US Foreign Policy

The Escalating Shi’a-Sunni Conflict: Is It About Religion Or Politics?

In the first of four conferences on an increasing Shi’a-Shia divide in the middle east, from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon and even Egypt, violence between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims is on the rise. While some Western scholars and experts identify collapsing states and a grab for power as the chief causes for escalating sectarianism, many in the region see it as a fundamental debate over who is a real Muslim and who gets to decide.

The Middle East program hosted the first in a series of panel discussions on “The Escalating Shi’a-Sunni Conflict: Is It About Religion or Politics?” The discussion, which brought together regional experts, centered on the causes behind the rise of sectarianism in the Middle East, exploring the religious and political power dimensions of the conflicts.

Hisham Melhem, the Washington Bureau Chief for Al Arabiya, discussed the origins of sectarianism in the Middle East. He provided a historical overview of the Shi’a-Sunni tension and violence, one which he believes is as old as Islam itself. According to him, the current state of affairs and the rise of sectarianism in the region is the result of several historical events, including the 1967 Arab-Israel war, the Iranian revolution, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and most recently the war in Syria. These events contributed to the rise of political Islam in the region, making the tension a political one.

Abbas Kadhim, a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies, focused on sectarianism in Iraq, the cradle of the Shi’a-Sunni rivalry. He noted that historically, there were flares of conflict between the two groups but conflict was not the norm. From the 1920s onward, the Shi’a were continuously excluded from meaningful positions of power. Since 2003 however, there has been a perception that the Shi’a dominate the country, a false perception according to Kadhim. While it is true that the political class has been significantly empowered, the same does not apply to the Shi’a population.

Joyce Karam, the Washington Bureau Chief for Al Hayat, centered her discussion on sectarianism in Lebanon. Since its inception, Lebanon has witnessed sectarian tensions and rivalries. However, this divide between Shi’a and Sunnis culminated in 2005 with the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. This significantly deepened divisions within the political sphere and has led to a rise in radicalization. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and the spill-over of the conflict into Lebanon are also contributing factors to mounting tensions.

In the question and answer segment, remarks were made to the effect that the religious component could not be isolated from the political events in the region. It was acknowledged that there is a tendency towards Islamism in the region, which some believe results from years of oppression under secularist nationalist regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein or Bashar Al Assad. One other point was made regarding the importance of religious identity and affiliation in the region, which in turn explains a potential rise in tensions.

WHAT: Panel discussion on the escalating violence between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Panelists who recently returned from Iraq and Lebanon discussed the political, geographical, and sociological forces that continue to fuel conflict in the region.


Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief, Al Arabiya

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya.

Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Dr. Abbas Kadhim is an academic and author with research interests in Iraq, Iran, Persian Gulf, and Islam. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 2006.  Between 2005 and 2013 Dr. Kadhim was an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs/Middle East Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. Prior to Joining SAIS, Dr. Kadhim held a Senior Government Affairs position at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, DC.

Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief, Al Hayat

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Geneive Abdo (Moderator), Fellow in Middle East and Southwest Asia, The 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 Boell 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.

View video below or here.

Middle East
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices