The Sunni-Shia divide is the cultural San Andreas Fault of the Muslim world. Although much of the strife throughout the Middle East reflects a sectarian flavor and sectarian violence is a common problem, Sunnis and Shiites throughout the world are able to coexist, absent the socioeconomic and political issues that enflame their historic grievances.
Should a violent culture clash that unifies Sunnis and Shiites against each other ever erupt, it will dwarf the Arab Spring Revolutions while sparking unmanageable chaos that will last for decades. Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr for what appears to be little more than political dissent could be a catalyst for such a conflict.
Joining criticism aimed at the action of Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, Iran appears to be capitalizing on the incident to incite anti-Saudi sentiments. Hitting on Saudi hypersensitivity to threats of insurgency and criticism from hypocritical archrival Iran, the Saudis reacted to violence against the Saudi embassy by cutting ties with Iran and seeking to unify its allies against Iran. If this rift is allowed to fester, it could fuel sectarian conflict on a global scale.
Almost a third of the world’s population is Muslim and the vast majority of Muslims do not live in the Middle East. Russia’s offer to help mediate the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran, as well as China’s expressed concerns, reflects the global nature of the threat. Although the immediate issue is the derailment of efforts to tackle the Islamic State threat, global terrorism will take a backseat to a global sectarian war.
It is important to recognize that, as the world has been steadily globalizing, the Muslim world has also been globalizing to the point Muslims are transcending their national identity to identify with the struggles of foreign Muslims. What this means is the mistreatment of Sunni Palestinians, for example, is enough to provoke retaliation against Israel from throughout the entire Muslim world. Globalized Islamic terrorism is also evidence of this globalization phenomenon.
As Sunnis and Shiites forge separate global identities in the heat of a sectarian rift, any number of incidences could eventually spark sectarian violence on a global scale. Because somewhere between 80 to 90% are Sunni and only 10 to 20% are Shia, however, it is easy to assume a sectarian conflict would be short-lived.
Although the proximity of Sunnis and Shiites living in Muslim-dominated regions and communities would help fan the flames of sectarian war, the real threat is the adoption of sectarian terrorism. Where Islamic extremists may start targeting non-Muslims less, the increased amount of sectarian violence seen around the world would bring far more violence into the countries and communities that have significant Muslim populations.
The Islamic State threat to all in the Muslim world serves as an incentive for Muslim-dominated nations, particularly in the Middle East, to overcome their historic grievances and political infighting. The threat of global sectarian violence serves as an even greater incentive.
Just as Middle Eastern nations have only started to awaken to the Islamic State threat, they must recognize the threat of global sectarian violence to their nations and Peoples. The same is true of influential powers like the United States, which is weary of criticizing its ally Saudi Arabia for its wrongdoing, but it is necessary for leaders from all over the world to lead on this issue.
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