For most Westerners the Shia-Sunni conflict has been a confusing but distant phenomenon that rumbles along in the background of Middle Eastern and South Asian politics: an obscure theological dispute within Islam that only makes headlines when a Shia mosque is destroyed in Pakistan or Hezbollah blows up a Sunni leader in Lebanon. But the rumble has been getting louder, and yesterday’s execution of the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the Saudi authorities could well turn it into a roar that will echo throughout the middle east and beyond.
Since the souring of the Arab Spring, and especially since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, outsiders have become more aware that this ancient sectarian division is reflected in the struggle between two bitterly opposed power blocs in the region: a conservative Sunni one led by the Saudis and a Shia one led and inspired by Iran. Their various proxy militias are fighting each other not just in Iraq and Syria but also in Lebanon and Yemen. As bad as that may seem, this war may well be about to expand to include divided countries like Bahrain and even the Saudi kingdom itself. And it is far from unlikely that the sectarian struggle could spread much further, even into our own cities.
Having misunderstood and even fostered Sunni-Shia tensions in the past, Western countries have tended to underestimate the importance of the Sunni-Shia divide in recent decades. You could see this in the poor planning for the Iraq war and in the fact that many Western media organizations covering that war initially had no idea if their translators and fixers were members of the Sunni minority and therefore likely to be supporters of the Saddam regime.
Sunnis of course make up the vast majority of Muslims around the world, and most of them are willing to live alongside Shia even if they don’t like or respect their beliefs. But hardline Sunnis and Salafists refer to Shia Muslims as Rafidah (a strongly pejorative term which roughly translates as “the rejectors” (a reference to the Shiite rejection of the first Caliphs in favour of Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law), and see them as polytheists. As apostates, the Shia are worse and more deserving of death even than Jews and Christians.
You can sense this even in the UK. Most British Muslims are Sunni. The concern expressed by British Muslims about the killing of the faithful in wars abroad never extended to the tens of thousands of Shia civilians slaughtered in mosques and market places during the Iraq war. Nor have there ever been any demonstrations against the large-scale killing of Shia Hazaras by the Taliban, or murderous attacks on Shiite places of worship in Pakistan.
One line of Salafist thought sees the Shia as a fifth column set up to destroy Islam (by the Jews of course), and blames Shiite traitors for every Muslim defeat from the Crusades onwards. Hardline Shia are equally hostile to the Sunnis but have rarely been in a position to persecute them.
The mutual suspicion runs deeper than a theological dispute. It is political in that Sunni rulers fear that Shia minorities (or majorities in the case of Bahrain) may be more loyal to Tehran than the countries they live in. But it can also take bizarre forms: In Lebanon, both Sunni and Shia believe that the other community is prone to disgusting sexual immorality, and there are said to be some Sunnis who think that Shiites have little tails.
In any case it is often hard for non-Muslim Westerners to get a sense of the depth and intensity of Sunni-Shia hostility or to understand when that hostility is likely to overwhelm or be overwhelmed by other political or ethnic concerns.
Iraq’s Sunni Kurds were long happy to ally with the country’s Shiite Arabs against the ruling Sunni Arab minority. In Gaza Hamas is willing to accept support from Shia Iran while Islamic Jihad is not. On the other hand, senior Salafist clerics in Saudi Arabia celebrated Israel’s recent killing of a Hezbollah leader.
Recent developments have made Sunni-Shia hostility more lethal and more dangerous. One is the massive global missionary effort funded by Salafist and Wahabi princes in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf. Another is the growing power and aggression of Iran, its remarkably successful drive to establish a “Shia Crescent” from Iran through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. A third is the weakening of forces that used to dilute Sunni-Shia hostility, such as secular Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism.
A fourth is the sheer ferocity of the fighting in Syria. A leading Saudi cleric, Mohammad al-Barrak recently tweeted that Shiites are more harmful to the faithful than the Jews “because [the Shiite’s] crimes in four years have exceeded all the Jews’ crimes in 60 years”.
How bad could things get? Both the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies could face genuine uprisings. Lebanon is already on the brink of another civil war. But even more frightening perhaps is the prospect of attacks on Shia targets in the many countries and cities around the world – including in Europe – where there are Shia minorities surrounded by Sunni majorities. These could and probably would lead to reprisal terror attacks, most likely by Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both of whom have carried out operations as far away from the Middle East as Argentina. Much depends on whether the Saudi monarchy can appease or control its own furious Shiite minority, and whether calmer heads will prevail in both communities around the world.