What is Missing in our Sunni-Shi’a Conflict Narrative?

Ali R. Abootalebi | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Sunni-Shi’a schism provides for different narrative and prescriptions for arriving at the ‘utopian Islamic society’ and the incoming of the Messiah, al-Mahdi. The theological, doctrinal and jurisprudential differences between the two main branches of Islam has translated into two different visions on the role of the clerics, the ‘Ulema, in religious and political arenas. Overall, the Shi’a ‘Ulema are better positioned to act as the custodian of the (Islamic) state in the name of the people. The hierarchical Shi’a version of the Sharia bestows its highest ranking ‘Ulema, the Ayatollahs, with religious (and political) authority in charge of the state. The Ayatollah’s counterparts in the Sunni tradition, the Muftis, on the other hand, are limited in playing such a role. For example, The Sunni community in Iraq today does not follow a single Marja (source of authority and emulation) that funds religious leaders independently, like the Najaf-based Shiite authority. The historical Sunni political doctrine of the Islamic state necessitates the presence of a Caliphate (Emir or Sultan), the last of who was the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and whose House of the Caliphate was abolished in 1924.

It is puzzling as to why intelligent people in the media and those in charge of the US foreign policy persistently ignore the need to pay close attention to the underlying ‘context’ in which events take place; to remain cognizant of socioeconomic, political, cultural, historical, and the international contexts in explaining human interactions and events in varying settings. This is something any of my undergraduates is expected to do.

Whatever the motivation behind such disregard and/or ignorance, there are important tailing consequences. The late Edward Said told of the “Orientalism’ disease that poisoned the mind of both the intellectual and the common observers of Middle Eastern peoples and societies: Designated as ‘the other,’ the Oriental people are marred with peculiar and traditional sociocultural values, setting them apart from the ‘rational’ Occidental mind, and are resistant to modernity and political democracy. The cultural essentialists, thus, claimed that Islam, traditionalism, and tribalism are central variables in explaining the prevalence of what is indeed structural. As such, historical colonialism and imperialism and persistent external covert and overt interventions in the Middle East and Northern African region (MENA) were largely ignored, downplayed, or justified. Political authoritarianism and social stagnation ‘must have been’ endemic to the Arab World, if less so in the westernizing Turkey and Iran.

North Africa and ME

North Africa and ME

The Sunni or the Shi’a understanding of the ‘proper’ social, theological/jurisprudential, and political framework promoting Islamic governance differ, but such disagreements cannot be understood outside its broader and prevalent national and international contexts. The last wave of Islamic revivalism of the late 1800s, for example, occurred when both the Ottoman and the Safavids dynasties were at the mercy of their European colonial powers and the existing socioeconomic and political environment were marred with severe levels of underdevelopment and poor governance. The mushrooming ‘Islamic’ question for revivalists and reformers like Jamal al-din al-Afghani or Muhammad Abdu or Muhammad Iqbal was, then, over the discovery of an ‘Islamic path’ to recovery in light of humiliation in the hands of the Christian West and the corrupt, incompetent rulers within. The burgeoning inquiry was over the question of effective (Islamic) governance and not the Sunni-Shi’a divide per se. This wave of Islamic movement differed from, for example, the al-Khawarij movement in the early Islam that reflected the turbulent years of civil war in the Islamic community over the question of succession and the legitimacy to rule in the years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (632—661AD). The political and social dissension and divide between the political elite in Damascus and the religious and spiritual leadership in Mecca and al-Najaf in Iraq had caused a political and religious gulf between a heretical vision the political and military leadership in Damascus and the opposition who demanded their share in the distribution of wealth and political power (later-known as the Shiite, or partisans of Ali–those followers of the bloodline heirs to the prophet Muhammad, led by Ali ibn Abi Talib).

The ongoing propagated Sunni-Shi’a divide narrative proposes the sectarian divide as the cause of both national and inter-state problems in the region. The Sunni-Shi’a divide has been a dominant theme in explanation of events in the MENA region since the Iranian Revolution, including the ‘root cause of the revolution—as a Shi’a-Islamic-revolution–to the Iraqi (Sunni-Arab dominated) invasion of a revolutionary (Shi’a) Iran, to the historical and modern sectarian divide causing conflict and war and underdevelopment in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, to the (Sunni) Saudi and (Shia) Iranian rivalry in the Persian Gulf region over a Sunni or a Shi’a alternative and vision for the future of Islam and Muslim societies. However, the root cause of the ‘constructed Sunni-Shia conflict’ in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Bahrain and other members of the Arab League, rests with poor governance, including the presence of illegitimate, authoritarian states. Sectarian mobilization and counter-mobilization is only a manifestation of the larger contest over political power and socioeconomic resources; in other words, it is over the control of the state and matters of governance.

