The Great Sunni-Shia Divide and How It Is Fueling Conflict In The Middle East


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Iran Ayatollah Khamenei
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By Ataei86 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

In 2011 the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East. The origins and driving factors of the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, among others, were complicated, but seemed to be fueled by high-unemployment, advanced means of communication (i.e. social media), and a growing desire for change. Yet as tensions boiled over, sectarian differences between Shia and Sunni populations quickly moved to the forefront.

In tiny Bahrain, thousands of protesters took to the street. By-and-large, the protesters were Shia muslims, which make up a majority of the country's population. They were demanding more political freedom and more say in the government, which was and is dominated by a Sunni royal family that is heavily supported by Saudi Arabia. With the royal regime on the verge of collapsing, Saudi troops marched down the causeway connecting the two countries and restored order.

Meanwhile, in Syria Sunni protesters began to take to the street, calling for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, a Shia Muslim hailing from the country's minority Shia population. The country has since collapsed into a failed state, with the hardlined Sunni Islamic State emerging from the chaos. Assad has since been receiving considerable support from the predominately Shia Iranian government, as well as the Shia militant group Hezbollah in nearby Lebanon.

Now, Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen have been waging a war against the Sunni-dominate and Saudi Arabia supported government of Saudi Arabia. Iran has been funneling funds and weapons to the Houthis, while Saudi Arabia is offering direct military support to the Yemeni government. It's entirely possible that conditions will only worsen as both sides increase their support.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the growing fissure between the country's Sunni minority in the Sunni Triangle, and the Shia government in Baghdad has created an immense amount instability. The Shia government of Iraq has also fallen under the increasing control of Iran, despite the substantial support being offered by Washington D.C.

Perhaps the Arab Spring was founded on the ideals of modernization and democracy, but it has since given way to the age-old sectarian violence that has long divided the region. Across MENA majority groups under the rule of minority leaders have been demanding more power, and in many cases Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia dominated Iran have been willing to fund groups amenable to their causes.

Middle East Evolving Into Grand Proxy War Between Saudi Arabia and Iran

The Sunni-Shia divide extends back to the early years after the passing of the Prophet Mohammad. The central conflict stems over who had the right to be caliphs, or the religious rulers that dominated early Islam. When Mohammad died, he left no officially appointed successor. Basically, those who would become Sunni Muslims, believed that Abu Bakr, the Prophet's trusted friend and advisor, should become the next caliphate. Shia Muslims, however, believed that the Caliph should come from the same bloodline as Mohammad, and supported Mohammad's cousin, Ali.

The above recount, of course, is a gross simplification of complicated events, but the rift over succession has played down through the ages. Shia Muslims generally believe that only those direct descendants of Ali had a “right” to be leaders of Muslims. Sunnis, instead, focused on the Sunnah, or way of Mohammad.

As is often the case, the current tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are now as much about geopolitics as religion. Both countries are battling for power, and ultimately control, in the Middle East. Both countries are also home to vast quantities of oil and natural gas, allowing them to spend large sums on military and war activities, without having to directly tax their citizens. This influx of cash, especially since sanctions were lifted on Iran following the recently signed nuclear deal, has allowed both countries to support allies across the region.

Owing to steady funds of cash for both countries, complicated geopolitics, and a battle of differences stemming centuries, it's unlikely that conditions will be improving any time soon. Sadly, as both countries continue to lock horns through their proxies, innocent civilians far removed from geopolitical battles, and more concerned with daily living, will be caught in the middle.

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