News / Middle East

Sunni-Shi’ite Divide Threatens Middle East Stability

FILE - Sunni protesters chant slogans against the Iraq's Shiite-led government as they wave national flags during a 2013 demonstration in Fallujah.
FILE - Sunni protesters chant slogans against the Iraq's Shiite-led government as they wave national flags during a 2013 demonstration in Fallujah.
Mohamed Elshinnawi

The Sunni-Shi’ite divide playing out in violence in parts of the Middle East is an ancient dispute that traces back to the dawn of Islam.

It started some 1,400 years ago with a dispute over leadership for the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Mohammad.

“There were those who felt that the leadership should fall upon the most able individual,” said Gregory Gause, a professor at the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University. “These people came to be known as Sunnis because they followed the Sunna, or the way of the prophet.

“There were those who felt that the leadership should remain within the blood relatives of the prophet,” he said. “These people focused on Ali; the prophet’s cousin and they became known as the Shi’ite or ‘partisans of Ali.”’

Through the centuries, there have been periods when Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims managed to live peacefully together despite their ancient religious divide. But rivalries persisted and shaped the Middle East.

“Sunni Muslims dominated the first nine centuries of Islam until Persia made Islam the state religion in the 16th century and fought the Ottomans; the seat of the Sunni caliphate,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of Center for Peace and Security at Georgetown University.

In recent years, violent sectarian conflict has marked their shaky relationship.

“In Syria and Iraq, with the collapse of centralized authority, we have seen the resurgence of sectarian identity, in Bahrain the state has not collapsed but a Sunni family is ruling a Shi’ite majority population,” Gause said.

Gause said that in other parts of the Middle East - like Lebanon - there is a history of a divided population on a sectarian basis since its independence and the political system assigns specific public offices based on sectarianism which further the divide.

Hoffman, said modern tensions have their roots in rising intolerance on one side toward a different religion or point of view.

“It leaves no room for reasoning or coexistence,” he said. “That is why minorities became increasingly at risk - whether Shi’ite in majority Sunni countries or Sunni minorities in majority Shi’ite countries.”

Growing sectarian clashes in Syria and Iraq have produced a revival of transnational terrorist networks that attracted tens of thousands of local and foreign militant fighters, analysts say.

Gause said the militant movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria expanded its grip on Sunni provinces in Iraq and eastern regions in Syria by exploiting the vacuum left by the collapse of state authority in Syria and the politics of exclusion in Iraq.

“Wherever you have ungoverned territories, you have an opening for jihadi and terrorist groups to establish base and function,” he said. “The collapse of state authority has also opened up arenas for Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel to attempt to affect the domestic political conflicts.”

Sunni-Shi’ite tension is creating multiple threats not only on a local level but also to international peace and security, analysts say.

“This tension is a challenge to the concept of the nation state in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen,” Gause said. “It is entirely possible that we are going to see weak states, with divided authorities in the eastern Arab world for some time.”  

Experts say the sectarian conflicts in Syria and Iraq is threatening to redraw the map of the Middle East, creating fractured states and displacing millions of civilians causing humanitarian crisis.

The American Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey warned recently that thousands of foreign fighters from Europe and the U.S. who were attracted to fight in the war in Syria are posing a long-term threat to Western interests because they create a potential “terrorist diaspora”.

“What we see in Syria is the creation of a safe haven, a training ground, and potentially a launching ground for terrorists,” he said. 

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have become involved in the fight, using air strikes to curb militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and to help a tide of refugees spawned by the militants violent assaults on parts of Iraq.

Following the beheading of a U.S. journalist by members of the Islamic State in Syria in apparent retaliation for the U.S. strikes, President Barack Obama equated the Islamic State with cancer "whose spread must be contained.”

“It has and will continue to torture and kill civilians, massacre religious minorities, and rape women,” he said.

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said the Islamic State militants are difficult to contain because their support is based on a flow of funds and volunteers from the Islamic world. He said that the only option is for the Obama administration to lead a fight against the Islamic state.

“The U.S has to form a three-way coalition of peoples in the region who are willing to rise up against ISIS and there are many Sunni Arabs who are fighting against ISIS,” he said, using the acronym for the Islamic state.

Jeffrey added that the coalition would include an upgraded Iraqi army and the support of U.S. forces with  airstrikes and training and equipment for an international effort to curb the militants.

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by: bola saka from: ilorin,nigeria
August 24, 2014 2:42 AM
the best article so far on voa website


by: Darkanu from: Islamabad
August 23, 2014 9:29 PM
The anaylatic based on some sort of research is worth reading and draws the attention of all the states actors to review their foreign policies aiding the middle eastern states responsible to create the mence of terrorisim in the guise of their secterian agenda to stabalize themselves against the oppressed nations. Wahabi imperilisim in Saudia is centre for these uprising of Black flags. The Qater is mlre active to fund them with the blessing of US and EU countries. These countries are responsible for creation of these groups to fight against the states not submitting before them. they are morrally bound to eliminate them from the earth since they were the fountains of their uprising. They are also expected to have strict check up on the jehadi networks which needs to be crushed from the gross route level in their regions.


by: ivan
August 23, 2014 7:31 PM
looks like who ever was planning Shiite-Sunni war is winning because the strategy is working and hundreds of thousands of Muslims are dying and enemies of Muslims and Islam are cheering. Leaders do come and go but in Middle Eastern countries looks like they never want to leave or have ability and willingness to work for their own people and nations but for some else they love to work and divide the Arab and Muslim nations. no where in the world is this the case just in the middle east and Africa that is the case for sure

In Response

by: chris87654 from: USA
August 24, 2014 12:06 AM
Good point, though I'm not sure 'enemies of Islam' are cheering as much as they don't care if they wipe each other out because it's of their own doing - as long as they keep it on their turf.

