Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History 
by Laurence Louër.
Princeton, 227 pp., £25, February, 978 0 691 18661 0
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Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East 
by Kim Ghattas.
Wildfire, 337 pp., £20, January, 978 1 4722 7109 9
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Of all​ the world’s trouble spots few are more susceptible than the Middle East to being seen in terms of binary oppositions. One particularly murky dichotomy is between Sunni and Shi’a, the one accounting for 90 per cent of the world’s Muslims, the other constituting the majority in Iran and a large minority in many parts of the Gulf. Analogies we may want to reach for – Protestant/Catholic, northerner/southerner, conservative/liberal – aren’t always helpful on such slippery terrain. It’s hard to explain, for example, why Saudi Arabia and Iran are now at loggerheads but were intermittently allied in the years leading up to the Iranian Revolution. Or the reason Iraqi Shi’ites didn’t defect in large numbers to the Iranian side during the war that raged between the countries for most of the 1980s; after all, Iranians are Shi’ites and their sectarian brothers were the oppressed minority in Saddam’s Iraq.

Many approaches have been attempted in the quest to get beyond the divisions exploited by headline writers: the circular history of Ibn Khaldun, with its patterns of dynastic rise and fall; the work of Orientalist critics of Islamic governance who explain ‘what went wrong’ on the path to modernisation; or the latest iteration of colonial and subaltern studies. Or we may instead decide to focus on individuals: people ‘just like us’, who shouldn’t be reduced to dichotomous types. But here, too, there is a risk of distortion. Focusing on similarities may suggest an abiding nature that trumps historical circumstance, while focusing on differences attributable to those circumstances jeopardises solidarity and common action. As we test every category and point of comparison, it’s easy to forget, in the words of Benjamin Cardozo, that analogies, ‘starting as devices to liberate thought … end often by enslaving it’.

Laurence Louër and Kim Ghattas follow different but not incompatible lines of exposition as they struggle to make sense of events in the region. Louër, a sociologist at Sciences Po in Paris, takes a straightforwardly academic approach, tracing the Sunni-Shi’a split historically and through half a dozen contemporary Muslim nations. She starts, predictably, with the period following the Prophet’s death in 632 ad when, in the absence of sons or a clear heir, two competing claims on the leadership arose: the Sunni branch through Muhammad’s companions and his son-in-law Uthman; the Shi’a through another son-in-law and cousin, Ali. After Ali was assassinated in 661 and his son Hussein was killed, a division within the division was established: which was the legitimate line of descent among the Shi’a followers of Ali?

This fragmentation of the community of believers made it possible for leadership claims to be advanced on grounds of ability rather than blood lineage, and produced many doctrinal variations and countervailing eddies in the contest for power. A number of rival factions emerged – among the Shi’a, Zaydis, Ismailis, Druze and Alawites; among the Sunni, four main schools of law and competing empires – with each group forming intermittent alliances and even winning ‘converts’ across the big divide. Interchange was constant: Mughals in India and beyond practised Sunni Islam suffused with Shi’a mysticism; in 1959 the head of the Sunni academy of al-Azhar in Egypt recognised Shi’ism as another school of Islamic law; when the pressures of dispossession grew too great the Sunnis of southern Iraq converted to Shi’ism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries reformers like Rashid Rida and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani encouraged thinking across denominational lines in the name of rationalism and independence. Even though Shi’as account for only 10 per cent of Muslims worldwide their concentration in particular areas has always led to significant cross-fertilisation – and potential conflict – with the Sunnis.

Both Louër and Ghattas see 1979 as a critical year for the region. Not only was it the year of the Iranian Revolution and the attack by opponents of the House of Saud on the great mosque at Mecca, it also saw the spread of a Sunni insurgency in Syria, the execution in Pakistan of the former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by his successor, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. In the wake of the Iranian Revolution, leaders from each sectarian group were pulled first in one direction and then another: the leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, a Sunni, at first embraced the Shi’ites’ revolution only to fall out with Ayatollah Khomeini soon afterwards; Iran supported the Shi’as of Hamas, but not the Shi’a regime of Syria’s Assad. In the decades since, as competition for regional influence and control of the oil markets has increased – pitting the Iranians and Saudis in particular against one another – the politicisation of confessional distinctions has grown ever more intense.

Louër moves quickly from historical events to the present, aware that contemporary justifications in the name of past principles often mask bare-knuckle struggles for power. She points out that the Saudis have made concessions to the Shi’a minority in the country’s oil-rich east, where both groups have lived peacefully side by side through ‘a series of reasonable compromises with Wahhabi norms’. But such moments of accommodation are rarely lasting: Shi’a in the province recently demonstrated against Sunni domination, and Louër’s book was published just before 37 men (33 of them Shi’a) were beheaded for alleged acts against state security. Elsewhere, in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran, hopes of reconciliation between sectarian groups appear to be fading.

