Sunni and Shia: the problem with the naming issue

‘The Middle East divide between Sunni and Shia explained in one map’

So announced a headline from the Independent earlier this year. Scroll down and you’ll find a helpful little accompanying image, as stark in its block colour divisions as the infamous Sykes-Picot cartographic efforts before it.

Map claims to explain the Sunni/Shia divide in the Middle East

Map claims to explain the Sunni/Shia divide in the Middle East | Channel 4 News

We must remember that when we talk about sect, we are talking primarily about identity: something that is so patently prone to fluctuation and change. Why then does the media compete to offer analyses and explanations of an alleged irrevocable schism between Sunni and Shia sects, in a way that reduces this vastly complicated issue to something that is black and white?

It is easy to explain away the current conflict in Syria and Iraq through a primordial feud between two sects that cannot be overcome. It is also easy to refer to this strict, clear-cut dichotomy, in order to suggest strict, clear-cut political solutions that involve carving up the land into neat, ready-made packages.

But these explanations are simplistic, not only in their obvious inability to tell the whole tale of an entire region’s sectarian identity, but also because they implicitly overlook hundreds of years of stability, where different sects lived side by side.

It is of course equally wrong to suggest sectarianism plays no role in any Middle Eastern conflicts. Western liberals and indigenous political elites will both advance some version of this narrative, explaining away sectarianism as the conspiratorial and insidious work of foreign agents, keen to inflict their own sectarian agenda on a vulnerable state. These two competing, incomplete narratives polarise and over-simplify discussion, and are of no help at all to those who wish to see any improvements in the region.

The schism derives from an argument about the succession of Islamic leadership after the prophet died. Put simply, proto-Sunnis declared Mohammad’s successor should be from amongst the Muslims, whilst proto-Shias demanded that the new leader be a blood-descendant of the prophet.

Violent divisions began to emerge consistently in the 10th century, with the arrival of the Shia Buyid dynasty to Baghdad. So also began a trend that would be replicated in the modern period: politicians, who wanted to bolster their own positions encouraged sectarian divisions. Over the course of the last millennium, a gruesome pattern of elites using sectarianism for political gain has emerged.

What is distinct about the modern period in Iraq and Syria (1919 onward) is the cultivation of both a nationalist and a sectarian identity simultaneously. Elites have spoken to whichever political discourse best suited them at any given moment. Firstly, the French politicised sectarian identity in the mandate era, realising that the burgeoning ideology of Arabism, based on anti-imperialism and reclaiming sovereignty, posed a very real threat to their power.  It is a dark irony that Arab political elites since independence have frequently employed the very tactics that were once used against them to consolidate power.

The Ba’ath party, which seized power in Syria after a series of military coups following the end of the mandate era, embodied Arab nationalism. But the reign of Hafez al-Assad simultaneously brought the political empowerment of the Alawite sect. Rightly fearful of growing resentment from the majority Sunni population, Assad was careful not to culturally disenfranchise the bulk of his people, and Sunni Islam was the Islam taught in schools. The brutal quashing of a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in Hama in 1982, inevitably brought sectarianism into the national conversation in an ugly way.

Since 2011, the regime has been most responsible for sectarianising the conflict, whilst pro-regime forces have maintained some kind of nationalist veneer – the Arab Nationalist Guard (ANG) being a prime example. From the start Assad has characterised the opposition as Sunni Islamists. In turn, regional powers have been happy to exacerbate ethno-sectarian tensions with blatant financial and military sponsorship. The effect of all this has been to sectarianise this enormously complicated conflict.

Billboard for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria

Billboard for President Bashar al-Assad | Wojtek Ogrodowczyk

And yet at the outbreak of the revolution, could we have said with any conviction or certainty that people were protesting with sectarian motivations? Initially the sect of the protester came less into play than their political beliefs, or due to degrees of economic disadvantage. This is best proved by noting that in 2011, wealthy Sunni Syrians predominately did not participate in anti-government demonstrations. In fact, protests were largely concentrated in economically deprived areas. This indicates that although the conflict has undeniably become (at least for some agents) entirely about sectarianism, for many people this is only one of the factors at play.

I recently interviewed a Sunni Syrian man with previous affiliations to the Muslim Brotherhood, who explained that for him and his family, they ‘want Syria for everybody, not only for the Muslim Brotherhood or the Alawites or the Christians. It is for everyone.’ Although anecdotal, his comment is perhaps enlightening. Here is a man with little to no sectarian agenda, whose son died fighting for Ahrar al-Sham, an apparently Sunni Islamist militia. He claims that ‘in Syria, you are obliged to take sides, especially young boys who do not want to join the Syrian army. Those boys are all Syrians. They formed groups to defend themselves from the regime. These young boys are all educated.’ Has sectarian affiliation in Syria become an imposition for desperate people with no other means of protecting themselves?

Sectarian identity and its relevance are therefore shaped by events. The ebb and flow of its importance is formed and informs contemporary discourse. Ultimately, when we talk about Sunnis and Shias we are asking questions of self-identity, and everyone’s identity fluctuates.  Who can possibly look back on their life and claim to have fixed and stable emotional, cultural, or political affiliations throughout? The same is necessarily true of the Sunna/Shia debate, where sectarian identity changes according to shifting geo-political trends. As the anthropologist Jean-Francois Bayert puts it: ‘everyone is given to tinkering with his or her identity depending on the alchemy of circumstances.’

Feature Image: Juan Llanos

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.