A Sunni-Shi’a War in the Middle East? Not Likely

William O. Beeman


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The success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in capturing large territories in Syria and Northern Iraq, and now threatening Baghdad, has raised once again the specter of a Sunni-Shi’a war in the Middle East. Such a scenario is possible, but unlikely. That’s because Sunni and Shi’a believers throughout the world are divided into many factions living under different social conditions and with different religious, social and political agendas. These differences greatly reduce the possibility of the emergence of a coalition of either group into a single bloc opposing the other.


ISIS belongs to a small faction of Sunni Islam committed to extremist fundamentalist religious convictions that they seek to impose on other Muslims. In this they have common cause with the Salafi movement (salaf means “ancestors,” referring to the original founders of Islam).


The Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda also spring from the Salafi movement. The Salfis view Shi’ism as heresy. They believe that Shi’a believers are “polytheists” because of their reverence for Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and his descendants. Salafi preachers have authorized the killing of Shi’a Muslims as a religious duty. Salafi adherents are found throughout the Arabian Peninsula and also in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.


ISIS has roots dating back to 2000 and has evolved to the point that it is functioning as a quasi-government at present with an organized leadership and judicial, financial and military systems. They are actively hegemonic, hoping to establish an Islamic Caliphate, hearkening to medieval times, governed exclusively by their own narrow interpretation of Shari’a Law.


Meanwhile, Shi’ism also exists in many forms. The form known as “Twelver Shism” has been the State religion in Iran since the 18th Century, and is practiced in other nations where believers are a plurality or a majority. Although Americans have been led to believe that Shi’a Muslims are also fundamentalists, in fact Shi’ism is far more flexible in its belief system than fundamentalist Sunnis. Besides the “Twelvers” there are Zayyidis in Yemen, Alawis in Syria (the religion of the Assad regime) and Isma’ilis living in many locations throughout the world.


Twelver Shi’ism is organized into differing philosophical camps headed by Grand Ayatollahs. Shi’a believers attach themselves to one of these religious leaders from whom they seek guidance on religious matters. There are currently 66 living Grand Ayatollahs living mostly in Iran and Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, Bahrain and Kuwait, each with his own individual view of proper conduct and religious philosophy. A coalition of thought for this diverse body of clerics is highly unlikely.


The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded by the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni with the controversial doctrine that the most knowledgeable Grand Ayatollah should be the ultimate authority in government and social life. However, many other Grand Ayatollahs disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini’s view of governance. A number were arrested and stripped of their religious credentials because of their opposition. One of the chief oppositionists to the Khomeinist view of government is Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani of Najaf, the most revered Grand Ayatollah of Iraq.


Shi’ites have been under siege everywhere else in the world outside of Iran. Shi’ites in Lebanon were attacked by Israel seeking to cripple Sunni Muslim Palestinians living in refugee camps there. The Alawite regime in Syria holds power, but has been continually attacked by the Sunni majority in that country. The Zayyidis in Yemen and Saudi Arabia have been attacked by the Sunni governments in both nations. The Bahraini majority Shi’ites have been under siege by the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa family. Hazara “Twelver” Shi’ites have been persecuted and murdered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shi’a in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia have been prevented from carrying out religious observances and have been economically disadvantaged. The religious rights of Shi’ites have been curtailed in various parts of Southeast Asia.


Now, although Shi’a Muslims are a plurality, perhaps a majority in Iraq, they are under attack by ISIS.


Iran, meanwhile, has striven to help Shi’a communities when they have been under attack. Iran was instrumental in the formation of Hezbollah in Lebanon when the Shi’a community was first attacked by Israeli forces in 1980. However, Iran no longer has any effective influence on Hezbollah’s actions. Iran also continues to provide aid to the Assad regime in Syria. It has sheltered Hazara refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran has been wary of providing direct aid to other Shi’a communities, such as those in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, despite the fact that ruling powers in those countries have accused them of doing so.



The current crisis in Iraq, though, is not likely to lead to more widespread conflict. ISIS is frightening even for the conservative government of Saudi Arabia and the more liberal government of Jordan. ISIS is well funded, largely because it has commandeered oil fields in Iraq and it robbed the Iraqi Central Bank in Mosul. It continues to receive funding from Salafi “businessmen” in the Gulf States. But support for ISIS will eventually run out, since for many other Arab nations, the ISIS Salafi agenda is far too extreme.


And if Iran does enter into confrontation with ISIS, it is not likely to engineer the disparate Shi’a communities in the Middle East into anything resembling a bloc. On practical grounds such an effort would fail, and savvy Iranians know this. Iraqi Shi’a don’t like or agree with Iran’s Islamic Republic governmental structure. Hezbollah in Lebanon has set its own course at home, and is not likely to be under Iranian control. Iran seeks better relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, even as the leaders of those nations denigrate Tehran. Even within Iran there will be many factions that will not support any kind of cultivation of a Grand Shi’a Alliance for military or political gain.


The United States is now considering making common cause with Iran, something that critics see as a dangerous move that would support “Iranian hegemony.” But this criticism is largely speculation, based on lack of information about Iran and the rest of the Shi’a world.


If it is possible for the government of Iraq to repel and contain ISIS with Iran’s help, the United States should definitely support such an action. There need be no real fear at this time that either the Shi’a or Sunni forces will evolve into a kind of World War III in the Middle East.



If Iran itself is attacked, however, all bets are off. Iran fought an eight-year war with Saddam Hussein when it was attacked in 1980. No matter what nationality, if Sunni Muslims make common cause with any group that attacks Iran, they will be met with enormous ferocity.


Author Bio:

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology, University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 40 years.


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