The growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have a definite sectarian undertone, reflecting centuries of inter-religious rift between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites, who populate Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, and parts of Lebanon, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Middle East. According to the recent reports, some 36 percent of the Middle East population is Shiite, the majority being Sunni; this figure is even more pronounced worldwide, with estimated 80 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims being Sunni, and roughly 200 million or so are Shiites, including the Alawites in Syria, considered an offshoot of Shiism.
As the current crusade against the Shiites by the terrorist group ISIS (Daesh), which has been blowing up Shiite mosques and sanctioning the genocidal eradication of Shiites, vividly shows, we are witnessing a horrific new chapter in sectarian conflict in the Muslim Middle East, in light of the formidable influence of the conservative Wahhabi brand dominating Saudi Arabia and beyond. The mostly Sunni Syrian opposition, backed by Riyadh, represent a microcosm of a larger struggle by the Sunni majority to reverse the so-called “reassertion of Shiites” attributed to, first and foremost, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the rise of a Shiite theocracy in Iran.
But, of course, as far as the region’s long-repressed Shiite minority is concerned, the phenomenon of “reassertion” is first of all long overdue and timely response to centuries of oppression that still continues unabated in some corners, such as eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which was visited last week by US Secretary of State John Kerry for the first time, although without any mention of the atrocious human rights debacle in Bahrain; clearly, US prioritizes strategic interests above human rights concerns, just as it is completely oblivious to the relentless Saudi bombardment of Yemen’s civilian infrastructure for over a year now, decried by world’s rights organizations. The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is seemingly tolerated because, it is rationalized, the Yemeni Houthis are Zaidi Shiites and, therefore, primed for destruction.
Looking through the darkly glass, the present divide between Shiites and Sunnis will grow either worse or improve over time and, naturally, the big question is what can be done to stem the tide of sectarianism and create a more suitable climate for peaceful coexistence of all Muslims regardless of their sects? In a recent interview with the Atlantic, US President Obama observed: “”The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians –which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen- requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find and effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
Good enough, yet some pundits rightly suspect that the US and other western powers deliberately fan the flames of Middle East sectarianism as part of the familiar, long-standing (neo) colonial ‘divide and dominate’. Indeed, the US has done precious little in trying to mitigate the Shiite-Sunni difference in the Middle East and, obviously, this begs the question of why and what the US’s true intentions are aside from the official rhetoric. In fact, in his Bahrain trip, Secretary Kerry accommodated the ruling family’s Iranophobia by assuring the region’s conservative sheikhdoms of US’s enduring commitment to “contain the threat of Iran,” a message that was not lost on Iran, in light of the stern negative reaction by Iran’s military leaders who, in turn, accused the US of arming the terrorists.
This aside, the enormous challenge of bridging the Sunni-Shiite gap must be tackled on multiple fronts, i.e., at state policy level, religious and cultural levels, the academic and media levels, etc. Clearly, there is insufficient dialogue and interaction between the Shiite and Sunni scholars in today’s Middle East and the cause of intra-faith dialogue remains pathetically retarded. Much more work in terms of joint seminars, conferences, and the like, is needed in order to create a better understanding of the doctrinal and theological underpinnings of each sect and the profound similarities that exist, often buried under the ashes of emotional distance and the every day dichotomy at popular level. Given the incendiary anti-Shiite rhetoric of some salafi preachers, who consider shedding the blood of Shiites as legitimate and even a duty for their mass of followers, thus planting the seeds of genocidal ISIS mentality, it is vitally important to insert the elements of inter-religious harmony in the educational systems of Shiite-led and Sunni-led countries.
But of course, this problem will not go away as a result of seminars and mere dialogue and would require detente between the Shiite and Sunni ‘historic blocs,’ to borrow a term from Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, so that the persistent demonization of the other side as a ‘hostile other’ would cease to exist, replaced by a pluralistic sentiment and religious sensibility celebrating ‘unity in difference’ as part of a broader inter-Islam solidaristic movement.
After all, the two groups share a great deal in common, such as fear of terrorism, solidarity for the Palestinian cause, concern for the environment, the Hajj ceremony, etc., that glues them together and through prudent and patient labor can be further nurtured as the basis for harmony. Unfortunately, the extremist groups have in some parts of the Middle East today been able to spread their dangerous sectarian ideas, as a result of which there is a great setback for the cause of Muslim unity. This unhealthy situation will likely continue and, perhaps, deteriorate even further, unless the voices of wisdom, tolerance, and religious harmony, succeed in reversing the extremists’ tide and cultivating their versions of tolerant and pluralistic Islam. The current peace talks in Syria is a crucial litmus test and we will soon know the answer to the question of which direction is the Muslim world sailing, less or more sectarian divide? This is of course not simply a religious divide but also one of power and politics, in light of the contrasting Iran’s and Saudis’ agenda for the Middle East.