Sectarian Violence Reflects Politics More than Religion

Conflicts between Muslim groups in the Middle East are rooted in recent history rather than religious beliefs, according to a new book

Earlier this year, twin bomb attacks killed almost 100 Iranians gathered for a ceremony to commemorate Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian commander killed in 2020 in a U.S. attack. The militant Islamic State group claimed responsibility. 

Deemed a terrorist organization by the United Nations, the Islamic State group espouses an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, and has often attacked Shia Muslim people and sites, claiming non-Sunni Muslims are heretics. Iran is almost wholly Shia, and opposes Sunni fundamentalism.

The attack was the latest in a long series of violent sectarian incidents in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia groups, and it’s easy to see this violence strictly through the lens of religion. But in fact, this sectarianism is often more about political power than religious belief, says Satgin Hamrah, AG24, editor of the book Contextualizing Sectarianism in the Middle East and South Asia.

Book cover

“I argue that Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is not rooted in ancient hatred, nor is it based on primordial roots of shared identities with their specific sect fighting the perceived other,” says Hamrah, who will receive a Ph.D. in history later this year. “Rather, I argue that sectarianism across the region emerges predominantly from the recent political history of the Middle East.”

The same is true of sectarian conflicts in South Asia, she says, from the Hindu-Muslim divide in India to sectarian Muslim differences in Pakistan.  

The book, which grew out of a conference that Hamrah organized in 2018, includes chapters by Hamrah as well as by Ayesha Jalal, Mary Richardson Professor in the history department at Tufts; Ibrahim Warde, adjunct professor of international business at The Fletcher School; and Frank Sobchak, F22, a former Fletcher lecturer now teaching at the Modern War Institute at West Point. 

Hamrah, who has master’s degrees from the University of Southern California and Boston University, says she has long been interested in the geopolitical landscape of the greater Middle East, and decided to get a Ph.D. in its history. “How did we get here? It didn’t just happen out of the blue, so I wanted to examine and explain it—how people are utilizing identity to engage in certain activities,” she says. 

In the Middle East, the sectarian rift is largely along the Sunni-Shia divide. That division grew in prominence with the rise of politicized Islam in the 1970s, notably in the revolution that overthrew the regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, in 1979 and replaced it with a Shia theocracy.

Since the late ’70s, there’s been a “perpetual cycle of conflict and violence that’s organized along sectarian lines,” Hamrah says. Each of the authors in the book, she notes, “look at it from a different perspective, with a nuanced, analytical approach to examine how this phenomenon has been utilized by political entrepreneurs, whether by state or nonstate actors” such as the Islamic State group.

The division of the two major branches of Islam is exploited by “political entrepreneurs for strategic advantage,” she says. 

For example, in the book, contributor Pouya Alimagham notes that prior to 1979, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran cooperated on a military mission in Oman and maintained cordial relations. But following the Iranian revolution, when its leaders called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family, the two soon become bitter enemies, which has continued to this day. “The conflict is more a modern political dispute than an age-old religious one,” he writes. 

Hamrah notes that in her research, she wants to understand “how political entrepreneurs are utilizing identity, how the process of othering is occurring, why is it occurring, and what the impact is. By understanding that, understanding its complexity and nuance, it might be possible to forecast conflict better, and maybe decrease the rate of conflict that occurs in that region.”

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