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Beyond Sunni and Shia

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Beyond Sunni and Shia

The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East

Oxford UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
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The Shia-Sunni divide is an ever-shifting phenomenon.

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To outsiders, understanding the Sunni-Shia divide – an inscrutable, centuries-old conflict that seemingly sprang up from nowhere – often feels like an exercise in futility. For those living in Middle Eastern hot spots, however, sectarian identity can be a matter of life and death. In this compilation of essays, experts weigh in on the evolution of the Sunni-Shia split over the years, exploring how key events like America’s invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring helped spread sectarian-based strife. The essays feature a variety of perspectives and contexts. They include discussion of Iran’s role in the conflict, Lebanon’s imperfect, yet noteworthy political model and the proliferation of sectarian rhetoric on Twitter. While this study compiles an admirable array of analyses, the writing styles are uneven. Some contributors’ content is engaging, but others serve up prose that is turgid and unwelcoming. Still, patient readers will gain valuable insights into a core conflict that has roiled Middle Eastern politics over the past decade.


A New Cold War

Since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, many explanations of the cause of ongoing conflict in the Middle East have focused on the Sunni-Shia split. According to these sectarian interpretations, a new Cold War has emerged – one that pits the Shias of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah against the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, along with rebel groups in Iraq and Syria. But those who place the blame for the chaos in the Muslim world on sectarianism exclusively, often overlook a number of other important details underlying the ongoing conflict. The original divide between Sunnis and Shias dates to the seventh century: Sunnis believed religious authority should follow the closest advisers of the Prophet Muhammad, while Shia Muslims thought authority should pass to the prophet’s descendants. In recent decades, however, the rift has taken on new dimensions and has expanded into many other aspects of life in the Muslim world.

Two popular subsets of the sectarian narrative of Middle Eastern conflict – the Primordialist and Ethnonationalist...

About the Author

Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprising (2013).

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