Sunnis, Shiites, and the Arab Spring

Was Osama bin Laden a Sunni or Shiite Muslim? Can you identify the ruling sect in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria?

Today’s Formula 1 race in Bahrain occurred without incident, but many observers had feared violence would mar the festivities.  This is because Bahrain, like several other countries in the region, is experiencing ongoing unrest pitting anti-government protesters against the ruling authorities.  And, as in other Middle Eastern countries, this clash has broken down along sectarian lines, with Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims vying for power.

While some Western commentators speak broadly of the “Arab and Muslim world,” painting with such broad strokes obscures many of the differences that help to make sense of the politics of today’s Middle East.  A few examples:

* In Iraq, the Sunni minority (which was in power under Saddam Hussein) is now facing a resurgent Shiite majority which controls the parliament and much of the executive branch. This struggle involves political competition and violence, although one commentator argues much of the violence is really about jihadism rather than sectarianism.

* Like in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bahrain’s minority Sunnis enjoy power over the majority Shiites.  Sunnis have now mobilized to protect the regime and crack down on protesting Shiites.

* Saudi Arabia, a leading Sunni power, has intervened in Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria with military, economic, or political tools to help support the rise of Sunni actors and the defeat of Shiite forces.

* Iran, the region’s leading Shiite power, has close ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s ruling Alawite sect.  The Alawites split off from Shia Islam over 1,000 years ago and consider Iran an ally in maintaining power against Syria’s restive Sunni majority.

Despite the importance of the Sunni-Shiite distinction in understanding today’s Middle East, many American policymakers (even some counter-terrorism officials) have displayed their ignorance on this point.  See this Op-Ed piece from Congressional Quarterly national security editor Jeff Stein for examples drawn from Stein’s interviews with U.S. officials.

It’s easy to scoff at these answers, but can you do any better?  Take this quiz on the differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam and see how well you do.

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