Randy's Corner Deli Library

25 November 2008

Lost in Translation: What Proust taught me about being Jewish

Lost in Translation

What Proust taught me about being Jewish

By Liel Leibovitz

'Marcel Proust on His Deathbed' by Man Ray
The first time I saw Marcel Proust, I fell madly in love with him. He had just died, and was therefore unable to stop Man Ray, a recent arrival to Paris, from sneaking into his cork-lined bedroom and snapping a photograph. In it, Proust’s eyes are sunken, his hair long and black, his alabaster face as thin as a child’s. He looks as though by writing In Search of Lost Time he was finally able to rid himself of any trace of corporeality, translating himself from flesh to fiction.

I bought a postcard reproduction of that picture in a used book store in my native Tel Aviv in 1991. I was 15, and while most of my friends spent their afternoons working out in anticipation of our pending conscription to the Israel Defense Forces, I spent most of mine staring at my photo of Proust. This, I thought, was how a writer, a real writer, looked. I had to read him.

But In Search of Lost Time was not yet available in Hebrew, and would not be until a year later. So I struggled to read it in French, and was soon so entirely consumed by it that I glided through my own life, disinterested and detached, caring only about Proust’s universe, looking desperately for traces of his charming French countryside town in my modern Mediterranean metropolis.

With an adolescent fervor generally associated with indie-rock bands or budding romances, I wanted to share Proust with my friends. But few of them could read French. In a moment of hubris that amazes me still, I decided to attempt a translation.

That my linguistic credentials were sorely lacking—a few years’ worth of weekly afternoon sessions at the home of Madame Lily, the French tutor my mother had hired, and a small personal library of French books that, until I discovered Proust, consisted largely of a series about Mon Ami Chocolat, an affable little brown lamb—bothered me not at all. Translation, I strongly believed, was about more than the ability to rewrite the same sentences in a different language. It was about transformation.

The now sadly forgotten German writer Rudolf Pannwitz put it best. “Our translations, even the best ones,” he lamented back in the 1930s, “proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English.” In other words, a great translation depended less on accurately conveying the information contained in the original work and more on faithfully capturing its spirit or its essence.

As I began my project, my confidence plummeted. Proust’s French, I realized, was a language as intricate and delicate as lace, whereas my Hebrew, the Hebrew of late-20th-century Israel, was as rough and durable as denim. Proust’s was the language of hints and implications, of page-long paragraphs describing slumber or a song; mine was the language of biblical commandments and military commands, of thou-shalt-nots and of drop-down-and-give-me-twenties.

The challenge ahead, I decided, required a strict regimen, much like the one that enabled Proust to produce his towering novel. I decided to emulate my hero: like Marcel in his cork-lined room, I spent most of my free time sequestered in mine, perched over a desk that I had cleaned of everything save for a copy of the novel, stacks of legal pads, my favorite fountain pen—translating Proust with a Bic seemed somehow blasphemous—and that photograph, in a cheap wooden frame, my memento mori. Let others train their bodies; I was training my mind.

The first sentence of Within a Budding Grove, the novel’s second volume, offers a good sense of what I was up against. I quote it here in translation, of course, from the excellent—definitive! essential! irreplaceable!—version produced by C.K. Scott Moncrieff in the 1920s, revised six decades later by Terence Killmartin, and then again by D.J. Enright (that three men were needed to produce the quintessential English edition speaks volumes):
My mother, when it was a question of our having M. de Norpois to dinner for the first time, having expressed her regret that Professor Cottard was away from home and that she herself had quite ceased to see anything of Swann, since either of these might have helped to entertain the ex-ambassador, my father replied that so eminent a guest, so distinguished a man of science as Cottard could never be out of place at a dinner-table, but that Swann, with his ostentation, his habit of crying aloud from the house-tops the name of everyone he knew, however slightly, was a vulgar show-off whom the Marquis de Norpois would be sure to dismiss as—to use his own epithet—a “pestilent” fellow.
It’s a classic example of the absolute clause, that most Proustian of fashions, an elegant and elusive animal that, lying motionless, tempts you to come near it and, when you finally do, leaps and runs in the other direction. The reader, of course, plunges into the sentence fully expecting the narrator’s mother to be the subject, when it is in fact the father, emerging midway through the sentence, to whom we should be paying attention. (André Aciman elegantly expands on this subject here1.) Such is the beauty of Proust’s language, and such is the source of frustration for the many readers who found his structures too flummoxing.

And flummoxing they are, particularly for anyone aspiring to translate Proust into Hebrew. Hebrew, with its economical logic, with its three-consonant roots serving as the blunt building blocks of all language, with its tightly packed words each containing multitudes of meanings, Hebrew has little room for ornament. Like so many of the people who nowadays speak it, it is direct, impatient, eager to get to the point. Not for it are sentences like the one above, which take 123 words to make a simple point.

photo of Marcel Proust
The same, of course, was true of the novel’s content. As I declined more and more of my friends’ invitations, mumbling that, for their benefit, I had to finish translating some 3,200 pages of a novel most of them had never heard of, they became concerned. They asked me what the book was about. The best answer, Gerard Gentte’s, is four words long: “Marcel becomes a writer.” But my friends wanted more, and so I told them of princesses and marquises and madeleines and mothers and the other, delicate subject matters that pop up everywhere in the novel. As could be expected, they scoffed: Hebrew literature, the sinewy Israeli strand of which was virtually all we’d ever read, was about matters of life and death, hatred and heroism, solace and sacrifice. Its heroes, like Alik, the protagonist of Moshe Shamir’s novel Bemo Yadav (“By His Own Hands”), were mythical men born of the sea, not, like Proust’s narrator, effete boys who vacationed in seaside resorts. Gradually, my friends informed me, some less politely than others, that they had no interest spending any time with what sounded like a fey, French, and antiquated novel. They were, for the most part, enthusiastic readers, but they demanded that the fiction they read relate to their own lives, that it address matters—the Arab-Israeli conflict, say, or the Holocaust—they found pertinent, that it evoke the smells and the sights and the sensations familiar to them. Even today, it is almost impossible to get a decent madeleine in Tel Aviv.

Months went by. Legal pads were filled with notes and questions about words I did not understand or sentence constructions that baffled me or cultural references that had me at a loss. I made little progress, completing, at the very most, two dozen pages of translation, and finding my work too inadequate to share with another living soul. Other interests and commitments beckoned. Slowly, I began to realize that my project was doomed.

Despite the preposterousness of my task, my failure was searing. For years, I found myself often thinking of Proust, and of the question of translation, and of what kept me from producing a serviceable Hebrew version of the book—my youth and shaky French notwithstanding.

And then it hit me. I was—how wildly appropriate—in Paris, now a 24-year-old ex-soldier who had left Israel behind for a life of voluntary exile, and I was spending money I didn’t really have at Mariage Frères, the legendary teahouse that almost certainly supplied the tisane into which Proust dunked his famous pastry. I was, of course, reading Proust.

What I failed to see as an aspiring translator, lost in the thicket of dangling particles and walled in by absolute clauses, was that while Proust’s French differed from my Hebrew and his Paris from my Tel Aviv, at the core we both shared a fundamentally Jewish worldview, an ancient mindset that argued that the only way to truly understand the world was to make the seemingly simple complex.

Walter Benjamin understood this all too well. “Is it not the quintessence of experience,” he asked in his essay on Proust, “to find out how very difficult it is to learn many things which apparently could be told in very few words?”

