Democracy Lab

It's Not About Us

Forget about the “war on terror.” The next few decades will be dominated by the bitter divide within Islam itself.

Most Westerners have heard that there's a difference between Sunnis and Shiites, but there are very few of us who can say what it is. I hate to be the one to bring this up, but it's probably time to start getting educated. Like it or not, the 21st century will be dominated by the political reverberations of the rivalry within Islam. The so-called "war on terror" pales in comparison.

If anyone had any doubt about this, just take a look at the recent headlines. Earlier this week, 89 Shiite Hazaras were killed in a bombing in the city of Quetta in Pakistan. Pakistani's 30 million Shiites (the second-largest population in the world, right after Iran) are increasing targets of persecution by the country's Sunni majority. Another attack five weeks earlier killed 100 other Shiites in the same city.

The very same day as the Quetta bombing, six car bombs and three roadside explosions killed 21 people in Baghdad. All of the attacks targeted Shiite neighborhoods. Some 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites, but that only seems to fuel the sectarian violence there, which has been going on now for almost seven years. Most of the attacks have been staged by terrorist groups like al Qaeda, who regard Shiites as heretics and claim to speak for the Sunni minority that has dominated the political system for much of the country's modern history. Many Sunni Iraqis still haven't reconciled themselves to being ruled by Shiites, people they often don't consider to be "real" Muslims. Sunnis are now vowing to organize politically to defend their claims.

The Shiite-Sunni split is also a major factor in Syria's continuing civil war. President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, which practices a distinct version of Islam that is close to Shiism. Even though the Alawites amount to a mere 15 percent of the population, they have long been a pillar of Assad family rule. This sectarian factor has reinforced the Assad regime's close alliance with the Shiite regime in Tehran -- and also fuels the hatred felt by members of the conservative Sunni majority towards the regime in Damascus.

So why should non-Muslims care? Because the dynamic of mutual hatred and distrust between the two camps shows every sign of intensifying -- and given that 1 billion believers are caught up within this theological and demographical battle, the rest of us are bound to feel the shock waves. (The United States, for example, continues to prop up the Sunni royal families in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both of which are still suppressing lingering Shiite rebellions by the most brutal of means. And let's not forget Iran's efforts to build the first Shiite nuclear bomb.)

The differences between Shiites and Sunnis go back almost to the dawn of Islam itself. The crucial distinction has to do with the nature of religious authority. Sunnis essentially believed that the leader of the Muslim community, the caliph, should be chosen from among its members. (In the early days, they were usually selected from the original group of companions of the Prophet Mohammed.) Shiites were those who insisted that the leader could only come from the line of Mohammed's direct descendants, and they soon came to challenge the caliphs' right to leadership. The dispute took a fateful turn for the worse when Hussein ibn Ali, the Shiites' leader and the Prophet's grandson, refused to pledge allegiance to the caliph Yazid, and died at the hand of the caliph's troops in the battle of Karbala in 680 -- igniting an intensely emotional narrative of injustice and martyrdom that still infuses Shiite thinking today. (Take a look at this video for a taste.)

Yet until just a few decades ago these differences didn't seem to matter much (not least because Shiites only make up a tenth or so of the world's Muslims, and tend to be dispersed across many countries, often as relatively small minorities). That changed dramatically, however, in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran suddenly installed a militant Shiite regime in one of the Middle East's most populous countries.

"This fundamentally upset the regional balance of power," says Olivier Roy, a leading scholar on Islam at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. By profiling itself as the new vanguard in the fight against Israel, says Roy, Iran was in a position to challenge the claims of hitherto dominant countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The Iranians also began sponsoring their sectarian cousins in places like Lebanon and Iraq. "So the Shiites became politicized," notes Roy. The trend accelerated after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein and finally put representatives of the majority Shiites in power there for the first time (though the result can hardly be described as a triumph for democracy, given the authoritarian drift under current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.)

The other trend is what Roy calls "the Salafization" of Islam. The Salafis -- staunch religious conservatives who have much in common with the puritanical outlook of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia -- have been steadily rising in influence around the Middle East over the past decade, a trend more recently reinforced by the Arab Spring. In 1959, Roy points out, a leading Sunni scholar published a fatwa that described Shiism merely as one of the recognized "schools" of Islam. Even the members of the Muslim Brotherhood have generally had relatively few negative things too say about Shiism. "But now we have new generation of salafi preachers who consider the Shiites to be heretics, who say that Shiites are not mainstream Muslims," says Roy. "And this is new."

Though all Salafis aren't necessarily militants, the anti-Shiite sentiment is one that they share with Sunni jihadist movements. No one hates the Shiites more than al Qaeda or the Taliban. And, indeed, the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda duly claimed responsibility for the recent bombings in Baghdad. (Iran, for its part, has seized upon the killings in Quetta to assail Islamabad for its failure to protect Pakistani Shiites.)

Now, it's certainly true that we shouldn't accept all narratives about Shiite-Sunni polarization at face value. In places like Iraq, sectarian distinctions are often blurred by intermarriage. Members of the opposition in Bahrain are fond of stressing that their fight against the monarchy is motivated less by religious sectarianism than by a longing for greater political rights -- an aim they share with many Sunnis in the country. (And yes, there's no question that the Bahraini royal family -- like certain other authoritarian regimes in the region -- has been happy to play up the sectarian card, eagerly ascribing any legitimate dissent to Iranian scheming.)

In the larger scheme of things, though, it's clear that sectarian polarization is a genuine and intensifying trend. Roy sees only two scenarios that might derail it. Reform of the revolutionary regime in Iran could theoretically moderate Tehran's role in fomenting Shiite activism abroad. And collapse of the Assad regime, followed by a "smooth transition in Syria," would deprive the Iranians of one of their most important regional partners and cut them off from access to their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, thus forcing them to scale back their ambitions. Needless to say, neither of these possibilities appears especially likely any time soon. So we're probably well-advised to expect the worst.

Photo by BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

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