by Yaroslav Trofimov
The conflict raging between Sunnis and Shiites across the Muslim world is easy to view as eternal hatred that is destined to keep claiming lives for the foreseeable future.
Yet despite its ancient roots, the divide hasn’t been this deep or bloody for centuries. And it is only in recent years that it has emerged as the biggest fault line in the battle for dominance in the Middle East and beyond.
People age 40 and over in countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan still remember when they didn’t know—and didn’t particularly care—whether their neighbors and co-workers were Sunni or Shiite.
“The differences between groups in Islam have always existed, but it is only when you mix them with politics that it becomes really dangerous—dangerous like an atomic bomb,” said Ihsan Bu-Huleiga, a Saudi economist who as a member of the kingdom’s appointed legislature in 1996-2009 was one of the few members of its Shiite minority to hold a prominent political position.
Indeed, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria to Bahrain, most of the wars and political conflicts in the region today pit Sunnis against Shiites. They aren’t, however, over who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, the root of the original schism. Rather, they are fought for political and economic sway within these countries and in the broader Middle East.
“Sectarian tools are used in these struggles because they have greater impact,” explained one of Lebanon’s most senior Shiite clerics, Seyed Ali Fadlullah. “If you were to call upon people now to fight for a regional or international influence, they won’t act. But people will act when it is said that your sect is under threat, or that your sanctities are going to be destroyed.”
This transformation of the Sunni-Shiite struggle dates to the 1979 Iranian revolution and its aftermath, when conservative regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, faced with Tehran’s claim to lead Muslims world-wide, responded by challenging the Islamic credentials of Shiite ayatollahs.
The rivalry gained a new impetus with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which empowered majority Shiites at the expense of the Arab Sunni minority that had ruled the country since independence. The militant group that eventually came to be known as Islamic State was born in the upheaval that ensued and took anti-Shiite zeal to new heights.
Hatred then reached genocidal levels after civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, with an expanding Islamic State refusing to recognize Shiites as Muslims and giving them a grim choice of conversion or death.
These sectarian alignments have been crystallized in the current war in Yemen, too, with Saudi Arabia assembling a coalition of Sunni nations against the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who adhere to a strain of Shiite Islam.
“Until the war, there has been a sense that Iran was encircling Saudi Arabia, that this Shiite revival is occurring at the expense of the Sunnis,” said Saleh al Khathlan, a professor of political science at King Saud University in Riyadh and vice chairman of the country’s National Society for Human Rights. “It was no longer a Shiite crescent but a Shiite circle.”
Sunnis account for some 90% of the 1.6 billion Muslims world-wide and have been the dominant school in the Middle East for centuries. Although Shiites are spread across the Middle East and South Asia, they constitute a majority only in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni king.
The split between Islam’s main schools stems from a clash over succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632. Shiites believe power should have gone to the prophet’s son-in-law Ali and grandson Hussain; Sunnis think it shouldn’t have been hereditary.
In subsequent centuries, there were regular outbreaks of sectarian hatred. Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th-century Islamic scholar, penned a treatise attacking Shiites as “rafidha,” or those who refuse God, popularizing a pejorative label that has since been adopted by Islamic State.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, however, differences between Sunnis and Shiites seemed obsolete, overshadowed by the divide between pro-Western conservative regimes and pro-Soviet revolutionaries.
Saudi Arabia didn’t think twice in the 1960s about backing the Shiite royalist rebels in Yemen, the forefathers of today’s Houthis, against the invading troops from Sunni but revolutionary Egypt.
Then came the Iranian revolution that established Tehran’s Shiite theocracy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for cleansing the region of Western influence, destroying Israel and sweeping away reactionary monarchies such as Saudi Arabia’s.
“Iran is a Shiite Persian country in a predominantly Sunni Arab region. They can’t lead the region by waving a Shiite flag, so they’ve tried to do so under the banner of Islamic resistance against America and Israel,” explained Karim Sadjapour, Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Predictably, Saudi Arabia and its allies responded by focusing attention on their foe’s Shiite identity. The kingdom sees itself as a leader of the Muslim world because the holy cities of Mecca and Medina rest on its soil, and for many decades Saudi-funded Islamic education networks around the world poured vast sums into spreading anti-Shiite propaganda.
In Pakistan, home to the world’s second-largest Sunni and Shiite communities, military dictator Zia ul-Haq directly encouraged in the 1980s the creation of deadly Sunni sectarian groups that now regularly massacre ordinary Shiites throughout the country. In the latest attack, gunmen opened fire on a bus in the city of Karachi, killing more than 40 members of the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam.
“Divisions were always there, but violence at the popular level wasn’t. Zia brought it in,” said Raza Rumi, the editor of Pakistan’s Friday Times newspaper who survived an assassination attempt by a Sunni sectarian group last year. The political use of sectarianism, he added, “let the genie out of the bottle.”
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.