Schisms in Shi’ism

With sectarian violence flaring in the Middle East, it is tempting to view the Islamic world in terms of the Sunni-Shia schism.  However, there are conflicts within the Shia community itself, and on Thursday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a multipanel event to discuss them.  The first two panels focused on the struggle for legitimacy between the two competing theological centers in Iraq and Iran, and the third panel offered policy recommendations going forward.  Michael Rubin moderated.

Iraqi Shi’ites are not a monolithic community, said Abbas Khadim, noting that there are two competing schools, or hawza, within Shi’ite Islam: one in Najaf, and one in Qom.  Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani heads the hawza in Najaf, which acts as counterweight to the Iranian hawza in Qom. According to Khadim, Sistani told him personally that he wanted to curb Iranian influence in Iraq, adding that only political parties in Iraq are interested in patronizing Iran.

Najaf was the center of Shi’ite scholarship until the early twentieth century, declining with the establishment of modern Iraq in 1921. The rise of Qom coincided with the Iranian revolution, and for thirty years it commanded more influence that its rival. According to Toby Mathhiesen, however, the number of Shia worldwide who follow Khameini has declined to around 10%, while Sistani commands a much larger following.

In practice, the panel agreed, the Iranian republic is not a secure model. While Khomeini was able to exercise power in large part through the strength of charisma, Khamenei’s lackluster personality commands far less allegiance than his predecessor. The weakness of his administration was especially apparent in 2009, when thousands of Iranians ignored his orders to remain off the streets.

Sistani’s quietist brand of Islam, meanwhile, has played a moderating role in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. Following the bombing of Samara, for instance, his refusal to issue a call to arms to Iraq’s Shia population prevented a widening of the civil war. Even Saddam Hussein recognized Sistani as a counterweight to Iranian influence. During the 1980s, Saddam wanted him expelled, but ultimately decided that without Sistani, Iran would be able to leverage even more control within his country.

The speakers agreed that if Sunni governments allocated money for Shiite theological seminaries in their own countries, their Shia minorities would be less inclined to travel to Qom, thus curbing Iranian influence.  In fact, Iranian scholars would leave Iran to study in other countries, as many did after the fall of Saddam Hussein (including Khamenei’s grandson).

The third panel was asked to address the question, “should America have a Shia policy?” According to Robert Rook, the short answer is no. This is because the Shia are not a single, indistinguishable group, any more than the Sunni are.  Kenneth Pollack said that the US has a bad habit of neglecting human rights in the Middle East, most recently in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Lebanon, to name a few. Instead, America should champion the human rights we claim to espouse. By ignoring human rights abuses in Syria, he added, we have allowed the conflict to devolve into a sectarian crisis.

By focusing on the Sunni-Shia divide, we neglect the equally large gap between secular and extremist poles in Islam. The US should be backing moderates in all countries, and we should build viable opposition movements that will be able to contest extremism of all sorts. In 2007, Pollack noted, the US was able to successfully build an apolitical army. Walking away from Iraq and Syria feeds extremism. Maliki’s policies have been far more sectarian since the US left Iraq.

America has tried to ignore the Middle East for the last forty years, an approach that has failed us over and over again. Our long-term approach should be to combine diplomacy with use of force. In fact, Pollack said that the US should offer inducements (weapons systems, money or other) directly to governments in exchange for their cooperation. “We should straight up bribe” them, he suggested.

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