Article

Contemporary Shia–Sunni Sectarian Violence

Mohammed Nuruzzaman

in International Relations


Published online January 2019 | e-ISBN: 9780199743292 | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0249

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Religious violence, primarily stemming from Shia–Sunni conflicts, has occupied the center stage in contemporary Middle East. It’s most recent brutal expression, which is viewed as a symptom rather than the cause, is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS; also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; ISIL) in the summer of 2014 and the violence it unleashed against the Shias, the anti-ISIS Sunnis and other non-Muslim groups across and beyond the Middle East. The violence did not erupt suddenly, however: it is an outcome of a myriad of complex historical, religious, political, economic, and geopolitical factors. Historically, tensions between Islam’s two rival sects, the Shias and the Sunnis, have existed, especially after the Battle of Karbala in 680 (which saw the defeat of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the younger son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet and the fourth caliph of Islam, at the hand of Damascus-based Umayyad Caliph Yazid I), mostly in abeyance but occasionally resulting in encounters. In the contemporary context, a host of factors, most notably external interventions including the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the minority Sunni-led Saddam Hussein government, the sectarianization of politics by the Gulf Arab monarchs, Iran, and other dictatorial regimes in the region to consolidate regime survival, and the geopolitical competitions for power and influence between the region’s two archrivals: the Shia powerhouse Iran and the self-proclaimed defender of the Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, have greatly abetted violence between Islam’s two rival sects. Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria are the battleground states where the two regional heavyweights, being aided by two extra-regional powers, the United States and the Russian Federation, are jostling and jockeying to edge each other out to claim regional preeminence. The malaise of sectarian violence took a more serious toll on the peoples and societies in the region after the outbreak of Arab movements for democracy, what is dubbed the Arab Spring, in December 2010 and what is continuing today. This article partially originates from the author’s research project “Shia – Sunni Sectarian Violence and Middle East Regional Security” funded by the European Union and tenable at Durham University, U.K.

Article.  4872 words. 

Subjects: International Relations

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