The State and Governance

It is only natural to think of national governments once the question of governance arises. After all, national governments are endowed with tremendous power, legitimate or not, and resources to govern over matters of significance to the population, including law and order, national security, social and economic development, and the preservation of cultural heritage and overall social harmony. State capacity has two broad components: protecting the safety and security of people, and its ability to implement public policies, collect revenue and deliver basic goods and services to enhance social welfare and economic growth. (p. 30) But, governance is about power and it is broader than just the ruling government; it is about who has the political authority to make decisions and influence policy, and how resources and wealth are allocated within society. Good governance signals the ability of governing institutions to deliver the key public goods needed to maintain order and stability. Furthermore, governance is ‘good’ and also more likely to advance peace when “it is inclusive, participatory and accountable; when it is characterized by fair procedures and performs well in delivering necessary public goods.” (p. 47). Democracy is an essential element of good governance; its presence may not be a guarantee of peace, but its absence and attempts to suppress it are significant risk factors for war (p. 176).

Democracy is not about culture, religion, or religious sectarianism per se, but the management of political power and the competition over socioeconomic resources within agreed-upon normative principles and values and institutional arrangements, whereby individual citizens through elections and other forms of political participation determine their own choices through elected representatives. In other words, political democracy is (can be) an instrumental method in the resolution of ‘identity conflicts’ over cultural and nationalistic issues by providing legal and institutional venues for resolution of differences and conflicts to groups in competition over socioeconomic resources and political power. The competition among cultural groups in a given society is not so much about the superiority or inferiority of certain value system or way of life per se; e.g., designation of one’s identity as Sunni or Shi’a, but how the competition translates into control over local, regional and national resources while realizing the ambitions and aspirations of all cultural groups. This is especially true, where legal and institutional venues for dispute settlement and conflict resolution and power sharing among competing cultural groups are weak or are seriously lacking. In such cases, it becomes ‘natural’ for a dominant culture try imposing its ethos and belief systems, through cooperation or coercion, on minority groups, monopolizing control over socioeconomic resources and political power.

The inadequacies of the state and its institutions and bureaucracy and the presence of weak and divided society have been a prominent problem in the Arab MENA region. The state authoritarian rule and traditional value systems and institutions still pose serious challenges before Arab societies striving for democratic rule and social justice. The opposition in Arab countries also has failed to mobilize the populace around a common ideology to challenge the state. Instead, the state has manipulated ethnoreligious divisions to further divide and paralyze the opposition. Civil society in the Arab World remains underdeveloped. As Gilbert Achcar argues, the deep roots of the Arab uprising, for example, are manifold: First, almost all Arab states take their place on a scale running from patrimonial to neopatrimonial regimes, further accentuated by their rentier economies (p.59), and the state is merely a cash cow (p 63). Second, sociopolitical instability and the absence of any real rule of law in virtually all Arab countries means the development of speculative or commercial capitalism with the specific variant of a capitalist mode of production being politically determined. So, the peculiar modality of the capitalist mode of production—a mix of Patrimonialism, nepotism, and crony capitalism, pillaging of public property, swollen bureaucracy, and generalized corruption, against a background of great sociopolitical instability and the impotence or even nonexistence of the role of law—is dominant in the Arab region (p. 74). The Arab region on the eve of 2011lacked organized political forces capable of moving popular protest and stood little chance of peacefully overturning Arab patrimonial regimes that were protected by a praetorian guard with tribal, sectarian, and regional loyalties. (p. 142).

“Corruption is the antithesis of good governance; it undermines the conditions that favor peace: economic development, stable governing institutions, and social trust. (p. 130), and nothing does more to erode public trust and the legitimacy of government than public officials abusing their authority for illicit gain. Economic growth is dependent upon policies that protect and support free markets, but markets flourish best in governance systems that promote equality of access, provide social safety nets, enhance human capital, respond effectively to market failures and guard against exploitation and abuse (p. 193).On the other hand, As Marwan Bishara in ‘The Invisible Arab,’ observes, pillars of liberty and justice reconciled with religion and nationalism, form the bedrock that will allow stability and progress to flourish in the Arab world and beyond.

