December Issue 2014

By | People | Profile | Q & A | Published 10 years ago

Dr Vali Reza Nasr is a noted scholar on the Middle East, US foreign policy adviser and commentator on international relations. He is currently the Dean and Professor of International Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. 

He is also a member of the US Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

He has authored several books on US foreign policy and the Middle East, including The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, Forces of Fortune and The Shia Revival

Prior to being named SAIS dean, he was a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and from 2009 to 2011 was special adviser to Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

Going back to the period after Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) death and the beginning of the caliphate system, what in your view is the fundamental cause of sectarian conflict?

It’s a very complicated issue. It’s really about diversity. You either accept diversity as legitimate or accept it as illegitimate. But we live in a period where the strongest Islamic voices do not accept diversity. They do it  peacefully like the Jamaat-e-Islami or they do it violently like Al Qaeda. But in the end they don’t accept diversity, they don’t accept that there is more than one form of Sunnism. You can see that in the conflict between the Barelvis and the Deobandis.

The reality is that in Islam, from the very outset, the Prophet (PBUH) was himself both prophet and ruler. We say that an Islamic state is one that is based on the Shariah. All of this becomes a question of what Islam and whose Islam.

If Islam was only a matter of personal belief, then it would be easier to say you can believe whatever you want. And that’s the way it was for most of Islamic history.

The problem with Islamic fundamentalist thinking, from Abul A’la Maududi onwards, is that it is ahistorical. History produces diversity. It’s true of Christianity, it’s true of Hinduism, it’s true of Judaism, and it’s true of Islam. There is diversity of practice based on culture and there is diversity of practice based on theology. Any particular political or theological dispute is kind of like a tree that branches. Over time those branches become trees of their own.

Whatever it is that the Sunnis and Shias disagreed about after 632 AH, they have had 1,400 years of different history. Cultural history, political history, they have different theologies, different laws and different conceptions of authority.

But then you fast forward to the current time period and you ask, why is it that all of a sudden they can’t live together. And that is really a modern problem. It’s not a seventh century problem. Because for much of this time period in between they were living peacefully in Baghdad and Karachi and Delhi and Lucknow. They intermarried and socialised.

Part of the problem is that Islamic fundamentalism changed the character of Islam in the modern world. It rose from the 1930s on and then became much more powerful. The oil crisis played into it as it empowered Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, which was a source of very puritanical thinking. So there is money associated with this. There is politics associated with this, there is history associated and ultimately these things are inter-woven.

The sectarian divide in Pakistan is seen by many as merely a religious phenomenon, and by others as a political issue. What is your take on that?

It’s both. How can it not be both when in the fabric of Pakistan, religion and politics were fused together at the moment of birth. Why did Muslims leave India? Because they were Muslims. There was a period in which you had a secular definition of Pakistan, but very early on that began to be reversed starting with the Objectives Resolution of 1949, which stipulates that this is an Islamic country. Once you do that, you’re saying that politics is going to be defined by Islam. And therefore it becomes about politics.

If Islam is an important ingredient of politics, then the question arises: Whose Islam? We often say that Shariah is the law of the land, but whose Shariah? Is it the Hanafi school, the Shafi’i school, the Maliki school, the Hanbali school, or the Ja‘fari school? This issue came up when General Zia-ul-Haq said that all Muslims should give their zakat to the state now that Pakistan is an Islamic state, under historical precedent going back to the Abbasids and the Umayyads. But the Shias said, it’s a Sunni state, not a Shia state. So of course it’s political, because Islam is political in Pakistan.

In a country where 75 to 80 per cent of the population is Sunni, the question is why is it so obsessed with the minority? This goes to the control of power. Who controls Pakistan? Who defines Pakistan? Who defines who is a Pakistani?

