Strife Feature | Sunni-Shia Conflicts: From A Trick To A Reality

By Guillaume Beaud

Shia and Sunni worshippers join for a common pray in Kuwait, following the deadly terrorist attack at the Shia mosque in 2015 (credit: Fayçal Yasser, AA, Koweït)

Most Western observers analyse a vast majority of Middle-Eastern upheavals as a Sunni-Shia conflict. Increasingly mobilized since the King of Jordan Abdullah II warned about a “Shia Crescent” in 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Syria, Yemen and the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia quickly fell into the Sunni-Shia analytical grid.[1] Since 1979, and more increasingly since the Arab Spring, Middle-Eastern states and non-state actors have abundantly mobilized communitarian differences – through a top-down discourse – to pursue their rational political agenda. Therefore, despite the initial irrelevance of an essentialist Sunni-Shia divide, oppositions have progressively materialized on the ground and in the collective imaginary, morphing from a mean to an end into a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Essentialist Sunni-Shia theses are flawed

The death of Muhammad in AD 632 and the issue of his succession marked the theological split between Sunnis and Shias. Nonetheless, the following centuries reflected a low level of conflict between the two communities. There was a substantive mixture between Sunnis and Shias – especially within Iraqi tribes – in the Gulf region, thanks also to movements like the Sufi Brotherhood that built trans-Islamic bridges. Their relations were defined by pragmatism rather than theological ideals, and tensions existed between different schools of Sunnism. These developments made Sunni-Shia confessional differences irrelevant to such an extent that Al-Azhar theologians wondered whether the distinction should be kept and thought about incorporating the

These developments made Sunni-Shia confessional differences irrelevant to such an extent that Al-Azhar theologians wondered whether the distinction should be kept and thought about incorporating the Jafarit school of Shiism as the 5th school of Islam. In the early 1970s, it is important to recall the universalist, left-wing and trans-Islamist vocation of Iranian revolutionary discourses, embodied by the prevailing “Khomeiny-Arafat” rhetoric.

From the 16th century onwards, Sunni-Shia differences started to become instruments mobilized by increasingly centralistic political entities. [2] The Safavid Empire converted Iran to Shiism to oppose the Sunni Ottoman Empire – a political decision without religious roots. Similarly, seeking legitimacy in faith, Saudis made their fundamental pact with Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, father of Wahhabism in 1744. However, Iranian defeats against Russia in the early 19th century induced the idea amongst Iranian intellectuals that Islam engendered Iran’s backwardness. Shiism therefore ceased to be a strong marker of identity until 1979 and was substituted by the Persian/Arab dichotomy. Additionally, the fall of the Ottoman Empire induced ever-growing nationalistic differences across the Near-East, marginalizing Sunni-Shia differences. Moreover, the post-1945 decolonisation era showed the influence of emerging transnational ideologies: an Arab nationalism rooted in anti-imperialism and Marxism. While Baathist regimes embodied this left-wing and secular dimension, Iran under the Shah also demonstrated a strong secularism.

1979 – increasing politicisation of the Sunni-Shia divide

The Ayatollah Khomeini speaks to followers at Behesht Zahra Cemetery after his arrival in Tehran, Iran, ending 14 years of exile, Feb. 1 , 1979. Khomeini prayed for the victims of the Islamic struggle against the Shah of Iran. (AP Photo/FY)

However, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 marked a turning point through two parallel and correlated dynamics. The first was a discourse vacuum that was created following the weakening of Marxism and anti-imperialism, as Arab authoritarianism drew closer relations with the West. Also, pan-Arab mobilisation around the Palestinian question was diluted, as Egypt, Algeria, and Syria – facing internal political problems – were no longer active. The second consisted in a shifting rhetoric enacted by Ayatollah Khomeini, who established Iran’s theological-political system that embodied an expansionist ideal, and supported groups having Shia agendas in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Bahrain. Here, the Sunni-Shia divide was politically mobilized as an Iranian nationalist tool, filling the contextual discourse vacuum described above. In response, Sunni states filled the same vacuum, using Sunnism as an instrument of propaganda and mobilization against Iran.

