ReligiousConflict of Shia and Sunni in IRAQ
TheMiddle East has been faced with numerous challenges in the recentpast. These challenges have resulted into declining political andeconomic stability in the region which have had a global impact. Therise of autocratic regimes in the region which support extremereligion beliefs has been argued to be one of the most importantfactors that have resulted into these challenges. As a result,Islamic insurgence and terrorist groups have emerged in the region,which have threatened peace and security in the world. Ancientreligious differences have had a huge impact on the progress ofconflicts in the Muslim world. The conflicts in Iraq as well as otherIslamic nations such as Syria have been fueled by struggles betweenSunni Muslims and Shia Muslims which has existed throughout thehistory of Islam. The sectarian conflicts have led the developmentand spread of transnational Islamic insurgencies resulting intoregional and international conflicts (Nasr, 2007).
Theconflicts that have rocked Iraq in the recent past have beeninfluenced by sectarian differences among extremists groups andIslamic governments. The sectarian conflicts in Iraq are mainlybetween the Shia insurgencies and Islamic militias supporting theShia government against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)which is affiliated to the Sunni sector. These sectarian conflictsand influence on national and regional politics are evident beyondSyria and Iraq. Although the spread of ISIS ideologies and theirincreased influence in the last one decade has brought sectarianconflicts in Islam to the limelight, affiliations to Sunni and ShiaMuslim have had historical impacts on the Middle East (Maréchal andZemni, 2013). There is no adequate data that can be used to estimatethe number of Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, but it is estimatedthat the majority of people in Iraq are affiliated to the Shiasector. The sectarian affiliation is complicated by the high numberof refugees from Syria who have moved to Iraq to escape the civilwar. Recent statistics estimates that the population of Shia Muslimsliving in Iraq is almost equal to the number of Sunni Muslims. TheShia and Sunni Muslims conflicts in Iraq and the Middle East regionhas been complicated by the fact that Shia majority nations such asIran as well as Shia Islamic militias support Shia governments whileSunni insurgencies have supported Islamic states. For example, Iranhas the largest concentration of Shia Muslims in the region and hassupported Shia governments in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand,Sunni Muslims are believed to be more radical has supported theestablishment of Islamic states in the region and consider ShiaMuslims as non-Muslims (Maréchal and Zemni, 2013).
However,it is important to note that the divide and conflicts between theSunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq are not new. It is as old as Islamreligion dating back to the 6th century. The two sectors emergedimmediately after the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. Thestruggle for succession and leadership in the Islam community led tothe emergence of two Islam groups with divergent ideologies. Thecontroversy was whether the prophet’s bloodline or experience andknowledge should be the basis of awarding leadership in the Islamcommunity. Although the election of Abu Bark as the caliph wasinitially accepted, some Muslims favored the leadership of ProphetMuhammad’s cousin and close associate, Ali Talib. The belief amongsome of the Muslims that Ali Talib had been appointed by the prophetto be his successor led to the view that the caliphs were a breach ofdivine orders. This resulted in fighting and conflicts among Muslimgroups supporting different caliphs (Blanchard, 2009).
Theseconflicts after the death of Prophet Muhammad led to the formation ofthe two factions in Islam. Muslims who believed that the prophet hasselected Ali to be his successor formed the Shia faction, which isderived from the Arab word ‘shi’at’ which means a helper.Although this did not become the dominant Muslim group in the earlyhistory of the religion, some Muslims accepted his legitimacy butstrongly opposed the succession tradition based on the bloodline ofthe prophet. The majority of Muslims supported this notion which ledto the Sunni Muslims which is translated into a ‘follower ofcustoms’. By the tenth century, the caliphate had evolved from areligious to a political institution which led to its abolishment inthe early 20th century. This has complicated sectarian relationshipsbetween Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East. The decline ofcaliphate institutions led to the emergence of Islamic activistsmainly affiliated to the Sunni who argued that leadership in themodern Islamic society were progressively abandoning the true pathand teaching of Islam. These activities inspired the emergence ofSunni extremist groups who advocated for caliphate structures basedon Islamic principles and thus Islamic states. Progressively, theSunni extremism has evolved into a global security threat (Blanchard,2009).
