College Thesis

The Shia-Sunni Conflict in Iraq


The Shia-Sunni conflict is an ongoing fight for the soul of Islam that is dated back to 632 C.E. after the prophet Muhammad’s death on who the rightful successor should be. Not only do both groups disagree over who should have succeeded the prophet, but they also disagree over the functions with which his successor was to perform. While the Shias believe that the prophet possesses religious and spiritual traits, Sunnis tend to focus on the prophet’s role in the protection of Islam’s values and interests. It is here that we begin to see the parting of ways between these two sects and furthermore, a clash of identities. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, of which 85% are Sunni and 15% Shia (The Council on Foreign Relations). What began as a religious dispute has now morphed into two vastly different socio- political groups that have shaped much of the Middle East in just the last decade, especially in the case of Iraq.

As the Middle East works to stabilize the region, Iraq has showcased this shifting power dynamic along sectarian lines after the US led invasion in 2003. The destabilizing nature of this region was directly precipitated by the flipping of the power structure within Iraq. These conflicts in Iraq between the Shias and Sunnis act as a central legacy of the Iraqi war (Nasr, p. 250), as regional balances of power grew too unstable; in doing so it provoked an outbreak of violence and gave impetus to sectarianism within Iraq. While many in the West veer this conflict as one having taken shape in just recent years, this fight for political power and legitimacy has been ongoing for centuries.

For the Sunnis, the successor to the prophet does not necessarily need to be someone with spiritual qualities, but merely an exemplary understanding and direction for the religious and political affairs within Islam. The Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, the prophets close friend and father in law, as his successor (Nasr, p. 37). Though at first hesitant toward the caliphate, Shias accepted the outcome and legitimized Abu Bakr as a leader. It was noted by Vali Nasr, in his novel The Shia Revival, that a major difference between the Shias and Sunnis derives on the emphasis with which Sunnis have underscored the importance of the Islamic message, while Shias tend to emphasize more on the means with which that message is conveyed. In other words, “Shias revere the prophet because he relayed the Quran to Muslims, whereas Shias revere the Quran because the prophet relayed it”. (Nasr, p. 51)


Although Shias and Sunnis displayed conflicting ideas on who the successor to Muhammad should be, both sects agree on the basic tenets of Islam according to The Council on Foreign Relations. For example, the five pillars of Islam, declaring faith in a monotheistic God and Muhammed as his messenger etc. The Council also states that the main difference relates to authority, which “sparked the political split in the seventh century and evolved into divergent interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law, and distinct sectarian identities.” Shias and Sunnis may not see eye-to-eye on matters of religion, however it is undisputed by both sects of the importance of religion itself. Both sects overlap geographically and spread across an array of cultures and ethnic groups across the Middle East. (Nasr, p. 25). The primary subdivisions within each sect areas follows; for the Shias the Twelver, Sevener, Zaydi and Alawi communities. The Twelver branch is comprised of 80% of the worlds Shia population. They recognize the twelve imams or spiritual leaders, and are still waiting for the return of the twelfth or Hidden Imam in the form of the Mahdi-a-redeemer figure (Mandaville, p. 53). Sunni subdivisions are Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki and Habali.


It is important to note that both faith and identity converge in this conflict, according to Nasr. Their combined power goes a long way toward explaining why, despite a long record of coexistence, the struggle has remained so prevalent, and furthermore, why it warrants immediate action. “Both theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today’s concerns with power, subjugation, freedom and equality, not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues” (Nasr, p. 20). One can conclude from this that, with as unstable as the Middle East is, for it to open up to several long resisted forms of change- conflicts much like the Shia-Sunni dissension can be expected more frequently, and in more extremist ways; hence the Islamic terrorist group, ISIS.

