The Arab uprisings have deepened ethnic and religious tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, according to a new report by The Brookings Institution. The rise of sectarianism is being drive by three main factors:

  • Sunni Islamist ascendancy in Tunisia and Egypt
  • The civil war in Syria, renewed conflict in Lebanon, and unrest in Bahrain
  • Popular perceptions of outside intervention have created a “virtual proxy war” with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on one side and the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other

           The report argues that Iran may be overestimating its influence in the region, especially in Bahrain and Lebanon.  Despite Iran’s efforts to convince the world of a coming pan-Islamic awakening, “many Sunni states are seeking to further distance themselves from Tehran.” Domestic politics now drives foreign policy in countries that have undergone transitions, such as Egypt and Tunisia. The following are excerpts from Geneive Abdo’s report, with a link to the full text at the end.

           The rise of sectarianism is being driven today primarily by three factors. First, a Sunni Islamist ascendancy in Tunisia and, particularly, in Egypt has reignited the sectarian flame that has historically hovered over the Middle East. The Islamist nature of these two governments is a source of empowerment for Sunnis and a thorn in the side of the Shi‘a. Some Shi‘a see the new Sunni Islamist governments in both of these countries as a beginning to what could become a Sunni-dominated region if Asad falls to a Sunni-led government in Syria and Hizballah in turn loses power in Lebanon. And with uprisings and widespread opposition to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s government in Iraq, the Shi‘a could be in trouble there as well. As the Sunnis feel increasingly empowered by the recent challenges to authoritarian Arab regimes, the Shi‘a feel all the more threatened.

           Second, the civil war in Syria has sparked renewed conflict over Arab and Islamic identity in neighboring countries—especially in Lebanon—and even in those states untouched directly by the war, such as Bahrain and Kuwait. Not only is Asad’s likely fall a blow to a potential Shi‘a ascendance which began in Iraq with Shi‘a leader Nuri Al Maliki becoming prime minister, but the atrocities being committed against the Sunni in Syria are a glaring blight on all Shi‘a in the region.

           And third, popular perceptions of outside intervention and interference have created a virtual proxy war with Iran, Syria, and Hizballah on one side and Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Turkey on the other...

           In the eyes of many Sunni, the Arab uprisings have provided an opportunity to undercut the Iran-Hizballah-Syria axis. Yet, they still see Iran’s skilled and often mendacious hands behind every twist and turn, in particular in Tehran’s deep involvement in helping Asad cling to power. To listen to many Sunni in Arab states, particularly in the Persian Gulf, is to perceive all Shi‘a as iron-clad Iranian loyalists. This association serves many purposes. First, it is an instrument with which to demonize the Shi‘a and to portray them as being in cahoots with the regional culprit, Iran, which is at odds with many Sunni  governments. No matter how much Khamenei has tried to convince the world of a coming pan-Islamic awakening, many Sunni states are seeking to further distance themselves from Tehran. Meanwhile, the Muslim street remains conflicted. In religious terms, the assertion of an Iranian connection is also an effective Sunni tactic for casting doubt on the Muslim credentials of the Shi‘a.

Click here for the full text.