In her final remarks, Louër argues that all these states ‘exhibit a high degree of pragmatism’, but exactly what that means is unclear. In the context of repressive and arbitrary measures against sectarian dissenters, isn’t the opposite often equally true? She also makes the intriguing assertion that Sunni and Shi’a can be said to have engaged in ‘mimetic rivalry’ throughout their history, with imitation more prominent than differentiation. If today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s partner, one side never wants to destroy the other entirely. Or perhaps, in a world of premonitory chaos, where it is said that ‘God placed contention between buyer and seller,’ knowing your opponents affords the greatest protection.

Kim Ghattas’s book shows, however, that similarity can be as dangerous as difference. Discussing the involvement of the Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, she notes that his ‘ways were also the ways of the Islamic Republic, hunting down its dissidents everywhere, imprisoning and torturing women, instilling fear in its neighbours’. Ghattas, a Lebanese-born reporter for the BBC and the Financial Times, also presents a series of more admirable individuals, such as the Iranian scientist and revolutionary Mostafa Chamran, who lived in Lebanon for a number of years among a Shi’a community ‘in harmony with their Sunni and Christian neighbours’, until those powerful factions started radicalising sectarian differences for political gain. There is Mohsen Sazegara, who accompanied Khomeini on his triumphal return to Iran from exile in 1979 and, like many others, optimistically thought the ayatollah’s more autocratic propensities could be channelled and restrained. There is Sami Angawi, a young Saudi architect, who tried to persuade the authorities not to destroy the ancient buildings surrounding the holy sites only to see militant radicals attack Mecca’s great mosque, to the lasting shock of the regime. And there is Mehtab Channa, who in 1976 left a functioning democracy in Pakistan to study for a master’s degree in the US, only to return several years later to a dictatorship. In these narratives, the lives of Muslim thinkers are intertwined with their nations’ trajectories, as the lines of division harden and the extremes squeeze out the middle.

In the course of her analysis, Ghattas adds support to themes that appear in Louër’s work: the frequent alliance of Iran and Saudi Arabia; the absurdities of the Wahhabi purists who banned table football because it involves the use of statuettes, and tinted contact lenses because they suggest feminine wiles; and growing polarisation generally – in Pakistan, half the respondents in one poll said that Shi’a aren’t even Muslims. But they fail to mention some important facts. For example, while precise numbers are unavailable, in the years leading up to the American invasion as many as 40 per cent of marriages in Iraq were between Sunnis and Shi’a; the children of these marriages were called ‘sushis’. Since neither writer has much to say about the daily lives of ordinary people, we get little sense of the ways in which people have behaved despite the strictures of those in power.

Ghattas doesn’t blame the intellectuals she cites, but her account has the unintended effect of portraying them as the losers. Although many have had laudable ideals and the courage to stand by them, none has been able to change society in any meaningful way. This may explain why she pays no attention to the Arab Spring. Time, after all, has proved the general futility of the uprisings that began in 2011 – the only success story is Tunisia. Had she considered the course of those events, Ghattas would have had to face the disappointment felt by so many in the region. Whatever else is true of the Arab Spring – that it was not a ‘Facebook revolution’, that it lacked organisation and leadership – the end result was a retreat to the familiar.

Ghattas puts her faith in a younger generation. Two-thirds of the region’s population are under 30; and half of those under 15. They have good reason to wish for change. The age at which couples can afford to marry has risen to the mid-twenties for women and early thirties for men. At least 27 per cent of young people are unemployed and many more are underemployed. But these figures and the popular frustration or fury they imply have barely changed in decades. When Ghattas castigates the parental generation for its failures she is unable to offer the younger generation more than vague expressions of hope – soothing to her, but not much use to them.

The real source of hope may lie in those dichotomies, like Sunni and Shi’a, that can seem at once dangerous and trivial. It is said that in Arabic every word signifies both a thing and its opposite. So the word for ‘throne’ can also mean a ‘bier’, the word for ‘right’ can mean ‘duty’, the word for ‘family’ can mean ‘to shackle or fascinate’ and the word for ‘child’ shares the same root as ‘to sponge, to arrive uninvited, to be a sycophant or parasite’. Binary contrasts can tell us much about broader orientations: ask most Arabs what they think the opposite of ‘tyranny’ is and they will say not ‘freedom’ but ‘chaos’. Muslims believe in the power of words, and control of language is an essential prerequisite for proving legitimacy. To be a leader is to be a man ‘of word’. And those who can turn the binaries to their own ends may be able to marshal the alliances needed to establish power.

But more is required in order to bring about change than the power play of Louër’s politicians or the struggle of Ghattas’s intellectuals to define the terms of the situation. The Arab Spring proved that without leadership the cry of ‘enough’ (kafiya) is not enough, and the Syrian rebellion showed that only losers bring a knife to a gunfight. Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan has said that ‘Arabs live by metaphors,’ whether it is the Quranic vision of life as ‘a sport and a game’ or the world as populated by ‘stones that fall down for fear of Allah’. Indeed, it may be the fate of both Sunni and Shi’a, as Mahmoud Darwish has said of the Israelis and Palestinians, ‘to live and dwell in the same metaphor’, where a mere shift can seem like a genuine change, or a move on the board can seem like an expression of free choice.

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