The beginnings of a religious war are happening right now, and very few people are talking about it. It’s a struggle that has been forged since the inception of Islam — the fight between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, both of the same religion but rooted in different beliefs. The past several decades have brought a change to the political distribution of power, irritated by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. As the Middle East grips with a raging Syrian Civil War and the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008, the ideological confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis is coming to the forefront and could escalate into violent war.
In the early 1900s, the dispersion of minority Shiite populations across a span of Middle Eastern countries didn’t cause notable confrontation with Sunnis. That all changed during the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, where for the first time a militant Shiite regime was installed in one of the most populated countries in the region. “This fundamentally upset the regional balance of power,” said Olivier Roy, a leading scholar on Islam. “Shiites became politicized.”
When the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime after the 2003 invasion, the Shiite community was again propped up into power, inciting Sunni outrage. Shiites are hated by both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, so a growing jihadist movement against Shiites mounted, inciting massive carnage.
This month, over 1,000 Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence. Sunni insurgents backed by Al-Qaeda have engaged in a relentless campaign against the Shiite-led government of Iraq. The deteriorating Iraqi police and security forces have been unable to handle the violence, as is evident by the escape of hundreds of convicted insurgents earlier this month. Gyorgy Busztin, the acting UN envoy to Iraq, called on Iraqi leaders to take preventative action to stop the “senseless bloodshed.”
Attacks by Al-Qaeda have been purposefully aimed at reintroducing secular violence and separation. The quarrel between Shiites and Sunnis traces back to differing opinions of religious authority during the founding of Islam. Sunnis believe that leader of the Muslim community, the caliph, should be chosen among them. Contrastingly, Shiites assert that the caliph should only be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. As a result, they began to contradict the authority of the caliph. In 680, after the Sunnis killed Mohammad’s grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, the leader of the Shiites, “an intensely emotional narrative of injustice and martyrdom” was instilled in Shiite Muslims.
The increased sectarian violence in Iraq has been agitated by the major role the Shiite-Sunni conflict has played in the Syrian Civil War. It has been a focal point of the war because President Bashar al-Assad and the royal family are members of the Alawite sect that practices a version of Islam very similar to Shiism. Given that only 15% of Syrians are Alawites and the Assad regime’s close ties to the Shiite regime in Iran, hostilities toward Assad’s regime are propelled by Syria's majority Sunni population.
The intensifying violence has the potential to develop into an inter-religion war, as more Middle Eastern countries become entrenched in a battle not between two nations, but between two ideologies and their political powers. In Iraq, attacks have been spread to the south of the country, which has “historically seen less violence than other regions.” Incursions of sectarian violence are taking place in largely civilian places such as mosques, cafes, and at football games. Al-Qaeda has transitioned from using sophisticated explosive devices; homemade recipes are made from easily accessible fertilizer and bombers use ball bearings in order inflict a maximum number of casualties.
The widening geographic sphere of the attacks on Shiites has indicated a steady change in the volatility of Iraq and other countries, such as Lebanon and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the Shiite minority has been the victim of attacks by the Taliban and other radical Sunnis.
Currently, many attacks are fueled by the Shiites' ascent to political power, but the potential for all-out war between two sects of Islam is growing by the day. The rest of the world must be concerned with this ensuing conflict because it spans far beyond a civil war in Syria or the increased violence in Iraq — the Shiite and Sunni conflict threatens to destabilize a great portion of the Middle Eastern region. In the coming months, we can expect the tension and antagonism to continue to grow, as it shows no signs of subsiding. If immediate action is not taken by respective governments and religious officials to quell the violence, the world can expect these tensions to reach a critical, and dangerous breaking point, thrusting the region into all-out war.