Sunni Versus Shiite Conflict Explained

The True Cause of All Middle East Conflicts

Iraqi man

 Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The two major powers in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, an Arab population ruled by a Sunni majority, and Iran, a Persian population ruled by a Shia majority. These two groups have been at odds for centuries. In modern times, the split has fostered battles for power and resources.

The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is often portrayed as strictly about religion. But it's also an economic battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over who will control the Strait of Hormuz. That's a passage in the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world's oil passes.  

Sunni-Shia Split Today

At least 85% of Muslims are Sunnis. They are the majority in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Shiites are the majority in Iran and Iraq. They also have large minority communities in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan. 

The United States usually allies itself with Sunni-led countries. It wants to maintain its relationship with the world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia. But it allied with the Shiites in the Iraq War to overthrow Saddam Hussein. 

Sunni and Shiite Countries

Saudi Arabia - Led by the royal family of Sunni fundamentalists.  This country is a U.S. ally and a major oil trading partner. It is also the leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. In the 1700s, the founder of the Saudi dynasty, Muhammad ibn Saud, allied with the religious leader, Abd al-Wahhab, to unify all Arabian tribes. After the Shiites took power in Iran in 1979, the Sauds financed Wahhabi-centered mosques and religious schools throughout the Middle East. Wahabism is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam and Saudi Arabia's state religion. 

Iran - Led by Shia fundamentalists. Only 9% of the population is Sunni. Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil producer. The United States supported the Shah who was non-fundamentalist Shia. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979. The Ayatollah is the Supreme Leader of Iran. He guides all elected leaders. He condemned the Saudi monarchy as an illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, D.C., not God. In 2006, the United States asked the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran if it didn’t agree to suspend uranium enrichment. Resultant economic crisis motivated Iran to suspend enrichment in exchange for relief from the sanctions. 

Iraq - Ruled by 63% Shia majority after the United States toppled Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein. This downfall of Saddam shifted the balance of power in the Middle East. The Shia reaffirmed their alliance with Iran and Syria. Although the United States wiped out al-Qaida leaders, the Sunni insurgents became the Islamic State group. In June 2014, they recaptured a large portion of western Iraq, including Mosul. By January 2015, they ruled 10 million people. By December 2016, they lost 16% of the land they held and only controlled 6 million people. Iran backs the Shia majority against the Sunni Islamic State group. 

Syria - Ruled by 13% Shia minority. This country allied with Shia-ruled Iran and Iraq. It passes arms from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It also persecutes the Sunni minority, some of whom are with the Islamic State group. The United States and neighboring Sunni countries back the Sunni, non-Islamic State group rebels. The Islamic State group also controls large portions of Syria, including Raqqa. 

Lebanon - Ruled jointly by Christians, who make up 39%; Sunni, 22%; and Shia, 36%. The civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990 and allowed two Israeli invasions. Israeli and Syrian occupations followed for the next two decades. Reconstruction was set back in 2006 when Hezbollah and Israel fought in Lebanon. In 2017, the Saudi-backed prime minister resigned due to Hezbollah's influence.

Egypt - Ruled by 90% Sunni majority. It persecutes Christians and Shias. The Arab Spring in 2011 deposed Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president in 2012, but he was deposed in 2013. The Egyptian military ruled until former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi won 2014 elections. In November 2016, the International Monetary Fund approved a $12 billion loan to help Egypt cope with an economic crisis. 

Jordan - A kingdom ruled by 92% Sunni majority. Palestinians comprise between 55% and 70% of the population. The country is now being overrun by Syrian Sunni refugees, who could bring the war to Jordan if they are chased by Shiites bent on revenge.

Turkey - Sunni majority rules benignly over a 15% Shiite minority. But Shiites are concerned that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming more fundamentalist like Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain – A Sunni minority of 30% rules the Shia majority. This ruling minority is backed by Saudi Arabia and United States. Bahrain is the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which guards the Strait of Hormuz. 

Afghanistan, Libya, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Yemen - Sunni majority rules Shia minority. Iran supports Shia Houthi in Yemen.

Israel - Jewish majority, making up 75% of the population, rules a Sunni minority of 17.4%. 

Role of Nationalism

The Sunni-Shia split is complicated by the nationalistic schism between Middle East countries. Arabs descend from the Ottoman Empire, which existed from the 15th through the 20th century. Iran, on the hand, descends from the 16th century Persian Empire.

Arabian Sunnis worry that the Persian Shiites are building a Shiite Crescent through Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They see this as a reemergence of the Shia Safavid dynasty in the Persian Empire. That's when Shiites conspired to resurrect Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and then the world. The “Sassanian-Safavid conspiracy” refers to two sub-groups. The Sassanians were a pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty. The Safavids were a Shiite dynasty that ruled Iran and parts of Iraq from 1501 till 1736. Although Shiites in Arab countries ally themselves with Iran, they don't trust Persians either. 

Sunni-Shia Split and Terrorism

Fundamentalist factions of both Sunnis and Shiites promote terrorism. They believe in jihad. That is a holy war waged both outside, against infidels, and inside, against personal weaknesses.

The Islamic State group - Sunnis that have claimed territory in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. They make money by selling low-cost oil on "their" land. This group evolved from al-Qaida in Iraq. They feel they have the right to murder or enslave all non-Sunnis. They are opposed by Syrian leadership, headed by Russian-backed Assad, and by Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. 

al-Qaida - Sunni. This group wants to replace non-fundamentalist governments with authoritarian Islamic states governed by religious law called the Sharia. They believe Shiites want to destroy Islam and recreate the Persian Empire. For them, restoring Palestine by eliminating Israel is considered a holy undertaking. They condemn those who don't agree with narrow Sunni beliefs. Al-Qaida attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

Hamas - Sunni Palestinians. They are intent on removing Israel and restoring Palestinian country. Iran supports it.

Hezbollah - Iran-backed Shiite defender in Lebanon. This group is currently attractive even to Sunnis because it beat Israeli attacks in Lebanon in 2000. It also launched successful rocket attacks against Haifa and other cities. The Hezbollah recently sent fighters to Syria with backing from Iran. Al-Qaida worries it will restore the Persian Empire.

Muslim Brotherhood - Sunni. The group is predominant in Egypt and Jordan. It was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna to promote networking, philanthropy, and spreading the faith. It grew into an umbrella organization for Islamist groups in Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. 

Role of the U.S. Involvement

The United States receives 20% of its oil from the Middle East. That makes the region of economic importance. As a global power, the United States has a legitimate role in the Middle East of protecting the Gulf oil routes.

Between 1976 and 2007, the United States spent $8 trillion protecting its oil interests.  That dependence has lessened as shale oil is developed domestically and reliance on renewable resources increases. Still, America must protect its interests, allies, and its personnel stationed in the region. 

Timeline of the U.S. Wars in the Middle East

1979 Iran Hostage Crisis - Following the revolution, the United States allowed the deposed Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi into the country for medical treatment. To protest, the Ayatollah let the U.S. Embassy be overrun. Ninety people were taken hostage, including 62 Americans. After a failed military rescue, the United States agreed to release the Shah's assets to free the hostages.

Iran-Iraq War - Iran fought a war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. The war led to clashes between U.S. Navy and Iranian military forces between 1987 and 1988. The United States designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism for promoting Hezbollah in Lebanon. Despite this, the United States financed the Nicaraguan “contras” rebellion against the Sandinista government by secretly selling arms to Iran. This created the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1986, implicating the Reagan administration in illegal activities.

1991 Gulf War - In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States led forces to free Kuwait in 1991.

2001 - Present Afghanistan War - The United States removed the Taliban from power for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. 

2003 - 2011 Iraq War – The United States invaded Iraq to replace Sunni leader Saddam Hussein with a Shiite leader. President Obama removed active-duty troops in 2011. It renewed airstrikes in 2014 when the Islamic State group beheaded two American reporters. 

2011 Arab Spring – This series of anti-government protests and armed rebellions spread across the Middle East and North Africa. It sprung from the revolt of people who were tired of high unemployment and repressive regimes. Calling for democracy, they led to civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. They toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

2011 to Present Syrian Conflict – This began as part of the Arab Spring movement. Its goal was to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

How Climate Change Worsens the Conflicts

Climate change is worsening the conflicts between the two factions. According to NASA, the region has been in a drought since 1998. It's the worst in 900 years. In addition, it’s suffered from record heat waves. In 2016, it hit a record 54 degrees Celsius at Mitribah, Kuwait and 53.9 C in Basra, Iraq. That's 129.2 degrees Fahrenheit and one of the highest recorded temperatures in the world.

According to the 2013 study by John Waterbury, “The Political Economy of Climate Change in the Arab Region,” droughts helped cause the Syrian conflict. It devastated cropland for 800,000 people and killed 85% of their livestock. They unsuccessfully looked for work in Hamah, Homs, and Daraa. Armed conflict began when President Bashir al Assad used armed forces against them.

A World Bank report explains how Islamic State recognized the impact of the drought during the Iraq conflict. The terrorists captured the Mosul and Fallujah for the dams. They also targeted the Iraqi regions of Zumar, Sinjar, and Rabiah, to gain control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

History of Sunni-Shiite Split

The Sunni-Shite divide occurred in 632 A.D. when the prophet, Muhammad, died. Sunnis believed that the new leader should be elected. They chose Muhammad's advisor, Abu Bakr. "Sunni" in Arabic means "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet." 

Shiites believed that the new leader should have been Muhammad's cousin/son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. As a result, Shiites have their own Imams, who they consider holy. They consider their Imams to be the true leaders, not the state. "Shia" comes from "Shia-t-Ali" or "the Party of Ali." 

Sunni and Shiite Muslims have many beliefs in common. They affirm that Allah is the one true God and that Muhammed is his prophet. They read the Quran and adhere to the following five pillars of Islam:

  1. Sawm - fasting during Ramadan. This occurs at the ninth lunar cycle in the Islamic calendar.
  2. Hajj – a pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia. It should be done at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime.
  3. Shahada – a declaration of faith all true Muslims must make.
  4. Salat – prayers that Muslims are required to do five times a day.
  5. Zakat – the giving of charity to the poor.