The division between Shiites and Sunnis has served to justify many wars and revolutions, including the ongoing Syria civil war and the conflict in Yemen, which now have an even greater potential of spreading to other parts of the Middle East.
The 47 executions for terrorism and sedition in Saudi Arabia, which included the killing of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was guilty only of having insulted the Saudi monarchy – he committed no violent crime whatsoever – have exacerbated the already high tension between Sunnis and Shiites. The West is more of a bystander, even though Western governments have tended to favor Saudi Arabia at the official level in this clash.
The Sunni-Shiite dispute, it should be noted, originated after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, but over the centuries it has become increasingly political, especially after the 1979 revolution in Iran, which was ideologically manipulated by Ayatollah Khomeini. Thus, in recent decades, countries belonging to the Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia have struggled with the Iran-led Shiite bloc over regional hegemony in the Middle East.
This is at the root of many of the wars that have inflamed the whole area. The break between Shiites and Sunnis is related to the problem of succession after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. Those who would later be known as Sunnis (from ‘Sunna,’ one of the sacred texts of Islam, including all the Hadith – the deeds and interpretations of the Qur’an by Muhammad) believed that Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and his chief advisor was the rightful successor. Indeed, he became the first Caliph (meaning successor) of Islam and Sunnis now represent, including the various currents, some 80% of all Muslims.
On the other side, the Shiites, from a contraction of the word construct “shī’at’Alí” (supporters – or party – of Ali), proposed Ali as the true successor to Muhammad because he was a blood relative of the deceased prophet. Shiites account for 20% of the Muslim world. They identify in the succession of Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib), the Prophet’s cousin and son in law, who would later became the fourth Caliph.
After years of clashes that saw the Sunni wing prevail, although Ali did rule for a few years, the final break between the two camps occurred in 680 AD at the Battle of Karbala in present day Iraq, when the Umayyad troops, loyal to the then Sunni Caliph, killed Hussein, the son of Ali. Shiites remained tied to the latter’s line of succession by declaring their loyalty to their Imam and twelve of his descendants – the Imams.
This division is the cause of the differences that still characterize the religious clash between Sunnis and Shiites. The contrast between these two different religious interpretations has widened from a purely ideological and religious realm to a geopolitical one – especially over the past four decades. The division within the Islamic religion is clear even at the regional level, especially in the Middle East, and is often used to justify wars and power struggles between different states.
The Sunni axis, led by Saudi Arabia, is supported mainly by petro-monarchies of the Gulf and Western powers – even if reluctantly. The Shiite Crescent is led by Iran and has as its main satellites Syria, Lebanon through Hezbollah, and significant segments of the populations of Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. There is also an important Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, which has become increasingly active in recent years, demanding more rights.
The problem in Saudi Arabia is that not only is it a Sunni state; it is a Wahhabi state. Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative current that insists on a literal interpretation of the sacred texts is the centerpiece of the Saudi state. Wahhabism is also at the root of radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State. To better understand the significance and impact of Wahhabism, imagine, if a Christian sect insisted on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then took hold of political power…
Iran, the country that has protested the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on January 2, is the head of the Shiite religious coalition. In reality, it is far more of a political and strategic coalition that includes Syria, which since 1970 is ruled by the al-Assad family – members of the Alawi Shiite sect, though entirely secular in the way they exercised power.
From the Syria civil war to uprisings in Yemen and the Iraq conflict, it’s clear that religion is still being used as a pretext for power politics. Eight years of Shiite political leadership following the US invasion of Iraq have worsened tensions between Shiites and Sunnis there. This favored the sectarian fighting that left the conflict vulnerable to such radical groups as ISIS (now Islamic State), which benefited from the organizational capabilities of former Baathists soldiers from Saddam’s army (where most officers were Sunni).
The Saudi execution of Sheikh al-Nimr fits into this larger context in the same way that a match fits into a powder keg. Islamic State might be the biggest beneficiary as the risk of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence spreads throughout the region and into parts of Saudi Arabia and the other petro-monarchies themselves.
Where the EU is concerned, apart from any additional military burdens in the region, is the potential for new flows of refugees that could far outpace and outnumber current estimates. Apart from the inevitable costs, EU citizens might become more reluctant to support refugee intake policies, weakening political links like the Schengen zone. In other words, the Middle East refugee crisis risks breaking important layers of the European Union, even as it generates costs that its citizens are reluctant to endure.