Strategic Reality: The most damaging and long lasting division among the Islamic Community continues to be the Sunni–Shia schism, which has greatly intensified in bloodshed over the past decade and become entangled with regional and global geo-political agendas.
The historical tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims arose in the first century Hijrah under the Umayyad dynasty (41–132 H), and was later aggravated in the early sixteenth century CE by the forcible conversion of Iran to Ja‘fari Shi‘ism under the Safavid Shahs with the resulting Ottoman–Safavid rivalry.
The Iranian revolution in 1979 marked a watershed in the reassertion of Muslim identity worldwide, and led to a renewed antagonism and rivalry over regional influence between long marginalized Shia communities in the Arab world and South Asia, and leading Sunni dominated states including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, and Pakistan.
The U.S. led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was marked by an incredibly naïve policy of containing radical Sunni–sponsored terrorism opposed to their occupation (foreign Al Qaeda & indigenous ex-Baathist groups), by means of sponsoring government-led clandestine Shia repression of the Sunni Arab minority.
This policy only solidified Maliki’s Shia dominated regime and irrevocably shifted the balance of power in Iraq with major reverberations throughout the region. Recent events in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf & Eastern Arabia, and now Baathist Syria have coalesced along regional linkages and religious dividing lines marking the intensified renewal of this ancient schism.
The central lands of the Muslim world are now caught up in a vicious proxy-war of brutal bloodshed exploiting this re-born sectarian dynamic that will continue to play out for years. A notable consequence is the growing coordination and renewed vitality of radical Sunni terrorism in Iraq and Syria, with its inevitable ‘blowback’ for the internal stability of regional states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and those Gulf kingdoms with a significant Shia presence.
This reawakened hatred has further kindled hostility and polarization between Muslims in distant areas of the Islamic world from Europe to Indonesia and Malaysia.
Current geopolitical re-alignments in the Middle East provoked by the projection of American military power into the heart of Asia have reopened this unhealed wound of the ancient Sunni-Shia schism. Worldwide the Shia communities comprise only about 14% of Muslims. For historical-political reasons the significant Shia minorities in key Arab countries (e.g. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), and the Shia majorities in Iraq, Bahrain and a plurality in Lebanon, have long experienced social and political marginalization.
Since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the three successive ‘Gulf Wars’ (Iraq-Iran 1980–1988; Iraq-US Coalition 1991; US coalition-Iraq March 2003–…), as well as the successive Israeli invasions of Lebanon (1978; 1982; 2006); the weight of the Islamic Republic of Iran has evolved in concert with renewed assertions of Arab Shi‘ism.
The rising power and vitality of Shia communities in Asia is one of the most sensitive issues for Sunni Arab elites, as well as for the conservative Arab regimes and their US patron (‘American Islam’). A dispassionate appreciation for the unfolding dynamic of this major transformation in the Middle East has become an urgent necessity for the global community. It offers not only dangers but great possibilities.
We are now witnessing the emergence of previously marginalized communities and constrained regional powers. The Arab Shia communities of Iraq and Lebanon (representing majority or plurality populations within mosaic states) are reasserting their primacy and legitimacy as they reach for power after long years of social marginalization and political exclusion at the hands of ruling majorities.
Shia parties organized into the United Iraqi Alliance control the Baghdad government. A chief motivation for continuing violence and instability in Iraq is that Sunni militants cannot reconcile themselves to the loss of their former privileges and dominance under Baathist patronage, while the Maliki regime with its arbitrary exercise of power has proven heedless to Sunni social and political requirements.
Hezbullah now exercises greater political power in Lebanon’s government after it precipitated a national crisis with popular street protests that was only defused when they achieved a larger share of ministerial power. The sacrifices that the Lebanese Shia endured under Israeli aggression endowed Hezbullah with some measure of national legitimacy, yet this has now vanished by its intervention inside Syria in tandem with Iranian interests.
Nor should one overlook that the oil-rich province of al-Hasa in eastern Saudi Arabia is home to Shi‘ite Arabs, and that Bahrain has an activist Shia majority and Kuwait a Shi‘ite minority. A major feature of these transformations underway is the emergence of new social and political groups for leadership. These groups are profoundly affecting the social and political reality of their societies.
Today Iran (whose people are about 85% Shi‘ah Persian & Azeri-Turkish, yet whose Kurdish, Turkomen and Baluchi populations are Sunni) has emerged as a leading regional presence confronting US hegemony and making the conservative pro-American Sunni Arab regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan uneasy.
The American colossus has sought to exploit their anxieties to its own advantage by playing upon fears of rising Shia dominance undermining Arab regime legitimacy. But the dream of an American-orchestrated transformation of the oil-rich Middle East has turned into a neo-Conservative’s nightmare of rising Shi‘ite radicalism.
George Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq proved counter-productive by spurring Iran to speed up its development of nuclear power in hopes of deterring penetration by outside actors pursuing alien agendas. The US promoted idea of a Shi‘ite Crescent to be countered by an American directed Sunni Arc has not made much headway beyond polarization and fueling antagonisms.
What is taking place in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon marks the true ‘birth-pangs’ of a radically altered Middle East. A new regional center is now emerging that will be dominated by the large Shia majority states of Iraq and Iran. Transformations underway will have reverberations for decades to come. Though born in blood and the pain of history, these groups may well represent the future.
Today’s conflicts across the Middle East revolve around the question of whether broader visions of identity will succeed and usher in models of political and economic power sharing and nation building, thus promoting genuinely positive development. Or if the post-colonial rentier-state model coupled with the abuse of ethnic, religious and doctrinal bias will ensure continued division and stagnation.
Ultimately, the question must be faced squarely whether Muslims today have the intelligence, courage, sincerity and creative commitment to healing the aching wound that sundered the community when God’s Messenger Muhammad died.
Given this accelerating conflict involving the self-interests of regional regimes and global strategies of the United States and Russia, it nevertheless remains true that the chief obstacle against mutual understanding remains the burden of crystallized attitudes inherited from the past.
Both the Shias and Sunnis have used and abused the past. Especially at the widespread level of popular religious attitudes and observances, this painful schism continues to operate with its own inevitably fatal logic. Deep psychic and emotional wounds arising from their disagreements were cemented in place by centuries of bitter polemic still festering unresolved in the heart of the Muslim mind. 1
Today these vulgar popular stereotypes are now shaping and driving the policies of ruling regimes that surrender wise leadership by pursuing fearful intolerant reactions. What is needed to heal this ancient schism? Why have Muslims become oblivious to respecting the sanctity of Muslim blood and the imperative of upholding communal solidarity and unity of purpose taught by our blessed Prophet? How may we facilitate the concerted oneness of Muslims worldwide belonging to differing legal, ideological and doctrinal orientations?
1 For an historical overview of this schism detailing its ideological and doctrinal dimensions and providing extensive references to original sources, consult our monograph Facing One Qiblah: Legal and Doctrinal Aspects of Sunni and Shi‘ah Muslims, ed. K. D. Crow (Singapore: Pustaka Nasional, 2005).
Professor Karim Douglas Crow is a Principal Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS-Malaysia) Kuala Lumpur. This paper was presented at the Seminar on Islam Without Sectarianism on March 10, 2013 at Renaissance Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. The Islamic Renaissance Front, International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies and the Islamic Book Trust jointly organized the seminar.