The world’s Shi’ite Muslims, traditionally second-class citizens in the Islamic world, may be having their day.
The strong performance by fighters of Lebanon’s radical Shi’ite Hezbollah movement in the five-week war with Israel is just the latest sign of a resurgence for the branch of Islam that has long been dominated militarily and economically by the more numerous Sunni Muslims.
But the Shi’ite revival also poses major problems for the Bush administration and for Sunni Arab-dominated regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while presenting a strategic opportunity for the world’s most-populous Shi’ite state — Iran.
Vali Nasr, Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a new book, “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future,” said the popular perception across the Islamic world of Hezbollah’s success was a blow to the Sunni regimes and could force even moderate Shi’ite leaders to take a more radical stance against Israel and U.S. interests.
“The Shi’ites can say, ‘We performed better than the Sunnis in standing up for our interests,’” he said. “Hezbollah defended little villages in southern Lebanon better than Saddam Hussein defended Baghdad.”
Even before the Lebanon clash, events across the Muslim world had inspired debate over a new “Shi’ite Crescent.”
Following U.S.-backed elections, Iraq’s Shi’ite majority dominates the government in Baghdad for the first time in a millennium, while Shi’ite militias battle largely Sunni insurgents for control of the country. Iran’s Shi’ite Islamic Republic has seen two regional rivals — the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam’s Sunni-dominated secular dictatorship in Iraq — crushed by U.S.-led military campaigns, while its Hezbollah ally is the strongest and best-armed force in Lebanon.
“Freed from the menace of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam in Iraq, Iran is riding the crest of the wave of Shi’ite revival,” according to Mr. Nasr, “aggressively pursuing nuclear power and demanding international recognition of its interests.”
Shi’ite Muslim communities in Sunni-dominated Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — which has a Shi’ite-majority population — have recently begun to demand greater rights and economic opportunity.
The world’s 120 million Shi’ites represent about 10 percent of Muslims worldwide, and are a majority of the population in just a handful of countries, including Iran (90 percent), Iraq (60 percent), Azerbaijan (75 percent) and Bahrain (75 percent).
Shi’ites make up an estimated 45 percent of Lebanon’s population, and are smaller but still significant minorities in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf states.
Shi’ite Muslims, with a religious tradition that did not focus on state power, have long complained of marginalization at the hands of Sunnis, even in countries such as Iraq, where Sunni Muslims were a minority.
Some of the most open fears of rising Shi’ite power, often linked to fears of a rising Iran, have come from the Arab world’s Sunni leaders.
In December 2004, Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned of rising Iranian influence on Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims, referring explicitly to a “Shi’ite crescent” stretching from Lebanon to Iran that could destabilize existing governments and challenge U.S. interests.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in April accused Shi’ite radicals such as Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah of putting religious ties — in particular, allegiance to Iran — above national interests.
“Shi’ites are mostly always loyal to Iran and not to the countries where they live,” he said.
But some regional commentators say such comments inflate the danger of a pan-regional Shi’ite alliance and reflect the Sunni leaders’ fears of Iran and of the impact events such as the Lebanese war could have on their populations at home.
“Clearly, throughout the Gulf and beyond, there is an effort on the part of Arab regimes to use this specter of a Shia crescent for their own purposes,” said Council on Foreign Relations Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook at a council symposium in June on the Shi’ite resurgence.
Islam scholars say the Shi’ite-Sunni clash is a complex mix of religion, politics and class issues, and that the schism has never been fixed or permanent in Islam’s 1,400-year history. But the sectarian fighting in Iraq and Hezbollah’s war in Lebanon have forced ordinary Muslims to choose sides.
“Even secular Sunnis and Shia, because they need to be protected in a place like Iraq, or they fear what might happen in Bahrain or eastern Saudi Arabia, tend to draw towards their own,” Mr. Cook said.
“I think that’s an unfortunate scenario that is playing itself out throughout the region.”