I wanted to flag this piece in the Washington Post from a week and a half ago because I think it’s always important to counter the notion that Islamic sectarianism is all you need to know to explain the current situation in the Middle East. It’s written by Nick Danforth, a grad student at Georgetown, and takes the long historical view of things, which I like, to argue that the Sunni-Shiʿa dynamic over the centuries has mostly been one of peaceful co-existence, which if you know anything about Islamic history you know to be correct.
Consider, for example, the ninth-century Abbasid Dynasty (based in modern-day Iraq), celebrated for cultural contributions such as “The Arabian Nights” and the number zero. Historical accounts treat the dynasty as the most famous Sunni caliphate in Islamic history. But when the first Abbasid caliph seized power, he was challenging another Sunni dynasty, the Umayyads. In doing so, his propaganda championed a Shiite belief — that Islam’s leadership belonged to those, like him, who were more closely related to Muhammad. Thus, the noted scholar Bernard Lewis declared the Abbasids’ victory over the Umayyads a “resounding success” for Shiism, adding that at this point, Shiite doctrines “differed to no great extent from those of Sunni Islam.”
But after claiming the Shiite mantle in revolt, the Abbasids defended Sunni orthodoxy against Shiite groups rising in revolt against them. And when, a century later, the Abbasid caliphate fell to a Shiite dynasty called the Buyyids, the revolutionaries were perfectly content to keep a line of Sunni caliphs in power as their figureheads.
(It’s actually two centuries later — the Abbasids took power in 750, and the Buyids seized Baghdad and placed the Abbasid caliphate under their “protection” in 945 — but the point is still accurate.)
After the shaking out period early when “Shiʿism” (or “Alidism,” as it’s sometimes termed in its formative decades) really meant “political opposition to the caliphate,” discord between the sects really calmed down a fair amount. Shiʿa who were not revolution-minded (or who were not feared by the central authorities for their potential political influence) didn’t have much to fear from Baghdad, and when the Shiʿa Fatimid Dynasty conquered North Africa, Egypt, and most of the Levant in the 10th-11th centuries, it made virtually no attempt to convert the largely Sunni population under its control. Later, the Fatimids and the Sunni Seljuk Turks would clash with each other, but that’s pretty much what happened when competing expansionist powers collided in the 12th century. After the Fatimids were put out of their misery (they’d been in decline for a while) by Saladin in 1171, there wouldn’t be a major Shiʿa power again until the Safavids conquered Iran in 1501. During this period especially we see the rise of what historians call “Alid sympathy,” where Sunni rulers would try to demonstrate their pious bona fides by showing reverence for the Shiʿa imams, who were, after all, descended from Muhammad and were popularly thought of as great scholars and generally cool, pious dudes. It’s not uncommon to find coinage from these centuries with the names of the early Sunni caliphs stamped on one side and the names of the imams stamped on the other.
The advent of the Safavid Dynasty in Iran, which unlike the Fatimids did try to forcibly convert the areas under its control, changed this somewhat. They had immediate rivalries with two major Sunni powers, the Ottomans to the west and the Uzbeks to the east, that were mostly political and territorial in motivation but were sometimes cast in sectarian language (the Ottomans had a legitimate — because it happened at least once, in the 1511 Şahkulu rebellion — fear that Shiʿa groups within their borders might revolt and invite the Safavids in). But the Safavids also were closely allied with the Sunni (at least until Akbar the Great got creative about it) Mughal Dynasty as it attempted to conquer, and then reconquer, Pakistan and India. But even in modern times, as Danforth notes, Sunnis and Shiʿis aren’t inevitable opponents:
In time, doctrines and counter-doctrines were increasingly codified by Sunni and Shiite theologians. But even today, these identities are seldom the all-consuming markers of political allegiance that extremists on both sides would have us believe. In the 1980s, many Shiites fought loyally for Saddam Hussein against Shiite Iran. Likewise in Syria, many Sunni businessmen initially supported the Shiite Alawite Assad regime, to which they owed much of their wealth. Meanwhile, many democratically minded Shiite Alawites joined the opposition in calling for an end to Assad’s authoritarian rule. And of course, for families happily formed from across sectarian lines, the irrelevance of these identities is as much personal as it is political.
But the past few centuries of Ottoman-Safavid relations looked totally different just a decade ago. In 2006, the Turkish and Iranian governments were rapidly improving bilateral relations, signing trade deals and coordinating efforts against Kurdish separatism. Both governments used nonsectarian rhetoric to emphasize their shared values and regularly spoke of the long history of Turkish-Iranian harmony. Amid this surfeit of goodwill, it fell to historians to challenge the widely accepted claim that Turkey and Iran had neither fought nor changed their border since the Ottomans and the Safavids signed a peace treaty in 1639.
So the problem isn’t sectarianism itself, but rather, as Danforth writes, in the way that sectarianism is manipulated by bad actors today. ISIS is a political movement (maybe more political than previously thought, as it turns out). Saudi Arabia’s worries about Iran, or about Iran’s Shiʿa agents supposedly scurrying all over the Middle East, are at their core political, not religious. The sectarian breakdown of the Syrian civil war is, for one thing, overblown (see above) and, for another thing, also political (many Alawites back Assad not because he’s also an Alawite, but because they could lose everything if/when his regime falls). But these long-standing sectarian identities are a marker that groups like ISIS or political actors like the Saudis can use to divide people, and that can be activated when short-sighted and/or corrupt governments like Iraq’s disenfranchise groups like Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in order to exact some silly revenge for past slights. These identities make it easier to collect people in tribes and to motivate them to attack other tribes (or “traitors” to their own tribe as the case may be). So they matter quite a bit, actually, but not in the simplistic way they’re portrayed in most Western media, and it’s important that the counter-narrative to “Sunnis and Shiʿis are always fighting each other” gets out there.