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conceptual mapping >  cultures and identities  > The Shia-Sunni divide : myths and reality

The Shia-Sunni divide : myths and reality

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> Omayma Abdel-Latif, 7 March 2007, first published in "Al-Ahram"

As the US-led occupation of Iraq enters its fifth year, conflicts and political rivalries in the region appear to be assuming a sectarian edge unseen since the 1982-1989 war between Iraq and Iran.

The debate over why this should be so is increasingly dominated by two approaches. Proponents of the first argue that concepts (corruption, autocracy, occupation, nationalism, etc...) can no longer explain the range of conflicts and alliances within the region. « It is, rather, old feuds between Shia and Sunnis which will forge attitudes and define prejudices » writes Vali Nasr in his book, The Shia Revival.

Proponents of the second approach, while acknowledging the role played by sectarian identity in shaping the attitudes of some political actors, argue that other factors, including the foreign policy goals of the countries involved, state structures and chronic regional problems such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, political reform and Washington’s Middle East policies, all play a part.

So is there a shia revival ? The discourse on sectarianism is hardly new. The region fell prey to a similar bout of sectarian fever during the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran. In an attempt to rally Arab public opinion former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein resorted to anti-Shia rhetoric which was disseminated through the legions of Arab commentators and intellectuals on the Baathist payroll. This time round, though, a new element is in play. It has to do with what is perceived as the growing role being played by Arab Shia who many see is making a radical break with a long tradition of political inactivity.

document de référence rédigé le : 7 March 2007

date of on-line publication : 22 March 2007

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