The intensification of sectarian warfare in Iraq during the last year has generated a flow of commentary in the Western press, claiming that this conflict is the consequence of age-old animosities between the Shias and the Sunnis because of deep religious differences. In other words, most of these commentaries convey a sense of inevitability and permanency about Sunni-Shia conflict, not only in Iraq but also elsewhere in the Muslim world where there are substantial Shia minorities.
Clearly, differences between the Sunnis and Shias, which began immediately following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, concerning his legitimate successor, are real and cannot be denied. However, historically, ordinary Sunnis and Shias have lived peacefully, even if not closely, together. This has been partly due to the fact that the Shias lost early in the competition both for political power and for the allegiance of the majority of Muslims; the Shias retreated essentially to a politically quietist position, as advised by the sixth Shia Imam, Ja’afar Sadegh.
Therefore, in the history of Sunni-Shia relations, there are no parallels to the Thirty Years War between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The only events that come somewhat close were the Ottoman–Saffavid wars. However, those wars were more about competition between an established empire, that of the Ottomans, and a newly formed empire, that of the Saffavids, and not about religion, as such, even though the Saffavids were Shia. By the end of the 17th century, Ottoman –Saffavids rivalry had subsided and, since the early 18th century, with a few brief periods when internal turmoil in Iran invited Ottoman intervention, relations between the two empires and, later, between the Republic of Turkey and Iran have been peaceful and even friendly.
In South Asia, where there are also substantial Shia minorities, until the last decade or so there was no history of any large-scale Sunni-Shia conflict. Furthermore, in the last forty years, there have been efforts on the part of Sunni and Shia Ulema at reconciliation between the two groups. Good examples of this were the contacts during the 1960s between Ayatullah Ghomi in Iran and Sheikh Shaltut of Al Azhar, which had positive results. Following these efforts, Ja’afari was recognized as another school of Fiqh in Islam.
The gradual rise in sectarian tensions, which had began in early 1970s and escalated following the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan War, had to do with politics and competition for influence and power, notably between Iran and the Arab countries, especially Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This competition contributed to a sharp rise in sectarian tensions, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as both sides tried to use religion as an instrument of policy. Iraq’s invasion of Iran and the ensuing war also played a role in this respect.
In addition to inter-state rivalry, the socially and economically disadvantaged position of the Shias in Sunni majority countries, or countries where Shias are a majority but the rulers are Sunni --as was the case in Iraq and now is in Bahrain -- has in recent decades contributed to the Shias’ sense of alienation and their quest for emancipation and legitimacy. The Shia revival movement in Lebanon, which began in the 1960s, under the leadership of Ayatullah Musa Sadr, is the best example of this Shia quest for equality and recognition.
If the Shia movement became radicalized, this was to no small part due to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon 1982 and the ensuing Lebanese civil war.
In post-war Iraq, too, sectarian conflict is the result of two interrelated factors: years of discrimination against the Shias by repressive Iraqis governments and the failure to develop a sense of national identity transcending tribal and sectarian affiliations; and fears generated among the Sunnis about their future economic and political position under a Shia-dominated government.
On a broader scale, the latest intensification of sectarian tension throughout the Muslim world reflects the Western strategy of instrumentalizing sectarian differences to forge a regional alliance against Iran.
What the foregoing amounts to is that there is nothing inevitable or fated about Sunni-Shia conflict. Their differences are not any worse than those that had existed within the Christian family and which now have all but disappeared as a result of overall prosperity, democracy, and sustained efforts at interfaith dialogue and reconciliation.
Therefore, there are several steps that can help prevent sectarian conflict from spreading. First, Muslim governments, whether Sunni or Shia, should respect the rights of their citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs. Thus Sunni majority countries should treat their Shia citizens as equal, and the Shia majority countries should do the same thing regarding their Sunni minorities. Second, Muslim countries should desist from using religion as an instrument of security and foreign policy, and instead focus on practical ways of resolving conflicts and building viable institutions for conflict prevention and promotion of peaceful relations. Third, the great powers should not manipulate sectarian divisions in the pursuit of their interests. As history bears witness, any short–term gain tends to be accompanied by long–term trouble and loss.
Shireen Hunter is a Visiting Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.