In terms of the Middle East, several sectarian substructures run beneath it giving way to the current political situation in Iraq. Nasr points to five key events with which have shaped this socio-political structure; the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, Saddam’s suppression of the Shia uprising in 1991, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry since 1979, Saudi-Pakistani-Taliban alliance in the 1990’s, and finally Saudi Arabia’s enormous financial investment in the infrastructure of Sunni extremism in South and Central Asia in the 1990’s (p. 25). In making the case for Iraq, it is imperative that we understand the ratio of Shias and Sunnis within this sectarian conflict. As previously sated Muslims equate about 1.6 billion people. In Iraq, we see an overwhelming Shia majority. Shias hold around 60-65% of the population, Sunnis with 15-20% and the remaining 17% Kurdish. Despite their preponderance in numbers, Shias have never ruled or even been well represented in the bureaucracy of any Arab state due to institutionalized discrimination on a socio-political level. The Sunni sect compensates for their lack of power in numbers within Iraq by merging with other countries of the Arab World.


A concept known as Wahhabism emerged in the Arabian Peninsula as a “back to the roots of Islam” reform movement in the nineteenth century (Algar; DeLong-Bas). Wahhabism devalued and rejected the prophet under this school of thought as being nothing more than an equal to all other Muslims. The attacks that Wahhabism brought on the Shia’s religious legitimacy further strained the relationships between Wahhabis and Shias and resides still, to this day. Since the 1970’s, as Wahhabism has grown in popularity and influence across all of the Middle East and has become the “theological driving force behind Salafist movements, the tenor of Shia-Sunni conflict has become “more strident” (Nasr, pp.97-98).

Shortly following World War 1, Shias began to “embrace the concept of nationalism.” For the Shia, this meant an inclusive identity that provided “a path forward that was free of the baggage of their religious identity. It defined them above the polemical debates of old and as equals to Sunnis in the eye of the nation” (Nasr, p. 87). At this point in time, it was becoming clear to the Shia that, despite their preponderance in numbers, they were never legitimized as a force to be reckoned with by the Sunnis. They were, in essence, failing to dominate the Islamic world both ideologically and politically and had faced the reality of marginalities. It was at this time that the modern world offered a promise of a world in which both Shias and Sunnis could coexist once more. This promise, “proved to be illusory, as the modern states grew increasingly authoritarian and showed a penchant for using Sunni sectarian prejudices to shore up their own authority. They entrenched the very divisions that the Shia hoped they would bridge” (Fuller, pp.33-52). A harsh reality faced the Shia after this defeat, that though regimes and ideologies may come and go, the Sunni biases still endure (Nasr, p. 90).


In Iraq, Saddam Hussein characterized Shias as “Iranian lackeys, periodically purging the Ba’th party of its Shia members in order to make sure that the levers of state power and the banner of Arab nationalisms remained firmly in Sunni hands (Nasr, p. 93).” After the US began de-Ba’thification, or what would also become known as Sunnificiation of the government, and disbanded what was left of the Iraqi military under Saddam’s regime, many Sunnis grew angry over the fear of this transition in ideologies. Sunni communities began challenging this change in power through violence believing that this would show the Shia, and the United States, that the Sunnis would act in such a way as a testament toward their disdain for the Shia revival and the deepening of the sectarian divide (Loyd).

The fall of the Saddam Regime in 2003 changed the balance of power between the Shia and Sunni in Iraq, and marked the end of Sunni rule over Iraq (Nasr). “The Shia are predominately a people of the Iraqi South. During Saddam’s rule they were ruthlessly assaulted, their cities neglected and starved of services, their magnificent riparian wetlands punitively drained so that they could no longer shelter any anti-Saddam rebels as they had in the early 1990’s” (Nasr, p. 187). It was in March of 2003 that the United States not only changed the regime in Iraq, but also presaged a Middle East in which Shias would hold greater power and therefore would reshape alliances and dynamics regionally as well. The U.S had hoped that the region would choose values supported through a democratic process; and while the Shia majority sought a fairly democratic model which stood on the principle of majority rule and a representative government, they did it in a very Shia way (Nasr, p. 173).


The Council on Foreign relations draws attention to the fact that since this 2003 invasion of Iraq and fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shia majority has dominated the parliament and produced its prime minister. The opening up of Iraq not only created opportunity for a new government, but also produced a new leader for the Shia, Ayatollah Sistani. Sistani emerged as Shias Iraqi leader and was recognized by Shias across the Middle East (Nasr, p. 171). According to Nasr, Sistani brought forth this straight forward government mentioned previously, with the hopes of protecting and preserving Shia identity (p. 173). The Shia uprising called for stronger cultural and religious ties amongst various Shia communities, solidified the need to defend Shia political power, and acted as an example in Iraq to trigger other Shia communities to demand more say in how they are governed within their own countries. It ultimately called for a renewed power distribution within the region, from Sunni to Shia.

