Global Independent Analytics

A Brief History of the Shiite-Sunni Conflict

The division between Shiites and Sunnis has served to justify many wars and revolutions, including the wars in Syria and Yemen, which now have an even greater potential of spreading to other parts of the Middle East.

In his article for Geopolitical Monitor Alessandro Bruno discourses on an ongoing Shiite-Sunni conflict and its consequences for the world geopolitics.

The already tense Sunni-Shiite relations only worsened after the infamous executions of 47 people in Saudi Arabia. Among executed there was Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose crime that sentenced him to death was to insult the Saudi monarchy verbally. Although the West typically has favored Saudi Araba at this struggle, this time the Western officials decided not to get involved in the confrontation.

Bruno continues: “the Sunni-Shiite dispute, it should be noted, originated after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, but over the centuries it has become increasingly political, especially after the 1979 revolution in Iran, which was ideologically manipulated by Ayatollah Khomeini. Thus, in recent decades, countries belonging to the Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia have struggled with the Iran-led Shiite bloc over regional hegemony in the Middle East.”

In the very beginning there was a misconception that eventually led to the break between those two major clans. On the one hand there are those who believe that Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, was Muhammad’s one and only successor, and they have called themselves “Sunnis”, as in Quran. On the other hand there are “Shiites” – supporters of Ali, as translated from Arabic. They believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Muhammad’s cousin has the rights to become Muhammad’s heir. The current proportion of Sunnis to Shiites is estimated to be around 80/20 respectively.

The conflict apparently has triggered the majority of wars that have aroused all over the continent. For years the Sunni clan has been prevailing in the conflict with the Shiites having ruled for only several years. “The final break between the two camps occurred in 680 AD at the Battle of Karbala in present day Iraq, when the Umayyad troops, loyal to the then Sunni Caliph, killed Hussein, the son of Ali. Shiites remained tied to the latter’s line of succession by declaring their loyalty to their Imam and twelve of his descendants – the Imams.

This division is the cause of the differences that still characterize the religious clash between Sunnis and Shiites. The contrast between these two different religious interpretations has widened from a purely ideological and religious realm to a geopolitical one – especially over the past four decades. The division within the Islamic religion is clear even at the regional level, especially in the Middle East, and is often used to justify wars and power struggles between different states,” Bruno assumes.

The rhetoric of the Sunnis is backed by many Gulf monarchies and Western powers – even if indirectly. The Shiites have at their disposal Iran, Syria, Lebanon and lion’s shares of the populations of Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq. Moreover, a minority in Saudi Arabia also supports Shiite.

The main problem lies with the fact that Saudi Arabia actually is a Wahhabi state. Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative trend that clings to literal interpretation of sacred Quran texts. Extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda were highly influenced by this current. It would be fair to compare Wahhabism to a Christian sect which would insist that the Old Testament rulings should be adopted as a federal law.

Iran, the head of the Shiite religious, political and strategic coalition, has protested the execution of Nimr al-Nimr. Considering the facts, it is clear that religion is still used to justify power politics. The tensions between Shiites and Sunnis have even worsened with the U.S. invading Iraq along with eight years of Shiite hegemony. As a result the conflict became vulnerable to such radical groups as Islamic State, which was formed mostly out of Saddam’s army soldiers who were Sunnis.

“The Saudi execution of Sheikh al-Nimr fits into this larger context in the same way that a match fits into a powder keg. Islamic State might be the biggest beneficiary as the risk of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence spreads throughout the region and into parts of Saudi Arabia and the other petro-monarchies themselves.

Where the EU is concerned, apart from any additional military burdens in the region, is the potential for new flows of refugees that could far outpace and outnumber current estimates. Apart from the inevitable costs, EU citizens might become more reluctant to support refugee intake policies, weakening political links like the Schengen zone. In other words, the Middle East refugee crisis risks breaking important layers of the European Union, even as it generates costs that its citizens are reluctant to endure,” Bruno concludes.

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