Good as Intro, but Disappointing,
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This review is from: Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World (Paperback)
"Reaching for Power" provides a good general overview of the background to the political struggles of the Arab Shia in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon, although it is quite thin on current events. It is also a disappointment because, having read Nakash's previous work on the Shia of Iraq (to which I gave a five-star Amazon review), I expected this book to be much more. I decided to give this four stars rather than three only because I know many readers will benefit from a broad introduction. As a treatment of events in the decade up to 2006 (the year of publication), it would barely merit two stars. There is a little bit here I disagree with (see below), but the book overall isn't bad. It just isn't about what the front cover suggests it is about. It is about the Arab Shia in the 20th century.
At 164 pages the book is quite short, but if you are going to write a short book, make good use of your space. In Iraq, for example, Nakash devotes a lot of space to the 1920 revolt and its immediate aftermath. While these events are important in framing what is happening now, they are well described in other works and Nakash never gets around to giving a detailed look at Shia maneuvers in the 2003-2005 period (which is what matters given his title). He mentions Ali Sistani and Muqtada Sadr several times, but provides nothing beyond passing references to the Sadrist movement pre-2003 or the other Shia parties (Dawa, Fadhila, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq).
Nakash's treatment of the Saudi Shia is another example of the problem. The background is good, but there is not even a single mention of the most prominent Saudi Shia cleric - Hassan Saffar, who represents the Ayatollah Sistani in Saudi Arabia and overshadows everyone else. There is also no mention at all of the various Iran-aligned Shia clerics in the kingdom (Nimr Baqir Nimr, etc.).
The sections on Bahrain are the best in the book. I get the impression that Nakash's personal research is focused on Bahrain, and he's read history on the other countries, so Bahrain is the only country he gives good treatment to in terms of both background and more recent events.
The omission of Kuwait is a bit odd. Shia make up 30 percent of the population in Kuwait, more than double Saudi Arabia. True, they aren't "reaching for power," but then again the Saudi Shia aren't either.
Nakash's treatment of Lebanon is like Iraq; lots of background with a quick overview of current events. And I do disagree with Nakash's statement (p. 14) that Hizbullah "evolved from a militant movement seeking to establish an Islamic government in Lebanon into a political party. And in doing so, it accepted the Lebanese reality based on a pact among the country's seventeen sects..." I would say that Hizbullah has pragmatically recognized the implausibility of a Khomeinist Islamic state in Lebanon, but they have retained both their military wing and established a state-within-a-state, using the sovereign government as an international cover. Hizbullah's withdrawal from the Lebanese government in late 2006 in order to block Lebanese participation in the investigation of the Hariri to protect its Syrian patron, and its actions in May 2008 suggest that Nakash's analysis is indeed incorrect. Hizbullah is pragmatic; they are not a mere Lebanese political party. Far from it.