Sunni-Shia conflict: What does it mean for the Middle East?

Read few comments.

Questions:

1. How much the Sunni-Shia’s strife define the Middle East of present in your opinion, how dominant and important do you find this conflict?

2. Would some Sunni-Shia rapprochement be desirable, anything what could lead to it?

Answers:

Fanar Haddad, Research Fellow, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore

1. The Sunni-Shia (sectarian) divide has always been there, just as ethnic, racial, regional, tribal and other divides have always and will continue to be present in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. What is notable about the sectarian divide since 2003 is that it has attained truly unprecedented political and social relevance. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the Sunni-Shi’a divide ‘defines’ the Middle East but by the same token I think it would be wishful thinking to suggest that the Sunni-Shi’a divide is not of pivotal importance in today’s Middle East (in the Mashreq at least) given how interrelated sectarian identity has become with politics and regional events relating to Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere. The sorry fact is that power politics are being viewed, often erroneously, through the prism of sectarian identity – as is often the case, what matters is perceptions more than actual reality. Indeed the term ‘Sunni-Shia conflict’ is itself problematic: it is so elastic as to allow it to encompass social divisions within places like Syria or Iraq; regional geo-strategic rivalries between the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran; religious/jurisprudential difference between the sects; various states’ policies towards the Syrian civil war and so forth.

2. Of course rapprochement is desirable but what does rapprochement mean? Does it mean a political rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that can then lead to the amelioration of conflict in places like Syria and Iraq? Or does it mean a religious/intellectual rapprochement between a loosely defined ‘Sunnism’ and ‘Shiism’? Or does it entail several rapprochments in several conflict zones each of which take into account local dynamics of what appears to be part of a broader Sunni-Shia struggle? Herein lies the complication: the lines are intensely blurred between the political, the social and the religious just as they are intensely blurred between the local, the national and the regional. The sectarian divide seems to be inflamed on all of these fronts and it is not yet clear what, if anything, could address the issue in all its multi-faceted manifestations.

Shireen Tahmaasb Hunter, Visiting Professor and Lecturer in Political Science, Georgetown University

1. Sunni-Shia conflict is more the outward manifestation of other problems, notably the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia over influence in the Middle East and South Asia, Arab unhappiness over changes in Iraq which has brought a government to power more friendly towards Iran, as well as Arab-Israeli dispute and Israel -Iran animosity.Regarding the latter Israel ,some Arab countries and even the US since 2006 have used the Shias and Iran in order to bring about a rapprochement between the Arabs and the Israelis by making Iran and the Shias their common enemy.

2. If the purpose is to stabilize the region then the reduction of conflicts and rivalries is important. For example an improvement in Iran-Saudi relations will go a long way to reduce the tensions. However, states do not pursue stability as their ultimate goal. Rather they want to stabilize conditions that are advantageous to them while others want to change these conditions. Until and unless all key actors agree on a formula which they think secure their most important interests they will use all levers including ethnic and sectarian issues to their own advantage, although the end result often harms all concerned.

Christian Sahner, Historian, Princeton University, Author of the Book: Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present 

1. The Sunni-Shii conflict in the modern Middle East is extremely important. It has manifested itself across the region – including in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and most recently, Yemen. Of course, it’s important to distinguish between the political and religious elements of this rivalry. Although animosity between Sunnis and Shiites goes back to the Middle Ages, conflict of the kind we are witnessing in the Middle East now is not perennial or unchanging. Language, symbols, and beliefs from the distant past and marshaled and utilized for political gain in modern contexts.

Very often, rivalries between Sunnis and Shiites have as much to do with geography, class, and ethnicity as they do with religious belief, as such. Take Syria, where the Shiite-aligned Alawite minority – roughly 15% of the population – has managed to control an outsized share of political power since the 1970s. Do some Sunnis in Syria despise Alawites because of their religious beliefs – perhaps. The Alawites practice a form of Islam that many Sunnis and Imami (Twelver) Shiites regard as heretical. But most Sunnis who would like to see the Asads disappear probably do so because of the imbalance of power in the country – between a disenfranchised demographic minority (the Sunnis) and politically influential demographic minority (Alawites). In this context, it’s easy to see how religious language can exacerbate what began as political conflicts, and turn them into more intractable religious conflicts.

2. Rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites would of course be desirable, insofar as it would extinguish many of the ferocious tensions that plague the region. That said, I don’t see sectarian rivalries in Iraq or Syria subsiding anytime soon.

Thomas Pierret, Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, University of Edinburgh

Each conflict in the region (in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen) is essentially a political one. It might oppose Sunnis and Shia in some cases, but the cause is not religious: it’s about who controls state power. Now, these local conflict have been increasingly integrated into a region-wide, transnational Sunni-Shia conflict framed as a religious one, although of course the real issue is political power: on the one hand, there is Iran, the leading Shia power in the region, that supports its allies, most of which are Shia or belong to related sects (Alawites in Syria, Zaidi in Yemen), and on the other hand, Sunni state and non-state actors. The Sunni side of the conflict is profoundly divided, as Jihadi groups like the Islamic State are vehemently hostile to Gulf monarchies (re. recent attack by IS against Saudi border post, for instance). It is important to highlight this because it shows that the Sunni-Shia divide is not the only relevant one: the intra-Sunni conflict is just as important (see fightings between rebels and IS in Syria for instance) and has no equivalent on the Shia side.

2. Of course, anything that contributes to an improvement of inter-sectarian relations in the region would be welcome. It seems to me that a major key to the solution of the problem is Syria: as long as Asad remains in power with Iran’s support, a meaningful Sunni-Shia rapprochement in the region will be very difficult to undertake. I single out Syria because politically speaking, other conflicts like Iraq’s are easier to solve: in Iraq, most sides agree on the principle of power-sharing between the different sects (disagreement is about what share of power each party gets), whereas in Syria power in Damascus remains monopolised by a single family that happen to belong to one minority sect.

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One Response

  1. Good viewpoints, but I’m amazed there wasn’t more talk of the Iran-Saudi rivalry that is pushing so much of the current Sunni-Shia conflict…

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