There are, in my opinion, few statements that capture quite so eloquently what it means to be Jewish. Isn’t the Talmud, after all, one long riff on how difficult it is to comprehend that which could’ve been much more pithily said? For generations, Jewish scholars have been toiling to make the straightforward complicated, understanding that only such complications can redeem us from the facile illusion of clarity and deliver us a more nuanced, more in-depth, and therefore more true, insight into life. As the Talmudists knew, only when we produce pages of commentary for every word in the scriptures can we truly get at their meaning; as Proust realized, only when we write at great length and intricacy can we truly get a closer look at the machinations of life.

This, I believe, is very much our Jewish heritage, as well as our key literary mission. Let the Hemingways punch out their short, declarative sentences. For us, a nation of priests, literature—and life—is about the beauty of complication, the grace of difficulty, the savagery of truth.

It is unlikely that I will ever refashion Proust into Hebrew, especially given the terrific existing translation by Helit Yeshurun. But while I remain a poor translator, I’ve become, I hope, a more astute reader, one who can embrace density and find in it small morsels of meaning. That alone is enough for me. As a certain French author once said, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Liel Leibovitz is a writer currently living in New York. His second book, Lili Marlene: The Soldiers' Song of World War II, is being published this month by W.W. Norton. He also writes Nextbook's "Blessed Week Ever"2 column.

Marcel Proust on His Deathbed: Man Ray. Copyright Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris. Marcel Proust in 1900: Boris Lipnitzki.

Copyright 2003-2008, Nextbook, Inc.

24 November 2008

Five Convicted in Terrorism Financing Trial

Published: November 24, 2008

DALLAS — On their second try, federal prosecutors won sweeping convictions Monday against five leaders of a Muslim charity in a retrial of the largest terrorism-financing case in the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Skip to next paragraph
Jim Mahoney/The Dallas Morning News, via Associated Press

Relatives outside the courthouse in Dallas.

The five defendants, all leaders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, based in Richardson, a Dallas suburb, were convicted on all 108 criminal counts against them, including support of terrorism, money laundering and tax fraud. The group was accused of funneling millions of dollars to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, an Islamist organization the government declared to be a terrorist group in 1995.

The defendants argued that the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Muslim charity in the United States, was engaged in legitimate humanitarian aid for community welfare programs and Palestinian orphans.

The jury, which deliberated for eight days, reached a starkly different result than the jury in the first trial, which ended in a mistrial on most charges in October 2007, after nearly two months of testimony and 19 days of deliberations.

The government shuttered the Holy Land Foundation in December 2001 and seized its assets, a move President Bush heralded at the time as “another step in the war on terrorism.”

The charity’s leaders — Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu-Baker, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh and Mohammad El-Mezain — were not accused in the 2004 indictment of directly financing suicide bombings or terrorist violence. Instead, they were indicted on charges of illegally contributing to Hamas after the United States designated it a terrorist group.

The defendants could be sentenced to 15 years on each count of supporting a terrorist group, and 20 years on each count of money laundering. Leaders of the foundation, which is now defunct, might also have to forfeit millions of dollars.

Khalil Meek, a longtime spokesman for the Muslim community in North Texas and for a coalition of Holy Land Foundation supporters called Hungry for Justice, which includes national Muslim and civil rights groups, said supporters were “devastated” by the verdict.

“We respect the jury’s decision, but we disagree and we think the defendants are completely innocent,” Mr. Meek said. “For the last two years we’ve watched this trial unfold, and we have yet to see any evidence of a criminal act introduced to a jury. This jury found that humanitarian aid is a crime.”

He added, “We intend to appeal the verdict, and we remain convinced that we will win.”

The prosecutor, Barry Jonas, told jurors in closing arguments last week that they should not be deceived by the foundation’s cover of humanitarian work, describing the charities it financed as terrorist recruitment centers that were part of a “womb to the tomb” cycle.

After the mistrial last year, critics said the government had offered a weak, complicated case and had failed to recognize that juries were not as quick to convict Muslim defendants accused of supporting terrorism as they had once been. Prosecutors spent more time in the second trial explaining the complexities of the case and painting a clearer picture of the money trail. They also dropped many of the original charges.

“Today’s verdicts are important milestones in America’s efforts against financiers of terrorism,” Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement. “For many years, the Holy Land Foundation used the guise of charity to raise and funnel millions of dollars to the infrastructure of the Hamas terror organization. This prosecution demonstrates our resolve to ensure that humanitarian relief efforts are not used as a mechanism to disguise and enable support for terrorist groups.”

Nancy Hollander, a lawyer from Albuquerque who represented Mr. Abu-Baker, said the defendants would appeal based on a number of issues, including the anonymous testimony of an expert, which she said was a first.

“Our clients were not even allowed to review their own statements because they were classified — statements that they made over the course of many years that the government wiretapped,” Ms. Hollander said. “They were not allowed to go back and review them. There were statements from alleged co-conspirators that included handwritten notes. Nobody knew who wrote them; nobody knew when they were written. There are a plethora of issues.”

Noor Elashi, a 23-year-old writer who is the daughter of Ghassan Elashi, said she was “heartbroken” that jurors had accepted what she called the fear-mongering of the prosecution.

“I am utterly shocked at this outcome,” Ms. Elashi said. “This is a truly low point for the United States of America.”

She said supporters of the group would not rest until the verdict was overturned.

“My dad is a law-abiding citizen who was persecuted for his humanitarian work in Palestine and his political beliefs,” Ms. Elashi said. “Today I did not shed a single tear. My dad’s smile was radiant. That’s because he saved lives, and now he’s paying the price.”

According to freedomtogive .com, a Web site that calls itself the voice of the defendants’ relatives and friends, the foundation “simply provided food, clothes, shelter, medical supplies and education to the suffering people in Palestine and other countries.”

23 November 2008

22 November 2008

Daniel Levy On Obama, Netanyahu and the Settlements

« The Art of the Lift, New York Times Division | Main | Obama: Distressingly Pro-Israel? »

Daniel Levy On Obama, Netanyahu and the Settlements

17 Nov 2008 09:56 am

Daniel Levy, the director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation (which is run by a blogger, it should be noted) and the director of the Prospects for Peace initiative at the Century Foundation, is one of the smartest analysts of the Middle East conflict in Washington, or anywhere else. He often veers too left for my taste (on only one occasion, I believe, I veered too left for his taste), but he's a rigorous thinker and is steeped in the painful and complicated details of the ongoing crisis. Levy, who keeps his own blog, of course, has been a player in negotiations through the 1990s, and brings real-world experience -- and real Israeli experience -- to the conversation. As we enter the Obama era, it seemed worthwhile to send Levy some questions:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Are you a Zionist?

Daniel Levy: The answer is a yes, albeit a more complex yes than I'd like it to be. I would describe myself as a Zionist on at least three levels. First, and at the most practical level, having made aliyah to Israel from the U.K., taken up citizenship, and made my life there, my Zionism meets the more classical and exclusionary definitions. Second, I do consider the Jews to be a people, and support that people's right to self-determination in a nation-state, Israel. Finally, and in many ways derived from both of the above, I consider Israel to be central to my own Jewishness and my identity--more than a religious affiliation, it's a national and cultural affiliation to modern Israel, the language, to Tel Aviv, etc.

