Author and scholar Vali Nasr gave a talk in Washington on Monday titled The Revival of Shia Islam, offering insightful explanations into the divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and how religion is affecting political events in the Middle East and beyond.
In his lecture, a transcript of which is available online, Mr. Nasr examined how the sectarian dimensions of the Iraqi conflict are having an effect in Lebanon and Iran right now and, by extension, in Israel, and how they could affect the political scenarios in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt.
Mr. Nasr certainly has the credentials to address the topic. He recently wrote the book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future, and is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate chair of research at the Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School.
Islamic sectarianism has given rise to complex and delicate interactions between the world s majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites, the two major Islamic sects that initially divided by following different successors after the Prophet Mohammed s death in 632 A.D.
In Iraq during Saddam Hussein s reign of terror, the ruling Sunnis had kept the Shiites suppressed for decades, but the Shiites have been regaining power recently through the electoral process.
While there are only 130 million to 190 million Shiites among the world s 1.2 billion Muslims, virtually all are in the Middle East where Shiites and Sunnis are relatively equal in numbers, Mr. Nasr said.
The Shiites also have been kept out of power in most Middle Eastern nations, but after seeing how the elections in Iraq opened the door for them to gain political influence they are looking to Iraq as a model. In Saudi Arabia s recent elections, Mr. Nasr said, the Shiites turned out in far greater numbers than did Sunnis (45 to 25 percent), giving Shiites positions of authority on municipal councils for the first time.
The ramifications for U.S. relations with Iran, Lebanon, and Hezbollah are hanging in the balance of sectarian divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Mr. Nasr said.
A transcript of the lecture, sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a nonpartisan fact tank based in Washington, is available online at www.pewforum.org and is well worth reading for anyone interested in getting a handle on such a complicated and challenging topic.
BETTER LATE ... ? Switchfoot has finally made the cover of CCM Magazine the leading periodical on Contemporary Christian Music (hence the initials).
It took three years after Switchfoot s major label debut, The Beautiful Letdown, which sold 2.5 million copies and produced such molten pop-rock hits as Dare You to Move and Meant to Live. Those chart-busting songs were followed by more hit-laden songs, New Way To Be Human, Learning To Breathe, and Nothing Is Sound.
CCM, in its June edition, was apologetic for being so late with a cover story on the hugely popular band with proven crossover appeal.
The Southern California rock band, originally called Chin Up, was founded by brothers Jon Foreman, on guitar and vocals, and Tim Foreman on bass, and drummer Chad Butler. The trio has since expanded into a five-man band with the addition of Jerome Fontamillas on guitar and keyboards and Drew Shirley on guitar.
One of Switchfoot s proudest accomplishments, besides its music, has been the launch of an online magazine called lowercasepeople.com. The band s concept was to start a conversation that allowed the unique people we meet to be heard by others and learn from each other, Butler writes in a sidebar to the CCM article. The second edition of the Internet mag includes a reprint (with permission) of George Plimpton s classic 1958 interview of Ernest Hemingway.
By the way, Switchfoot is holding a clever contest in which the winner (and a friend) will be flown to Los Angeles to join the band in the studio and ACTUALLY play cowbell on a song that will be on the CD!
Will Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken be eligible (the actors who made the cowbell famous in a skit on Saturday Night Live)? Go to www.switchfoot.com for more information.
LOOK RIGHT: Mark I. Pinsky, who covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel, has a knack for bringing religion and culture into perspective and consistently comes up with interesting and creative angles for his newspaper stories.
The intersection of faith and popular culture is one of his areas of expertise, as evidenced in two books, The Gospel According to the Simpsons (the cartoon family makes more references to God than almost any other prime-time TV show) and The Gospel According to Disney.
Mr. Pinsky steps out of the standard distanced-journalist mode to offer a personal view of his years of writing about religion in A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide to the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox Press, $14.95), due for publication in August.
His close-up look at Sunbelt evangelicals formerly known as fundamentalists are written with a stranger in a strange land kind of feeling that I am sure many Americans would share if they, like Mr. Pinsky, were plopped down into the middle of one of the centers of American evangelicalism.
One of his overriding observations is that evangelical Christians, as with any large group of people, are not monolithic in their opinions, beliefs, or politics. Mr. Pinsky profiles a number of average evangelicals and includes their stands on a litmus test of hot-button issues including abortion, taxes, the environment, and the Iraq war and they do not all follow one straight and narrow line.
Shocking to some, perhaps, is Mr. Pinsky s reporting that there are evangelical Christians who oppose the Iraq war (one even calls it an abomination ) and a few (27 percent) who are registered Democrats.
Neither judgmental nor harsh, Mr. Pinsky seems genuinely interested and amazed by what makes evangelicals tick.
BRIEFLY NOTED: Kierra Kiki Sheard s new disc, This Is Me (EMI Gospel) is a funky, fun blast of soulful R&B. The 18-year-old daughter of gospel legend Karen Clark Sheard, Kiki covers a lot of stylistic ground, from rapping on Have What You Want to singing a retro-vibe ballad, Faith.
Looking ahead, Latino Christian group Salvador churns things up with upbeat, horn-powered jams on Dismiss the Mystery, due Aug. 29 on Word Records.
Blues wunderkind Jonny Lang, now a veteran at the age of 25, puts his guitar and vocal talents to use expressing his faith on Turn Around, a brilliantly crafted and heartfelt set of blues slated for release Sept. 19 on A&M Records. Included is the ballad My Love Remains, co-written by Lang and Christian music superstar Steven Curtis Chapman. Chapman says in the press materials that Lang is a man that s passionate about his faith as a Christian and is committed to reflecting that in his music.
The VeggieTales cast of characters goes on another adventure-with-a-message on LarryBoy and the Bad Apple, a tale of resisting temptation that comes out today on DVD on the Big Idea label.
Incidentally, the VeggieTales story carries on the longstanding tradition of giving apples a bad rap. A sixth-grade Sunday School pupil recently pointed out to me that the Bible does not say Adam and Eve bit an apple. It only says that they took a bite of fruit from a forbidden tree. It could have been a kiwi or a pomegranate, but apples are always blamed. You can look it up. I did. And the 11-year-old was right. How bout them apples?