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Jul 30, 2007 -

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Upcoming Event

The Sunni-Shi’i Divide: How Important has it Become?

Monday, July 30 -
The Hilton Washington Embassy Row


Washington, DC

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted the second session of the Crisis in the Middle East Task Force addressing the topic of “The Sunni-Shi’i Divide: How important has it become?” on July 30, 2007. The Task Force is a monthly dinner discussion series that brings together a high-level group of policy analysts, Middle East specialists, government officials, and journalists for a year-long effort to explore means of treating the region’s many maladies.

During this session, participants examined the extent to which Sunni-Shi’i tensions shape the politics of the Middle East, the factors which impact sectarianism, and policy responses to the sectarian divide.

One participant described the prominence of sectarian identity in the Middle East. The Iraq war (2003-) played a key role in fostering this sectarianism by creating a Shi’i-dominated government in a region traditionally dominated by Sunni Arab regimes and thus changing the regional balance of power. Additionally, the war has deepened the radicalization of both Shi’i and Sunni parties in the region. However, the war was not the only facilitator of the recent Shi’i revival. Iranian influence in Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war widened the split between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A participant argued that rising sectarianism is visible in a variety of arenas. Shi’i cultural and religious affiliation across the region has increased as have demands for greater inclusion into the political systems in countries such as Lebanon and Pakistan. Furthermore, there have been complaints of Shi’ah converting Sunnis. In the view of this participant, the Sunni-Shi’i divide is not the only factor that needs to be considered when crafting U.S. foreign policy; however, sectarian tensions must still be taken into account as they have an influential role on regional dynamics. These tensions have the ability to cause more radicalization and make future conflicts interrelated.

However, other participants offered different views about the extent to which sectarianism was spreading across the region. One participant noted that despite the presence of clear sectarianism in Iraq and Lebanon, the framework of sectarianism is not the best analytical lens through which the Middle East should be viewed. Most Arab states are strong and are able to prevent the political ascendance of Shi’i populations. Additionally, fear of Iran is caused more by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive foreign policy than by sectarian politics. In the view of this participant, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia want to counter Iran because of traditional power politics. Egypt and Jordan also fear that Iran’s radicalizing rhetoric regarding the Arab-Israeli peace process will create dissatisfaction among their domestic constituencies and thus cause problems for their respective regimes.

Even if there actually has been recent Shi’i social and political ascendance, this participant argued that this trend will become less pronounced in the future. In Iraq, Shi’i power will become more fragmented over time and as the Shi’ah gain more independence from Iran more tensions will emerge as well. The Shi’ah of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to rise up and Hizballah has reached the limits of what it can accomplish in Lebanon. Iran has a limited ability for gaining influence over the region, given both its own domestic circumstances and the difficulty of the task. However, this participant admitted that while governments are motivated by realpolitik they often use sectarian language to mobilize their populations as this rhetoric is more compelling than that of power.

Another participant agreed that although there is a sectarian divide in the region, power politics plays a more significant role than ideological alliances. Both public opinion and government action show a willingness to ignore sectarian allegiances at times. Another participant cited a different challenge to the claims about the salience of sectarianism, highlighting the violence that occurs within sectarian communities.

Participants also discussed the many different forces contributing to increased sectarianism. In the view of one participant, Sunni governments use sectarian rhetoric more than Shi’i populations do. Arab governments have been employing sectarian tactics to frustrate the development of the Shi’i-dominated government in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Shi’ah have a vested interest in portraying themselves as resistance fighters rather than as Shi’ah. However, participants commented that using sectarian rhetoric can encourage the development of sectarian identities.

Participants also discussed the impact of U.S. policies on sectarianism in addition to the role of the Arab media in stoking sectarian tension. One participant argued that the United States created institutions based on sectarianism in its reconstruction of Iraq.

The nature of sectarian identity and how that affects other national and tribal identities was considered. Some participants commented that sectarian identity is most potent when states are weak. One participant disagreed stating that there were significant sectarian identities in stronger states. However, a participant responded that though sectarian identities in those states may be prominent, they are kept in check by the state. In his view, sectarianism is only a concern for U.S. policy when it causes violence.

The discussion also considered various policy recommendations. One participant argued that there was a limit to the power of the state to control non-state sectarian actors. Politics based on sectarianism can have detrimental consequences. U.S. containment of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran led the U.S. to increase its support for Sunni states in the Middle East. In the view of this participant, the result of this policy was a growth in Sunni Islamist radicalism which led to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This participant instead advocated a policy of economic and political reform, as more inclusive states would be at less risk from sectarian pressures. It was suggested by another participant that talk of a “Shi’i crescent” is used by authoritarian Arab leaders to scare Western governments about the dangers of political reform.

Another participant stated that when making policy decisions, the United States, except in Iraq and Lebanon, should have a non-sectarian approach based on U.S. national interests. He also encouraged the United States to more appropriately understand the nature of the Iranian threat. Based on this analysis this involves recognizing both the power of Arab states to contain Shi’i populations and the importance of encouraging a more moderate Iranian foreign policy over time. This participant also advocated working to develop Arab-Israeli peace to neutralize the challenges presented by Iran.

One participant said that a political settlement in Iraq would calm sectarianism in the region. However, he cautioned that the U.S. should not determine the content of this settlement.

The discussion about the extent of the sectarian divisions in the Middle East has wide ramifications. For instance, the participants considered the impact of any U.S. redeployment from Iraq. If, as some claimed, the regional sectarian divide is not that great, the ramifications of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are likely to be less severe than some predict.