Tag Archives: sectarian conflict

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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Iraq, Sectarian Violence, and the Myth of the State

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, a Shiite, appears to be moving against his Sunni rivals only days after American troops left the country.

Days after American combat forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq, it seems the country is on the brink of political chaos and perhaps even civil war.  Many Sunni Arabs (who make up a minority of the population but were favored under Saddam Hussein’s regime and now fear reprisals from the majority Shiites) have boycotted parliament.  Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki (a Shiite) has accused the Iraqi Vice President (a Sunni) of running death squads and has demanded that the Kurds (who enjoy a largely autonomous region in northern Iraq, where the Vice President fled to escape an arrest warrant) hand over the Vice President or face the consequences.  The Vice President is now calling for Prime Minister Al-Maliki to be replaced. There is increasing concern among Sunnis, Kurds, and some Western analysts that Al-Maliki is becoming a dictator like Saddam. And yesterday a coordinated string of bombings shook Baghdad, killing at least 63 people and wounding 185. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgent group, has been blamed for the attacks.

These troubling events highlight the fact that while the state may be a useful analytical concept for political scientists and other observers, the notion of a unified sovereign entity within identifiable borders frequently bears little resemblance to reality.  Critical theorists have sought to “deconstruct” simple concepts like the state and reveal a much messier underlying picture: in Iraq’s case, the messiness is comprised of three major ethno-sectarian groups, a fledgling central government that is not in complete control of its territory (see Kurdistan) and a population that frequently sees itself less as Iraqi than Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd.  While an iron fisted ruler like Saddam Hussein or a powerful occupation force like the Americans may have been able to create a sense of unity for a time, the underlying realities are emerging as U.S. forces withdraw from post-Saddam Iraq.  As one recent news analysis put it:

“While the U.S. troop surge of 2007 helped tamp down Iraq’s violence – and, the US hoped, created ‘space’ for sectarian reconciliation – in the years since, Iraqi politics have remained largely driven by sect and ethnicity, their politicians pursuing a zero-sum game for absolute power.”

Is the concept of the state still a useful way of making sense of the world, or is it a dangerously outmoded concept in today’s globalized  world that obscures more than it enlightens?