The Geopolitics of the Sunni-Shi‘a Divide in the Middle East
By Samuel Helfont, Associate Scholar in FPRI's Program on the Middle East
Review by Michael W. Cotter
This lecture from an FPRI conference for teachers is well worth reading for two reasons. First, it provides an excellent, clear explanation of the theological and historical divide between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Second, it provides a concise yet detailed analysis of the current state of the relationship between the two and their importance in understanding politics in the Middle East today. The importance of the first purpose is underscored by the introductory paragraph in which the author describes a 2006 New York Times reporter’s attempt to learn how clearly senior U.S. government officials and legislators understood the distinction. The depressing result was that most had “no clue” whether key actors were Sunni or Shi’a. One can only hope that the intervening seven years have heightened official awareness of the differences.
Presumably most readers of American Diplomacy are familiar with the two branches, but it is always good to have a refresher, and the author’s description of the various sects within, or allied with, Shi’a Islam is particularly useful.
Unusually, and usefully, in addition to explaining the differences between the branches, the author provides examples of “ecumenical,” interrelationships that connect them. Continuing this theme, his analysis of the current geopolitical importance of the two branches of Islam also highlights the fact that in the current unsettled situation in the Middle East the interests and actions of the two branches cross both sectarian and national boundaries. Finally, the author provides an insightful analysis of the impact the Sunni and Shi’a divide is likely to have on the Syrian Civil War and more broadly in the Middle East.
Review by Norville DeAtkine
The opening remarks of Samuel Helfont’s experience with U.S. officials in understanding the difference between Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam rang a bell with this reviewer. By virtue of my contact with the so-called “Green Beret” terrorist, Mohamed Ali, at Ft. Bragg North Carolina, the FBI came to interview me. The two investigators were totally ignorant of the various branches of Islam. Overall, the ignorance of journalists and even the academic world about Shi’ism is pervasive. For instance, in my course on Islam in the American University of Beirut, I scarcely remember Shi’a being mentioned. Study of Islam in American Middle Eastern Centers of learning tends to be very Sunni–centric.
So the lecture by Helfont is very appropriate if somewhat basic in its information. He begins by correctly identifying the initial split between the Shi’a and Sunni as political, not theological. He goes on to identify the various branches of Shi’a and where they live and the early battles between the followers of Ali, soon to be called Shi’a, and those who believed that the Prophet Mohammed had not selected a successor before his death, later to be called the Sunnis.
Following the major battle of Karbala in 680 A.D, the Shi’a were vanquished but remained a growing and strong, if disenfranchised, Islamic sect. With the exception of Iran, the Islamic world became largely Sunni.
In the Arab world, various Shi’a and sub groups became a decided second-class category of Muslims. In Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon, as well as the Alawis (an off shoot of Shi’a Islam) in Syria they were looked down on by their Sunni co-religionists. They became inured to a minority political position.
However, Helfort is wrong in identifying the American invasion of Iraq as the trigger for the Sunni-Shi’a conflict. It actually began with the rise of Shi’a militancy in Lebanon, not against the Israelis, but rather the Sunni Palestinian occupiers of their lands in South Lebanon, beginning with the rise of the PLO, and continuing in the Lebanese civil war in which the most bloody phase was the “war of the camps” between Shi’a militia and Palestinians in the refugee camps.
In fact the rise of Arab nationalism was generally exclusionary of the Shi’a. It was an Arab Sunni movement. Even the Palestinian issue has never had the same resonance among the Shi’a as it did the Sunni. The Shi’a-Sunni split became greatly exacerbated by the rise of the Islamists such as al Qaeda. This inherently Salafist influenced movement is venomous toward Shi’ism.
Helfont is right in describing the relatively large number of Shi’a -Sunni intermarriages, and the occasional Shi’a–Sunni tactical cooperation in operations by radical organizations, such as the quick trip of Arafat to greet newly installed Ayatollah Khomeini, but these have proven to be ephemeral and with no lasting impact.
In summary, the lecture sheds some light on the Shi’a-Sunni divide but tends to underplay the seriousness and potentially permanent status of the division. In the centuries since the divide occurred, initially as a result of political differences, a vast gap has widened in theology, practices, and particularly in their historical narrative. These are unlikely to diminish, and as Helfont rightly observes, the Syrian conflict can only make it worse.
Review by David T. Jones
Perhaps it takes a Jewish scholar to make sense of Islamic-Muslim sociopolitical action. Samuel Helfont, in a lecture for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has provided his insights in “The Geopolitics of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide in the Middle East.”
This is not reading for the “Arab hand” sophisticate with multiple tours in the Middle East and/or close experience with Islamic politics and sociology. Rather it is an “Islamic History 101,” providing a primer on Islam; it is equivalent to a descriptive text for Chinese attempting to determine differences between Protestants and Catholics and why Gettysburg is important to Americans.
Helfont starts with a neat Sunni-Shi’a distinction: Sunnis believe Muslim leadership is determined by selecting the best available leader; Shi’as believe it should be hereditary stemming from Mohamed’s son-in-law (Ali) and his successors. The historical result was a Sunni military victory and resultant persistent Shi’a minority status throughout most of the region.
Helfont then tracks the current intricacies of who, what, when, where and why of modern Sunni-Shi’a politics and geographic dominance. While noting exceptions (a Sunni-Shi’a general who overthrew the Iraqi Shi’a monarch in 1958 and Iranian Shia leader Khomeni’s outreach to Sunnis), Helfont sees religious differences as primary in defining regional political relationships.
Helfont identifies two recent eventsthe U.S. wars in Iraq and the Israeli wars against Hezbollah and Hamasand the ongoing conflict in Syria as particularly significant. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein in effect upended Sunni domination and instituted Shi’a majority control in Iraq, creating a “Shi’a crescent” stretching from Iran through Syria. The Israeli battles with Hezbollah and Hamas united assorted Shi’a and Sunni actors against Tel Aviv (hatred of Israeli is perhaps the sole unifying force in Islam).
But more importantly for Helfont is the ongoing Syrian civil war with a “pseudo-Shi’a Allawite Assad besieged by Sunni rebels and Sunni states, but still supported by Shi’a Iran and Hezbollah Lebanon. Thus a vicious semi-religious sectarian war has ensued with civilians frequently the victims by combatants who are “tremendously creative in their brutality.”
But Helfont also plays predictive and notes somewhat disingenuously that the Syrian strife will not last forever. He observes that the longer it persists the more likely current sectarian disputes will endure. And he offers the “dissatisfying” conclusion that “sectarianism may, but will not necessarily, shape future geopolitics in the region.” He does not say so, but might also conclude that as long as Israel exists, both Sunni and Shi’a will have a focus for animosity.