Where it gets complex is this--sixty years after the establishment of the state, and alongside all its accomplishments, the onus is now on Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism, to demonstrate in practice that it can be non-expansionist in territorial terms toward its neighbors, and that it can confer genuine equality on the non-Jewish citizens of the state. Most troubling of course is that for more than two-thirds of its existence, Israel has imposed a hostile occupation on another people, the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and to be blunt, that occupation will have to end for Israel to survive. To the extent to which a Zionist narrative has been used to drive forward and justify the post-'67 settlement enterprise (and the discrimination within Israel), it is a Zionism that actually works against the interests of Israel, and not, of course, the Zionism that I am signing up for.

JG: You write about the occupation in a way that suggests you believe it was Israel's fault from the outset. Whose fault do you believe it is? Put another way, do you think the Khartoum declaration of late 1967--the so-called three noes--set the stage for the tragedy that followed, or is it not relevant?

DL: The Khartoum noes represent a more complex issue than is often assumed. The setting is, of course, after the '67 war, with Israel in control of vast swaths of Egyptian and Syrian territory, as well as the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Israel expresses a readiness to talk peace and understandably interprets the three noes of Khartoum as, well, being a negative answer. But historians suggest it wasn't that simple. See this long quote below from pages 258-259 of Avi Shlaim's book The Iron Wall:

"Israel's leaders watched with keen anticipation to see what conclusions the Arab leaders would draw from their military defeat. The conference ended with the adoption of the famous three noes of Khartoum: no recognition, no negotiation, and no peace with Israel. On the face of it these declarations showed no sign of readiness for compromise, and this is how Israel interpreted them. In fact, the conference was a victory for the Arab moderates who argued for trying to obtain the withdrawal of Israeli forces by political rather than military means. Arab spokesmen interpreted the Khartoum declarations to mean no formal peace treaty, but not a rejection of a state of peace; no direct negotiations, but not a refusal to talk through third parties; and no de jure recognition of Israel, but acceptance of its existence as a state. President Nasser and King Hussein set the tone at the summit and made it clear subsequently that they were prepared to go much further than ever before toward a settlement with Israel. At Khartoum, Nasser and Hussein reached a genuine understanding and formed a united front against the hard-liners...The Khartoum summit thus marked a real turning point in Nasser's attitude to Israel. At Khartoum, Nasser advised, and indeed urged, King Hussein to explore the possibility of a peaceful settlement with Israel. This was, of course, not known in Israel at the time. As far as Israel was concerned, the Khartoum declarations closed every door and every window that might lead to a peace settlement. On October 17 the cabinet took a decision that amounted to an official cancellation of the decision of 19 June."
The famous three noes are explained as being an opening position and that Jordanian King Hussein actually had something of a mandate from Nasser's Egypt to begin exploratory talks with Israel. We know those took place. We also now know that Egypt itself was putting out peace feelers prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the end, of course, that Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was reached, but only after another needless war--something that might unfortunately be repeated with Syria now.

But here's the bigger picture: the UN in 1947 in UNGAR 181 calls for a division of mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state according to a territorial ratio of approximately 55 percent to 45 percent. After the War of Independence, Israel is in control of not 55, but 78 percent of the land, and builds its state in that area. After the '67 war, Israel controls 100 percent. I would argue that Israel's big achievement today is that we have reached a situation where the Arab world is saying yes to the 1949-67 division of 78:22--not the 1947 plan, but also not one centimeter more than the '67 lines. Some may argue that if Israel already got a yes to 78 percent, we can surely get it to 80 percent, or 85 percent, or even more--I think that is neither realistic nor desirable, and in attempting to achieve it, we are liable to commit national suicide.

So my bottom line is that Israel needs to take yes for an answer, which means ending the occupation. And let's face it, the fact that the occupation is so entrenched, especially the civilian settlements and their supportive infrastructure--none of that can be considered a sensible or legitimate response even to the traditional interpretation of the Khartoum noes. Does it justify Palestinian violence? No. Is the post-'67 settlement enterprise a huge mistake for the Zionist project and an albatross around the neck of Israel? Absolutely yes.
We can argue about the history, but the imperative today is to seize the opportunity to entrench the '67 borders, a two-state reality, and to end the occupation (with agreed, minor, and mutual land swaps involving the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but respecting the 78:22 principle).

JG: Man, you know nothing turns me on more than long quotations from Avi Shlaim. There's an unbiased observer for you. Anyway, next question: Who's to blame today? Or put another way, why is the process so locked-down right now: Israeli political paralysis, Palestinian religious extremism, the continued presence of settlements in the West Bank, American disinterest, all of the above?

DL: In answer to your latest delightful question, I'm not too keen on playing the blame game. I could agree to all of the reasons you gave and add lots more. But I think we need to get beyond who is to blame and to think constructively and creatively about how to get out of this mess. The situation is not good. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians benefit, and while scoring points can always be fun, it doesn't get us very far. In fact, I would even say that blame is secondary to a bigger problem which is that we are locked into a process that is increasingly incapable of delivering--and we need to recognize that.

I would suggest that there are two basic design faults to what we call the peace process, whether that be Oslo or Annapolis or everything in between. One, the two parties have gone about as far as they're going to go to finding solutions in bilateral negotiations. What is left to do--the final points of closure on core issues--is obviously the hardest bit, and I don't think the parties can do that alone, especially not with the current leaderships one both sides. There is almost a perverse incentive at work to postpone hard decisions and to negotiate indefinitely--that is the path of least resistance in terms of domestic politics for Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Two, the Palestinians are expected to successfully build their own economy, security forces and institutions of governance while in a pre-state condition of pervasive foreign (Israel) occupation that includes an expanding civilian settler population--that needs to be protected by the IDF. The idea is that the Palestinians prove themselves and then Israel makes progress--it has not and cannot work that way.

So both sides are struck. The process suffers from the laws of diminishing returns as we keep trying this failed and flawed method and it does no favors to Israel as it creates circumstances in which we are unable to extract ourselves from a predicament which severely damages our interests. I would suggest that what we need now is effective external intervention to break this impasse, and realistically this would have to be U.S.-led.

JG: Okay, external intervention is needed. What, exactly, does President Obama do? How does he get the Israelis to remove settlements? How does he strengthen the PA and marginalize Gaza?

DL: To an extent, it does depend on what kind of an Israeli government an Obama presidency is working with. If the Israeli leadership at the time is not clear in its willingness to remove settlements, withdraw on the West Bank, and implement a two-state solution, then I would recommend not investing in a peace process just for appearances' sake. Such a process would, after all, not succeed, further undermining both hope and credibility, and the last thing we need is another failed process. Under such circumstances--and most people will assume that this is the scenario of a Netanyahu premiership (although I'd at least test the proposition that Netanyahu can be a pragmatist after all)--I would suggest that the Obama administration makes its explicit declarative intention as being to keep the two-state option alive and viable. That means focusing on preventing new settlements, outposts, and settlement-expansion (and also on allowing the Palestinians to reconstitute a reformed PLO and Palestinian national movement). A singular American focus on settlements--and that can be lots of talking and monitoring and upbraiding, it doesn't have to be linking aid--can have a fascinating, liberating, and even decisive impact on the internal Israeli debate about settlements. The Obamaites could also ask Bill Clinton a thing or two about handling Netanyahu, as he played no minor role in Netanyahu's first term as PM being cut short to barely 30 months.
On the other hand, if one is dealing with an Israeli government that has identified an Israeli national interest and even Israel's survival with a West Bank withdrawal, two-state solution, and settlement removal--as is the case with the outgoing Olmert government and with Prime Ministerial candidate Tzipi Livni, then I'd suggest a different tack. The key in this scenario would be for the U.S. to come up with creative ways for addressing the legitimate Israeli concerns regarding what happens in the territories from which Israel withdraws--how does one guarantee a predictability of especially security, but also of governance outcomes once Israel and the IDF is no longer there. So it's about providing compelling, attractive, and even enticing answers to the questions that postpone the needed Israeli withdrawal.

