The difference between Shia and Sunni started as a political one, but later took on theological, doctrinal, and jurisprudential connotations. The divide began as a competition for political power and economic interests and only later took on a significant religious dimension. Over time, the differences deepened to the extent that the two sects have engaged in all out warfare. Some now even perceive the two sects as two distinct religions.
Religion and sectarianism have been used by the state throughout history to consolidate its grip on citizens and rally people behind their governments by creating an external enemy of the opposite sect.
The key issues surrounding the nature of sectarian conflict include how identity moves from a passive to an active state and the mechanisms that trigger conflict. The strategies of governments, such as rentier economies, and the invention of partisan national histories that encourage or manage sectarian differences also play a major role.
The Muslim world has been through a constant fluctuating relevance of sectarian identity. One recent example is Iraq, where uprisings in 1991 and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 continue to impact sectarian relations in that country.
Sectarianism has also come to dominate the political landscape in the Gulf, and especially Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In both countries domestic factors—including political institutions, the media, and clerical establishments—are fanning sectarian tensions. External sectarian conflict is also influencing relations in the Gulf. The Syrian civil war, the Iraq war, the Lebanese conflict, and most importantly, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, have all added to the increasing sectarian divide. The Muslim Diaspora outside the Islamic world is also built on the cleavage line between Shia and Sunni.
Analysis of the sectarian divide is often clouded by the legacy and immediacy of violence. The historical study should prompt social and political scientists to break the spectra of regional sectarianism down into multiple, local processes that demonstrate traceable and comprehensible evidence. Sectarianism is playing out on two levels: at the domestic level within states and at the regional level.
The role of outside powers in fostering sectarian strife cannot be overstated. During their rule over Iraq in the early part of the nineteenth century, the British relied on the minority Sunni to rule the country at the expense of the majority Shia. This widened the rift in the society and made the Sunni minority dependent on the British presence in the country. More recently the British role was replaced by the United States, especially after the withdrawal of the American troops in 2011.
To move forward, we need to build a historical narrative of Shia and Sunni attitudes toward citizenship, political reform, and transnational identity. For example, the Gulf Shias were inspired by their co-religionists in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, but ultimately they pursued greater rights through a nonsectarian, nationalist approach. This came about because of political reality, economic pressure, and education of the growing Shia middle class in the area.
The way forward is four fold. First, the separation of religion from state is key to depoliticize the economy and security. Second, economic development is required to make the sectarian issue less relevant, as poverty and economic inequality would become less entrenched. Next, education of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogues must be pursued. Finally, regional and national reconciliations are the most important step in the way forward to preserve unity, political stability, and rehabilitate institutions and societies that have faced decades of conflict.
This piece is part of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs’ 2014 Global Risk Forum. The Global Risk Forum is an effort to convene conversations around some of the most pressing issues we face as a global community in the year ahead: the breakdown of climate change negotiations; the spread of sectarian violence in the Middle East; the credit crisis and economic slowdown in China; the growth of cyber espionage; and the unraveling of Africa’s economic boom. We encourage you to read the conversations, participate with written responses or on social media, and help us work together to produce constructive ideas that will reduce the aggregate risks we face.