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‘Resolving’ the Middle East’s Sunni-Shi’ite Divide
Angry demonstrators gather outside the bombed Shi’ite shrine of al-Hadi in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra in 2006. The attack was seen as the fuse that lit Iraq’s sectarian powder keg. (Dia Hamid/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Resolving’ the Middle East’s Sunni-Shi’ite Divide

Experts weigh in on whether the Middle East’s sectarian divide is too ingrained to be resolved or the product of modern-day events that can be reversed

It is hard to avoid the impression that so much conflict in the Middle East is generated by a sectarian fault line that runs through nearly every country in the region. The Sunni-Shi’ite divide lies at the heart of today’s bloody conflicts in Yemen and Syria, as well as tensions just about everywhere else.

Furthermore, an ongoing cold war of sorts between Iran and Saudi Arabia fuels the sectarian strife. The former, a predominately Shi’ite state, wants to spread its 1979 Islamic Revolution to other Muslim countries. With the help of proxies like Hizbullah, it has called for the overthrow of monarchies and secular states, to be replaced by theocratic “Islamic republics.” The latter, the cradle of the Islamic faith, is intent on shoring up the support of the Sunni world in hopes of containing the Iranian threat.

The idea that such a divide can somehow be solved or even substantially mitigated strikes us as far-fetched at the moment. Yet a recently published Al Jazeera article argues exactly that—namely sectarian conflicts in the region can be “resolved.”

Marwan Kabalan, a contributor to Al Jazeera and a Syrian academic, writes: “Sectarianism and sectarian conflict in the Middle East are often presented as having centuries-old religious and theological roots. It is often said that sectarianism runs so deep in the region that it cannot be defeated, and we shouldn’t bother trying.”

Kabalan goes on to argue that the conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims is “mostly a reaction to specific modern-day events and problems” such as the failure of state-building, the 1979 Iranian revolution, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The latter event removed “the Saddam Hussein regime, a key bastion against Iranian expansionism.” The power vacuum, Kabalan writes, “opened a new window of opportunity for Tehran to establish a Shia crescent stretching from western Afghanistan to the shores of the Mediterranean.”

In short, Iranian support for Shi’ite groups exacerbated sectarianism, especially in Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State, one of the most brutal terrorist organizations the world has seen, arose in part to protect Sunnis from Shi’ite militias.

As brutal as these modern-day struggles are, some observers continue to point toward the seemingly irresolvable theological disputes that arose in the early days of Islam.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, a disagreement arose about who was worthy enough to succeed him. Those who became known as Shi’ites believed that Muhammad appointed Ali—the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law—to assume the mantle as leader of the Muslims. Thereafter, Shi’ites became wedded to the notion that only those who can trace their lineage directly to Muhammad should lead.

The Sunnis, by contrast, believed that Muhammad did not nominate a successor, and that leaders are chosen not on the basis of any genealogical link to the prophet, but on the community’s consensus.

Gerald Hawting, an emeritus professor of Islamic history at SOAS University of London (the School of Oriental and African Studies), told The Media Line that such theological differences appear minor from the outside.

“But from inside, it is a huge question. You have to follow the right leader and imam. A hadith [a saying of the prophet] declares that if you don’t follow the right imam, you go to hell.” Hawting added that this idea has been built into the foundational myths and identities of many Muslims.

Nevertheless, Kabalan argues that this ancient religious dispute should not be the focus of overcoming sectarianism. Instead, we must understand the divide “in its modern context as a political, economic and geo-strategic conflict that can be resolved.”

“But this seems much too simple,” Hawting asserted. “These sectarian tensions have always been latent; sometimes they are under the surface and sometimes they rise to the surface.

“The fusion of politics and religion in Islam is more endemic that it was in Christianity. Secularism loosened the link between religion and politics in the West. So far, that really hasn’t happened in the Islamic world,” he added.

“At the moment, there is a big resurgence of religious identities, which has something to do with the failure of states in the Middle East, and when states are not there, people tend to fall back on religious identities.”

This raises a vexing question: What can be done to counter such tendencies?

Kabalan says that overcoming sectarianism involves state-building. Strong, centralized, and democratic nation-states would be better able to protect the rule of law. These states should also enhance national identity, security, and quality public services, all of which is the best recipe for keeping sectarianism at bay, he concludes.

Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, echoed these sentiments. “It is quite simplistic to say that Sunnis and Shi’ites have always been at odds,” he conveyed to The Media Line.

“The sectarian tensions in the region are really a symptom of underlying problems of governance, political inclusion, functioning of states, and economic distribution. And so we have to ask ourselves: Why do Sunnis and Shi’ites revert to these identities? This is because of the failure of states, and also because governments in the region sometimes encourage these divisions as part of a strategy.”

He explained that the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was a huge shock to sectarianism. “You have the rise of Iranian power that was revolutionary and expansionist, which prompted a Sunni backlash. It created an incentive for Saudi Arabia to play up Sunnism as a counter weight to the ideology the Iranians were pushing,” Wehrey said.

On the other hand, he added, “I do not discount the doctrine of faith and that these people generally believe these issues.” He explained that some analysts, by contrast, take the opposite view—a modernist and materialist one—which holds that belief and long-standing religious doctrines do not really matter.

At the same time, Wehrey cautioned, “you can’t go too far and say that sectarian conflict is predetermined. There have been periods in history when Sunnis and Shi’ites coexisted through trade, for example.” He explained that scholars now recognize that reality is a combination of age-old religious beliefs and modern political developments.

And while belief and doctrine certainly fuel sectarianism, he explained, we also have to take a look at the role of government, economics, the collapse of states, and how “social media and the explosion of the information sphere is contributing to the mobilization of Sunni and Shi’ite identities.”

The important point, he added, “is not to adopt a simplistic framing on either end of the spectrum.”

As far as solutions are concerned, Wehrey concluded that better governance in the region, the end to Saudi Arabia and Iran’s meddling in other countries, and addressing the unequal distribution of wealth (especially oil revenues) are key steps that can mitigate sectarianism and prevent the polarization of Sunni and Shi’ite identities.

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