Tracing the emergence of Shiite activism in the Middle East

Amal and the Shi'a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon, by Augustus Richard Norton. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 238 pp. $25 cloth; $10.95 paperback. Shi'ism and Social Protest, edited by Jan R.I. Cole and Nikki R. Keddie. Princeton, N.J.: Yale University Press. 325 pp. $40 cloth; $12.95 paperback.

The abduction of former ABC correspondent Charles Glass by Lebanese zealots in June and the new potential for conflict with Iran as a result of United States reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers in July once again focuses attention on the Shia. In the 1980s, this Islamic sect has disproportionately dominated discussions of terrorism, US foreign policy, and Middle East strife. Its most devout adherents have been responsible for the greatest traumas of two US presidencies.

Ironically, until the early 1960s, the Shia, who represent only about 11 percent of the world's 850 million Muslims, were generally considered politically docile. Their seemingly sudden emergence, however, followed a logical pattern, as these two timely books illustrate.

In Lebanon, the turning point can be traced to March 1974, when a black-robed cleric named Musa Sadr stood before a crowd of 75,000 in Baalbek, the Lebanese city so noted for its Roman ruins, and declared, ``What does the government expect, what does it expect except rage and revolution?'' Imam Sadr thus launched the Movement of the Deprived that the next year became Amal, now the largest Shiite organization in Lebanon. Foreshadowing the group's evolution into a powerful militia, the cleric also pronounced ``arms are an adornment of men'' and called on all Shia to seize their rights or become martyrs in the attempt.

As Augustus Richard Norton notes in ``Amal and the Shia: The Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon,'' Sadr felt he had no choice. The Shia, the largest of Lebanon's 17 recognized sects, had been neglected by government and arrogantly discriminated against by other religious communities for decades. His earlier, more restrained attempts at mobilization had failed, and frustrated Shia were increasingly being drawn into various communist and leftist parties. An avowed anticommunist, the cleric offered an alternative religious banner.

Norton, a former United Nations military observer in Lebanon who draws on firsthand experience, offers the most comprehensive history to date on the evolution of the ``deprived'' Shia into a potent and volatile force in the Levant.

The subtitle better explains this volume's content. The first section unravels the complex sociopolitical environment behind Sadr's dramatic speech, Amal's comparatively moderate political aspirations to reform rather than replace the state structure, and its antipathy toward Iran. Amal is a genuinely indigenous movement that still has the support of the majority.

More topically, he later examines the birth, under Iranian auspices, of breakaway extremist factions in the aftermath of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the US military and political intervention. These groups, such as Hizbullah and Islamic Jihad, have since been linked to bombings at two US embassies and the Marine compound in 1983-84, hostage abductions since 1984, and the 1985 TWA hijacking. Their goal of another Islamic republic is as much a threat to Amal as to Lebanon's other Muslim and Christian communities.

In other words, the Shia are far from being a united force, as they are assumed to be in the West. And the outcome of the growing Shiite rivalry is likely to be a decisive factor in Lebanon's future. ``Amal remains at the center of Shia politics,'' he correctly assesses, ``but the center is nowhere near where it was in 1982.''

Norton's book on Lebanon is a microcosm of a broader trend reflected in the anthology ``Shiism and Social Protest,'' edited by Juan Cole and Nikki Keddie. Thirteen noted experts survey the burst of Shiite activism throughout the region - Iran, the Gulf sheikhdoms, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. One of the most interesting chapters examines how the Soviet Union, also caught off guard by the Shia emergence, deals with its own Shiite population and with Iran.

Without being apologists, both books take pains to prove that every Shiite is not a terrorist. The militancy reflected in today's headlines is in fact the product of a confluence of many factors. One has been the accumulated impact of postwar drive to modernize the third world, often in the image of the West, at the expense of local cultures. Another is the pattern of corruption or repression that has curtailed basic rights - and options for dissent. Others center on religious aspects, such as the Shia history of martyrdom in the name of fighting injustice.

Despite the common denominators, the Shia are also motivated by different flash points in their respective states. Oil wealth, for example, factors into Saudi Arabia's Shiite problem. The trend is put in perspective by the disparate agendas and differing degrees of activism among the Shia in each state. In addition, nationalism is still a more potent rallying point than religious militancy. The ``Shia protest'' can only be viewed collectively in terms of the common idiom of opposition; the dozens of groups are unlikely to merge into a monolithic body.

At the same time, however, Shiism is likely to be an energetic political force in challenging conventional ideologies and alliances for the foreseeable future.

The publishing industry is beginning to pour out books on the once obscure topic of Shiism and militant Islam, many of which are either academically obtuse or hysterical. These two volumes, although scholarly, are especially thoughtful contributions, for they ably put current events into context.

Robin Wright, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a former Monitor Middle East correspondent based in Lebanon and the author of a book on militant Islam.

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