I say creative because the current way to answer that question is all about building Palestinian capacity without changing the basic circumstances. And I am convinced that cannot work. The alternative package that the U.S. would have to take a lead in putting together would lean heavily on an international role for a period of time in the newly de-occupied Palestinian state--with a particular focus on guaranteeing security-related issues. Yes, I am talking about an international force, but only once there's an agreed border and as a post-occupation partial replacement for the IDF--and the U.S. would not be the main provider of troops (numbers anyway are not large).

That's the kind of plan the new administration should be thinking about, while in addition, American diplomatic engagement would also almost certainly be needed to finalize an Israeli-Palestinian agreement (American proposals and hard work to carry the sides across the finishing line), and additional incentives, both bilateral and international as appropriate, for both parties--including in the security arena, costs of relocating settlers, and Palestinian refugee compensation.
As for the PA, Gaza, etc., virtually everything we have done so far in supposedly strengthening the moderates and intervening on behalf of one side has been either counter-productive or ineffective. One can't marginalize Gaza --it's part of the two-state solution. And we're most certainly going to have to bring Hamas inside the tent to make this work. I think that's doable and the first imperative for the U.S. is to leave the Palestinians to do their own internal politics, and to reconstitute their own reformed national movement. I'm not suggesting U.S. mediation, but the removal of what amounts to a U.S. veto on Palestinian national reconciliation. Our basic demand from a newly unified Palestinian national leadership should be: no use of terror and agreement on an authorized interlocutor for U.S.-mediated peace talks with Israel.

None of this will be easy, including the internal Palestinian stuff. The Egyptians are working on that right now, but the prospects are not good, although they would be improved if the U.S. sent signals that they approve of these talks, and if other actors, such as the Saudis, were encouraged to support these mediation efforts.

That's enough for now. There is of course much more to say on what needs to be done on the regional level, and of how to use the Arab Peace Initiative as a central ingredient for peace making and as an incentive for Israel. But let's save that for later.

JG: Over the next four years, what are the chances that we'll see another Arab-Israeli war, in either Lebanon, Gaza or the West Bank?

DL: Unfortunately, the chances of another war are not insignificant, although there is no inevitability to there being further war and if we act smart this outcome can be avoided. However, if one looks at the trajectory of hostility to Israel, instability in the region, and misguided Israeli policies, then that makes for a worrying trend line.

Hezbollah, of course, maintains its own militia in Lebanon and that would be the focus of any future Israeli-Lebanon clash--as it was two years ago. I would argue that the smartest move Israel could make regarding Lebanon would be to remove those excuses (or reasons) that Hezbollah uses to justify its maintenance of an independent armed capacity that actually resonate inside Lebanese politics.
What would that mean? Israel could hand over the Shebaa Farms (which are of no value and which Israel has no intention of keeping anyway), could start ending IDF over flights of Lebanon, and could allow the Lebanese armed forces to equip itself as a more serious national army (although not with offensive capacities that would threaten Israel). These measures would create a situation whereby Hezbollah would be faced with a dilemma, as its justifications for its current military posture would be removed. Hezbollah would then have to rely on external explanations (such as the Palestinian cause), or risk being seen as explicitly serving an Iranian, not Lebanese, agenda. Such moves by Israel would actually limit Hezbollah's room for maneuver, and I would suggest that they would make future clashes less likely. Of course, Hezbollah and the state machinery of Lebanon may become indistinguishable--Hezbollah is already part of the government and could assume a more leading role. But in most ways that only complicates their decision-making further when it comes to entering conflict with Israel. Bottom line: there are things Israel, the U.S., and the international community can be doing to help stabilize Lebanon, to limit Hezbollah's choices, and to make confrontation less likely.
On the Palestinian front, there is ongoing, if often low-intensity, conflicts. If anything the default position is still the war footing. The current ceasefire is testimony to that--a secession of hostilities of limited duration.

Absent a resolution to the basic conflicts, new rounds of violence, whether more or less intense, can be expected to break out. Netanyahu's suggestion for economic peace is of course a joke and will certainly not prevent this violence. But as I discussed earlier, the Annapolis model is also not working and that too will collapse into violence (and expect some of the Palestinian security forces to be involved in the violence) if its failings are not corrected. The most important preventive action to be taken in this regard would be to remove the casus belli and to end the 1967 occupation with the kind of provisions and in the fashion that I described above.
Of course, that does not mean there will be no threat to Israel's security, or that everyone will be happy, but: 1, this is a precondition without which further conflict is pretty much guaranteed; and 2, it offers the most promising sustainable security environment for Israel and places Israel in a far stronger position to deal with future threats (defending Israel from an agreed upon border, no settlers to protect, increased regional and international legitimacy, basic neutralizing of Palestinian grievance narrative, etc.).

In addition, there are other threat scenarios--Syria may not wait forever for a peace deal, neither Egyptian nor Jordanian stability are guaranteed, and Iranian bellicose rhetoric continues--but Israel is in a far better position to manage all of these if we can get beyond our current occupation predicament with the Palestinians, and if we can do that then I think Israel will have an answer for any of these uncertainties. I believe we can get it right; I'm just deeply worried that we won't.

The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam

The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam

We seek fresh insight into the history and the human and religious dynamics of Islam's Sunni-Shia divide. Our guest says that it is not so different from dynamics in periods of Western Christian history. But he says that by bringing the majority Shia to power in Iraq, the U.S. has changed the religions dynamics of the Middle East.

About the Image

Al-Askari, a major Shia mosque in Iraq, was bombed in 2006. Iraqis are rebuilding its signature golden dome, which has become a symbol of Iraqi reconciliation.

(photo: Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)

Transcript of Radio Program

November 20, 2008

Krista Tippett, host: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, we seek fresh insight into the history and the human and religious dynamics of Islam's Sunni-Shia divide. My guest, Vali Nasr, says that it is not so different from dynamics in periods of Western Christian history. But he says that by bringing the majority Shia to power in Iraq, the U.S. has changed the religious dynamics of the Middle East.

Mr. Vali Nasr: Iraq provided a model for all of the Shia community — a transfer of power, getting more than what you have is actually possible. Now, I mean, obviously things in Iraq haven't happened in a rosy fashion, but I still think that Iraq is an extremely powerful example. It's the first Shia state in the Middle East. So there's no way that it would not have a sort of jolting impact on the region.

Ms. Tippett: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Sectarian violence appears as the greatest stumbling block perhaps to the creation of civil society in Iraq and a responsible U.S. withdrawal. This hour, we'll seek to get behind the nature and consequences of Islam's Sunni-Shia divide with fresh insight. We'll do so with Vali Nasr, who brings erudition and ancient Shia lineage and a long view of religion and politics. He suggests helpful analogies between current conflicts among different Muslims and conflicts that have marked periods of Western Christian history. And he offers a bracing perspective on the unfolding long-term consequences of U.S. military action in Iraq. How, for example, the U.S. has helped empower Iran and realign the religious dynamics of the entire Middle East.

From American Public Media this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

Today, "The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam."

The Sunni-Shia split has its roots in disagreements over authority after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. These disagreements about the nature of an ideal Muslim leader eventually created two distinct and dominant sects of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims globally, around 90 percent, are Sunni. Shia Muslims correspondingly are minority members of most predominantly Muslim countries. But in Iraq and Iran that dynamic is reversed. Sixty percent of Iraqis and 90 percent of Iranians are Shia. Still, these kinds of facts and figures don't really help modern observers understand sectarian violence among Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq or the implications of an ascendant Iran among its Sunni neighbors.