While tensions have played a major role in the development of the Iraqi state, the rise in sectarian tensions after the U.S. led war to end Saddam’s regime led some to believe that the Shia sect would rise above and demand a voice throughout the regions of Iraq. (Mandaville, p. 53). The speculation of such became a reality as the Shia revival would become known as one of the most powerful resistances to the Sunni sect in all of the Middle East. It was, in essence, “an anti-Wahhabi and anti-extremist force, whose objectives were served by changes in the regional balance of power and democracy” (Nasr, p. 251). It’s predicted by Nasr that in return, democracy will reveal the extent with which the Shia revival faces to Sunni extremism. However, stability within Iraq will require compromises among all parties involved; be that Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. The importance of this new balance of power is that Sunnis will now remain at the bottom of the power structure, which is unlike anything we have yet to witness (Nasr, p. 251). Due to an abundance of resources that the Shia majority possess, i.e. oil, it is in America’s best interest to familiarize ourselves with this sect of Islam whose presence we have yet to see play out on an international scale.


In the Documentary Frontline: The Rise of ISIS, it was said that by the time the Americans left Iraq and the Sunni insurgency was broken, al-Qaeda had been defeated. What remained though, were “the most battle-hardened al-Qaeda militants,” and pieces of Saddam’s regime hoping to regain its power in Iraq. It was in the year of 2006 that a bombing took place of a Shia shrine in Samara; this would be the first of many events with which ultimately forced Iraqis to pick a side in the sectarian conflict (The Council on Foreign Relations). Emerging from the vacuum left by the U.S-led invasion, and thereafter the receding support both militarily and politically, Sunnis had a new found purpose. They established their own transnational movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This group, much like al-Qaeda, is “an idea rather than an organization” (Cockburn, p. 39).

For the West, this rise in power and extreme use of violence didn’t fully come to surface until the group captured Mosul, in June of 2014. Shortly before the attacks in Mosul, ISIS split ties with al-Qaeda due to a defiance in orders from al-Qaeda’s top commander to “curtail its transnational ambitions and wanton violence against civilians.” With this came a change in not only tactics, but in their rebranding as the Islamic State. In July of 2014, IS declared Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as caliph (The Council on Foreign Relations). “This group was able to capitalize on two facts: The Sunni revolt in neighboring Syria, and the alienation of the Iraqi Sunni by a Shia-led government in Baghdad” (Cockburn, p. 31). By being able to exploit Sunni struggle in Iraq, “this popular movement is slowly turn into an armed struggle,” reports the International Crisis Group.


There are several differences however in the ways ISIS conducts themselves as opposed to al-Qaeda. Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two is the use of social media as a recruiting mechanism both at home, and abroad. The use of propaganda and recorded mass killings entrenches fear in the eyes of the beholder. One of the most renowned ISIS led killings was that of Muath Al-Kassasbeh, a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive and then filmed in the most inhumane and sickening way possible. While ISIS justified the act as being a part of Islamic Law, Islamic scholars banned the burning of humans alive, stating that only Allah has power to burn any person with fire.

The blatant disregard for Islam and the religious structures which support the faith carry no weight in ISIS’s actions. They are the most extreme group to ever emerge out of the Middle East using tactics we’ve never seen before. Seeking to “purify” Islam no matter what the cost, they have shown nothing short of extreme acts of violence and inhumanities towards the people of the Shia community and anyone else who gets in their way. It was best said by Dexter Filkins in Frontline that, “this kind of bloodlust is psychosis. There’s no other word for it. There’s no political program that justifies it. I think killing is as important to ISIS as securing the caliphate, but the killing comes first.”


