Human diversity makes tolerance more than a virtue; it makes it a requirement for survival. ~ René Jules Dubos (1901 – 1982)
I have divided this article into two parts. The first is an analysis of the Sunni/Shia divisions of the Middle East population; the second shows my methods for researching the numbers and marshalling the data. Because there is so much to go through, the first part is longer than normal. I hope you will stick with it. I understand a lot more about the situation in the Middle East than I did when I started my research and I hope that you will too.
I have put material about my methods of research onto a separate page which you can access at the end of this article.
A little background
Islam was founded in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula in the heart of the Middle East. Within a hundred years, it had spread north to the borders of what is now Turkey; east to Afghanistan and the borders of what is now Pakistan; and west along the southern shore of the Mediterranean, all the way to the Atlantic and across into Spain (and with the exception of Spain, it has dominated these areas ever since). More recently, it has expanded further to the east and the south.
The split between Sunni and Shia occurred soon after the death of Mohammed and, almost from the start, the Shia were regarded as heretics – even as non-believers – and discriminated against in many periods of Islamic history (I shall return to the differences between the two sects at a later date). Distrust between the two sects has waxed and waned over the centuries, a deep-rooted, historic animosity that is being revived in today's conflict.
An overview of the region
The area covered in this study is focused on the heartland that was established in the 7th and 8th centuries. Map 1 shows the countries examined (Western Sahara and Mauritania are excluded from the study).
The map shows how close the Middle East is to the EU on the west and to Russia on the north, while a batch of former Soviet states with their own Muslim populations are found to the north-east.
- In order to focus my analysis, I divided the area into three sub-sections:
- the central Middle East (CME), where most of the oil is found and where the current conflict is centered.
- the outer Middle East (OME), a circle of populous countries with little in the way of oil, which surround the central area.
- North African countries (NA), which have significant oil reserves. This area is important because Algeria is where Islamic terrorism began. It is home to very few Shia Muslims and will therefore not be considered in detail until later articles when I will look at oil.
Map 2 shows the central area of the Middle East (CMO) in more detail.
Where Sunni and Shia live
Chart 1 analyses the population of the three sub-sectors and throws up some interesting features. The whole region is home to 635mn Muslims, a little more than half the world's Islamic population (estimated at between 900 mn and 1.4 bn):
- 13% live in North Africa (NA) and are almost entirely Sunni.
- 52% live in the outer Middle East (OME) and are also mostly Sunni, although a significant number of Shia live in Pakistan.
- The other 35% live in the central Middle East (CME) and 44% of them are Shia.
Chart 2 breaks down the huge population of the OME. This is dominated by Pakistan, although Egypt, Turkey and Sudan have populations to rival that of Iran, the largest country in the CME.
I started my research with the idea that the CME was fairly evenly divided between Sunni and Shia. But Chart 3 shows a dramatically different picture. First, Iran and Iraq are the only countries with a significant Shia majority, and together they account for 77% of the population of the area. Second, the Shia are overwhelmingly concentrated in Iran. And as Iraq also has a Shia majority, we can begin to understand what is driving the conflict.
Examining the chart further, we see that Afghanistan and Yemen are the only other large-population countries where the Shia minority is of a significant size. Shia also outnumber Sunni in Bahrain and Lebanon, but these countries have small populations.
So let's recap with another map, helpfully provided on the internet by the US Congressional Research Service.
Now we can begin to build a picture which allows us to understand a little more about the various conflicts.
The Shia heartland and the focus of the conflict
The first thing that stands out is that the Middle East is not evenly divided between Sunni and Shia. Since Iran has by far the largest Shia population, you might expect it to have common cause with Iraq, the only other large-population country with a Shia majority. And yet these two countries fought the bitter Iran-Iraq war through the 1980s. Three things divided them:
- the Sunni minority led by Saddam Hussein was in charge in Iraq and, over the years, the Shia population was pushed further and further from power.
- Iranians, unlike Iraqis, are mainly Persians (not Arabs).
- Iraq was run as a secular state, whereas Iran (following the overthrow of the Shah in 1978/9 by the fiercely fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini) became an Islamic Republic.
A step back: the rise of Sunni fundamentalism and Al Qaeda
In order to understand the significance of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini, we need to look at the power structures in the region.