My guest, Vali Nasr, is Iranian-American, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University, and a fellow on Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. As Vali Nasr analyzes global Islamic culture, he considers the roots and consequences of other religio-political events in history from the violence that surrounded the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979. That event intimately shaped Vali Nasr's life. When he was a child, his father, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, was a preeminent Islamic scholar of pre-revolutionary Iran.

Mr. Nasr: I was born in Tehran. I lived in Iran until I was about 15, after which I went to school in England, although I visited Iran periodically while in England. And then the Iranian revolution happened in 1979. I was right at the time of going to university. My family left. We were exiles of the revolution in a sort of Dr. Zhivago-esque escape from Iraq.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Your father was an important Islamic philosopher and thinker in pre-revolutionary Iran and is still an important philosopher and thinker, now based in the United States. And you, like he, you're not just Shia but of notable lineage. You are descended from the imams, right, and carry the title Seyyed.

Mr. Nasr: That's correct. Among the Shia's lineage from Prophet Mohammed matters more because it means that you trace your line to the Shia imams, to the Shia's saints, whom the Shia venerate greatly and view to have been the legitimate heirs to the Prophet. You do have people in the Sunni world also who claim descent from the Prophet, for instance, most notably the king's of Morocco and Jordan.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: But in the Sunni world, it's not given quite the same importance as it has in the Shia world.

Ms. Tippett: And, I mean, as you say, you've spent now over half your life outside Iran or, you know, you've traveled a great deal there and in other parts of the world. But I just wonder, I mean, you were born in 1960, same year I was born, and I spent some of my 20s in divided Europe, which is — kind of, all those dynamics have vanished. I wonder if it has surprised you and been kind of personally dramatic that just in these last years, this part of the world and this tradition that's so much a part of your identity has come into the forefront of world affairs.

Mr. Nasr: Yes, it has. I mean, the Middle East has been a source of concern for the United States for many years, particularly at least since the Iranian revolution. And the issue of Islam first came to the fore for the American public and decision makers at that time. And since then, it's just never gone down, and the U.S. keeps coming back to the problems of the Muslim world and problems of the Middle East. And I think periodically we lay the blame on Islam. We lay the blame on dictators. We lay the blame on all sorts of things, and we also come up with all kinds of solutions, everything from promoting democracy to promoting war to promoting dictatorship to promoting Islamic reformation, hoping there'll be a Martin Luther.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: But at the end of the day, we're still at a loss. And as a result, it always comes up with this idea that somehow it can fast-track Islam from what it is into some idyllic secular moderate reformed position that then would solve all of these other problems.

Ms. Tippett: So it has seemed to me in hindsight as I've thought this these last years that — and you write about this a lot — this is an incredibly cathartic moment internally for Islam and it's an important moment that's going to go on for generations. And other traditions have had these moments. You know, the Christian Reformation took hundreds of years resolving itself.

Mr. Nasr: And it wasn't a liberal process.

Ms. Tippett: No.

Mr. Nasr: Much of the liberal democratic capitalist consequences of Protestantism were really unintended consequences.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right, right.

Mr. Nasr: It's not as if Martin Luther or Calvin actually set out to create modernity as we know it.

Ms. Tippett: No.

Mr. Nasr: In fact, Calvin's Geneva was a horrible place.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Mr. Nasr: In many ways it's much more like the Taliban state that we so fear.

Ms. Tippett: Yes. A theocracy.

Mr. Nasr: A theocracy of the worst kind.

Ms. Tippett: And, you know, I think that this Protestant/Catholic analogy is excellent, although in American culture where these divisions are not so sharp or people are not as steeped in the tradition of their childhood and not aware of it, I mean, I think it really works if people can think back 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

Mr. Nasr: Well, even when I was a student in the United States, I remember the previous Pope, John Paul II, came to the United States. And for the first time, he went to the South. I don't remember where. And I remember watching on television, the streets were deserted. Nobody came out to greet him. And there was this person standing on a sidewalk with a placard in his hand which said, "Antichrist Go Home."

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: And therefore, you know, things don't matter enough here for people to be killing one another but many, many years ago when Boston was dominated by Protestant English establishment and you gradually had an influx of Irish Catholics who came to Boston, you had a very clear sense of a difference, that the Catholic Church belonged to the Irish and belonged to the poor and the Protestant churches represented the Anglo-Saxon establishment in the city. Now, the differences were not so much theological as they reflected the fundamental identity division in Boston.

Ms. Tippett: Socio-economic and ethnic.

Mr. Nasr: It's socio-economic. If we go to Northern Ireland today, you know, IRA fighters may go to church, may not go to church. I don't think they're really concerned with liturgy and what the Vatican says.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: Catholicism is not faith; it's who they are. It defines what side of the tracks they were born.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: You know, who they are, what share of the wealth they get. And you have that in the Muslim world as well. I mean, in Lebanon or Iraq or in Pakistan, the Shia-Sunni difference is not necessarily theological. It is who you are. So the Shia in Pakistan are like the Catholic Irish of Boston.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: Or in Iraq, they were like the Catholic Irish of Boston. They were not the 'in' crowd. They were the 'out' crowd. And then above this, you obviously have the theological difference and the major difference is the following: that the Shias believed that when the Prophet Mohammed died that his legitimate successors were his son-in-law and cousin Ali who's buried in the shrine in Najaf and that God had willed that the charisma of the Prophet would run through his bloodline, and his bloodline would be the legitimate leaders of the community. So you could only have true Islamic leadership if the family of the Prophet ruled.

The Sunnis, who became the majority and whose writ ultimately carried, believed that the most suitable of the companions of the Prophet would be chosen by the early Muslim community, and he would be the leader. And from that disagreement over succession, over the years the two faiths evolved very differently.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: They have a different historical experience, and the two communities developed a very different ethos of Islam and they practice the faith differently.

Ms. Tippett: Vali Nasr

(Sound bite of chanting)

Ms. Tippett: This is the sound of a religious ritual in Tehran commemorating the Muslim holiday of Ashura, when Shia Muslims honor the martyrdom of Hussein. Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and is a key figure in Shia history and identity. Led by a popular Iranian singer, Mahmoud Karimi, this audience of Shia men is chanting about beloved members of the Prophet's family while rhythmically striking their chests.

(Sound bite of chanting/singing)

Ms. Tippett: Watch a video of this ceremony at speakingoffaith.org.

Ms. Tippett: There's a very different piety. For example, Shia Islam has a much more hierarchical — I mean, a very different development of authority.

Mr. Nasr: : We have a very different development of authority because the Shia are like minority Catholic communities of Eastern Europe or minority Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. These kinds of minority communities tend to gravitate around their religious leaders. Whereas in the Sunni world, it was the sultans and the caliphs who really carried political authority and protected the community. The clerics were dependent on them. So the Shia religious establishment is much closer to the Vatican, whereas the Sunni religious establishment is much more like the Protestant pastors and clerics. They more are functionaries rather than carrying a sort of political charisma. And the Shias, at the popular level, believe in visitation of shrines. They believe in saint worship. They believe that saints can be intermediaries between man and God.

I would say a Shia would approach the shrine of Karbala or Najaf in the same way that a Catholic would approach the Lourdes in France or the Fatima in Portugal or the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. They believe that shrines of their saints are places of grace, places where prayers would be responded to.

