Arguably, the Middle East is the most volatile region on the planet. It is home to over 1.4 billion Muslims, constituting more than one-fifth of the world’s population. The Middle East has a rich religious and intellectual tradition that evolved over a long period of time and the region’s centrality to economics, politics and international relations is undeniable: it plays an important role in global peace, security and prosperity. A relatively recent phenomenon of sectarian conflict on a regional scale can be observed. A lot has been said and discussed about the new and dangerous Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East. This resurgence of the ancient schism in Islam threatens to undermine the state – based on already frail national identities – as the primary political actor in the region.
The history of Muslim civilization, if defined in terms of ‘search for a common identity’, has passed through several phases. The initial concept of a Muslim Ummah, having survived through a phase of Arab nationalism, was translated into pan-Islamism in the 21st century. In the post-1980s period, the Shia-Sunni strife has witnessed a major upturn; particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Bahrain. Many explain that the tensions are caused by well-coordinated conspiracies by outsiders, such as “the forces of hegemony and Zionism which aim to weaken [Islam]”. Others lay the blame for the strife at a very different source, the unintended effects of the Islamic Revival. According to Vali R. Nasr, as the Muslim world was decolonized and Arab nationalism lost its appeal, fundamentalism blossomed and reasserted itself.
It is important to mention here that despite ideological differences, Shias and Sunnis have set remarkable examples of cooperation. The Khilafat Movement swept South Asia following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the seat of the Caliphate, in World War I. Shia scholars “came to the Caliphate’s defence” by attending the 1931 Caliphate Conference in Jerusalem. This was despite the fact they were theologically opposed to the idea that non-Imams could be Caliphs or successors to Muhammad, and that the Caliphate was “the flagship institution” of Sunni, not Shia, authority. This has been described as the unity of traditionalists in the face of the twin threats of “secularism and colonialism.”
At the core of the sectarian rivalries in the Middle East, lies the Saudi-Iranian cold war. The rivalry has exacerbated sectarian tensions in various countries. Apart from the pre-existing sectarian disputes in the region, some analysts and commentators are also citing ethnic and sectarian divisions to be a major cause of the mass revolts in Bahrain and Syria. These analysis are evident in the statements of prominent scholars, such as Vali R. Nasr who claims, “Syria is not just about support for democracy – it’s really about management and redistribution of ethnic and sectarian power.” Other analysts, such as Marc Lynch, rather dismiss the sectarian angle to the mass protest in Syria and Bahrain as an “obvious reality” and tend to think of it as a “deliberate regime strategy”.
According to Lynch:
The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity. While a majority of the protestors were Shia, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya. Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shia particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran.
Despite the conflicts of opinion on the nature and causes of the uprisings in Syria and Bahrain, most scholars and intellectuals seem to agree on the fact that Saudi-Iranian rivalry is creating a rift in the region, prompting fears of instability in Arab lands. King Abdullah II of Jordan warned, in an interview with The Washington Post, that Iran’s growing influence in Iraq could be felt throughout the region and could lead to a ‘‘crescent’’ of dominant Shia movements or governments stretching from Lebanon to the Gulf. His remarks motivated the Shias’ ire and he soon retraced, stating that what he had meant was Shias not as a religious but as a political community, backed by Iran. This view was confirmed by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who in April 2006 declared that ‘‘most of the Shias’’ living in Arab countries ‘‘are loyal to Iran, and not the countries they are living in’’.
Regardless of the increase in rhetoric about the Shia-Sunni rift, and sectarian violence in Iraq, Pakistan and Syria, recent developments do not imply an unbridgeable gap. The rise of sectarian identities in the Middle East could be undermined through parallel sources of identity such as nation, ethnicity, tribe clan and family. These are equally as powerful as religious affiliation.
This sectarian rift may be politically motivated and it may serve the interest of political actors hoping to eliminate their competitors and perpetuate themselves in power. One can say that certain political tactics are fueling the current sectarian rhetoric, which, if not eliminated, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and create further political and sectarian divisions in the Middle East.
Yet while an improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations is urgently needed, the most effective long-term solution to the growing sectarian rift in the Middle East most likely lies in an environment that gives rise to countervailing loyalties and prevents any single one, such as adherence the sectarian identity, from becoming dominant.