The Shia Awakening

Sunni-Shia conflict and the logic of containment

In 2003, for the first time in history, the Shia were poised to take control of a major Arab state. But the toppling of the Sunni-dominated regime in Iraq was followed by horrifying levels of ethnic violence, bringing the divide between Sunni and Shia to the forefront and highlighting the tendency of sectarian enmity to resurface in the absence of an effective state. Political tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region has deep historical roots, aggravated by centuries of oppression, the consistent underrepresentation of the Shia minority, and the inspiration of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Yet the Sunni-Shia relationship need not be reduced to a hopelessly hostile ancient rivalry, even as the “Shia revival” or political awakening takes hold across the Middle East. Tensions can be managed at several levels; a strong central government can often contain sectarian violence, institutions can be designed to facilitate minority participation in heterogeneous democracies, and the expanding Shia population can be gradually integrated or appeased as Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain reform their autocratic political systems.

Keeping Conflict Local

Violence in Iraq after the 2005 elections illustrated the need for a powerful central government and security forces independent of ethnic allegiance to contain sectarian strife, particularly as states undergo a transition to mass-based democratic politics. Sunni-Shia conflict, in part aggravated by political mobilization along ethnic lines, endangered regional stability and impeded U.S. efforts to consolidate security in the fledgling democracy. Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, sectarian violence had been monopolized by an authoritarian regime centered on personal loyalty to the dictator and his family. The power vacuum left in the wake of Hussein’s fall caused ethnic conflict to explode. “The fact that Sunni and Shia killed each other purely for ideology deeply threatened regional stability, and the worry was that the civil war would spill over into other countries,” recalled Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman.

This fear, however, proved largely unwarranted. The surge in U.S. troop levels and the growing Iraqi police force eventually managed a sharp decline in sectarian clashes, while the presence of powerful central authorities in bordering countries has kept the remaining violence localized. Laurence Louër, research fellow at Sciences Po, noted in an interview with the HPR that the conflicts between Sunni and Shia are “generally local realities which have not spread to the entire region.”  But it is difficult to judge how stable the state will be when U.S. forces withdraw. Should leaders fail to set up a government and coercive apparatus (e.g. army or police force) that integrates both Sunni and Shia, Iraq could see a quick reversion to reliance on self-segregation and tribal warlords for protection.

Democratic Politics and Institutional Design

Sunni-Shia tension in Lebanon and Iraq, both religiously and ethnically heterogeneous democracies, has raised the question of what institutional arrangement can best keep ethnic conflict in check. Lebanon, which uses a “confessional” system of quotas to ensure Sunni, Shia, and Christian representation, is “the primary sectarian battleground,” said David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This power-sharing model has remained intact since the last major adjustment of representation in 1990, but Hezbollah’s temporary seizure of west Beirut last year was a potent reminder that extreme elements of the growing Shia population may not wait for the next quota adjustment to make the demographic shift count.

The two cases illustrate that highly inclusive democratic politics often have a double-edged effect on ethnic conflict. Elections allow various ethnicities to participate, but they may also mobilize constituencies along sectarian lines if national ties are weak. Iraq’s first round of elections in 2005 exemplified the latter pattern, but cross-cutting voting in the recent provincial elections signaled a decline in sectarian political identification. “The question now is whether Iraq can remain stable,” said Feldman. Some experts had originally advocated partitioning Iraq into three zones based on ethnic affiliation or imitating the Lebanese model. However, progress in Iraq would lead to greater skepticism of institutional arrangements, such as confessionalism, that take division for granted, and emphasize the importance of an effective state.

Thinly Veiled Appeasement

Some Sunni states have begun to allow greater minority political participation, but this reform is more a conservative-minded strategy to placate the rising Shia demographic than a genuine commitment to equal rights and representation. Saudi Arabia’s conservative regime is particularly wary of a “Shia awakening” fueled by Iranian influence. Hady Amr, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview with the HPR that Saudi Arabia has “systematically repressed their Shia.” Ethnic relations are “inherently resentful,” Amr explained, “because it is a majority Sunni country and the Shia have virtually no representation in government. This resentment has been less aggravated in recent years because Saudi Arabia has made a lot of conciliatory moves toward the Shia.” The Saudi monarchy has slightly increased religious freedom and allowed some Shia figures to become involved in public debate.

Bahrain, a 65 percent Shia country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, recently adopted a similar strategy of containing Shia political mobilization. “The leadership of the country of Bahrain feels insecure vis-à-vis the Shia community and is worried that they will be taken over,” Amr said. Much like the Saudi monarchy, the leadership of Bahrain has made small political concessions such as allowing Shia participation in the 2006 parliamentary elections. Until recently, Bahrain had dealt with Shia unrest by oppressing the minority and keeping it out of politics, but the new approach is designed to ensure that Shia mobilization occurs within the system rather than against it.

Pitfalls for Stability

The Sunni-Shia relationship will continue to be complicated by a multitude of factors. Transnational terrorist groups are often beyond the control of any particular government, Iran and Syria actively fund Hezbollah as a proxy through which to wield influence in Lebanon, and deterioration in the central governing strength of any heterogeneous nation-state could result in a sectarian relapse. As Feldman noted, “The lesson of the Iraqi civil war is that it is a meaningful issue when things go south. The mistake is to think that the divisions are primordial and can’t be gotten rid of; the reality is that most divisions can be managed by the state, but when the state is weakened, sectarian issues erupt.” As the Shia seek to increase their power in proportion with their growing size and political consciousness, the way in which Sunni-Shia tensions are managed will prove crucial to peace and stability in the Middle East far into the future.

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