When you go back to 1953 when the Ahmadi issue started, it was about who is a Pakistani. When the then foreign minister of Pakistan — who had actually fought for Pakistan, who was born in Punjab and saw himself as Pakistani — was appointed, Deobandi clerics argued that he was not a Pakistani, because he was not a Sunni Muslim and therefore he could not be a minister in the country. And they didn’t stop there. They wanted to declare the whole community as non-Muslim. Keep in mind that Deobandi clerics had been totally anti-Pakistan. But they were citizens and leaders in a Sunni Pakistan because they were Sunni, whereas the Shias and the Ahmadis, who fought for the country, were not Pakistani because this was a Sunni land. So it’s about control of this territory and it’s about identity.

The solution to Pakistan’s problems first of all requires a drastic reduction in violence. The state has to get serious about this. There has to be a national consensus in the country about stopping the violence. I don’t think it exists. I’ve been coming to Pakistan for a long time and I hear a lot of complaints, but there’s no real concerted opposition to the violence. You have to stop the violence and then think about how to reintegrate society.

Given the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the proxy wars they are waging in Pakistan, how will the situation in the Middle East play into the sectarian issue in Pakistan?

Well, the very first proxy war was waged in Pakistan in the 1980s, which I think the Saudis won. Ultimately the Iranian proxies were no match for the Saudis. I think part of the sectarianism Pakistan is dealing with is the residual leftover of the investment that both sides had made in creating the sectarian infrastructure, sectarian fighting forces and sectarian ideology. I would say Pakistan presaged what happened in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Secondly, it’s possible that at some point Afghanistan and Pakistan will become a much more aggressive arena of conflict again. But I think that’s less likely because the fate of Pakistan is not up for grabs. It’s fairly well settled. The likelihood of Iran putting up a big fight for Pakistan is low and the Iranian attitude all along has been that the protection of Shias in Pakistan is the responsibility of the government of Pakistan. They don’t want to create a protectorate.

On the other hand if things continue to get worse in the Middle East, it may create a sort of blowback for Pakistan, because the Islamists in Pakistan are very aware and attuned to what is happening in the Middle East. So you might have an importation of ISIS ideology, or ISIS support and that will aggravate sectarian tensions.


In your book, The Dispensable Nation, you’ve made a compelling case about the Obama Administration pivoting away from the Middle East. Do you think that the rise of ISIS will force the US to rethink that strategy?

It already has. I would look at it in two ways. One is the decision to withdraw from the Middle East, which manifested itself in its total withdrawal from Iraq, and then failing to engage with Syria and the Syrian crisis actually helped to precipitate the situation that gave rise to ISIS. You could say that the desire to pivot away from the Middle East created the circumstances that would prevent the United States from pivoting away.

When ISIS arose, I think the president reluctantly re-engaged with the region. Troops were sent back, but not in large numbers, to Iraq. The US got involved in the aerial bombing of ISIS and became much more engaged in the region. And in many ways, the vision that President Obama had, had to be revised and revisited because it was not implemented properly.

The policy failed, because in many ways it created the circumstances of instability that we see and consequently, he was forced to readjust. There is still reluctance there because the engagement with ISIS is only limited to containing its threat and degrading its capabilities. But there is no commitment to actually solve the core issue, which is the collapse of the state in Syria and the near collapse of the state in Iraq.

Is that why the United States has re-engaged with Iran?

The Obama administration was always interested in re-engaging with Iran. You can think that they looked at Iran as a really important issue that the United States had to resolve, that it would be great for the legacy of the president and also because if the United States really wanted to pivot to Asia, you would have to resolve the situation in Iran as well.

During its first term, the Obama Administration felt that it was difficult to engage Iran because of its president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], and also because Iran may not have been serious enough. So they ratcheted up sanctions to a level where Iran understood that it really could not continue without a resolution.

Once there was a new president in Iran who indicated that he would like to engage, we saw the beginning of negotiations which are still underway. But I don’t think that Iran actually fits into the paradigm of the region, because it was always a diplomatic initiative.

President Obama never really intended to go to war with Iran and the Iranians also understood that. Sanctions are different from military action. So Iran is a different sort of problem as compared to Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen.


This interview was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.