Sunnis and Shi‘a. A Political History. Interview with Laurence Louër

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Sunnis and Shia Laurence Louer book cover

Laurence Louër is the author of recently published Sunnis and Shi‘a. A Political History, with Princeton University Press. A great specialist of Shia Islam and politics as well as identity politics in the Middle East, Laurence answers our questions and helps us better understand the – mimetic – rivalry between Shi‘a and Sunni and its relation to other identities and political objectives.

Where does the rivalry between Shi‘a and Sunnis come from?

The rivalry initially developed as a factional strife about who should succeed Muhammad at the head of the Muslim state when the Prophet died without a male heir in 632. The strife, however, posed essential questions about the nature of legitimate political authority. Those who came to be known as the Sunnis developed an oligarchic conception of power in which the caliph (the Prophet’s successor) was to be chosen from among the Prophet’s companions, and subsequently from among the notables and qualified people. In effect, the Sunni caliphate rapidly transformed into a dynastic monarchy, and the caliph lost all theocratic powers. By contrast, those who came to be known as the Shi‘a were legitimists, claiming that rulership of the Muslim state should be open only to members of the Prophet’s family – that is, to the male descendants of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, and Fatima, one of Muhammad’s daughters. Shi‘a have stuck to a theocratic conception of rulership: they attribute divine powers to Ali and his descendants, who are called “Imams,” a term that refers to both political and religious guidance. According to the dominant Twelver branch of Shiism, the line of Imams died out in 874 when God hid the twelfth Imam from men’s eyes to protect him from the caliph’s plot. They believe that he will return at the End of Times to establish truth and justice.

A watershed in the Sunni-Shi‘a rivalry occurred following the establishment of Shiism as the state religion by the Safavid dynasty in 1501 in Iran. This entailed the transformation of Shiism into an official religion tailored to legitimize state policies. It also led to a fierce geopolitical rivalry between the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, whose rulers had adopted the title of caliph in their eagerness to embody and defend Sunni orthodoxy. A series of wars ensued, with Iraq as one of the most hotly disputed territories between the two powers. It has remained to this day a frontier zone between Sunnism and Shiism. To this day also, Shiism remains an essential attribute of the Iranian state, no matter what political regime dominates it. Iran thus seeks to retain its status as the guardian of Shi‘a the world over, using Shiism as a springboard from which to wield influence, more or less aggressively, from one period to the next. As a result, most Sunnis see Shiism as intrinsically Iranian or, at least, Shi’a as agents of Iranian influence. This raises many problems for the coexistence of Sunnis and Shi‘a in several Middle Eastern countries.

Qom Iran. Sunnis and Shia Laurence LOUER. Shutterstock

Qom, Iran, 2019. Photo copryright: Shutterstock

Why can one say that Sunnis and Shi‘a can often be joined in a mimetic rivalry? Would you mind giving us contemporary examples of such mimetic rivalry?

I took up the notion of mimetic rivalry from French anthropologist René Girard. It means that rivalry is a cause simultaneously of differentiation and of imitation. In the contemporary world, we notice, for example, that when Sunnis are in a minority position, they seek to construct themselves as a community by borrowing from Shi‘a forms of organization and discourse. Among Sunni religious scholars in particular, there is a fascination with the leadership capabilities of the Shi‘a clerics who have been key political actors since the twentieth century and have attained a level of religious, social, and political authority unmatched among Sunnis. This is well manifested by the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, in which the most powerful political institution is the Guide of the Republic, headed by a high-ranking religious scholar and based on Rohullah Khomeini’s famous wilayat al-faqih doctrine, or government by the ulama.

Najaf Iraq. Sunnis and Shia Laurence Louer

Najaf, Iraq, 2012. Shi'a mollahs walking to the holi tomb of Ali. Photo copyright: Shutterstock

In Iraq, for example, following the 2003 regime change that displaced a Sunni-dominated government, Sunni political and religious entrepreneurs sought to construct the Sunnis into a sectarian community by asserting the role of Sunni ulama (religious scholars) as the community’s legitimate representatives. They took up the discourse of victimization traditionally embraced by the Shi‘a and also emulated the Shi‘a lionization of an entire pantheon of heroes and saints, making heroes of the companions of the Prophet whom the Shi‘a loathe, such as Umar, the second caliph.

More generally, mimetic rivalry might reinforce the emergence of a hybrid Sunni religious authority that couples the figure of the cleric with that of the Islamist activist. Such figures have existed since the 1980s. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, an Egyptian Muslim Brother, became a very popular transnational ulama thanks to the support of Qatar, where he lives. Until now, however, these figures have remained relatively isolated. Yusuf al-Qaradawi himself is without ties to any activist organization and is heavily reliant on the Qatari state. Another example is the “caliph” of the Islamic State (Daesh), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: a religious studies graduate, he could legitimately lay claim to the status of ulama even as he is the leader of an Islamist political organization. Though basing himself on the great Sunni myths, he embodies a figure, that of the ruling ulama, who has until now existed only among the Shi‘a.

Has the Sunni-Shi‘a rivalry served political goals at the heart of conflicts over territory or power for example? Why should it always be considered as entangled into other identities (ethnic, social, regional, etc.)?