Islam claims a very special place in the lives of its followers. It provides them, not only with a spiritual structure to guide them, but laws by which they should organise their personal, family and community lives. This poses a problem for political rulers and their relations with religious hierarchies. For a long period, and in most of the countries, rulers tried to run secular states alongside an Islamic legal structure. They made links with the West and did not force strict Islamic rules on their populations. Women, for example, were educated and allowed to pursue professional careers in most countries. More than one Islamic country has been led by a woman.
The special place of Saudi Arabia and the House of Saud
Saudi Arabia was the exception. It was the dominant state of the region for two reasons:
- It had the bulk of the oil and was therefore very wealthy.
- It was – literally – the cradle of Islam.
The Saudi royal house (the House of Saud) was the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In order to fulfil its spiritual role while allowing its royalty to enjoy the massive wealth from oil resources, a special relationship was established between the House of Saud and the fundamentalist Wahhabi (Sunni) sect. The Wahhabi hierarchy was given control over religious law, while the royal family controlled secular matters, notably economic and diplomatic affairs. Crucially, the House of Saud looked to the West to provide it with resources to secure its political control of the country. And this control is absolute; the House of Saud views its kingdom as a family asset.
Along with other oil-rich countries, Saudi's efforts to improve the quality of life for the mass of its population were limited. And the little it did do was counter-productive. It provided education without opportunity. As a result, a resentful class of poor – and not so poor – second-class citizens emerged, which turned to fundamental Islam for an outlet for their frustration.
It was among this group of disgruntled Sunnis in Saudi Arabia that the seeds of Al Qaeda began to grow. Their anger was against the House of Saud and its Western allies. The rhetoric they used was religious and it attracted followers throughout the region, resentful at the way in which oil revenues lined the pockets of lax Muslim rulers and their infidel Western supporters. Some of these malcontents – notably Osama bin Laden – also had money which they used to fund the dissident movements in the region and beyond.
The Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war
Although Saudi Arabia enforced adherence to Muslim law, there was no integration between religion and state. It was Ayatollah Khomeini and his Iranian Revolution which first established a fiercely-fundamentalist Islamic state. But it was a Shia state and it posed a threat to the Sunnis. While Khomeini did little to disguise his contempt for the laxity of the Saudi royal family, his biggest threat was to Saddam's Hussein's Ba'ath regime in Iraq.
Saddam was Sunni, his rule was distinctly secular, and the persecution of his Shia majority made it easy for Khomeini to attract followers with his fundamentalist call. Saddam recognised the danger. Fearing that the newly-fundamentalist Iran would encourage his Shia majority to rebel against him, he made a peremptory strike before Khomeini had time to consolidate his forces. And so began the eight-year Iran-Iraq war which resulted in the deaths of a million people.
The war ended in stalemate in 1988, despite Iraq's military advantage and use of chemical weapons, and Saddam took his revenge on his Shia population.
Sunni/Shia tensions in Iraq after Saddam
With the overthrow of Saddam, it is not surprising that Iraq's Sunni minority are feeling vulnerable. De-Ba'athification (the elimination of Saddam's political Ba'ath party) has meant that the Shia majority – which suffered discrimination for so long – is now on the cusp of gaining the upper hand. It is also in search of revenge.
It is Shia men who are joining the police and security forces; it is Shia men who are accused of abusing their position against their former tormentors. And this is why Sunni suicide bombers so often attack the queues waiting to join the security services.
The security vacuum created by the invasion of Iraq – and exacerbated by de-Ba'athification and the dismantling of the Iraqi army and police – has created an opportunity for Al Qaeda, the terrorist arm of Sunni fundamentalism. And it is Al Quaeda which is taking advantage of Sunni vulnerability in Iraq to insinuate itself into the vacuum left by the invasion.
The Sunni Shia battle lines
Khomeini hoped that his fundamentalist call would mobilise opponents of the House of Saud to help eliminate Western influence in the region. Instead, he recharged ancient antagonisms between Persians and Arabs and precipitated a contest between fundamentalist Sunni and Shia for the soul of Islam. And once again, Sunni mullahs began to denounce Shia as heretics, as not truly Muslim.
King Faisal, who ruled Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975, was a devout man who lived humbly (it was his memory that gave credibility, despite their ostentatious lifestyles, to his three younger brothers who succeeded him). In addition to allowing the royal family to live the high life, Saudi Arabia used its wealth to support Sunni religious projects elsewhere in the region. So Khomeini's attack on the profligacy of the House of Saud was not well received. It caused further tension between Sunni and Shia, and Saudi police attacked Shia pilgrims on the Hajj. In one incident in 1987, 402 people were killed.