But even nowadays in the Muslim world it's very typical. Everybody in the Muslim world wants to deny that this sectarianism exists. And they say, 'No, no. Shias and Sunnis agree over 90 percent of Islam.' But how to interpret that 90 percent is quite different. The Shias and Sunnis both accept the Qur'an and follow the Qur'an. But if you put two pages of the Qur'an next to each other, the Shia and Sunni commentary on it is vastly different. The Shias have their own school of law, and after all, Islam is a religion of law. And ultimately you're not a Muslim by faith; you're always Muslim by practice.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: And therefore the differences between Shia law and Sunni law means that on an everyday basis, you follow a different set of practices that defines you on an everyday basis as to who you are.

Ms. Tippett: That's something that's been important to me to understand and also to sometimes communicate to others, that Islam is really not a faith of — you can't even talk about it in terms of what you believe the way Christians talk about what they believe, that it is about daily-lived piety.

Mr. Nasr: You know, look at it this way. It's very easy to become a Muslim. All you have to say is that, "Ilaha illa Allah, Mohammadan rasul-Allah." "There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet." That's all it takes for you to …

Ms. Tippett: That's the confession.

Mr. Nasr: … convert to Islam. But then the rest is practice. And Islam in that sense is much more like Judaism, where it is not an orthodoxy, as is the case with Christianity, it's really an orthopraxy. It's about proper practice, not proper belief. That's not what defines a Muslim.

Ms. Tippett: Iranian-American political scientist Vali Nasr. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we're seeking to better understand the nature and consequences of the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam.

I'm drawing Vali Nasr out on the insights he's gained through many years following the complex geo-politics between the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. He's had a special focus in recent years on Iraq, Iran, and what he calls a "current Shia revival."

The modern state of Iraq was carved out by British colonial authorities after World War I, and they intentionally excluded the majority Shia from power. Gertrude Bell, one of the British administrators primarily responsible for this, had a long and deep association with the Sunni Arab world and she viewed Shia clerics with suspicion. She wrote once in a letter, "I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis in spite of their numerical inferiority. Otherwise," she wrote, "you will have a theocratic state which is the very devil."

Again, Vali Nasr.

Mr. Nasr: It's become a common refrain these days to say, well, you know, under Saddam, there were Shias in government and there were Shia-Sunni intermarriages and Shias did well in Iraq. Yes. But a good Shia in Saddam's Iraq, in Sunni Iraq, was a Shia who didn't act as Shia, didn't claim to be Shia, didn't demand Shia things. And Shia's could go up only so far. And still over the years, things got worse and worse for Shias.

So when the United States arrived in Iraq in 2003, it essentially shattered the Iraqi state, which was an apparatus that was simultaneously sectarian in its nature but also was preventing sectarianism from spreading into the streets.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: With no authority there and with Washington being completely ill-prepared for this, you had this sort of — the violence came out. In other words, Iraq went from a forced disequilibrium, from a political system that did not reflect its numbers and was forcibly keeping a situation in place, it has to go to an equilibrium. But the period in between inevitably ended up being extremely violent and maybe unnecessarily violent because of absence of preparation for it. So Iraq went from being a Sunni-dominated minority country, sometimes brutal, sometimes not, now to a country that's actually being ruled by its majority. And we went to Iraq not thinking at all that this may well happen. And that's exactly the problem, that we went in thinking democracy. We went in thinking extremism versus moderation. We thought about everything other than the fact that the single most important consequences of our intervention would be to force Iraq to go through that transition from minority rule to majority rule. And that has always been an extremely disruptive and messy and violent process whenever it's happened in the world, and Iraq was not going to be an exception.

Ms. Tippett: And perhaps especially dramatic and difficult when the minority-majority divide falls along lines of religious identity.

Mr. Nasr: Yes. And I think in the case of Iraq it's more important because it also elicited the response from everybody else, not only in the neighborhood around Iraq, but also the larger Muslim world. For people in Indonesia or Nigeria, this was a shock because they don't have Shias there. And that this kind of a schism existed and that it could be so violent was something new. When I wrote my book on the Shia revival, I would travel to these kinds of places farther from the Middle East and often I heard this, that, 'We really didn't understand that this existed.'

Ms. Tippett: Really. Or that it mattered in that way, or that it could matter in that way.

Mr. Nasr: And even, I mean, I've heard this from Indonesians, from Malaysians, that 'We didn't even know what Shiaism is.'

Ms. Tippett: Really?

Mr. Nasr: 'We're as clueless as Westerners were.' This was some distant thing. And then closer to around Iraq in the Arab world and in Iran where you do have a historical legacy of Shia-Sunni coexistence as well as conflict, and you have the same kind of minority-majority divisions in many countries, Iraq very quickly became much bigger than Iraq. It became a much broader regional dynamic. I mean, it's not a coincidence that even the sectarian war in Iraq had not even begun when the King of Jordan began talking about a Shia crescent.

Ms. Tippett: So let's talk about what you call the Shia revival and some of this larger dynamic. Now, I mean, would you say that that began with the Iranian revolution?

Mr. Nasr: Yes, it did. But it never went anywhere, first of all, because the Iranian revolution never proclaimed itself to be a Shia revolution.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: But once they took over power in Iran, Khomeini, he never fashioned himself to Saudis, to Pakistanis, to Indonesians, Malaysians, Nigerians, as a Shia leader. He always wanted to be recognized as an Islamic leader.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: So he never openly advocated the cause of the Shia. Secondly, he was Iranian and the revolution was Iranian and that always immunized the Arab world from the influence that Khomeini could have. And thirdly, that the Arab world found a way, whether through Saddam's war against Iran or through propaganda, to contain Khomeini's influence. So the Arab world learned revolution from Khomeini but would not accept Khomeini as their leader.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: But Iraq was different because you did not have an Islamic revolution in Iraq. You had a Shia community openly saying that as Shias they now claimed power. They very clearly were not trying to wage a larger Islamic cause or Islamic movement. They basically wanted a transfer of power from a minority community to the majority community. Now in that sense I think Iraq was more important than Iran because there are many other Arab communities which have the problem of Iraq, namely, Lebanese Shias believe that they are far larger in numbers than Sunnis or Maronites, but the power and the parliament or the representation in the Cabinet is far less than that. And therefore, Iraq provided a model for all of the Shia communities that — you know, transfer of power, getting more than what you have, is actually possible.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: They were not talking this sort of lofty goals that Khomeini put forward, an ideal Islamic government and world revolution, et cetera. This was something much simpler: that governments can change, power can be transferred, and that created an expectation of better days and better things to come for the Shias and a sense of anxiety and fear among Sunnis. Now, I mean, obviously things in Iraq haven't happened in a rosy fashion. I think there's been some rude awakening because of the violence in Iraq, but I still think that Iraq is an extremely powerful example. It's the first Shia state in the Middle East. So there's no way that it would not have a sort of jolting impact on the region.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: Some of what Vali Nasr knows so well can be challenging to visualize. To help put images to his ideas, we've taken information from a 2006 article he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine and we present it as a map on our Web site. And on our staff blog, SOF Observed, I've written about my first meeting with Vali Nasr at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the lucid analogies he used in that meeting with policy makers also found their way into my full interview with him for this program. Download the MP3 of that unedited conversation, read my blog entry, and see these political dynamics illustrated at speakingoffaith.org.

(Sound bite of music)


Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett.

