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Sunni-Shia, or Saudi-Iran Discord?


“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lesson of history.” Aldous Huxley

The Islamic world, more specifically the Middle East, is suffering from political vertigo—a state of profound disorientation. With raging wars, crumbling economies, collapsing states, and the spreading of violent extremism, the Middle East has a new normal with an unprecedented danger of multifaceted nature. The most dangerous—and arguably the least understood—is the Sunni-Shia divide.

In recent years, toxic polemics disseminated mainly by scheming politicians, ultra-conservative clerics loyal to Saudi Arabia and Iran made the dreaded full-blown Sunni-Shia civil war across the Muslim world a matter of time. And while the situation is very volatile in countries such as Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (and nuclear Pakistan), Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are already burning.

Hegemonic Competition

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, think tanks and pundits of neocon persuasion started to stir the pot on Sunni-Shia sectarianism. But it wasn’t till 2004 after King Abdullah of Jordan (and later Hosni Mubarak of Egypt) pushed the strategically manufactured threat that the Iran-led “Shia crescent” is hell bent to take over the Sunni world found traction. The Crescenters have become the conduits of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Sunni-Shia schism has intensified due to the Shia crescent paranoia that eclipsed the broad-based uprising against repression, regional power politics, and global geopolitical rivalries.

Ever since Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew a democratically elected government and ultimately turned Egypt into the standard-bearer of oppression and economic nightmare, Middle East political power vacuum was inevitable. And since Turkey has been in the fringes of Middle East politics, that cleared the space for either Saudi Arabia or Iran to step up to the role; hence the Saudi Iranian cold war.

When nations are suspicious of each other they overreact in gauging the other’s intention and objective. So, they demonize one another and eventually allow the situation to escalate beyond their control.

Political Capital of Sectarianism 

There is not a single verse in the Qur’an that unequivocally highlights how political power should be attained. The sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi’is is a political divide that started upon the death of Prophet Muhammad since he has not left specifics on who should succeed him in leading the Ummah or the Muslim nation and how that individual might be deposed.

The Sunnis contend it is based on individual’s piety and the consensus of the ummah. The Shia on the other hand believe in a doctrine of Divinely ordained succession. Leading the ummah is an exclusive privilege reserved for the noble offspring of Prophet Muhammad.

Contrary to the Sunni who reject the concept of collective piety, the Shia consider the offspring of the Prophet beyond pious. They are considered infallibles and as such are granted the authority to interpret God’s message—in the Shia tradition it is the Qur’an and the moral authority of the Prophet’s direct lineage—and the custodians of Imam-ship or moral leadership.

The Logic of Rancor

Prophet Muhammad taught one brand of Islam or to “hold on tight to the rope of Allah” and to not cause division. Prophet Muhammad unified all false deities being worshiped by polytheists into one God and unified the faithful to become part of one ummah.

Nowadays Muslims are divided by sectarian identities—Sunnis, Shi’is, Sufis, etc. or by schools of thought or theology as in Malikis, Hanafis, Shafi’is, Hanbalis, Ja’faris, etc. The Prophet was neither Sunni nor Shi’i. He was not a hyphenated faithful; he was simply a Muslim.

Based on Pew world demographic trend, by 2050 the world population is likely to grow to 9 billion people. One third of that is projected to be Muslims. With growing trend of Sunni-Shia divide, social unrests, foreign interventions, civil wars, and extremism, the future does not look bleak; it looks horrific.

In their own special ways, both Iran and Saudi Arabia became incubators of intra-Muslim hate narratives. Anyone who listens to the hate narrative of one side would think the other is a belligerent paganist.

Over the years while there were periods of bloodshed, Muslims of Sunni and Shia sects have coexisted, intermarried, and even shared political power much more than sectarian Muslims like to acknowledge. Today, takfiris on both sides are quick to declare each other apostates.

In order to break the current trend a few things must happen. Independent-minded Muslims willing to reach across the sectarian divide must start empathetic discourse. And it is much easier for Muslims in the diaspora to spearhead such effort since they are already compelled into interdependence for civil rights representation, sharing mosques and places of worship to name a few.

Intellectual and religious scholars and sermon-givers (khateebs), especially among Sunnis, must earnestly talk about the battle of Karbala, what took place and who was to blame. After all, the massacre that took place and Imam al-Hussein’s wrongful killing is not merely a Shia tragedy; it is an Islamic tragedy and arguably the darkest moment in the Islamic history. Regardless of one’s faith, we as human-beings are hardwired to seek the truth. It is the Divine will that inspires the hearts, unless that inner truth-seeking light is deliberately blocked.

Iran and Saudi Arabia should negotiate a strategic collaboration to put out sporadically blazing fires across the region. Though both would not have any problem understanding how that is in its nation’s best interest, neither one is likely to reach out to the other. Here is where Turkey should take the lead. It can play a significant role in pulling the two sides together by appointing a seasoned representative for this critical diplomatic initiative. Iran is Turkey’s second trading partner.

Poisonous political rivalry that proclaims the other a perpetual enemy must be stopped. And each should suspend its support of proxy wars, armed militias, etc.

All three—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—have strategic interest in solving the bloody conundrum that is the Syrian Civil War and help prevent the next genocide. However, this would require leaders that are not handicapped by sectarian mentality and strategic myopia.

Economic and political marginalization of Shia minority communities in Sunni dominated countries is perhaps the oldest dirty secret in Islamic history. It is the repression that most politicians, religious scholars and intellectuals opted to ignore or worse remain apathetic to. And this proves profound moral inconsistency. As a ‘Sunni Muslim’ I confess this with sense of profound shame. We must change our attitude before it is too late.

Criticizing Sunnis who would condemn oppression in Syria and turn a blind eye to the oppression in Bahrain, and the Shi’is who would condemn oppression in Bahrain and ignore the one in Syria, Mehdi Hassan made this appeal: “Our concern, our empathy, our compassion has to be universal. It cannot be selective. It cannot be self-serving”.

It is incumbent upon each Muslim to question the political and strategic judgment of Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither which is ordained by God. Whose interest are they really guarding, and whose ‘religion’ are they really preserving?

I am afraid the seeds of hate that both countries have sown and the hostile environment that they have cultivated will find its way into Saudi Arabia and Iran. The current trajectory will only benefit war profiteers and extremists. So, it is existentially critical to raise a new generation of Sunni and Shia who could think beyond their biases and love beyond their differences.



Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics.
Twitter: @Abukar_Arman
or reach him via e-mail: [email protected]