Dueto the demographics of the Iraq society in the 20th century or beforethe 2003 war in Iraq, there were no sectarian conflicts. This isbecause the majority of the population was Shia. However, thepolitical changes that were triggered by the global war on terrorismchanged the Sunni and Shia relationship in Iraq resulting insectarian conflicts. For example, the war led to the change ingovernment where a Sunni dictatorship was replaced with a moredemocratic Shia government, supported by the western powers. At thesame time, numerous social and political changes were taking place inthe region. Technological development in the oil-rich region,especially the increased influence of new media, fueled the sectarianconflicts. The social changes that were brought about by the newmedia resulted in desperate search for an alternative politicalregime other than the familiar authoritarianism or the westerndemocracy. This led the Arab spring and the spread of ISIS (Haddad,2013).
Thereare several ways through which the 2003 war in Iraq caused thecurrent conflicts between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in the countryand beyond. This is mainly because the war politically empowered theShia Muslims and the Kurdish. The war also affirmed the suppressionthat some groups had faced in the previous regimes resulting insectarian tensions. These factors sparked the activities of differentgroups who had divergent views about the position of Iraq in the Arabworld (Gonzalez, 2012). The location of the country, between nationsdominated by Sunni populations on one border and Shia-dominatednations on the other border, increased the tension. Thus, there-embodiment of the preexisting sectarian sentiments as a result ofthe war resulted into reemergence of prejudice and sectarianidentities. For example, the political elites who were mainly Shiaevolved into sectarian lobbyists rather than a nationalistic leader.As a result, this validated the fears associated with Sunnisectarianism. This led to the emergence of Sunni activism andconsequently mobilization of masses against the Shia (Gonzalez,2012).
Theemergence of sectarian sentiments and the launch of the new media,which eliminated censorship, was a historical coincidence. The newmedia, especially the internet and online social networking emergedwhen sectarian identities were developing and being scrutinized inthe Middle East. This changed the Shia-Sunni relationship and theArab world because it enabled mobilization of the masses from thegrassroots and changed sectarian dynamics in Iraq into a regionalissue (Haddad, 2013). Although the sectarian dynamics became evidentwhen the Arab spring emerged, these events can be traced back to Iraqand the Iraq war. The most important impact of the war was the shiftof power dynamics where Saddam Hussein government, which supportedSunni extremists, was overthrown. The changes in political dynamicsshifted power and influence to Shia government, supported by westernpowers and Iran. The increased concerns among the western powers onthe influence of Sunni extremist groups Iraq and the Middle Eastresulted in fears among the Sunni. As a result, Sunni insurgenciesstarted confrontations with Iraq government to reclaim social andpolitical dominance. Although the Shia insurgencies have abandonedviolent confrontation in favor of political participation, Sunniextremists such as ISIS have turned the Middle East into abattleground between government forces and Islamic militias andterrorist groups. The spread of Sunni extremist ideas led to the ArabSpring and collapse of political and social structures in the region(Blanchard, 2009).
Blanchard,C. (2009). Islam:Sunnis and Shiites.CRS.7-5700.
Gonzalez, N. (2012). TheSunni-Shia Conflict: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the MiddleEast.New York: Nortia Press.
Haddad,F. (2015). Sunni-ShiaRelations After the Iraq War.USIP.Peacebrief 160.
Maréchal,B. and Zemni, S. (2013). Thedynamics of Sunni-Shia relationships: doctrine, transnationalism,intellectuals and the media.London: Hurst & Company.
Nasr,S. R. (2007). TheShia revival: how conflicts within Islam will shape the future. New York: W.W. Norton.