Today, we're seeking to understand the nature and the practical geo-political importance of the Sunni-Shia divide in Islam. My guest, Vali Nasr, is a leading policy expert on Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East and is himself Iranian-American of ancient Shia lineage. He's been describing how U.S. policies, in Iraq in particular, have led to a new chapter in Islamic history — more important, he believes, than Iran's Islamic revolution of 1979. In fact, Vali Nasr says, U.S.-led action in Iraq has established Iran as a regional power in a way that Ayatollah Khomeini never did, and that is changing political dynamics across the Muslim Middle East and beyond it. Here's a reading from Vali Nasr's 2006 book, The Shia Revival.

Reader: The Shia-Sunni conflict is at once a struggle for the soul of Islam, a great war of competing theologies and conceptions of sacred history, and a manifestation of the kind of tribal wars of ethnicities and identities, so seemingly archaic at times, yet so surprisingly vital, with which humanity has become wearily familiar. Faith and identity converge in this conflict, and their combined power goes a long way toward explaining why, despite the periods of coexistence, the struggle has lasted so long and retains such urgency and significance. Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today's concerns with power, subjugation, freedom, and equality — not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues. It is, paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict.

For the quarter century between the Iranian revolution in 1979 and September 11, 2001, the United States saw the Middle East far too often through the eyes of the authoritarian Sunni elites in Islamabad, Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh, who were America's major local allies. The new Middle East, coming fitfully into being — its birth pangs punctuated by car bombs, but also by peaceful protest and elections — is defined in equal part by the identity of Shias, whose cultural ties and relations of faith, political alliances, and commercial links cut across the divide between Arab and non-Arab.

Ms. Tippett: Again, Vali Nasr.

Mr. Nasr: Not only the Arab governments were not enthusiastic about a democratic Iraq, but they very well understood that tinkering with Iraq's government would bring the Shias to power and Shias will be more friendly to Iran than Saddam ever was.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: And the Iranians also understood that any kind of a shift in regime in Iraq would bring their friends to power in Iraq, and Iraq would be more friendly to Iran than it ever was under Saddam. It seems like everybody knew this other than the United States. So what we did is that when we went into Iraq, as I mentioned, the most fundamental consequence of our intervention in Iraq was to change the balance of power between the Shias and Sunnis.

Ms. Tippett: Globally, you mean. Really. I mean, not just regionally but globally.

Mr. Nasr: Well, first within Iraq.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: But that immediately decided how the rest of the region was going to array against Iraq.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.

Mr. Nasr: And react to it. So in a way, it's like putting a bowl in water. It's impossible that it won't come out wet. There was no way of intervening in Iraq without making sectarianism a focal point of Iraqi politics and then by extension Middle East politics and, as you mentioned, globally. And we really have not been able to rise above that until now. I mean, very recently the King of Jordan is the first Arab head of state to visit Iraq. That's about five years after the U.S. invasion. Iranian leaders have been visiting Iraq almost day go. It's very clear as to the fact that the Arab world has viewed what's happened in Iraq with far more trepidation and worry than Iran has.

Ms. Tippett: So you talk about the dominant political values of the old Middle East. And I think that what you're referring to there is the Middle East that we in the West think we know. That that is connected with Arab identity, with Arab nationalism, and that's another way of describing how events in Iraq and their ramifications for Iran are completely shifting that map of the world around.

Mr. Nasr: Yes, absolutely. In other words, the Iraq war had a consequence of, I think, shifting a lot of power and a lot of importance away from the Arab world towards non-Arab actors. I mean, this also includes Turkey, which has become a far more important player in Middle East politics because of Iraq.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Mr. Nasr: We gave birth in Iraq. The United States was the midwife to the emergence of another non-Arab political entity, which is the Kurdish part of northern Iraq, which potentially can become an independent state as well.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: The Kurds are the fourth most important population group in the Middle East, the one which until now had no political representation in the form of a state or a territory. Now it has. And then also the Iraq war empowered Iran, not just because the Shias took over Iran, but also because the Iraqi army fell apart …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: … because Iran found a real foothold in southern Iraq. Iran went from being threatened by Iraq for over five decades to now essentially running the show in Iraq by and large. And also a lot of the U.S. attention now shifted to containing Iran. So it's very clear that Iran has become far more important than it was in 2003, that the Kurds have now become a big player in the Middle East, and that the Turks have become an important player in the Middle East. So division of the Middle East essentially being the Arab world with sort of Iran and Turkey, et cetera, being irrelevant and that all we needed to do was to manage the Arab world. And to manage the Arab world, all you need to do is to be involved in the Palestinian issue, and to subsidize no longer will give us everything we want. It will give us only part of what we want.

Ms. Tippett: So I want to get back to the religious dynamic a bit. And I think it has been easy for some people in this last decade to look at what's happening in the world and say that the religious dynamics and religious entities that are embedded in these different alliances and conflicts make everything worse. That religion has become the problem, that religion is the problem of the 21st century like, I don't know, ideology was the problem of the 20th century. I wonder how you think about that, how you respond to that idea as a Muslim.

Mr. Nasr: Well, you know, at one level I think it's a simplistic view of looking at the Muslim world because it's true that the text, and by this I mean religious ideas, values, piety, matter a lot to the Muslim world and maybe they shouldn't and maybe that's not a good approach. But text only matters and is interpreted in a context. And we're not going to get the Muslim world right unless we understand the relationship of the text to the context in the Muslim world.

At another level we could say, you know, religion is resurgent not just in the Muslim world but also in the United States.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Mr. Nasr: Also in Israel. Also in India. In fact, if we really looked at it, Europe alone is a secular world.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: And we could say that the issue is not the rise of religion in the Muslim world but that we have a crisis of secularism, of the post-Enlightenment assumptions about secularism everywhere. That increasingly, populations are turning to religious values and are bringing religious values into the public sphere. They are challenging the constitutional boundaries that had guaranteed secular societies' survival, even in the United States, on a continuous basis. Now the U.S. Constitution may be stronger to resist such encroachments. The Turkish Constitution or the Indian Constitution or the Tunisian Constitution, what you have, may be far weaker. But if you look at it at that level, then the Muslim world is not as unique. It is really Europe that is now unique.

Ms. Tippett: That's right.

Mr. Nasr: And we have to really ask not why Islam is ascendant, not what is wrong with Muslims, but what is wrong with secularism. Why is secularism sick? Why is it waning? Particularly in the most advanced country in the world, the United States. Why is secularism under siege?

Ms. Tippett: Iranian-American political scientist Vali Nasr.

I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, "The Sunni-Shia Divide and the Future of Islam."

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: I asked Vali Nasr whether in his wide travels and discussions across the world he's encountering reconciliatory figures amidst the Sunni-Shia tension at the heart of what he calls "a struggle for the soul of Islam."

Mr. Nasr: I think it's too soon. You know, part of the problem is that, when based on European history, you have a vision of what ought to happen, you try to sort of look for immediate results.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Nasr: And that, as I said, has always been our problem with the Middle East. We want long historical processes to be fast-tracked. The reality is that the Middle East is not a static picture. It's not a still picture. It is a movie. It comprises of a series of pictures that are unfolding. At any one time we look at it, we don't see the whole movie because we look at only a snapshot of that moving picture. So we may not find an identifiable character maybe for another 10 years, or there may not be a major conference of the kind that brought resolution in Christianity for another 10 years. But that doesn't mean that there is not sort of intellectual fermentation happening in people's minds and in some circles. But it might not be immediately discernible. After all, we're not that far away from the epicenter of the conflict …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: … which is 2003 Iraq.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: In historical terms, that's not a very long time and Iraq hasn't even finished. Will the Iraqis manage actually to produce a model for the Muslims to build on or will they return to civil war and prove to us that this will be decided by blood and guns rather than talking? I think how Iraq finishes is going to be very important in terms of deciding how the Middle East deals with this.

