(Arabic version of this review)
As the world as we knew it continues to split asunder, you might consider it somewhat worthwhile to examine this book in a revisionist perspective and see how well it has held up, considering the stature of its author and his influence on several US administrations.
Nevertheless, while I have an overall negative view of this book; it should be noted that this being a book about current politics, it might not have been meant as timeless and should be properly understood only in the context of its times. The subject of its discourse, the rise of Shias and how we should come to terms with it as a positive development; has not bore its fruits fully yet – so such an inquiry might not be so anachronistic as we examine the region unfolding into a new epoch. Moreover, while I personally am responsible for some very biased and primitive analysis on the state of the world four years ago, I was just finding my feet, grappling with sectarianism, the fragile and rapidly unraveling identity of Iraq and coming to grips with the world, worse: I was once in a fictional band called Hambala for Ali’s sake; whereas this is a writer of considerable clout and thus should be held accountable for his theories more sternly.
I embarked upon reading this book with high expectations. I have seen its name propped up often on the Internet and it gets consistently high reviews everywhere I looked. Thus I was delighted to find it forgotten on a public library shelf and immediately decided to catch up with how the Western World comes to understand the Sunni-Shia conflict through books such as these and whether there are any new things to be learned from them, although I had the feeling it is meant to be consumed by Western laymen and the books I have already read are far superior.
The book is a relief on several parts, it is concise in its treatment and it dispenses with an often annoying trend to de-stress the importance and centrality of sectarian politics in the Middle East. I got some nice pointers about Khomeini, who Nasr understands as a bizarre incursion which introduced militant fundamentalism to the Shia faith; a complicated leader on whom my knowledge definitely needs more.
But this is where Revival was a major disappointment. While Nasr attempts to be true to the spirit of true academic scholarship, he ultimately fails to cast his depressingly predictable pro-Shia outlook to the Middle East in convincing neutrality. This is easily a biased book, and ultimately a bad one at that. Pains are taken to drive home the point of Sunni massacres and they are depicted in painstaking detail from India to Iraq; whereas Shia-on-Sunni violence are often inflected with such modifiers as “allegedly” in a presentation that assures the reader that they are reactions to a greater injustice, not inherent hostility logically derived from the faith itself.
Ultimately, Nasr’s treatise is weaved to advance the following agenda:
1. A core problem of The Middle East is to be understood as Sunni hegemony, the Shia community is closer to democracy than bone-headed, fundamentalist and violence-prone Sunnism, which does not know how to deal with problems except through violence which has always worked one way or the other. The emergence of Shia is a good thing. It is particularly good to the civilized Western world.
2. The anti-Western violent atrocities committed by Shia factions, such as Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, does not negate the fact that true honest-to-`Ali Shias are ultimately good; they are to be blamed on the eccentric Khomeini and his ideology, who for some inexplicable reason messed up the otherwise benign faith. In one statement, Nasr explicitly says Khomeini tried to “sunnify” Shiism, hence explaining the root of all Middle Eastern evil.
1. Through the holy institution of papacy, Shia are far more attached to the idea of dictatorship than Sunnis. (and divine dictatorship at that.)
2. The appeal of secularism to Shiism does not indicate belief in modern secular values at all, it is the same reason why Sunnis choose Allawi and the Iraqi Christians collectively praise Saddam Hussein.
3. Shias are a different religion all right, but they largely subscribe to the same mores of doing business as Sunnis; their relative reluctance to shed blood is largely due to their small numbers, given power they will act in the exact same way as their big bullies. The problem at core is tolerating different people, something we are all a long way from (and the Western world isn’t too special on this one either)
These points will be expanded upon and further detailed in upcoming posts (yes, I will try hard to post more.)
Of course, these sentiments are only expressed as undercurrents that are very assiduously concealed between layers of solid paragraphs, never being given front and center in the book but their contribution to the direction the book takes is very obvious. Perhaps Nasr did not dare to formulate them as a fully-fledged centerpiece because no matter how you spin it, there’s just no perfect Paradigm of Everything to explain the Middle East for you, these views are challenged when Nasr succumbs to the pressure of being an objective academic and is forced to mention Shia violence against Sunnis in southern Iraq (albeit as an afterthought.)
Amidst all the objective research and facts, which are steered by a respectable showmanship of academic scholarship, this agenda rears its head in wobbly, barely controlled and un-sourced exclamations (such as “the debate about democracy in the Shia communities is greater than anywhere else in the Middle East!” there is also a very emotional kneel-at-Persian-glory paragraph ) which greatly undermined my confidence in the parts of the book which I actually liked: early in the book, Nasr shows allusions (that are backed up by credible scholars and sources) that Shiism has Persian roots, and it should be viewed as a separate religion -two points of view I’ve long debated. On the superficial level of criticism, Nasr’s Persian roots show their influence more than he would have expected; hence this emphasis on Shiism’s Persian roots, my distaste was further enhanced with some questionable use of grammar and inexplicable spelling errors.
The Shia Revival is a good example of bad scholarship which pretends to cast a more objective view of the Middle East than “a region long viewed through an unfair Sunni prism” but ultimately does nothing to correct that ailment except by adding another misleading view: Shiism as the desperately-needed force of good, all it really does is pretty up the Shia through an academic setting and that is nowhere close to the reality. Other such works by misleading non-neutral academics and politicians of Shia backgrounds (who were all pro-war) such as Kanaan Makiyya and Fouad Ajami. For a better analysis of the same subject you can always read Yitzhak Naqqash’s Reaching for Power: Shia in the Modern Arab World.