Islamic Sectarianism

August 7, 2012 • Volume 6, Issue 15
Can Sunni-Shiite hostilities be resolved?
By Leda Hartman

Introduction

Rebel fighters opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad shout “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great) (Reuters TV)
Rebel fighters opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad shout “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great) in this image from a video taken behind the insurgents' lines. The rebels, who represent the nation's Sunni Muslim majority, are rising up against nearly 100 years of rule by the minority Shiite Alawites in a sectarian conflict that experts fear could spread to neighboring Middle Eastern countries. (Reuters TV)

Sectarian rifts are almost as old as Islam itself. They surfaced in 632, shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when Muslims disagreed over who should succeed him. Although the original sectarian split was violent, Islam's two major branches — Shiism and Sunnism — have co-existed peacefully more often than not over the centuries. But recently, sectarian tensions once again have erupted into full-scale violence in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and last year's Arab Spring democracy movement. The volatile situation is not just about theology. Competition for power and privilege intensifies the hostility and distrust. In postwar Iraq, sectarian attacks killed 325 people in July, the highest monthly toll since August 2010. Currently, the epicenter of the sectarian crisis is Syria, where the Sunni opposition is battling the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar Assad. Experts fear the violence could engulf significant parts of the Middle East. Meanwhile, other countries have lined up on either side of the fight, with Iran, Russia and China supporting the Syrian regime and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf States and the West supporting the rebels.

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