Ms. Tippett: So back in 2003, I spoke with someone named Ahmed al-Rahim. He's at Harvard and he's Iraqi-American. He'd been brought over by that early coalition provisional authority and was advising on the educational system. I mean, he's a secular Muslim but he said to me, 'Why aren't the Americans starting Muslim chambers of commerce? Don't they remember that back in the early American republic — and in fact, into the 20th century — the fundaments of civil society, even in the United States, often started with religious organizations, even things like the YMCA and the Rotary Club?'

Mr. Nasr: I think he's correct.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Nasr: I think he's correct. I think there's a peculiar thing, is that we have a very good system of government, but whenever we go abroad we promote and implement the French one, the French system of government.

Ms. Tippett: Right. The secular, yeah.

Mr. Nasr: There is no reason why when we defeated the Taliban, we didn't opt for an American federal system that would've given a lot more autonomy to various regions of Afghanistan, which would've been a far more workable solution. And why did we insist on creating a centralized French model of government in Afghanistan …

Ms. Tippett: That's interesting.

Mr. Nasr: … that is now falling apart?

Ms. Tippett: Now, I think I heard you when we met in New York a few weeks ago — weren't you talking about the middle classes in Iraq and how the commercial business people, how they in fact have to be and might be a force in countering extremism?

Mr. Nasr: Well, the evidence of it is in the south. In other words, where does Muqtada al-Sadr have his base of support? It's in the slum areas of Basra or Baghdad. He has no support among the shopkeepers in the shrine cities in Najaf and Karbala, who are essentially businessmen

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: Who want piety, who want Shia power. But they also know that you only can do business and make money if there is peace and security, and they have no support or tolerance for him. And it's very clear that people support stability and security if it serves their interests. I mean, we again often in the West forget that Muslims, like all people, are interest maximizers. It's very clear. You look at Algeria. You look at Tunisia. You look at Egypt. You look at Iraq. There's no part of the Muslim world that I've gone to where the merchant class supports violence, breakdown, and insecurity. So therefore, they're behaving the same way as any entrepreneurial merchant business class would behave, which is to serve their own interest. Faith is faith but business is business. And just like the Rockefellers found, or the early American capitalists found how to create bridges between capitalism and faith, so will the Muslim capitalists.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: And find ways of being both pious and also supporting the kind of piety that also serves their business interest.

Ms. Tippett: Vali Nasr.

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Ms. Tippett: I think one of the frustrations of recent years has been how powerless people have felt as things in Iraq have spiraled out of control. And there's a sense of culpability and yet not any idea of what kind of contribution one might make. So what we're talking about, and one of the phrases you use is this battle for the soul of Islam. What would you want to say about how it might matter or why it might matter that people are informed or engaged? How would you want to talk to people about their response to these issues and the world we're moving into? It's a big question.

Mr. Nasr: It's a very good point. I mean, first of all, is that Islam is a 14th-century civilization. It's a very complex civilization. It's as complex as Christianity or Chinese civilization. It has 1.3 billion followers. I mean, the idea that Americans can decide the outcome of a battle for the soul of Islam or there actually will be a nice, neat, and desirous outcome in the short run is rather simplistic. I think the very first thing we have to do is to disabuse ourselves of this.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: We're dealing with a world civilization and world civilizations move on glacial pace in unpredictable ways and there is no single event or single thing we can do to alter the outcome. I mean, obviously we went into Iraq under the false pretense that this is the key to changing the whole soul of Islam and the direction the Muslim world is going.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: It actually seems like Iraq has done more to change the direction that the United States is going than the United States changing the direction the Muslim world is going. These debates about where the Muslim world goes, how is it going to resolve, is going to continue beyond Iraq. And I think one of the issues which is very key in the next few years is to separate individual problems that we have to solve — the nuclear issue with Iran, the Arab-Israeli issue, the Iraq war — from somehow assuming that we can decide the outcome of a civilizational change within Islam itself.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Nasr: And I think the more the United States has sort of realistic expectations of what it can do and what is happening, the less frustrated the average American will feel. And I think just as any people, Muslims, Chinese, Indians, I think one of the worst things for Americans is to have raised expectations or heightened expectations that are then not met. And I think that's one of the problems with Iraq where it's not just the matter of blood and treasure we're putting into that country, it is that so much hope was vested on Iraq that it's going to be an easy, simple war that is forever going to take care of the Muslim problem.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: And it's that failure that has left many people feeling a great deal of frustration.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Feeling fearful and powerless.

Mr. Nasr: Fearful, powerless, but also of betrayed expectations, of expectations that have fallen short.

Ms. Tippett: OK. It's a matter of generations, isn't it? And that's a hard way for Americans to think.

Mr. Nasr: It's a matter of generations, and it's also a process that's impossible to control.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Mr. Nasr: It's almost like trying to control the climate.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: We can always get an Arab government or a Chinese government to change a policy, but we cannot decide how the Chinese as a people are likely to think and are likely to act and are likely to move forward.

Ms. Tippett: Right. So that's a very sober note to end on, and I think it's probably the only note to end on. I would be curious where you look for sources of hope in this, maybe conversations you have, events you know about through your travels that simply aren't on the radar amidst the headlines.

Mr. Nasr: Well, I think, everywhere you go in the Muslim world, the Muslims have very strong opinions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, about U.S. intentions towards the Muslim world. They're very cynical about American intentions. But the reality of it is that the Muslims are also pursuing on an everyday basis business, commerce, economy, education. They are aspiring to do better in the world when given a chance. When things go right they behave the same way as people everywhere else do.

Ms. Tippett: Mm.

Mr. Nasr: I mean, you can go to Dubai and go to any shopping mall and you will see Arabs behaving just as Americans would do at a mall.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nasr: And I think that's a hopeful thing. That we're not really at some level separated so much by these civilizational religious things we don't understand about one another, but there is a lot that is common between us. And that's very clear around the Muslim world: that Muslims want things that are quite understandable by us. They want jobs, they want prosperity, they want a share of power, they want to go places, to get to do well. And I think those are ambitions that we can identify with and we can take heart in. That ultimately it's not the Bin Ladens that will set the agenda for a billion people, but it is the same kind of dynamics that Chinese, Indians, Americans, Europeans respond to as well.

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Ms. Tippett: Vali Nasr is Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University, and he is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Studies at the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations. His books include The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

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Ms. Tippett: My complete unedited conversation with Vali Nasr featured more insight into the complicated picture of Middle Eastern religion and politics, including how the growing youth population in countries across the Middle East will affect the future of the region. Download an MP3 of that unedited interview and this produced program through our Web site, podcast, and e-mail newsletter.

We're also looking for fresh thinking and language to talk about the current economic crisis, and we'd like to hear your thoughts on how and why this is a moral or spiritual crisis. What resources do you bring to making sense of it and what kind of wisdom and leadership are you looking for in your immediate world at this time? We'll be posing this question as well to wise thinkers in the realms of business, education, philosophy, science, and religion. Learn more and share your stories at speakingoffaith.org.

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Ms. Tippett: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with help from Amara Hark-Weber. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I'm Krista Tippett.

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Ms. Tippett: Next time, "Listening Generously," Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen on loss and healing, life and medicine. Please join us for the next Speaking of Faith.