Krista's Journal: Seeing Religious Conflict Through a Historical Lens

May 21, 2009

Vali Nasr is an esteemed, widely-quoted expert on international affairs and global Islamic culture, and I heard a lot about him when his book The Shia Revival was published in 2006. I knew he was a brilliant thinker, but seeing him in other places in the media — from CNN to The Daily Show — I wasn't sure he would be comfortable and fluent at the intersection I explore, where large ideas converge and respond to the human condition and religion as lived.

Then I met Vali Nasr at the Council on Foreign Relations this past summer. On a panel with other foreign policy experts, he was exclusively political. But afterwards, in a smaller group, he was a revelation. He spoke as both an expert and a human being. He brought original intellectual insight and personal experience to well-worn issues. He was born in Tehran, where his father was a preeminent Islamic scholar of pre-revolutionary Iran. Through all the tumult of recent years, he has maintained ongoing, rich interaction in parts of the world that dominate the issues of our day, but remain far from the experience of most — including Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East.

That day in an informal discussion in New York, Vali Nasr proposed, for example, that the U.S. might have treated Al Qaeda as Western governments treated European terrorist groups in the 1970s — as dangerous extremist cells to be strategically targeted, rather than as harbingers of a clash of civilizations, pursued in terms of counterterrorism instead of in terms of an amorphous global war on terror. He spoke about how business people in Iraq are steadily mounting the most effective resistance to militants like Muqtada al-Sadr — not in a way that dramatically makes headlines, but quietly in the course of ordinary life. Like business people everywhere, they cannot flourish in the midst of war.

Nasr also offered a new lens for comprehending the human dynamics of the Sunni-Shia divide — how it is, as he has written, at one and the same time "paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict." I've been impatient these last years as people have sought analogies for understanding the Sunni-Shia divide in terms of the Protestant-Catholic divide in Christianity. It is simply insufficient, at least in the context of the 21st-century North American melting pot or, for example, of secularized Western Europe. Vali Nasr helps me see, however, that the analogy is remarkably revealing in historical context. It is so easy to forget that even well into the American democratic experiment, Catholic churches were burned by Protestants, and Catholics excluded from teaching in public schools. Just a few years ago in Northern Ireland, Catholic-Protestant tensions were still marked routinely by violence. A few centuries ago — and remember, Islam is six centuries younger than Christianity — a Thirty Years War along Catholic-Protestant lines decimated the heart of Europe, including a third of the towns of Germany. Against that history, the violence in Iraq seems more familiar.
Echoing other conversations I've had across the years about the importance of an historical perspective, Vali Nasr regrets that Americans expect a young democracy like Iraq to fast forward to the diverse liberalism that took Western Christian cultures centuries, under the best of circumstances, to build.

I find Vali Nasr's perspective bracing and practically useful in the sense that it would plant a sense of our own accomplishments — and our expectations for others — on more solid, realistic ground. There is little point in bemoaning mistakes made as U.S. citizens and leaders responded to the events of September 11, 2001, and the insensitivities and short historical lens that have at times guided our approach. Nor can we change the unintended consequences of the Iraq War including, as Nasr very effectively describes, how the U.S. has facilitated Iran's growth as a regional power and changed the religious dynamics of the Middle East. Moving forward, we now have to reckon with these consequences — and standing on solidly informed, historically nuanced, and humanly realistic ground is necessary for all of our futures.

Recommended Reading

Image of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future
Author: Vali Nasr
Publisher: W. W. Norton (2006)
Binding: Hardcover, 287 pages

This intelligent book — written from a scholarly Shia vantage point — makes the religious and political fortunes of Shia Muslims in the Middle East accessible to Western readers.

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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.