Both ME and Africa are tribal cultures - they don't know the concept of working together for the good of a nation/region... similar to the US's own rightwingnut 'conservatives'.


by: meanbill from: USA
August 23, 2014 6:20 PM
If Voice of America and the other western mews media reported the facts.... that the Russians warned the US, EU, and the NATO countries, that arming and training the tens of thousands of (foreign) Sunni Muslim ultra-extremists from all over the world in Jordan and Turkey, to wage war on the Shia Muslim government of Syria, would lead to a Sunni/Shia sectarian Jihad, and spread to the surrounding countries...

The US and NATO is still arming and training the same thousands of Sunni Muslim ultra-extremists in Jordan and Turkey, (who have no loyalty or allegiance to anybody), and they only came to fight Shia Muslims and nothing else, and then joined the (ISIL) al-Baghdadi army, to become Qadis (judges), and receive the spoils of war from the enemy, and killing all the captured men, or make them slaves, who won't convert to Sunni Muslim, and take the captured women and children, as concubines and slaves..... Thank the US and NATO for the (ISIL) Sunni Muslim army, and igniting this Sunni/Shia Muslim sectarian war in Syria and Iraq, that the Russians warned they'd do..... Truth be told.


by: Samuel Prime from: Canada
August 23, 2014 5:57 PM
A very good history lesson, thank you. In a way, one can see that the ominous threats of ISIS or ISIL is becoming a relearning experience for many people in Muslim Middle Eastern world that the idea of a caliphate empire is outdated and too dangerous for modern living. So they would be better off sticking with current tyrannical, but stable, rule such as in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, etc. Indeed, that lesson seems to have been most recently learned and put into action by Egypt with its dismantling the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Response

by: meanbill from: USA
August 24, 2014 12:16 AM
The Muslim Brotherhood wants freedom for the people and they set up hospitals, food stores, and schools for the poor, and they are a threat to the despotic rule of the kings, emirs, and tyrants of the countries you just mentioned...

PS;.. The bulk of the (ISIL) al-Baghdadi Sunni Muslim Caliphate army, are the tens of thousands of (foreign) Sunni Muslim ultra-extremists the US and NATO armed and trained in Jordan and Turkey, to wage war on Shia Muslim Syria, (but), since they owed no loyalty or allegiance to the US or NATO, they joined with the Sunni Muslim Ultra-extremists in the (ISIL) al-Baghdadi army.... The US and NATO are arming and training these (foreign) Sunni Muslim ultra-extremists that end up joining up with the (ISIL) army, to kill Shia Muslims and non-believers in Syria, and now Iraq.... on purpose or from stupidity?.... who knows?


by: Patricia Starr
August 23, 2014 4:29 PM
This article is actually quite interesting and informative. Now, why is the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims and Muslims going on with the deafening silence of the UN? How inept are they? Oh I get it - their job is to run around getting signatures on a petition to censure Israel for defending its people against these butchers - the Hamassie cowards who are cousins of ISIS - Sunnis or Shi'ites - doesn't matter. Just look the other way while we blame it all on Israel.


by: rob from: nottingham, UK
August 23, 2014 4:24 PM
This would not be a problem if Saddam was still ruling Iraq.Now the Middle East is in utter chaos

In Response

by: chris87654 from: USA
August 24, 2014 12:09 AM
The question was posed early into the Iraq war: "Are the Iraqis as they are because of Saddam, or is Saddam as he is because of the Iraqis?" Aside from the Kurds (who have shown they can build a productive society) it takes an iron-fisted dictator to keep those people from killing each other... and when the dictator is gone, there are several decades' worth of axes to grind.


by: LouAZ from: Aridzona
August 23, 2014 3:52 PM
We must do everything that we can to make sure neither side of this stupid tribal war runs out of ammunition !


by: jon tobel from: usa
August 23, 2014 3:16 PM
This is an Arab/Islam problem that would best be solved locally.


by: shibli from: LONDON
August 23, 2014 2:54 PM
DEFINITELY AMERICA BEHIND EVERYTHING. THEY WANTS TO DESTROY MIDDLE EAST

In Response

by: chris87654 from: USA
August 24, 2014 12:11 AM
I believe you are speaking of Muhammad... there were no Americans around when Sunnis and Shiites began killing each other. Seems he forgot something and it's never changed - worst would be those who say Allah/God helps them kill innocent people and shoot 14 year old girls in the head because it's 'un-Islamic'. Beware the fury of a patient man (or God).

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