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Middle East Bluebook test prep
Think about the conflicts we’ve discussed, or have been displayed in presentations.
You’ll be asked to discuss conflict, give examples, and come up with possible
Attached is an article excerpt discussing the topic. You’ll be able to use any examples,
but you MUST include examples with explanations how they prove your thesis.
The Sunni-Shia Divide
An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim
countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to
transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a
number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational
jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region. Sunnis and Shias agree on the basic tenets of
Islam: declaring faith in a monotheistic God and Mohammed as his messenger, conducting daily prayers,
giving money to the poor, fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and performing the
pilgrimage to Mecca.
Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn’t explain all the political, economic, and
geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism through which to understand
the underlying tensions. Sunni and Shia Muslims had lived peacefully together for centuries, but recent
conflicts have pitted the two religious sects (religious divisions) .Two countries that compete for the
leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their
ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and
the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.
Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in the
seventh century, and a long history of marginalization by the Sunni majority. Islam’s dominant sect, which
roughly 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims follow, viewed Shia Islam with suspicion, and
extremist Sunnis have portrayed Shias as heretics and apostates. Shias comprise a majority in Iran, Iraq,
Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, and a plurality in Lebanon, while Sunnis make up the majority of more than forty
countries from Morocco to Indonesia.
Modern Tensions
Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 gave Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini the opportunity to
implement his vision for an Islamic government (Sharia law) ruled by Shia scholars, opposed by Sunnis,
who have historically differentiated between political leadership and religious scholarship. Khomeini tried
to inspire further Islamic revival, preaching Muslim unity, but supported groups in Lebanon, Iraq,
Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Pakistan that had specific Shia agendas. Sunni Islamists, such as the Muslim
Brotherhood and Hamas, admired Khomeini’s success, but did not accept his leadership, underscoring
the depth of sectarian suspicions.
Saudi Arabia has a sizable Shia minority of roughly 10 percent, and millions of adherents of a
puritanical brand of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism that is antagonistic to Shia Islam. The
transformation of Iran into an overtly Shia power after the Islamic revolution induced Saudi Arabia to
accelerate the propagation of Wahhabism, as both countries revived a centuries-old sectarian rivalry over
the true interpretation of Islam. Many of the groups responsible for sectarian violence that has occurred in
the region and across the Muslim world since 1979 can be traced to Saudi and Iranian sources.
Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in the 1980–1988 war with Iran and sponsored militants in Pakistan and
Afghanistan who were primarily fighting against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979
a major milestone in Western Cold War politics, but were also suppressing Shia movements inspired or
backed by Iran.
In the Arab world, Shia groups supported by Iran have recently won important political victories.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has ruled since 1970, relies on, a Shia sect that
makes up about 13 percent of Syria’s population, as a pillar of its power. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq
unseated Saddam Hussein and instituted competitive elections, the Shia majority has dominated the
parliament and produced its prime ministers. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political
movement, is the strongest party in Lebanon.
Sectarian Militants
Two of the most prominent terrorist groups, Sunni al-Qaeda and Shia Hezbollah, have not
defined their movements in sectarian terms, and have favored using anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, and antiAmerican frameworks to define their jihad, or struggle. They share few similarities beyond the use of
violence. Hezbollah has developed a political wing that competes in elections and is part of the Lebanese
government, a path not chosen by al-Qaeda, which operates largely in the shadows. Both groups have
deployed suicide bombers, and their attacks shifted from a focus on the West and Israel to other Muslims,
such as al-Qaeda’s killing of Shia civilians in Iraq and Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war.
Syria’s civil war, in which a quarter million people have been killed and eleven million—more than
half the country's prewar population—displaced, has amplified sectarian tensions to unprecedented
levels. The war began with peaceful protests in 2011 calling for an end to the Assad regime. Decades of
the Assad family's repression of Syria's majority Sunni population and elevation of minority Alawis in
government and the private sector has sown sectarian strife. The 2011 protests and brutal government
crackdown uncovered sectarian tensions, which have rippled across the region.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been decimated by Sunni Iraqis who joined the the U.S.-led military surge,
but found new purpose exploiting the vacuum left by the receding Syrian state. It established its own
transnational movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, seizing Iraq’s second-largest city,
Mosul, in June 2014. ISIS rebranded as the Islamic State in July 2014.
U.S. authorities have warned that the war in Syria poses a long-term threat to Western security,
and the backlash against Muslims and immigrants threatens to end the EU's open-border policy.
Iran has allocated billions of dollars in aid and loans to prop up Syria’s Alawi-led government and
has trained and equipped Shia militants from Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq to fight in Syria. Iran and
Saudi Arabia, which have repeatedly postponed efforts to establish a dialogue for settling disputes
diplomatically, discussed the conflict in Syria in October 2015 at U.S. urging. This was a notable
development though cast into doubt by a rupture in diplomatic relations in early 2016. Both countries have
confronted the Islamic State, with Iran fighting it in parts of Iraq, while Saudi Arabia and other Sunnimajority countries back a U.S.-led air campaign against the extremist group in Syria and Iraq.
Humanitarian Crisis
The ongoing civil war in Syria has displaced millions internally, and more than four million
civilians, mostly Sunni, are now refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The influx of more than
one million mostly Sunni Syrians into Lebanon, a state that experienced its own fifteen-year civil war
(1975–90), has burdened its cash-strapped government and put pressure on communities hosting
refugees. Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey are struggling to provide housing and services to an impoverished and
traumatized population.
The United States spent more than $1 trillion in Iraq, but the country remains in a precarious
state. Sectarian tensions are mounting in Iraq as the newly ascendant Shia majority struggles to
accommodate the Sunni and Kurdish minorities while confronting extremist Sunni groups. Most politicians
and activists in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen reject calls to redraw the map of the region, but the
shifting borders and emergence of new areas of influence based on sectarian and ethnic identities are a
growing challenge.
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