The use of a sectarian lens to try and understand modern conflicts in the Middle East is simplistic and flawed, writes Faisal Al Yafai
The roots of modern conflicts do not lie in ancient struggles
The world of politics is as susceptible to fads as is the world of fashion, albeit usually exhibited by rather less photogenic people. Currently, the fad is to explain the complexity of Iran’s manoeuvring in the Middle East, of the fragmentation of the Syrian civil war, of the splintering of Iraq ahead of elections and various other regional crises, by reference to something that happened in the recent past. And by the recent past, some analysts appear to mean 1,400 years ago.
The disagreements over who should lead the Muslims after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century, disagreements that resulted in the doctrinal differences between the two main branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shia, are still regularly trotted out as explanations for the situation of the modern Middle East. Apparently, what two groups of Arabs disagreed about in Arabia at a time before the invention of paper money explains perfectly what is happening in a conflict involving fighter jets and the internet.
There have been many of these articles in the past few months, especially since the Syrian civil war took a clear sectarian turn, drawing a link between Iran’s Shia majority and its involvement in “backing its oppressed brethren”, as the phrase is, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and in Yemen. What is usually ignored is that, with the exception of Iraq, none of these countries is majority Shia, or even close to being so. And while the Shia in Iraq were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, few would say the same about the Shia in Lebanon today or the Alawites in Syria (most obviously because the Alawites are the ruling minority). These arguments are similar to those that appeared during the worst of Iraq’s sectarian violence in the middle of the last decade. Great jumbles of Arabic words from history, skipping rapidly from the 7th century to the 20th, from Tripoli in Lebanon’s north, to Yemen in the Peninsula’s south, because the writer apparently believes basically little has changed between those two points in time and in history.
But the use of the sectarian lens to try and understand modern conflicts is simplistic and flawed. Worse, it fits into a tradition of Orientalist readings of the region, viewing its politics and society as essential and unchanging. That is dangerous for a clear understanding of what is happening on the ground, but it also avoids having to make hard decisions in the here and now that could resolve these conflicts. If the problems of the Middle East stretch back to the 7th century, then who on Earth is going to suddenly solve them in the 21st?
But what is happening in Syria today is not the inevitable result of something that happened in 7th century Arabia. It is, instead, the result of a whole series of political decisions, economic forces, messy alliances, missteps and strategies that have been made very recently.
The Syrian civil war is not a refighting of an ancient Sunni-Shia grudge. It is entirely the result of a brutal clampdown by the Assad regime and the subsequent attempt by Iran and Russia to save their ally. If the Syrian uprising was an uprising of Sunnis against Alawites, then what about the Libyan or the Egyptian uprisings? Neither Muammar Qaddafi nor Hosni Mubarak were members of a religious minority – unless that minority, just like the Assads, were members of a corrupt regime.
The reason this Sunni-Shia narrative is so tempting is because it fits into a narrative most of those commentating on the situation are familiar with: the religious wars of Europe. The very notion of perpetual conflict between Sunnis and Shias, stretching back 1,400 years, is a fiction, based entirely on the long conflicts in Europe between Protestant nations and Catholic nations. But no such religious conflicts exist in the history of the Middle East. That isn’t to say there were no wars between these two religious groups, but the major wars, such as those that created the Safavid empire, the Iranian empire of the 16th century, were political. In the history of the Middle East, there are no conflicts between Sunnis and Shias on the scale of those between Protestants and Catholics.
The reason for that is simply numbers. Of the 2 billion Christians in the world, just over half are Catholics, the rest being Protestants, Orthodox and other denominations. Contrast that with the 1.5 billion Muslims, 90 per cent of whom are Sunnis. The idea that there is this “split” between two branches of Islam is entirely due to that simplistic conflation: that because Christianity has two groups of roughly similar size, so must Islam.
The use of the word “schism” to apply to the doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shias vastly overstates their power. There are, of course, differences between the two versions of Islam – that’s natural in a religion as vast and complex as Islam – but to elevate those differences into a schism or an irreparable fault-line is to ignore the lived reality of the past centuries. Anyone who has spent time in the three most mixed regional countries – Iraq, Iran and Yemen – will know that marriage between Sunnis and Shias was very common, at least until the wave of sectarianism of the past few years. To imply that these two religious communities live separate lives, and have done so for centuries, is a complete invention, and is based on looking at the modern Middle East with the lens of 16th century Europe.
And yet, even if a religious schism did not start these wars, politics are making them come true. It is not, sadly, merely outsiders who see the Middle East becoming a battleground over religion – many of those actively involved do so too. Nakedly sectarian groups have emerged on both sides of the Syrian civil war, and the language of sectarianism, along with commensurate violence, has taken hold across the Levant and Iraq.
That makes the current conflicts much harder to resolve. But they are resolvable. With leadership, diplomacy and politics. Believing that what happened 14 centuries ago caused the wars of today only allows us to avoid the hard decisions that would solve those very wars.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai