The Shi’a and Sunni opposition is viewed as sectarian in nature which is defined as a conflict defined by an “institutional set of arrangements determining familial, local, regional, and even broader kinds of loyalty and affiliation” (Abdo, p.5, 2013). In this particular ideological conflict, and thus political conflict, “a struggle for political and economic power and over which interpretation of Islam will influence societies” (Abdo, p.5, 2013) has existed since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of modern states within the modern Middle East. While the teachings of Muhammad were generally positive reform which did not promote secularism within those who have submitted to God, it did not take long for a secularist division to occur after the completion of his life as “Shiites wanted the prophet to be succeeded by Ali ibn Abi Talib, his son-in-law and cousin, and then by his descendants thereafter” (Cole, p.20, 2006) while “the Sunni branch was content to have caliphs-the respected elders of the prophet's tribe-succeed him” (Cole, p. 20, 2006). In general, the division originated over the religious and political leadership succession after Muhammad between “Mohammad’s closest companions, or only from his direct bloodline” (Abdo, p. 5, 2013). There are over 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, either Shiite or Sunni, and until recently the majority of Arab states in the Middle East have been dominated by Sunni regimes (Cole, p.20, 2006).
Demographics on the religion of Islam state that Muslims globally are “10-13% are Shia Muslims and 87-90% are Sunni Muslims” (Pew, 2014) and that “most Shias (between 68% and 80%) live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq” (Pew, 2014). The Shiite-Sunni divide impacts regional stability, and therefore regional security, on several levels. In many cases, individual states with majority Shiite populations have been repressing by a Sunni ruling regime such as Iraq or Bahrain, or a large minority of Shiites ruled by a Sunni regimes in Lebanon or Saudi Arabia (Cole, p. 20, 2006).
In states such as Bahrain and Lebanon, where the Shi‘ite comprise approximately 70 and 40 percent of the population, respectively, the prospects of democratic governance alarm the Sunni” (Abdo, p.5, 2013). When domestic events, especially when they are influenced by foreign powers, shift the Shiite-Sunni power structure in Middle East state regimes, it changes the regional power structure which in turn causes internationals shifts. One example of domestic state realignments that impacts the region was how “the US ouster of the Sunni dictatorship politically unleashed Iraq's Shiite majority” (Cole, p. 20, 2006). The U.S. invasion and nation-building in Iraq allowed “fundamentalist Shiite parties to come to power through the ballot box” (Cole, p.22, 2006) and instantly changed the way Iraq dealt with its regional neighbors and their allies as “Iran already had a clerically run Shiite government” (Cole, p.22, 2006). The U.S. invasion clearly changed the power structure, and stability, in the region because “before the Iraq War, the region had been characterized by a Sunni-dominated, secular Iraq; a Sunni Jordan; a Sunni-majority Syria with a secular Baath government; a Sunni Palestine; a Lebanon dominated jointly by Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims; and a Sunni Saudi Arabia and Gulf” (Cole, p.22, 2006).
Political parties have also begun to form with the Shiite ranks, some of which have endorsed violence, within the nation-state structures left behind by the imperialist west. In Iraq during the 2005 elections, Shiite parties “formed a single party list, the United Iraqi Alliance” (Cole, p. 21, 2006). As authoritarian leader are removed by foreign governments or forced out by Arab protests, such as in Egypt and Libya, the sectarianism within domestic political parties that appear in the regime void “are now emerging as powerful mobilizing forces in the region and as potent sources of regional instability and conflict” (Abdo, p. 59, 2013).
The shifting of power balance resulting from Shiite-Sunni regime changes within the natural resource-rich Middle Eastern region causes the capitalist west to play political chess when it comes to carrots and sticks. This is not a new concept as the U.S. actually backed Iraq during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War in hopes for “Hussein to bottle up fundamentalist Shiism and to keep it from having a major impact in Iraq and the Gulf” (Cole, p.25, 2006). After the removal of Hussein and the establishment of a Shiite Iraq government, “once-isolated Iran has emerged as a major regional player” (Cole, p.25, 2006) and is “developing warm and positive links with newly Shiite-dominated Baghdad, and exercising new influence in the Persian Gulf” (Cole, p.25, 2006). This causes the capitalist West to seek alliances in strange places, or wherever they can stabilize the region through a balance of power aimed to keep two political entities competing against each other and looking for support from Western capital and arms. When the power of Shiite Iran was balanced by pre-U.S. invaded Sunni Iraq, the capital west had stronger negotiating power by negotiating with both sides, but “since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and in the absence of a strong Iraq, which had traditionally served as a counterbalance to Iran’s regional aspirations” (Abdo, p. 52, 2013). The rise of more Shiite regimes in the Middle East allows Iran to extend political relations with those states in order to “give Iran leverage in its relations with the United States, the European Union, and other large powers” (Abdo, p. 51, 2013) as a collective negotiator.
Abdo, Geneive. 2013. The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide, Washington DC: The Saban Center for Middle East Policy. http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2013/04/sunni%20shia%20abdo/sunni%20shia%20abdo.pdf
Cole, Juan. 2006. “A Shi’ite Crescent? The regional impact of the Iraq War.” Current History. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/docview/200761710?accountid=8289
Pew Forum Religion and Public Life Project. 2014. Mapping the Global Muslim Population. Accessed on May 24, 2014. http://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population/