The Sunni-Shia split: Why conflict defines Saudi-Iran relations

  • Aditya Iyer, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 09, 2016 14:02 IST
Iranian demonstrators chant slogans during a protest denouncing the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, which has highlighted the divisions in the Muslim world. (AP Photo)

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran took a turn for the worse last week after the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr at the hands of the Saudi authorities along with 46 others. Since then, various countries in the Muslim world, already witnessing an unprecedented level of militant activity, have been taking sides and breaking off diplomatic contact depending on their allegiances, which have more or less neatly followed Sunni-Shia religious lines.

But to claim that the tense devolution of relations between Iran and its bitter rival stem wholly from a religious conflict that occurred 1,400 years ago is, at best, wholly fatuous, and at worst propagating an Orientalist discourse. The two Muslim nations are not in conflict because of their religious demarcations; rather, their differences have been utilised to further their geo-political agendas via the promotion of sectarian violence.

Read: Awakening not suppressible: Iran condemns Nimr’s execution by Saudi

Origins of the split

The major schism in Islam occurred in the 7th century over a dispute over which caliphs to venerate, and in what order. The Shias, who approximately make up 10-15% of the total global Muslim population, were a movement - their current name is derived from their predecessors, the “Shiat Ali” (”Party of Ali”) referring to the caliph who was assassinated in 661 after a five-year-long civil war.

Despite being marked by civil discord and political instability, the Shias hold the belief that Ali’s successors were cheated out of their rightful legacy. Furthermore, they hold that Ali was the Prophet’s true successor, a claim that has lead many Sunni extremists to frequently denounce Shias as heretics.

The Sunnis, who comprise the majority of Muslims (approximately 80-85%) across the world, derive their name from the phrase “Ahl al Sunnah”, meaning “people of the Tradition”, hinting at their conservative practices.

But does a 1,400 year-old religious schism adequately explain the ongoing tensions in the Middle East?

1979: Saudi Arabia shifts uneasily as a Shah is toppled

As it turns out, no.

“Religious differences have a political function, whether they are used against non-Muslims or even within the Muslim community,” says AH Mohapatra, professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies in Delhi’s Jawarharlal Nehru University.

“Islam is unique in that it is a political religion par excellence, meaning that it is more susceptible to abuse and misuse to the benefit of political actors than, say, Judaism or Christianity,” he adds, emphasising the use of religious demarcations as a method for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to articulate their political desires.

Contemporary Sunni-Shia relations, which usually revolved around a clear hierarchy that favoured the former, changed almost completely in 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution. The triumph of a revolutionary radical Shia Islamist agenda was seen as a challenge to the conservative Sunni countries; especially in the Gulf States, and especially in Saudi Arabia, which began assembling allies.

The Iranian Islamic Republic Army demonstrating in solidarity with people in the street during the Iranian revolution. The triumph of the Revolution changed the power dynamic between Sunnis and Shias; much to the discomfort of the Gulf States. (Getty Images)

That they along with future enemies would fall along the lines of the historical Sunni-Shia divide was certainly not a coincidence; but neither was it the driving force behind the instability in modern Iranian-Saudi Arabian relations.

As the political scientist Gilles Kepel noted, Iran’s revolution constituted a potent challenge to the existing Shia-Sunni status quo, and the political gambles that ensued after 1979 were articulated with that ancient schism in mind. This was further exacerbated by the particular school of Sunni thought that Saudi Arabia follows - Wahhabism - which strictly does not consider Shias to even be Islamic.

The sectarian violence that followed this political standoff was not a result of politics over a religious issue; rather it stemmed from political ambitions of two very different states who realised that they could use the schism to further their own goals. Religion, as is so often the case, became a tool to further the aims of the state.

Read: Shia cleric’s execution in Saudi exposes divisions in the Middle East

The rapid escalation of violence in the region along Sunni-Shia lines can perhaps be better understood by understanding the times in which they grew. According to the academic and Middle East scholar Vali Nusr, as the Muslim world became decolonised the ideology of Arab Nationalism began to lose its appeal. Fundamentalism blossomed as a consequence, with the harsh teachings of the Sunni scholar Ibn Taymiyyah being especially popular.

There are some caveats to this argument, of course. Sectarian violence did flare up before 1979, and Saudi Arabia and Iran are not the only groups to have used the division for political gain (Saddam Hussein did during his war with Iran in the 1980s, and the largely-Sunni Islamic State group has been exploiting the conflict successfully in its fight in Iraq and Syria). But the fact remains that sectarian violence has only become a defining issue for the Middle East relatively recently.

Future consequences

So what does the fallout between Iran and Saudi Arabia mean?

With relations between the two countries at their lowest since the 1980s (Saudi Arabia had backed Saddam’s invasion of Iran) it is clear that the ramifications of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has caused a political fallout across the Muslim world.

The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are already complex in nature because of the political machinations of both nations; in Yemen, Zaidi Shia-led Houthis launched a revolution with the backing of Iran, while in Syria Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shia fighters are currently fighting on the side of the al-Assad regime against a largely Sunni-dominated opposition which includes the Islamic State.

Army soldiers hold up their weapons after taking over the main port of Yemen's southern city of Aden from gun men. The Hadi government forces are supported by a Saudi-led coalition, which remove the Iran-backed Houthi rebels from power last year. (REUTERS Photo)

So it is possible that the escalating tensions between the two rivals will hamper peace efforts in the region.

There are also questions about how India, home to the second-largest number of Shias in the world, should react. “The MEA should think about acting in terms of dousing the flames before sectarian violence spills over from the Middle East,” says Professor Aftar Kamal Pasha, another professor at the Centre for West Asian Studies.

“It shouldn’t result in a law-and-order problem, but it certainly will have an impact on our country - among the Kashmiri Shias for example, and may change what the minority groups expect from the local political parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Telugu Desam Party.”

“India faces a challenge because of the increasing bilateral alliance that has emerged during the Syrian Civil War, and that has been exacerbated by the Yemen revolution,” agrees Mohapatra. “We can’t escape the situation because of our Shia population and the fact that we are dependent on Saudi Arabia for oil and Iran for gas - not to mention the historical and cultural ties we have with Iran.”

Despite Maulani Wali Rehmani, the general secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, in an interview with Indian Express saying that the fallout from the executions would “not reflect here as there is no such inherent tensions here,” the Centre may have to consider a suitable response to the escalating crisis.

Read More:

Iranian protesters storm Saudi embassy after Shia cleric’s execution

Shia cleric’s execution by Saudi Arabia sparks outrage in Iraq

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