The 1980-1988 Iran/Iraq war was the first conflict intensively mobilizing the Sunni-Shia divide as a state-led rhetorical tool, with Iran exploiting symbols such as Hussein’s martyrdom.[3] Yet, the Iran/Iraq war was predominantly a war of nationalism and not of religion. Indeed, (1) Saddam’s Baathist regime was a secular movement; (2) Iraqi Shias and Iranian Sunnis did not turn against their respective countries; and (3) during the war and the embargo, most Iranian networks went through Dubai to the Sunni-dominated United Arab Emirates. Rational and realpolitik assumptions dictated Iranian foreign policy and led Iran to build relations with Ghadafi’s Libya and the PLO against Israel. The Sunni-Shia rhetoric was an instrument mobilized by nation-states to legitimize their foreign policies. In fact, if Islam is pivotal since 1979, it is not through a Shia/Sunni conflict, but through two conflicting visions of Islam: political Islam –  then embodied by Iran – against the secular Islam of Baathist regimes.[4]

However, not only societies started to integrate this polarisation into their actions and identity affiliations, but also external actors did the same, either when (1) falling in the trap and analysing oppositions through a biased Sunni-Shia grid; or (2) consciously using this artificial dichotomy for specific political agendas. These dynamics ultimately induced Sunni and Shia doctrinal hardenings. it is the beginning of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The Sunni-Shia divide is not the starting point, it is the mean that tends to become the end.

Iraq since 2003: from American “debaathification” to ISIS

In Iraq, the self-fulfilling prophecy was tragically induced by the United States, falling into the trap of the Sunni-Shia divide. Indeed, American “debaathification” initiated in 2003 structured the Iraqi political system with communitarian affiliations. Shias were encouraged to take control of State institutions, progressively excluding Sunnis, seen as responsible for decades of authoritarian ostracism. Shia President Nouri al-Maliki used this confessional rhetoric to assert power.[5] Sunni frustrations led numerous former Baath officers to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and its strong anti-Shia agenda. Manipulated by propaganda, local and foreign actors, which now define themselves by their religious community, are victims of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Syria: how Alawis suddenly became Shias

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on 29 May 2014 showing supporters of President Bashar al-Assad in Latakia (AFP/SANA)

In Syria, the Alawi minority in power is defined as Shia by four actors: (1) Iran and the Hezbollah, to justify their long-lasting involvement in Syria; (2) the Syrian regime; (3) Sunni terrorist movements to boost their recruitment effort amongst Sunni communities; and (4) the international community. In the case of the latter, Western media naively fell into the trap of the Sunni-Shia analysis, while Western states, guilty for having formerly destabilized the region, blamed the so-called Sunni-Shia confrontation. In fact, the Alawis’ affiliation with Shiism – and even with Islam – has always been contested by both Shias and Sunnis, who see Alawism as sectarian and heterodox, adopting flexible religious practices including drinking alcohol, not fasting during Ramadan nor making the pilgrimage. However, Iran nowadays artificially defines Alawis as Shias to legitimize its military presence in Syria and hide its genuine motivations: keeping Assad in power to maintain its strategic depth in the Near-East and its effective supply to the Hezbollah. What originally was an Arab Spring emancipation-fight progressively transformed into a genuine Sunni-Shia religious conflict. In fact, Osama Bin Laden expected religious uprisings to emerge across the Arab World earlier; while the nature of the Arab Spring made him wrong, the self-fulfilling prophecy and the “return of the Sacred” tend to make his observations a posteriori right.

