The Sunni-Shiite/Shia Divide

One of the fundamental drivers of conflict both across and within West Asia and the larger Middle East  is arguably driven by the Sunni-Shiite (also spelled Shia) divide.

This divide began as a disagreement more than 1400 years ago over who should succeed the Profit Muhammed as the leader of the Islamic faith he introduced.  “The roots of the Sunni-Shia divide can be traced all the way back to the seventh century, soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632. While most of Muhammad’s followers thought that the other elite members of the Islamic community should choose his successor, a smaller group believed only someone from Muhammad’s family—namely his cousin and son-in-law, Ali—should succeed him. This group became known as the followers of Ali; in Arabic the Shiat Ali, or simply Shia.” [Pruitt]

Globally, approximately 85% of Muslims are Sunni while 15% are Shia. While a minority of Muslims, the Shia are a majority in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan.

For most of those 1400 years, these two sects of Islam lived in relative peace, but starting toward the end of the 20th century violence erupted. The violence is explained really well by the Council on Foreign Relations:

“An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region.

Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn’t explain all the political, economic, and geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism through which to understand the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.” [The Sunni-Shia The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East is about nationalism and not a conflict with Islam Brooking 2018 Report with great explanation]

  • We see this conflict playing out in many ways in West Asia:
  • Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites within Iraq;
    conflicts within Yemen between the Houthi rebels (Shia supported by Iran) and the Sunni Saudi Arabian and UAE governments;
  • Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites within Lebanon;
  • ISIS and other opposition groups with Syria that challenge the Shiite-led government that is back by Shhite state Iran.

Understanding this divide and what role the US might play in moderating it (seems laughable 🙂 is important.

It is also important to consider that Sunni-Shia divide manifests itself throughout the Middle East and beyond, with the different groups supporting different interests in the conflicts within West Asia, making them all the more complicated to resolve.

And, of course, while it is easy to think about it as a conflict over religious, it is also a conflict over economics and resources, as both religious groups fight over the control of resources.