With this background, it is not surprising that Iraq is riven with factions. There are moderate Shia and fundamentalist Shia, moderate Sunni and fundamentalist Sunni. And as ever in a power vacuum, strong men and religious leaders within each group jockey for position. The consequence is bitter infighting and a horrific campaign of sectarian violence: kidnapping, torture and murder. There is also friction within the sects and this too can break out into violence.
Another - political – split within Shia ranks is between those who want to use their majority to dominate any new administration and those who prefer a federal solution (by which Shia would have ascendency in some regions, leaving Sunni majorities in other areas to run their own affairs). As a result, Iraqis working with the US occupiers are finding it difficult to mobilise support for a unitary government to include the Sunni minority. The situation has become even more difficult since the bombing of the mosque in Samarra, a major Shia shrine, in February 2006. This blatant attack by Sunnis on an important Shia symbol was inflammatory and the death toll from sectarian violence rose from 500 to 900 deaths per month in the aftermath.
The dilemma of the US
The US in Iraq is caught between a rock and a hard place. The de-Ba'athification policy instituted when the Americans arrived in Baghdad, and the democracy which they are now attempting to establish, mean that the Shia are in the ascendant. The displaced Sunni establishment is resentful and hostile. But any attempt by the US to redress the balance revives Shia memories of the first Gulf War when they were encouraged by the US to rebel against Saddam and then abandoned to the cruelty of his revenge. Above all, it stiffens the resolve of Iran to support its co-religionists and to make bellicose threats.
Effects on the region
The intractable problem inside Iraq is now echoed across the region. Iran, as leader of the Shia, is mobilising wherever it can. It is focusing on Lebanon, which has a small population but a relatively high proportion of Shia and is situated on the western edge of the Middle East adjacent to Israel, with the ability to strike at this arch enemy of all Muslims.
Iran is therefore funding Hezbollah, the Shia militia group, to engage in hostilities with Israel. It is also channelling money through Hezbollah to help Lebanese families handle the aftermath of Israeli attacks. In this way, it is funding a friendly party to establish a political power base in Lebanon.
Above all, it is the success of Hezbollah against Israel that is giving the Shia the upper hand in the region – in stark contrast to repeated Sunni failure. Shia success gives Iran and its allies an advantage which even the most formidable of Shia enemies, the Saudi regime, cannot match.
And finally there is Lebanon's neighbour, Syria, where a secular Shia minority governs a majority Sunni population. Its government's natural allies are Iran and Hezbollah – and with this rather weak link, the Shia have a continuous chain of control across the north of the region.
The governments of the oil-rich Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, are walking a tightrope. They rely on the West, especially the US, to provide them with military support and financial infrastructure. This is a dangerous policy in a climate where fundamentalist mullahs are capturing the hearts of a deeply-frustrated younger generation. These young men have limited prospects and little chance to sample the pleasures of the West (which are so ostentatiously enjoyed by the elites in their countries). Through fundamentalist education and inclusion in fanatical groups, they are finding an alternative outlet for their aspirations.
The easiest way for Sunni governments to deflect attention away from their unpopular and dangerous allegiance with "the Devil" – the West – is to emphasise hostility to Iran and to the Shia heresy. At the same time, Shia ascendancy in the north of the region may well encourage Sunni governments to act against their Shia minorities. So there is danger of a growing polarisation between the two sects.
A brief recap
So we now have an outline of the background against which the conflict is taking place. Understanding where the Shia population is concentrated helps to explain why there is tension inside Iraq and why Iran is trying to win the allegiance of its fellow Shia by providing them with military support. It also explains why Al Qaeda finds adherents. As the most active Sunni force, it offers a strong arm to support the Sunni minority in Iraq which is now in such a vulnerable position.
Neither governments nor religious establishments are monolithic. Beneath the surface there is a lot of jostling for position, particularly inside Iran. The extremists are in the minority, but growing fear and sectarian tension leads to polarisation and drives the moderates into the camp of extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide. The US has no natural and unequivocal allies, so is particularly vulnerable to this shifting situation. Its much-vaunted reliance on democracy will backfire as the Middle East turns increasingly to hard-line attitudes. All this and much, much more awaits us as we continue our investigation.
Next week, we shall look at oil.