Yemen: a proxy war without religious root

The Saudi-led operation “Decisive Storm”attempts to hide Saudi Arabia’s hegemonic pretentions, through building a proxy war in Yemen through a Sunni-Shia rhetoric (credit: Fayed Nureldin, AFP)

The same process applies in Yemen. The Sunni-Shia divide is mobilized by both internal actors – Houthi rebels religiously affiliated as Zaydi, and terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda (AQAP), and ISIS – and external actors – Saudi Arabia and Iran. To the same extent as Alawism, Zaydism is distant from duodecimal Shiism, in fact being particularly close to Sunnism; Zaydis even pray in the same mosques as the Sunnis. Moreover, Zaydis’ first revolts date from 2004 to 2010, when Yemen was ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, Zaydi himself, who later joined Houthis in their fight to conquer Sanaa. Moreover, Zaydis’ first revolts date from 2004 to 2010, when Yemen was ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, Zaydi himself, who later joined Houthis in their fight to conquer SanaaThis political about-face demonstrates the irrelevance of the confessional grid. Indeed, initial upheavals reflected a minority who saw its geographical isolation in North Yemen’s mountains transforming into political and economic isolation. Nonetheless, actors developed an interest in mobilising the Sunni-Shia divide, through associating Zaydis to Shias. First, Saudi Arabia’s initiative to build a Sunni military coalition to fight Houthi rebels and exacerbate the Sunni-Shia rhetoric should be understood through two factors. The first is realpolitik: the will to assert its regional hegemony in deciding who rules its main neighbour, to access vital Red Sea shipping routes, in the context of collapsing oil prices and declining American support. The second factor is domestic policy: counter domestic contestation movements through criminalizing its Shia minority, denounced as Iran’s “5th column”, to gather the Sunni majority around the monarchy. Secondly, Iran uses the Sunni-Shia polarisation to increase its regional counterweight against Saudi Arabia, especially in countries with Shia minorities. Thirdly, Houthis benefit from Iran’s so-called “Shia solidarity” to gain military support and political legitimacy. Finally, as in Syria, terrorists benefit from the situation for recruitment purposes. Therefore, Saudi Arabia and Iran transformed the Yemeni civil war into a proxy war, through exploiting the Sunni-Shia divide. While Iran uses Yemen as a Trojan Horse, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic links with Iran after executing the anti-government Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016. Once again, the self-prophecy materializes

A self-fulfilling prophecy

In the Middle East, most uprisings lie in economic and political contestation, and conflicts are based on national interests. Yet, the Iranian Revolution revived a tool hitherto set aside by common ideologies and secularism. To hide and pursue their political agenda, actors use the so-called Sunni-Shia divide as an instrument. This analytical grid is progressively accepted by (1) Middle-Eastern communities interiorizing pre-supposed “historical” religious identities; and (2) an international opinion victim of its own interests and of its tendency to analyse oppositions through simplistic confessional differences. The Arab Spring has amplified the states’ confessional rhetoric to counter the one of emancipation. Eventually, this Sunni-Shia polarisation has become a reality. Yet, mechanisms are purely political, in fact, closer to Cold War mechanisms than to those of an irreconcilable theological opposition.

Guillaume Beaud is a final-year French student reading for a BA in European Studies. His research areas include geopolitics of the Middle-East, Iran, radical Islam and European foreign policy.


[1] King Abdullah II, Interview at the Washington Post, 8th December 2004

[2] – Cvach, D. & Curmi, B. (2015) Sunnites et chiites: la fabrique d’un conflit, Esprit n°10.

[3] Third imam recognized by the Shias, Hussein’s death during the Karbala battle (680 AD) while fighting the Sunni Omayyad empire has a predominant Shia symbolic significance.

[4] This analytical grid will be largely addressed in the following article

[5] O’Driscoll, D. (2017) Authonomy impaired : Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State, Ethnopolitics.

– The Sunni/Shia Divide, Council on Foreign Relations. Available on:!/?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide

– Cvach, D. & Curmi, B. (2015) Sunnites et chiites: la fabrique d’un conflit, Esprit n°10.

– Minority Rights Group, Still Invisible, the stigmatisation of Shi’a and other religious minorities in Saudi Arabia, 3rd December 2015.

– O’Driscoll, D. (2017) Authonomy impaired : Centralisation, Authoritarianism and the Failing Iraqi State, Ethnopolitics.

Image sources

Image 2: Associated Press

Image 3:


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