The Shia Revival

“The Art of Mismanaging War,” by Art Remillard

“Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Wise words indeed for anyone involved in the business of war. I often wonder, however, whether elected officials really “know the enemy” in the war on terrorism. Consider the following exchange between journalist Jeff Stein and Representative Silvestre Reyes, who at the time was the newly appointed Democratic chair of the Congressional Intelligence Committee.

“Al-Qa'eda is what—Sunni or Shia?” asked Stein. “Al-Qa'eda, they have both,” Reyes stumbled. He then speculated, “Predominantly—probably Shi'ite.”


“[Reyes] couldn’t have been more wrong,” Stein wrote. “Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.” Stein asked other elected officials similar questions. This produced similar results, leading the journalist to resolve, “Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.” Stein no doubt has a point. As Vali Nasr proposes in The Shia Revival, “The reality that will shape the future of the Middle East is not the debates over democracy or globalization that the Iraq war was supposed to have jump-started, but the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis that it precipitated. In time we will come to see this as a central legacy of the Iraq war.” Nasr’s book provides an excellent description of the differences separating Shias and Sunnis, past and present (here’s a quality review). For the religiously illiterate, he frequently parallels Islamic and Christian practices. For example, Nasr likens the Shia Ashoura ritual to Catholic Holy Week, showing the comparable emphasis on penance. For those teaching courses on this topic, Nasr’s interview on PBS’s “Foreign Exchange” may be useful. And NPR ran a multi-part series, “The Partisans of Ali: A History of Shia Faith and Politics.” I’ll be using both in the classroom—who knows, maybe one of my students will have the misfortune of serving in congress.


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