The state of The State in the Arab World is in turmoil. The rise of the so-called ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (al-Sham)’ or the ISIL—the Daesh in Arabic—was (is) fundamentally the result of both the poverty of Arab Politics and the failure of the Islamic clerical leadership in formulating and institutionalizing the mechanics necessary for modern governance. This failure is more pronounced in the Sunni Arab countries. Arab politics experimentation with Ba’athism, Pan-Arabism, secular nationalism, and monarchism have all failed, paving the way for Islamic movements, mostly colored with radical solutions to empower society and to thwart foreign influence. Although some Arab states have done better than others in the promotion of socioeconomic change, they all have fallen short in the political arena. The failure of the Arab Spring movements since 2011 only testifies to the entrenched power of Arab political elites and their foreign supporters, who have thus far played the sectarian card and the ‘war on terrorism’ mantra to secure regime survival and maintaining the status quo.

The Shi’a clerics’ takeover of the state in Iran since the 1979 revolution has allowed them the opportunity to formulate, institutionalize, and practice an ‘Islamic Republicanism,’ with many successes and failures, but at least avoiding violent dissident religious movements. The simultaneous competition and cooperation between the religious and political establishment has resulted in tangible settlements or still evolving, of some seemingly ‘intractable’ issues involving Islam and the operation of modern society, economy, and polity. As Bruce Rutherford elaborates on Islamic democracy, the interaction between liberal constitutionalism and Islamic constitutionalism is likely to produce a distinctive form of democracy that resembles western democracy in institutional terms but differs about the purpose of the state, the role of the individual in politics and society, and the character and function of law. That is, the place and duties of the Islamic State remains controversial since it is the state that ‘must’ ensure the presence of Islam in society, sanctioning rules, and laws that can violate the individual rights of the citizen, e.g., hijab, minority rights, women rights, inheritance, family planning, testimonials, and role of judges, etc.)

The contemporary Sunni-Shi’a schism dates back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Iran’s foreign policy prior to, and since the revolution, has been driven, for the most part, by pragmatism; the sectarian card is played as a reaction to the rise of militant Sunni movements in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the greater Arab world, to protect the new revolutionary state and its ethos. Recall, that Iran before the revolution and unlike Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan lacked any serious religious movement or religious political parties challenging the state, and it resembled more like its neighboring Turkey in its secular political orientation. Yet, the first 20th Century ‘Islamic’ revolution in the (Shi’a) Iran implied that Islam is indeed a potent sociopolitical contender in governance. The seizure of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia in 1979 crystalized the threat of an ‘Islamic challenge’ in the Arab world that diverted a great deal of wasted Saudi national treasure to thwart a ‘Shi’a threat’ and promoting militant Salafism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond, whilst protecting the prevailing sociopolitical and economic status quo. Hitherto, the sectarian card became currency in the ‘constructed debate’ over not so much the deficiencies of good governance but over the supposed threat of all Islamic movements as a terrorist menace to societies everywhere! Iran’s policy in support of national sovereignty and integrity of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen falls in line with its support of empowering the historically suppressed Shi’a political and religious establishments in Iraq and Lebanon, whilst its support for Syrian government and the Houthis in Yemen, though a limited one, eyes countering the United States’ and its allies’ hostilities and their not-so-secret push for regime change in Tehran.

Marwan Bishara contends how Israel, oil, terrorism and radical Islam have affected the interior identity of the region as well as Western projections upon it. Protection of Israel, Western imperial ambition, a thirst for oil, and fear of radicalism have caused many Western regimes and media to characterize Arab countries and people as unreceptive to democracy or progress. The question then must be asked as to why the West can perpetually manipulate Arab political leaders since the end of first-world-war? How far have the Arab politics really traveled in the past one hundred years? Are the Arab states and peoples truly victims of an Iranian-conspired sectarianism in the region? Or, whether the Arab peoples are a victim of archaic and parochial politics and manipulative and dependent foreign relations, perpetuating the status quo? In the end, let the evidence speak for itself: what is portrayed as the hallmark of relations between the leading western countries and the modernizing Arab political allies has brought the Daesh, civil wars, death and destruction and humiliation, unprecedented to the region since the Mongol invasion or modern colonialism.

Ali R. Abootalebi is Professor of Middle Eastern and Global Politics in the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire (UWEC). He is the author of Islam and democracy: State-Society Relations in Developing Countries, 1980-1994 (Garland, 2000), and, coauthored with Stephen Hill, Introduction to World Politics: Prospects and Challenges for the United States, 2nd ed. (Kendall Hunt, 2018) and numerous articles on Iran, Arab Politics, Civil Society and Democracy and U.S. foreign policy.

