Sunni-Shia divide: its impact of the future of the Middle East

A fault-line runs from Lebanon on the Mediterranean, down through Syria and Iraq, to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and beyond.

It divides Shia and Sunni Muslims, the two sides of Islam. It is the oldest division in the Middle East, it is as much about power and identity as religion. Leaders have tried to use sectarianism as a tool to protect and strengthen their own legitimacy. But the forces that are being unleashed in the Middle East are at best a blunt instrument, at worst beyond anyone’s control.

The split in Islam goes back to a dispute about who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad after he died in 632. Those who wanted his position to be inherited by his closest associates became Sunnis. Those who thought his descendants should succeed him became Shia.

In modern times the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 started a new upheaval in Islam’s sectarian divide.

The removal of Saddam Hussein, Shia Iran’s most bitter enemy, was a blow to the traditional Sunni ascendancy in the Middle East. Thousands of Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence since then.

At the other end of the Gulf, in Bahrain, a longstanding political conflict between the poor Shia majority and the mainly Sunni ruling class has become more overtly sectarian. A member of the Bahraini ruling family told me he could feel the impact of sectarian clashes in Syria on Bahrain’s streets.

In Syria itself, the uprising that called for freedom and justice has become an increasingly sectarian war. Sunni extremist groups, generally al-Qaeda followers, now dominate the armed opposition to President Assad.

The most dangerous force, which threatens to define the next decade in the Middle East, is the tension between Shia and Sunni.

Pray that as Islam’s internal divisions are coming into the open, so too the possibilities for the message of the Good News might find a place in the hearts of many.

Three years after the Arab uprisings started, the weight of a millennium and a half of sectarian rivalry is crushing hopes of a better future.

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