Dismantling the sectarian narrative

In recent years the media tend to portray conflicts in the Middle East along sectarian lines, Sunni vs Shia. Some examples:

  • Syria is explained by Sunni being sick of the ruling Alawi (which they portray as Shia)
  • Iraq as Sunni being fed up with the Shia government
  • The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran as religious conflict, Sunni vs Shia

When highlighting this apparent cause of conflict, the media often points to its origin, citing the early Muslims’ disagreement over Muhammad’s successor and the battle of Karbala. According to the narrative, the conflict started 1400 years ago and has been going ever since (it’s no wonder the Middle East is such a mess!). This portrayal is simplistic and ignores many other factors, including national/political, class, and neo- and post-colonialism.

Christine Baker is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In this interview she points out that during the 10th Century, when a large part of the Muslim world was ruled by two Shia dynasties, Islamic sectarianism was largely non-existent. The Bayuds of Baghdad/Iran even kept the Sunni Caliph in power. Sectarianism only become prominent in the following centuries with the invasion of the Seljuk Turks, who subsequently wrote a revisionist history describing the terrible years under Shia rule, perhaps to strengthen their claims as Sunni Muslims (having only converted a few generations before).


In Baker’s own words:

I think that to a large degree this narrative of sectarian conflict — going back 1400 years to the lifetime of the death of the prophet Mohammed — serves a political purpose, [in] that it allows us to see the Middle East as riddled with conflict, [and that] it has always been like that so perhaps we can ignore the role of Western foreign policy in some of these conflicts.

…often in the media…they’re looking for simplistic explanations. So “Sunnis” and “Shi’is” are coming up, and they want to say well “who are Sunnis and Shi’is? Oh, well they arose because of this thing that happened in the seventh century”. Which, again, is true but … it does not necessarily help us understand the nature of what is happening today.

I doubt today’s media and politicians really want us to understand what is going on.


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