The Amplification of the Sunni-Shia Divide through Contemporary Communications Technology: Fear and Loathing in the Modern Middle East

The Amplification of the Sunni-Shia Divide through Contemporary Communications Technology: Fear and Loathing in the Modern Middle East

George A. Stairs (Carleton University, Canada)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9728-7.ch013
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The Sunni-Shia divide has once more returned to the global popular lexicon. However, this contemporary form of the allegedly age-old schism within Islam in fact differs significantly from historical cases. It has primarily come to the fore again as various actors have invoked it, and the fear it brings, in order to frame the conflicts they currently wage both overtly and covertly in more favourable terms. The purpose of this chapter is to examine this phenomenon, with particular focus on the Syrian Civil War, and the wider regional struggles for hegemony. It will further look at how modern communication technologies have permitted actors to spread their narratives much more effectively than ever before, and how the international community might arrest the exacerbation of this divide, and slow the sectarian violence currently plaguing the region.
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Sunni-Shia Divide

Globally, Sunni Islam is the dominant sect of Islam, with around 85 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims following its tenets, while the roughly 15 percent remaining follow Shia Islam and its various sub-groupings, such as Ismailis or Alawis (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014). The origins of the divide are found almost at the same time as Islam itself. Following Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, divisions over succession questions as to the future leader of the faithful created a schism among his followers. These took the form of two groups, one arguing for a more meritocratic manner of choosing the leader of the Islamic community, the Caliph, while others argued that legitimacy could only flow from Muhammad’s bloodline (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014). The split became reinforced with the election of one of Muhammad’s companions, Abu Bakr, as the first Caliph, over the protestations of those who supported Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. This gave the two sects their names, with the majority Sunnis taking their name as followers of sunna or “the way” in Arabic, while the Shias were so named due to their support of Ali, giving them the name shi’atu Ali or “partisans of Ali” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2014). Ali would become Caliph in 656, but would be assassinated five years later, beginning the trend of fraternal violence that would characterize the divide. Subsequently the caliphate would pass on to various dynasties throughout the Middle East. The Shia for their part, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the selected rulers and continued to maintain the primacy of Muhammad’s bloodline. This culminated in the figure of al-Husayn, son of Ali, and (in the Shiite telling of events) later martyr and courageous soldier who struggled against a tyrant and sacrificed himself “for the principles of justice and virtue” (Hazran, 2010, pp. 528). The massacre of Husayn and his companions in Karbala in 680 would be instrumental in cementing the schism, and in helping to formulate what some have described as the Shiite persecution identity (Hazran, 2010). Throughout history, tensions between the groups have ebbed and flowed depending on leaders and the fortunes of various empires or dynasties. However, there are recurring instances of the Sunni majority excluding the Shiite communities from governmental affairs in core Sunni territories, and even harshly persecuting the minority sect as being heretical (Hazran, 2010, pp. 524).

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