposé you just made and to ask a question to follow up on what you said about Iraq needing a strong parliament. One of the results of the invasion of Iraq was that there is a new constitution that puts religion among the factors dividing the society and among the factors deciding who should be elected to the parliament. The results of the latest elections have proven that the United Iraqi Alliancehas won, with a vast majority, along with others, but it doesn't have the necessary majority to form the government alone. So there is a need for a coalition to be formed.
Upon the candidacy of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, there were objections. There are about 140 members of the parliament objecting to his nomination as prime minister of Iraq, basically because of his former coalitions and dealing with the Kurds and some of the behaviors of his ministers in the former government—the minister of the interior—and because of his strong relations to Iran.
That prompted some proposals from the United States and others to form some kind of ruling council. This ruling council is being discussed, and it is proposed to be composed of the president, the prime minister, the president of the parliament, and representatives of all the parliamentary blocs.
So we're back to square one. We are back to the fact that Iraq will have to be governed with a unified ruler, if that's going to be the model.
At the time, all parliamentary blocs recognized that the United Iraqi Alliance is the one that should have the prime minister. The dilemma now is that they do not agree on the prime minister, and the prime minister refuses to step down. The Alliance is stubborn enough not to nominate a new prime minister. This is going to lead, as you just said in the beginning, to some kind of civil strife and some kind of division of Iraq.
So I don't agree with the assumption that it is good to divide the population according to religion. It might be good to have some kind of defining lines of where the power lies, but it's not necessarily that all societies should be built along sectarian lines, particularly societies in the Arab world. Shi'ites and Sunnis have been there since the Ottoman Empireand have been cooperating and have been dealing with each other, as usual. So I don't see that we are now awakening the genie; we have already awakened the genie and brought it out of the bottle. For what? I don't really get the point.
I hope that in the next few months, things could be wrapped up. Otherwise, we are leading into a very serious time for Iraq.
YITZHAK NAKASH:There's nothing for me to say, other than I hear you and I agree with some of the things that you say.
QUESTION:Thank you for your presentation and much of the information you have shared with us. I would like to go to the issue of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in general, and particularly vis-à-vis the evolution of the Shi'a power base that you have been talking about in your presentation.
Isn't it true that most of U.S. foreign policy over the last fifty years has actually supported regimes that actively suppressed Shi'ite minorities in their countries?
In particular, U.S. foreign policy has not made a point of including transgressions against the Shi'a minorities in countries like Iraq, when they did include that on the agenda for minorities like the Kurds, in Iraq in particular. In Saudi Arabia, in fact, a total whitewashing of any policy on the Shi'ites has been a constant factor in U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. The mention of suppression never comes up. It's never an agenda item.
So what I would like to know is, when you talk about the issue of the United States somehow making a bridge to the Shi'ite representation in Iraq, shouldn't that be put first into the context of U.S. foreign policy in general over the last fifty years?
Second, what do you think about the fact that any kind of Shi'ite political presence right now in the region—in Iran, Iraq, or anywhere else—is rather defensive and reactive to the fact that they have been out of the limelight, that they have not been participating in the political power structures, they have not been allowed to do that? In countries like Iraq, where they constitute majorities, they have been actively marginalized, and this has been supported by the U.S. in the past in its foreign policy.
YITZHAK NAKASH:U.S. policy, obviously, in the period before the U.S. invasion, favored strong rulers, rulers that provided stability. Iraq is a different case from the case of Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, the Shi'ites are a minority, maybe 8 percent. In Iraq, you have 60 percent who are Shi'ites. In Bahrain, as I said, 70 percent of the native population are Shi'ites. These are different situations. You have Shi'ite minorities in Kuwait, in some of the other monarchies. In Lebanon, it's a different story altogether. It is a question of plurality there.
Yes, the United States supported rulers that, from the U.S. point of view, could provide stability, particularly in the Persian Gulf. I cannot tell you to what extent this policy will change today. I can tell you that, as a historian, the only observation I can offer you is that there are going to be very strong pressures on the ground on the United States to change its policy. It would be very, very difficult to stick to the old policies. That's what I can tell you. I cannot tell you what will happen.
Is Shi'i political behavior defensive? That's a very good observation. The case of Iraq is very illustrative of that, particularly after the initial euphoria of the fall of the Baath regime and the immediate outbreak of a very lethal insurgency that specifically targeted the Shi'a. That, I think, actually reinforced the defensive attitude of the Shi'a.
