In the Middle East, an ancient war is new again

A bitter, violent clash between Islam’s two major sects is dividing and, increasingly, defining the region

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Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Of the various slurs and insults that opposing sides in Syria’s civil war fling at each other, there are some so archaic, they seem not to belong in a modern conflict. Among them is the Arabic and Persian term Majous, used by Sunni Muslim rebels against supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. Those familiar with the Christmas story might recognize its similarity to magi, as in the three wise men who came from the East with gifts for the baby Jesus.

The term originally referred to followers of Zoroastrianism, a now all-but-vanished religion that predates Islam. Rebels employ it today to deny the shared Islamic faith of their adversaries. Assad’s family and many of his supporters are Alawite Muslims, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam. “It means they’re not Muslims, because they’re still these weirdo Zoroastrians,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “And they’re not even Arabs. They’re crypto-Iranians.”

It is language that speaks to the deepening sectarian fault lines running through Syria and, increasingly, throughout the Islamic Middle East. In Iraq, for example, al-Qaeda leaders boasting about prison breaks near Baghdad last summer said they had damaged the country’s “Safavid” government. The Safavids were a Persian dynasty that brought Shia Islam to what is now Iraq some 400 years ago.

Divisions between the Sunni and Shia interpretations of Islam are almost as old as the faith itself. But what’s happening now is a particularly bitter and often violent clash, and one that is intensified by a geopolitical power struggle between the two dominant nations in the region, Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, each acting as standard-bearers for Islam’s two major sects. Some have likened the struggle to a Middle Eastern version of the Cold War, with Iran and Saudi Arabia playing the roles of America and the Soviet Union, and other states in the region lining up behind them.

For the Sunni-ruled countries of the Arabian Peninsula, any sign that Iran is becoming stronger—by improving its nuclear capabilities, or even by moving toward normalizing its relations with Washington—stokes anxiety. They fear Iran itself, and the possibility that a more powerful Iran might embolden and stir up dissent among their own Shia populations. Repercussions of the struggle within Islam are not limited to the Muslim world, either. America and Israel, motivated by their own standoff with Iran, side with the Sunni camp. Russia, seeing an opportunity to counter Western influence in the region, backs Shia Iran and Alawite-led Syria.

The Shia-Sunni conflict “is not just a hoary religious dispute, a fossilized set piece from the early years of Islam’s unfolding, but a contemporary clash of identities,” Vali Nasr writes in The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. “Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today’s concerns with power, subjugation, freedom and equality, not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues. It is, paradoxically, a very old, very modern conflict.”

The Middle East’s sectarian divide sharpened following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Until then, Sunnis dominated the region, with Shia strength concentrated in Iran. When America toppled Saddam Hussein and brought democracy to Iraq, it also liberated the country’s Shias, who had long been suppressed by Saddam and his mostly Sunni power base, despite forming a majority of Iraq’s population.

“This was a tremendous earthquake in the regional balance of power,” says Landis. “It strengthened Iran tremendously. It made the Sunni powers extremely fearful of this growing Shia menace—at least what they saw as a menace.”

The Shia’s ascendency in Iraq was neither smooth nor peaceful. Sunni extremists resisted with suicide bombings and attacks on Shia religious processions and mosques. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was clear about his movement’s goals. The Shia, he wrote in a 2004 letter, are “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom.

“If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to waken the inattentive Sunnis, as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death at the hands of Sabeans.”

Zarqawi, like Syrian rebel commanders today, reached far into history for an anti-Shia slur. The Sabeans were pagans of southwest Arabia. The Shia of today, he implied, are similarly godless. Zarqawi succeeded, to some degree, in provoking a sectarian war in Iraq whose bloody reverberations continue today. He also pulled Iran deeper into the conflict. In 2005, a cleric there described Sunni suicide bombers in Iraq as “wolves without pity,” and vowed, “Sooner, rather than later, Iran will have to put them down.”

Since then, Shia prime ministers with close ties to Iran have governed Iraq. A once Sunni-ruled state has shifted into Iran’s sphere of influence. It was this reality that prompted King Abdullah of Jordan in 2004 to warn of a Shia “crescent” stretching from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon that would alter the Sunni-Shia balance of power and risk destabilizing the region.

At the time, Abdullah’s comments sounded alarmist, says Matteo Legrenzi, an associate professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Today, they seem prescient. “Sectarianism is now one of the defining characteristics of the current moment in Middle East politics.”

The hot centre of this divide is Syria, where Sunnis form a majority, but where the Alawite Assad family has ruled for more than 40 years. It might have been possible, early in the uprising, for the country to avoid the religious animosity now tearing it apart. The popular movement against Assad was not initially a rebellion against the Alawites and, for a time, Assad’s regime maintained the loyalty of many of his Sunni soldiers.

Assad’s decision to arm Alawite civilian militias helped shape the conflict as a religious one, creating the perception among Alawites that the uprising was against them and not just Assad’s regime, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Clerics and media outlets in the Gulf augmented the war’s sectarian nature by “demonizing” Alawites and focusing on Iran’s support for the Assad regime, says Wehrey, who is the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprising. “The Gulf [states] and the Saudis see this as a pivotal moment in checking Iran’s regional influence. This is the strategic prize. The rest of the Arab world’s position hinges on what happens in Syria.”

This belief has pushed Sunni governments and private donors in the region to support Sunni rebel militias in Syria—some of whom subscribe to an extremist version of Islam and include foreign fighters in their ranks. Iran, for its part, has sent advisers from the Revolutionary Guards to fight for Assad, along with the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, Hezbollah.

“It’s a regional war. All the militias in Syria have become proxies for a much broader Sunni-Shia struggle,” says Landis. “You could look at this like Central Europe during the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics, because, in many ways, the Middle East is in the pre-Enlightenment world. Sunnis and Shias have not accepted each other as equal partners in Islam.”

By the time the Thirty Years War was over in 1648, millions were dead. The death toll from ongoing Sunni-Shia disputes—even in the charnel house of Syria—is much smaller. And while religious differences are an accelerant, the clashes are also about power and wealth.

“The grievances always stem from actual situations of disempowerment and of the nature of authoritarian systems of government,” says Legrenzi, citing as an example Bahrain, where a Sunni minority that includes the king dominates a Shia majority. Public demonstrations in 2011 were put down with help from Saudi troops and armour, and police from the United Arab Emirates.

Despite attempts by some commentators at the time—including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—to frame the unrest as an Iran-backed plot, Legrenzi and Wehrey both describe the uprising as an indigenous one fuelled by a genuine desire for a more just and equitable society.

Sunni and Shia powers have also co-operated when it suited them. Saudi Arabia and Iran were allies against Communism prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. More recently, Iran backed the Palestinian Sunni militia Hamas against Israel—though this partnership has unravelled because of Iran’s support for Assad.

The Muslim world, in other words, is not condemned to unending antagonism between its major sects. But the divide today is deep and violent, even at street level. Faith-driven lynchings have claimed victims from Egypt to Pakistan. There is little reason to believe this acrimony will soften soon.