We asked two experts from the region with international acclaim on their work on politics and conflicts of the regions whether or not we are seeing a sectarian war unfolding across the Middle East between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Here are their answers:
Hayder al-Khoei is Research Director of the Centre for Shia Studies in London and a Research Associate at the Centre on Religion and Global Affairs. He is also a Visiting Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"No. Whilst we are seeing a dangerous escalation in sectarian tensions across the Middle East, the conflicts themselves are neither sectarian nor religious in essence. There is not one conflict or war unfolding but a series of interlinked local, regional and international struggles that are often perceived through a sectarian prism.
Rather, religious identity is being manipulated and instrumentalised by sectarian entrepreneurs and shrewd political actors who recognise the potency of sectarian discourse. Unfortunately, many of these political conflicts end with political settlements but leave behind a terrible legacy of sectarian tension and hatred that outlives the initial political dispute and takes a life of its own.
Our perception of a sectarian conflict is also – in large part – due to the mainstream media’s oversimplification of complex conflicts through a sectarian lens. In many cases, this is not a cynical conspiracy but, unfortunately, the sectarian prism is too easily deployed by journalists as well as analysts and we are left with a reductionist and essentialist interpretation of struggles that are actually about dignity, human rights, political representation and economic stability.
Whilst recognising that the conflicts themselves are not religious, we should not ignore the role religion plays in many conflicts because it can also become a powerful tool for positive change. There is too much attention being paid to the destructive voices in the Middle East who preach hate and incite violence against others but too little attention is focussed on how religious actors can play a mediating and positive role to solve these conflicts."
Dr HA Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London @hahellyer – author of ‘A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt’
"No, I don’t think we are seeing a sectarian war unfolding in the region between Sunnis and Shi’is. What we are seeing, most certainly, is the rise of the political instrumentalisation of sectarian identities in some theatres. That is worrying; it is distressing; it is a cause for alarm. But I do not believe it amounts to a sectarian war.
By and large, these communities of Sunnis and Shi’is, worldwide, exist together. While the normalisation of sectarian rhetoric is bad enough as it is – and this accounts for such rhetoric from purist Salafis and others among the wider Sunni confession, as well as among the Shi’i community, which has produced a lot of its own detestable rhetoric – it doesn’t mean that the two communities, writ large, are headed for war and conflict en masse.
Rather, these tensions are aggravated and used by extremist elements – Shi’i militias in Iraq and Syria in particular, and ISIL, as well ISIL like elements in the region. Those kinds of elements are not just focused on the ‘other’ that is in their midst – but even more mainstream Muslims who are Sunni and Shi’i. Extremism from these elements hits everyone – and thankfully, the resilience of these communities remains. It is a difficult time, but I don’t think we’re seeing a sectarian war."