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If You Had One Book to Read about Iran…
First, in the spirit of full disclosure: Vali Nasr is a former student and now a colleague. Having said that, I would state unequivocally that followers of the religions of Abraham - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - or of any of the world's great religions, as well as people of no faith should all make this book required reading. Nasr tells the critical story within Islam: the historical 1,400-year split within the Muslim world, where today approximately 85% adhere to the dominant Sunni theological creed and 15% belong to the Shia tradition, a numerical (and power) imbalance which is in the process of a tectonic shift because of the American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     Operation Iraqi Freedom eliminated the two greatest obstacles to a Shia revival: the Sunni chauvinist Saddam Hussein, who kept his minority in power while tyrannizing the Shia majority in Iraq; and the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan. The American invasions awakened a dormant Shia sense of entitlement that created a concentrated arc of power that now sweeps from Iraq to Afghanistan. After nearly 14 centuries of humiliation and subservience, Shiism finds itself empowered in a critical part of the Muslim world, and the West seems politically and militarily unable to cope.

     But what makes Nasr's study so compelling and timely is his detachment. He has found what few scholars in the field of contemporary Middle East studies have: a capacity for disinterested objectivity. As a result, in the United States he is asked to visit the Pentagon and the White House. His observations can be found in official State Department memos as well as in the investigative diggings of Seymour Hersh.

     Nasr is a historian who brings a religious and political perspective to his analysis that is transparent, written for a general audience, gets to the heart of the sectarian conflict raging in the region, and points to the implications for the West as well as for the Muslim world. He penetrates to the core issues driving the Saudis, Pakistanis and the shifting sands of power (and oil) in a world where the historically powerless Shia suddenly have found strength as well as a leader in Iran. Nasr's analysis can aid a shell-shocked America in understanding exactly what forces have inadvertently been unleashed, and shows us how the new power will shape the future of the region. This expatriate Iranian who now lives in America could also help a disbelieving Sunni audience face the reality of a new Shia power structure.

     The text provides no solutions. Nor does the author assign any blame. He merely says: Here is what has happened; now live with it. The Shia Revival is a very good teacher's guide in comparative religion, history and the geography of the Middle East.
Nasr answers many questions; also, without intending to, he leaves the reader pondering one formidable puzzle: Why, for six thousand years, have the religions of Abraham, each in its turn, fought and killed in the name of God?

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