In many respects, if we look only to religious doctrines and practices, differences between Sunnis and Shi‘a are less numerous than their similarities. The thorny issue of succession no longer has concrete relevance today, as the Imam is absent and the caliphate has been abolished. Past history and conceptions of rulership now serve mostly as mobilizing myths at times of political struggles. Sectarian tensions do not emerge because of religious divergence but because the Sunni-Shi‘a divide intersects with social, political, ethnic, linguistic, regional, economic, or status divides. For example, in Bahrain – where the Shi‘a represent the demographic majority, but where a Sunni dynasty rules – the sectarian divide overlaps with that between conquerors and conquered, that between aliens and natives, that between tribal and peasant populations, and, in the end, that between dominant and dominated. A similar entanglement can be found in Saudi Arabia. The result is that Shi‘a have developed a nativist conception of their group identity, seeing themselves as the natives in opposition to the Sunni alien conquerors. In both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Shi‘a speak a different dialect of Arabic and are not part of the local tribal orders. In Iran, Sunnis live on the margins of the territory and belong to ethno-linguistic groups with kin beyond the borders: Kurds, Baluch, and Arabs. The sectarian issue is thus entangled with issues of border control and relations with neighboring states.

Overall, the entanglement of Sunnis and Shiism with state identities and policies has a major impact on the relations between the two sects at the national level. Iran pursues a kin-state policy toward Shi‘a communities, which causes discomfort and anxiety for states that have Shi‘a populations. The level of tension increases with geopolitical tensions. This has been the case in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the young Islamic Republic declared its intention to combat imperialist influences; Iran made Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies a target of its policy of exporting the revolution, with a major impact on the coexistence between Sunnis and Shi‘a in the Gulf states. In order to thwart Iranian regional influence, Saudi rulers made Wahhabism a transnational counterrevolutionary ideology, aiming to keep Iran in the status of a minority in the Muslim world, where Shi‘a represent no more than 15 percent. Wahhabism is the underpinning doctrine of Saudi Arabia, a kind of Sunni ultraorthodoxy that denounces Shiism as closer to idolatry than to Islam. While the Iranian-Saudi rivalry lessened during the 1990s, it has reemerged as a major source of international tensions since 2003 and 2011. It was then that Iran succeeded in extending its influence networks regionally, following the collapse of the Iraqi, Syrian, and Yemeni states, while Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had to face Shi‘a uprisings. Sectarianism, in this context, is again used as a potent tool of regional hegemony and counterhegemony.

Muslim pilgrims Mecca. Photo copyright Shutterstock

Muslim pilgrims in Mecca. Photo copyright: Shutterstock

You write that relations between Sunnis and Shi‘a exhibit several classic characteristics of minority-majority relations. Would you mind developing this idea?

In most cases the national configurations into which Sunnis and Shi‘a are incorporated reflect the global characteristics of the Sunni-Shi‘a relationship: the Shi‘a are a demographic minority; when they are the majority, they are often in the minority politically since they are placed in a marginal position in the institutions of government or even excluded from them altogether. This explains why the modern history of Sunni-Shi‘a relations has often been marked by Shi‘a mobilization in protest of their subordinate position. This has been well documented for Lebanon, for example, where from the 1960s onward the Shi‘a mobilized to upgrade their position in the sectarian pact that favored the Maronite and Sunni communities. Under various ideologies, they argued that the Shi‘a were the downtrodden and should fight for recognition and a greater share of power and wealth.

As for the Sunnis, their position as a majority results in their perception that they embody a universal norm from which all other Muslims – and Shi‘a, in particular – have deviated. This tendency is well illustrated by the various attempts that have been made in the Middle East to promote generic forms of Islam in the context of nation-state construction. Thus, from the 1960s onward, the northern republican regime in Yemen strove to integrate Zaydis and Sunni Shafi‘i into a single nation by promoting what it thought of as a neutral consensual form of Islam, but that was in reality profoundly Sunni. This ultimately provoked a reaction on the part of the former elites of the Zaydi imamate, who refused to allow their specificity to be diluted. This is a factor behind today’s rebellion by the Houthi movement, a Zaydi revivalist group.

A similar dynamic occurred in Pakistan. Conceived and constructed by secularized elites for whom Islam was first and foremost a matter of national belonging, this state immediately had all kinds of problems in accepting doctrinal diversity. An example of this is the funeral of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was the first governor of Pakistan and the “father of the nation,” so to speak. Although he was a Shi‘a, he was publicly buried as a Sunni in order to maintain the fiction of religious and national unity. In Pakistan, which has experienced a high level of Sunni-Shi‘a violence since the 1990s, the inclusive conception of Islam as a form of secularized national belonging has given way to a restrictive religious conception in which sectarian differences are believed to undermine the nation’s unity as well as its religious purity.

Houthis protest against airstrikes

Houthis protest against airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on Sana'a in September 2015. Photo in the public domain (Wikicommons)

Laurence Louër's book was first published in French under the title Sunnites et Chiites. Histoire politique d'une discorde (Paris, Le Seuil). It has been translated by Ethan Rundell.

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI.