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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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The Global War on Terror (GWOT) reshaped one of the most consequential intra-Islamic conflicts of our time, namely Sunni-Shi‘i sectarianism. While the 20th century had witnessed some sincere   efforts   to   bridge   the   gaps between the communities, it became increasingly clear since the 1960s that ecumenism had reached a dead end. This had less to do with Islamic law a field in which Sunnis and Shi‘is don’t differ much but with supposedly irreconcilable theological views, a position which the rising trend in Salafi Islam pushed in particular. Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, these   concerns   obtained   a   further   political   dimension   with Iran suddenly (albeit briefly) emerging as a powerful manifestation of an Islamic state,   something   that   Sunni   Islamists   had   been dreaming   of   for   decades . Consequently, neighboring states with a Sunni majority banded together to contain the Shi‘i “temptation” and became increasingly sophisticated along the way in managing religion more broadly . Yet, this wall of containment suddenly burst in 2003 – with dire consequences until today. After the American-led invasion of Iraq, the Middle East woke up to a novel political landscape. Sunni politicians were quick to paint the picture of a threatening Shi‘i   crescent”   in   the region . Even countries that barely had a Shi‘i presence now discovered   “secret”   Shi‘i   machinations : in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, for example, newspaper reports emerged that Iran   had   supposedly   asked   the   government   of   Mohamed   Morsi (in power from 2012-2013) to follow its lead. Egypt should not only impose the shari‘a but also a form of government resembling Iran’s “rule of the jurisprudent” (vilayat-i faqih). In the shadow of this increasing hysteria, the city of Najaf made an unexpected comeback as a global center of Shi‘i learning, while Iran steadily and skillfully   enlarged   its   regional footprint. 1 Sunni fears were further kindled in 2006, when Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shi‘i group Hezbollah, mesmerized TV audiences across the region with his principled stance against Israel. The Shi‘i appeal in the Middle East seemed unstoppable. These developments, we should recall, happened in a climate when Sunni terrorist groups in the form of al-Qaeda and its offspring were singled out as the   prime   enemy   of   the   West . Shi‘i actors, on the other hand, managed during these years to largely avoid negative press (exceptions being Iranian politicians such as president   Mahmud   Ahmadinejad , of course). On the contrary, they succeeded in presenting themselves as sober   and   reliable   rational   actors , ready to do business with Western governments and tolerant of religious minorities . Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for instance, was unanimously praised as facilitating democratic elections in Iraq . Such tactical alliances with Shi‘is became even more important for Western governments with the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Shi‘i militias did a lot of the heavy lifting, in both Syria and Iraq, to defeat the group and did not shy away from publicizing their   successes   on   social   media . The attention   devoted   to   IS and its horrific acts   of   violence , however, led many to turn a blind eye to Shi‘i   militias   and   their   own   atrocities committed against ordinary Iraqi Sunnis. Such brazen displays of Shi‘i boldness further fueled a qualitative deepening of anti- Shi‘i arguments online and offline. 2 The post-2003 sectarian discourse has thus come to full fruition. 3 Ecumenical initiatives to normalize Shi‘ism have been rendered almost unthinkable in many parts of the Middle East and South Asia. Instead of sectarian conflict surfacing in debates over doctrinal minutiae, they now appear most prominently on the battlefield and in the realm of politics.
September 8, 2021 Bold Shi'is, Frightened Sunnis, and  the Making of Sectarianism after 9/11
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The Global War on Terror (GWOT) reshaped one of the most consequential intra-Islamic conflicts of our time, namely Sunni-Shi‘i sectarianism. While the 20th century had witnessed some sincere   efforts   to   bridge   the   gaps between the communities, it became increasingly clear since the 1960s that ecumenism had reached a dead end. This had less to do with Islamic law a field in which Sunnis and Shi‘is don’t differ much but with supposedly irreconcilable theological views, a position which the rising trend in Salafi Islam pushed in particular. Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, these concerns   obtained   a   further   political   dimension with Iran suddenly (albeit briefly) emerging as a powerful manifestation of an Islamic state, something     that     Sunni     Islamists     had     been dreaming       of       for       decades . Consequently, neighboring states with a Sunni majority banded together to contain the Shi‘i “temptation” and became increasingly sophisticated along the way in managing   religion   more   broadly . Yet, this wall of containment suddenly burst in 2003 with dire consequences until today. After the American-led invasion of Iraq, the Middle East woke up to a novel political landscape. Sunni politicians were quick to paint the picture of a threatening Shi‘i   crescent”   in   the region . Even countries that barely had a Shi‘i presence now discovered       “secret”       Shi‘i machinations : in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, for example, newspaper reports emerged that Iran    had    supposedly    asked    the government   of   Mohamed   Morsi (in power from 2012-2013) to follow its lead. Egypt should not only impose the shari‘a but also a form of government resembling Iran’s “rule of the jurisprudent” (vilayat-i faqih). In the shadow of this increasing hysteria, the city of Najaf made an unexpected comeback as a global center of Shi‘i learning, while Iran steadily and skillfully    enlarged    its    regional    footprint. 1 Sunni fears were further kindled in 2006, when Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shi‘i group Hezbollah, mesmerized TV audiences across the region with his principled stance against Israel. The Shi‘i appeal in the Middle East seemed unstoppable. These developments, we should recall, happened in a climate when Sunni terrorist groups in the form of al-Qaeda and its offspring were singled out as the   prime   enemy of    the    West . Shi‘i actors, on the other hand, managed during these years to largely avoid negative press (exceptions being Iranian politicians such as president       Mahmud Ahmadinejad , of course). On the contrary, they succeeded in presenting themselves as sober and   reliable   rational   actors , ready to do business with Western governments and     tolerant     of religious     minorities . Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, for instance, was unanimously praised as facilitating democratic elections in Iraq . Such tactical alliances with Shi‘is became even more important for Western governments with the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Shi‘i militias did a lot of the heavy lifting, in both Syria and Iraq, to defeat the group and did not shy away from publicizing their   successes   on   social media . The attention    devoted    to    IS and its horrific acts   of   violence , however, led many to turn a blind eye to Shi‘i   militias   and   their   own atrocities committed against ordinary Iraqi Sunnis. Such brazen displays of Shi‘i boldness further fueled a qualitative deepening of anti- Shi‘i arguments online and offline. 2 The post-2003 sectarian discourse has thus come to full fruition. 3 Ecumenical initiatives to normalize Shi‘ism have been rendered almost unthinkable in many parts of the Middle East and South Asia. Instead of sectarian conflict surfacing in debates over doctrinal minutiae, they now appear most prominently on the battlefield and in the realm of politics.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
Bold Shi'is, Frightened Sunnis, and the Making of Sectarianism after 9/11
Written by
Lecturer in Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT