The Escalating Shi’a-Sunni Conflict: Assessing The Role Of State Actors

In the second of four conferences on an increasing Shi’a-Shia divide in the middle east, from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon to the Gulf, and even Egypt, violence between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims is on the rise. While non-state actors, such as ISIS, are advancing a sectarian agenda, some governments in the Middle East are also using the conflict to achieve political gain and encourage religious intolerance. The Stimson Center hosted a panel of experts who discussed the role of states actors in the rise in tensions. This was the second in a series of discussions on sectarianism in the Middle East.

Dwight Bashir, Deputy Director for Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, provided comments from a human rights perspective. Dr. Bashir started by outlining the correlation between freedom of religious expression and belief and stability. He then focused on countries where state policies and practices have contributed to the rise of sectarianism and intolerance. Saudi Arabia, a country unique in restricting public religious expression to its interpretation of Sunni Islam, was the first example. Dr. Bashir pointed to two aspects of government policy that have been underplayed: the education system and the mosques.

These were identified as essential drivers of sectarianism. He also pointed to the steady discriminatory policy of detaining Shi’a minorities in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and the alarming death sentence issued in October against Nimr Al Nimr, a well-known Shi’a critic of the government. He mentioned the use of counterterrorism laws to crush dissent and minorities. Turning to Iran, the policy there has been a steady one for years whereby the minority Sunnis population’s ability to practice their beliefs has always been limited by the government. A recent trend has been the arrest and detention of Sunnis on the sole basis of their beliefs. Bahrain was also examined as an alarming example because it is seeing the rise of extremism and sectarianism.The role of states, either through allowing and providing a space for incendiary rhetoric or not holding those who incite violence to account, cannot be overstated. If this trend continues, societies that never had sectarian issues will most probably be faced with conflict.

Najib Ghadbian, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, focused on how the Shi’a-Sunni conflict is being played out in Syria. Prior to 2011, there was no such conflict in Syria. Rather, the key divide is between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority.

According to Dr. Ghadbian, the Sunni-Shi’a discourse initially came from Saudi Arabia with a prominent sheikh (Arour) emphasizing jihadism against the brutality of the Assad regime. This also illustrates the role of the media and satellites stations, which have a significant role to play in exacerbating the Shi’a-Sunni conflict. The true turning point according to Dr. Ghadbian however occurred in 2012 with the formation of the Syrian Coalition, which was recognized by many countries, while the Assad regime was mainly supported by Iran, the Maliki government and Hezbollah. He also acknowledged the rise of religiosity among Sunni fighters in Syria, which has taken a Salafist coloring. This is due to the fact that the Salafist discourse is very simplistic and is the easiest option to turn to when faced with the realities of war. In his concluding remarks, Dr. Ghabian suggested that the only way to curb and contain this sectarian divide would be through a political solution, where the question of regional players must be addressed. In his view, the Geneva talks failed precisely because Iran not included.

In the discussion segment, there was recognition that the rise of ISIS has ignited an internal Sunni debate, which has led many countries to curb and crack down on sectarian discourse, albeit sometimes in the interest of the leadership’s political survival. An important point was made on the U.S. needing to pursue a more consistent policy in the Middle East by converging its values and interests. The view being that the more consistent the policy, the more positive the image of the U.S. would be in the region. On the issue of possible solutions to the current crises, the speakers agreed on the need of holding governments to account and in the case of Syria, enforcing a political solution at the behest of the international community.

WHAT: Panel discussion on the role of state actors in the escalating violence between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.

FOLLOW: @StimsonCenter on Twitter for event news.


Dwight Bashir, Deputy Director for Policy and Research, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)

Dr. Bashir specializes in human rights and freedom of religion or belief in the Middle East and North Africa, ethnic and sectarian violence, and preventive diplomacy. Dr. Bashir participates regularly in trainings of refugee and asylum officers at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and of Foreign Service officers at the U.S. Department of State on the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East. He also is serving a two-year term on the United States Holocaust Museum’s Committee on Holocaust Denial and State-Sponsored Anti-Semitism. Dr. Bashir’s commentary, analysis, and publications have been featured in leading national and international media, academic journals, and online blogs, including CNN, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, PBS NewsHour, BBC, Aljazeera, Voice of America, the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, and the Yale Journal of International Affairs, among others.  He has lectured in the United States and abroad on various topics in international affairs, including religion and democracy, peace and security, religious extremism, and reform in the Middle East. Before joining USCIRF, Dr. Bashir worked as a consultant with the United Nations and with non-governmental organizations focusing on global human rights issues and conflict prevention.

Najib Ghadbian, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Arkansas

Dr. Ghadbian holds a PhD in Political Science from the City University of New York. Currently a Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, he is a published scholar in both Arabic and English. He is the author of “Democratization and the Islamists Challenge in the Arab World and The Second Assad Regime: Bashar of Lost Opportunities” (in Arabic). He has also contributed political commentaries to several US, European, and Middle East media outlets, including Aljazeera. Dr. Ghadbian’s research interests include democratization and leadership in the Arab world, Syrian politics, Islamic movements, and US-Mideast relations. Dr. Ghadbian is a member of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a founding member of the Democratic Network in the Arab World.

Geneive Abdo (Moderator), Fellow, Middle East Program, Stimson Center
Geneive Abdo is a fellow in Stimson’s Middle East program as well as a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She specializes in issues regarding modern Iran and political Islam. She directs the U.S.-Iran Advisory Group, a program on Iran, in conjunction with Heinrich Boll Stiftung, North America. She is also the author of the recently published monograph, “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a- Sunni Divide,” published in April 2013 by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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