Without the trust between the Shia and the Sunni in Iraq, and the leaders of both sects, room for extremism will emerge similar to that of the U.S-led invasion. As both sides seek violent means to reach their political goals, millions of civilian lives are being lost as a byproduct of this conflict in ideologies. In just the past year, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for bombings, downing of passenger planes, inhumane acts of both Shias and Sunnis, all of which ultimately resulted in the killings of hundreds of individuals. (The Council on Foreign Relations). This increase in sectarian violence begs the question, when will the Iraqi region arrive at a new status quo, and further, how will this newly re-found Middle East play out socially and politically?

As previously stated, Shia live on top of some of the richest oil fields in the region. Nasr points to the conflicts facing these sectarian identities in the region ultimately dividing from the “lopsided distribution of resources and power that have benefited one sect at the cost of the other” (p. 252). If Iraq seeks any hope for peaceful and coexisting relations between the Shia and Sunni, resources need to reflect the demographics of the region (p. 252). Future stability, furthermore, can only be reached if and when an inclusive Islam is available to both the Shia and Sunnis. One where, though a clash of identities is present, doesn’t interfere with the overall vision of Islam or the amount of representation that both parties receive.

As far as Americas role in the facilitation of an Iraqi nation that provides an inclusive and encompassing state for all, we must bring stability to our relations with the Middle East. A lot of issues emerged underneath President Obamas presence, or lack thereof. The Iraqi people had never seen the Obama Administration before, regardless of it potentially helping or hurting them, and it is for this reason that I feel we saw such a rise in popularity with ISIS’s span of control in the region. It was said in the Documentary Frontline: The Rise of ISIS that if you take a look at Iraq’s Sunni community, it’s full of educated individuals who are forced to ask the question, “Where do we go? The only people that are going to protect us are these really hard guys. We may not like them, but we need them because otherwise, there’s nothing. Nobody’s going to protect us. And the Americans aren’t here anymore” (Filkins). After the departure of Americans in Iraq, more and more Sunnis turned up dead in the streets of Baghdad. The Shia community and military, to make up for hundreds of years of political ostracizing, turned into a very violent sect.


The appointing of Prime Minister Maliki was one of the worst ways in which the United States chose to leave this sectarian conflict. Maliki looked to the Iraqi Sunni minority as a group of defeated individuals that represented and encompassed everything wrong with the stability of the Middle East. Rather than offering up a viable solution, one that spoke to both Shias and Sunnis, he deprived them of any sort of political/administrative say in how Iraq should redefine itself. What ensues next, proved to be the very thing Maliki had tried to prevent, a vacuum for extremism within the Sunni sect.

Future involvement should be a continuation by the United States of investing in a democratic fashion, while seeking to deepen our understanding of the interworking’s of the region. While there is much the United States can do, a lot of what needs to take place comes from Iraqi political leaders needing to govern in an inclusive fashion. Regardless of U.S presence in the Middle East, no permanent affects are going to take place until a political system is implemented that all Iraqis can get behind. Sectarian divides have washed the Middle East of many things, but a hopeful and brighter future is not one of them. Ultimately, in terms of the near future, the thought of a Shia-Sunni civil war would pose a threat to the United States with regards to our interests in the Middle East. Long term, if IS achieves the Islamic state that they’ve been so adamant about, then it absolutely will be a threat to the United States (Dempsey).


What began as a religious dispute has now morphed into two vastly different socio- political groups that have shaped much of the Middle East in just the last decade, especially in the case of Iraq. If the Middle East wishes to squander once and for all this sectarian violence between the Shia and Sunnis it will need to, with the help and facilitation of the U.S., become pursuant of an inclusive and balanced Islam that reflects the sociodemographic realities and desires of Iraq.


Work Cited:

Algar, Hamid. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. Oneonta, NY: Islamic Publications International, 2002. Print.

Cockburn, Patrick. The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. New York: OR, 2014. Print.

Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2016. DeLong-Bas, Natana J. Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Filkins, Dexter. “Sunnis Accused Iraqi Military of Executions.” New York Times, 29 Nov. 2005. Web.

“FRONTLINE: The Rise of ISIS.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.
Fuller, Graham E., and Rend Rahim Francke. The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. Print.

Loyd, Anthony. “Iraq’s Relentless Tide of Murder | The Times.” The Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2016.

Mandaville, Peter G. Islam and Politics. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.