Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters A picture of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is seen during a demonstration by Shiite Muslims living in Greece against his execution in Saudi Arabia, outside the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Athens, Greece, January 6, 2016.

The Truth About Sectarianism

Behind the Various Strands of Shiite-Sunni Discord

Sectarian identities were supposedly formed in the Middle East centuries ago, and yet they seem to breed the region’s bloodiest conflicts today. While Iran has thrown its support behind President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has strategized on how to bring both of them down. Tensions deepened earlier this month after Saudi Arabia enraged Iran by executing a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, whom the regime claimed was a terrorist. When Shiites protested in Iran and Saudi Arabia, sometimes violently, the Kingdom kicked Iran’s diplomats out of the country.

But the conflict in the region is much more nuanced than a simple sectarian war. Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric, for example, which is governed by a deeply entrenched Wahhabism, is very distinct from the Islamic State’s (also known as ISIS) use of anti-Shiism to exploit political and economic grievances against both Assad’s Shiite–Alawite regime and the dispossession of Iraq’s Sunnis under the government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In fact, there are three broad kinds of sectarianism at play. Some groups and states have integrated sectarian themes into the very fabric of their political, cultural, and educational systems. Sectarianism, in other words, has been institutionalized. The most prominent example is, of course, Saudi Arabia and its centuries-old antagonism towards Shiites. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, known as the father of Wahhabism and who was present at the state’s founding, made anti-Shiism a core component of his doctrine. Another example is Iran. Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian Revolution and later Iran’s supreme leader, developed a theory of Islamic government known as “governance of the jurists.” He argued that Muslims should live under a regime overseen by legal scholars, and in particular, those trained in his Shiite tradition, who are skilled in interpreting Sharia law. His theory shaped the founding tenets of the Republic.

Raheb Homavandi (TIMA) / ReutersProtesters holding pictures of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr are pushed back

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