So there is this element here. There are a lot of psychological issues, to which you seem to be alluding. I agree with you.
Again, all these issues, all these possibilities—and we are just talking here about possibilities—if they are going to materialize, they are not going to materialize overnight. What you seem to be suggesting is that there would have to be some psychological developments, breakthroughs, among the Shi'a, and also in the way Sunnis view the Shi'a, as well as in the American attitude.
QUESTION:Let's focus on Iran for a moment. You have spoken about the restiveness of the youthful population and the pressures that they are bringing for change, and also the pressures that Europeans and the United States are bringing for change. But as I understand the political-religious establishment and institutions in that country, it seems to me almost impossible for them to change, unless they undergo some kind of religious reformation. What effect might that have on what is going on around them, if Iran is preoccupied with something as violent as the reformation within itself?
YITZHAK NAKASH:As I argue in the book, and as I alluded to in my talk, it is in Najaf in Iraq where Sistani and the senior clerics around him may lead a reformation that would offer an alternative to the system of government in Iran, which is why it is in our interest to create conditions that would allow the senior clerics in Iraq to be able to develop an alternative to the Iranian model.
You are right. The hard-line clerical establishment is controlling many of the power bases in the state. It will be very difficult for the reformers and for the students, on their own, to offer an alternative. The alternative would have to come from within Shi'ism.
QUESTION:When you talk about it being in our interest to create certain environments and certain trends in Iraq, I would like to ask you, how would we do that? What kind of power do we really have there to effect change? Is keeping our troops there exacerbating it or not? How many cards do we really have to deal with? What do you think our relationship should be to Iran? What is possible in all this?
YITZHAK NAKASH:I don't set policies. I'm not a military expert. I can tell you, though, that in my opinion as an observer, it would not be a wise move for the United States to leave Iraq before Iraq can stand on its own feet, because there would be repercussions beyond Iraq. That's my observation.
Beyond that, I can tell you that when I talk about creating conditions, it means providing security; it means allowing the political process to move forward. The fact of the matter is that the south of Iraq, which is the critical area from the point of view of a potential reformation, has been relatively quiet, not in turmoil as is the center.
When I talk about creating conditions, I am talking about a situation where the old seminaries in Najaf can prosper once again, where there is security, where money is transferred by followers from all over the Shi'i world to Najaf, where students come to Najaf to study with the leading people in Najaf, where there is essentially a revival of the curriculum in these madrassas,and where there are conditions for these people, students and clerics, to try to reconcile Islamic and Western concepts of government.
These are the conditions that the United States can help create. I put it to you that thus far in the last three years little was done in that direction. Whether the United States is capable of creating these conditions or not, I cannot tell you. The reality on the ground will tell us.
QUESTION: I am concerned about several things in connection with your focusing on Najaf as the center, and what is happening in what I see as a movement among the Shi'a in Iraq toward more conservatism and, in fact, away from the direction that we would like to see, ranging from the militia of Muqtada al-Sadrto the change in the role of women—just the dress code alone. I am not as optimistic. You keep talking about this not happening in the short term. I am wondering if we can expect to see a great deal more conservatism and a great deal more influence of Iran among the Shi'a in Iraq in the near term.
YITZHAK NAKASH:It depends on the degree to which the United States can provide security in Iraq and really create conditions that would put pressure on the militias to dissolve and create a national army. I think this is one line of the current policies, to try to force the militias to disarm. But the militias are not going to disarm if there are no conditions for security. If the Shi'ites are going to be continuously targeted by foreign jihadists or Sunni rebels, there would be no incentive for Shi'ites to disarm.
The emphasis on Najaf is precisely because of the line of thinking that is dominant among the senior clerics. And I emphasize, thesenior cleric. When you talk about the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr is hardly a cleric. He has a very minimal level of religious education. He appears humble in the company of Sistani. It was Sistani who restrained him, twice, and in fact, averted a big confrontation between the Shi'a and the United States. Again, I think that the emphasis should be on the senior clerics. They are the ones that hold the key to the possibility of a reformation. What the U.S. can do I mentioned: security, first and foremost. Allowing the political process to take shape is also crucial.
JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much for your presentation. In illuminating the historical dimensions of this struggle, one sees too clearly how religion becomes distorted. I thank you for being with us.