8 Responses

  1. Again, another gold mine of information about the history and politics of the ME that is not available in the mainstream media.

  2. While it is true that the Grand Mosque seizure and the Islamic revolution in Iran both happened in 1979, the Grand Mosque was seized by Sunni hardliners, not by Shia. Somehow claiming that the Grand Mosque seizure triggered anti-Shia and anti-Iran efforts by the Saudis seems off.

    • Grand Mosque seizure simply heightened the ‘Islamic threat’, shored up by the Iranian revolution in the minds of the Saudi ruling elite.

    • I think the argument is that those independent Sunni Islamist (who were like a Salafi cult believing the Mahdi arrived) militants who challenged the writ of the ruling Saudi monarchy and Wahhabi clerical establishment were inspired by the Shia fundamentalists taking over Iran. (You’ll find some Saudis, including in government, and other Sunni conservatives make the case that Iran was directly behind the siege. The conspiracy theory is in line with their anti-Shia/Iran prejudice).

      The new Iranian clerical regime spoke of ‘exporting the revolution’ to other nations which freaked most of the other authoritarian and mostly Sunni governments in the neighbourhood.

      I personally don’t think that was the main or lone trigger for Saudi Arabia to export their Wahhabism in response and indulge in sectarian proxy wars, and most of the Sunni states would have still been paranoid and hostile with or without the Kaaba siege.

  3. Feel like this article didn’t help me understand any better.

    All I can see is rise in bigotry, fundamentalism and sectarianism across the region. Not basing this off of Pakistan only, which is part of the current amongst nations globally, despite a democracy, becoming more illiberal with a hegemonic majority (and of course not exclusive to Muslims, like Hungary, India, Sri Lanka, Burma etc).

    Even white or Western tourist haven and not as religious UAE, a modern Sunni Arab monarchy far removed from Wahhabism (unlike modern Qatar), has become more sectarian and prejudiced by literally tracking, denying and expelling Shiite expatriates and marginalizing and discriminating whatever is left of their fewer local Emirati Shiites. Also more politically and militarily aggressive now.

    Then you have your sectarian messes and onslaughts in Iraq and Syria, thanks to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. When these states couldn’t care and be honest about one another or their local Shia-Sunni, other non-Shia, non-Sunni or other ethnic people and why they’re in conflict, doubt Russia and the US would want to know much about the sectarian narrative except that everyone hates each other.

    Blame it on Authoritarianism or bad governance and the ‘devilish’ foreign backers, exacerbating the situation, sure…but let’s not act like religious fundamentalism and sectarian bigotry aren’t their own drivers and problem amongst local Muslim residents, even in places as far as Malaysia or Indonesia. Might as well then just excuse the existence of bigoted white supremacists in the US due to the previous administration’s ‘neglect’ of Christian white people, which is bonkers.

  4. It is fairly clear to me that people are lazy about how they think about the sociocultural and political states of any other country besides their own. For example, when Americans on the news talk about American politics they have a deeper, more substantive discussion than when they talk about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. When they talk about what is hindering the development and prosperity of the Middle East, they focus on the general differences between the Middle Eastern world and the secular Western world rather than having an unbiased, empirical approach to assessing the problems of the region. It is not enough to say that one part of the world is less stable and prosperous because of how it is different from another more prosperous and stable part of the world. Rather than glorifying our own culture and blaming the suffering parts of the world for doubting our supremacy, it should be the desire of people in the West to try to encourage the discussion of ideas about change in the Middle East without trying to dominate the debate. We must remember that the most important goal we should have for the entire world is that it gets better and improves, rather than that it emulates our part of the world. It is important that any idea of change for a nation comes after strong support for that idea has emerged within that nation, or else it will not have as much legitimacy compared to traditionalist ideas which have indeed come from within that nation. Very few people actually realize the bias they have towards other cultures for being different. We must understand that things such as republicanism, secularism, and liberty may come in entirely new and unimaginable forms in the coming centuries as good ideas are spread (but modified) by different parts of the world. I would like to emphasize that I do not condone complacency or guilt on the part of the West when it comes to holding parts of the world accountable, nor other parts of the world being afraid to hold the West accountable. What I really want to see is humility from more people as they come together to discuss the world in an open, clear-headed way. People must have the humility to understand that nobody knows everything and that no culture is even close to perfect. Humility and open discussion about the best way for things to operate will be, I predict, the thing that will greatly decrease conflict and suffering in the world as time marches on.

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