An upswing in sectarian violence in Pakistan, Bahrain and elsewhere in recent months highlights the historic tensions, and contemporary political importance of schisms between Sunni and Shia communities across the Muslim world. On February 22, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings hosted a discussion to explore the factors behind the worsening conflict between Sunni and Shia communities. Panelists included Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, and Geneive Abdo, fellow at the Middle East Program at the Stimson Center and author of a forthcoming paper examining sectarianism in the context of the Arab Awakening, to be published by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Durriya Badani, deputy director of the project, offered welcoming remarks. Brookings Senior Fellow Suzanne Maloney moderated the discussion.
Riedel discussed the changing and complex Sunni-Shia relationship in Pakistan, a relationship that has been highlighted due to the rising number of sectarian attacks in 2011 and 2012. Riedel explained that in Pakistan, sectarian violence is not deeply rooted in the country’s history but instead was spurred in 1996 by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the group that launched the first suicide bombing in Pakistan against a Protestant church. Since 2011, Malik Mohammed’s release from prison (the senior official in the Defense Pakistan Council, a group that holds massive demonstrations criticizing the United States, India, Israel, and the Shia communities) has instigated the fresh series of attacks that especially target the vulnerable Afghani refugees in Baluchistan. Riedel did point out that although it is good news that for the first time in Pakistan's history an elected civilian government is going to complete its full term in office, upcoming elections will likely produce a new government that will tolerate additional Shia-targeted violence.
Genieve Abdo focused her comments on the sectarian dynamic in the Arab world, namely Bahrain and Lebanon, and the impact this has had on neighboring countries, including Syria. In Lebanon and Bahrain, Shias represent a significant, if not a majority, of the population. For this reason, movements for democratic reform have been viewed as part of a subversive Shia agenda. Sunni authoritarian rulers in the Gulf have come to view the Shia drive for democracy as a threat rather than a step toward modernity. In addition, the rise of Sunni Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia has alarmed Shias in the region. The Shia in Lebanon feel that the downfall of Bashar al-Asad and the rise of Sunni Islamists could cause sectarianism to take on a transnational nature, even in countries with little history of Sunni-Shia conflict.
Abdo went on to discuss the “proxy” war between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on one side and Saudi Arabia, the United States and Turkey on the other and how that has impacted perceptions of the United State abroad. Riedel discussed that foregoing the U.S. Fifth Fleet might be worth it in order to avoid exacerbating sectarian tensions in Bahrain, for example. Moreover, even though some Shia elements might be historically affiliated with Iran, they have their own agenda (particularly Hezbollah in Iran and Asad in Syria) and are not puppets of any one foreign regime. Without a doubt, to simplify this as a Saudi-Iranian conflict is inaccurate and will lead policy experts to miss key issues that can potentially minimize sectarian violence going forward. That being said, Abdo did emphasize that the Iran-Saudi conflict will continue if for no other reason than the fact that this kind of conflict advances some of Iran's ambitions in the region as they are losing power in Iraq, Syria, and potentially Lebanon.