On the morning of February 22, 2006, a series of bombs brought one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, al-Askari Mosque, crashing to the ground. The attack in the town of Samarra, Iraq, was just one in a succession of attacks aimed at Shia Muslims, who, following the British invasion of Iraq in 2003, were frequently targeted by Sunni extremists.
Over the next few days, Shia militants conducted a string of reprisal attacks and fired at over 15 Sunni mosques. In the chaos of post-2003 Iraq, everyday Iraqis found themselves picking sides in the Sunni-Shia divide – a divide that had never been all that significant – as their country descended into an abyss of sectarian violence.
The sectarian tensions stirred in Iraq in 2006 largely continue to this day. They are also present in much of the Islamic world. Sectarian based civil wars rage in Yemen and Syria, while in Indonesia, radical Sunni Islamists hold anti-Shia alliances in attempts to suppress Shia communities. All of this suggest that the Sunni-Shia divide has now become a holistic, global issue.
But was it a big deal prior to Britain’s invasion of Iraq?
The divide itself dates from the 7th century and was born out of a succession dispute over who should lead the Muslims after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.
Some argued that leadership should be bestowed upon qualified individuals. Others argued that only the Prophet Muhammad’s descendants were fit to lead. The former group evolved into the Sunni sect of Islam; the latter group evolved, over many years, into the Shia sect of Islam- “shia” meaning “party” (referring to the partisans of Ali).
Despite this initial difference, throughout most of Islamic history, Sunnis and Shias have lived quietly side by side. They were not conceptualised and distinguished in the same way as they are today. Both share faith in the Qur’an and in the five pillars of Islam that serve as the foundation of Muslim life. In many countries, it even became common for members of the two sects to intermarry and pray at the same mosques.
This does not mean that the divide did not exist in the past though. On the contrary: whenever there was a political prize to be fought over and won, the Sunni-Shia divide surfaced, albeit to lesser extents compared to today.
This happened shortly after the death of Muhammad, when those who we now call “Shia Arabs” rejected the authority of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty. Husayn ibn Ali, Muhammad’s grandson, subsequently led a revolt in Karbala, modern day Iraq. The Battle of Karbala ended in 680 AD when Yazid I, Umayyad Caliph, sent an army to crush the revolt and massacre Husayn alongside his supporters.
The divide, again, resurfaced in the 16th century when the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shia Safavid Empire declared Holy War against each other. This exposes the subjective nature of the term “Jihad”, which has become a heavily loaded term. The two empires fought tirelessly for centuries over territorial control, and their legacies impact the distribution of Islam’s sects even today.
In truth, sectarian violence in Islam is centuries old. And whenever it resulted in war or murder, it was undoubtedly a big deal.
Yet, since the British invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been a noticeable change in dynamics in the Sunni-Shia divide. Prior to the invasion, sectarianism was largely contained within the structure of authoritarian regimes. This is not to say that the Sunni-Shia divide was not significant; indeed, minorities across many countries were denied political access and were oppressed under such regimes.
Following the invasion, Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian rule – which had previously contained sectarianism – cracked. Suddenly, there was a political prize to be fought over and won, thereby resurfacing confessional identity as new political actors place substantial emphasis on the Sunni-Shia divide. The power vacuum left after the invasion allowed these sectarian tensions to flourish, leading to the attack on al-Askari Mosque and the subsequent descent into sectarian violence.
Similar developments occurred across North Africa and the Middle East following the so-called Arab Spring. As authoritarian structures cracked, political rivalries in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Bahrain quickly developed into religious-sectarian rivalries. Imminent sectarian conflict is hence used by authoritarian leaders to justify the status quo.
What has also further escalated the Sunni-Shia divide post-9/11 is the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. As contests for territorial and economic gains occur across the Islamic World, both nations continue to heavily subsidise their geopolitical interests, exploiting the Sunni-Shia divide along their way. This has exacerbated sectarian proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other Islamic and Arab countries.
The Sunni-Shia divide has simmered for fourteen centuries. For the most part, Muslims of all sects have lived peacefully together. However, whenever there has been a political prize to be fought over, the Sunni-Shia divide erupts to the surface. This is what happened following the British invasion of Iraq, when a power vacuum revealed competing political actors branding opposing confessional identities. The battle continues, and is present in several other Arab countries.
Worryingly, there is no end in sight. Fear is a powerful political force. Until there is a supranational system that effectively protects different sectarian expressions, and until regional superpowers are incentivised to not exacerbate these differences for geopolitical gains, it is likely that the Sunni-Shia divide will continue to escalate.