An increasingly common view of the conflict currently sweeping the Middle East is that it can largely be summarised as a struggle between warring factions within Islam: the Sunni majority and the Shia minority. You can read about it in respectable titles such as TIME magazine and The Spectator, covering the situation with front-page features, illustrated with stereotypical images of Arabs tapping into centuries-old Orientalist depictions of Muslims.
This "Sunni-Shia" thesis essentially posits that a 7th century leadership struggle in the Muslim community is the source of current Middle Eastern unrest. That struggle led to two distinct theological groups, the Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (People of the Example of the Prophet and the Community – generally shortened to "Sunni" for convenience) and the Shi'at Ali (the Party of Ali or "Shia"). The narrative holds that the two groups have been locked in a 1400-year-old conflict spanning continents, nations and empires, and reaching its modern zenith in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The problem with this thesis is that it is wrong. Not just "subject to interpretation" (as political analysis always is) but so misleading, so inaccurate, and so detached from reality that it cannot be described as anything other than myth.
The most common myth associated with the Sunni-Shia thesis is that Islam has been split in two since its inception. This is simply a revisionist reading of history through modern eyes. There was a dispute about religious authority following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, but specificities aside, it was largely a political one. It was not until orthodoxies began to settle as the opposing parties began to develop distinct legal and interpretative traditions that the split gained a theological dimension.
There are differences in notions of proper religious practice (how and when to pray, for example). There are differences too in how scripture is assessed and interpreted – important yes, but historically, these have been the topic of scholarly rather than military dispute. There have been times when Sunni and Shia – as religious sects – fought against each (the 7th century not being one of them), as there have been times of intra-Shia and intra-Sunni conflict. But the argument that the Sunni and the Shia have been at each other's throats since the 7th century is wrong.
Many who buy into the Sunni-Shia conflict narrative are parroting the rhetoric of perhaps the two most significant powers in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, they have been vying with each other for ascendency. Saudi Arabia in particular has been exporting an extreme anti-Shia theology in a bid to delegitimise Iran and isolate it from other Muslim-majority nations.
Al-Sadr's Allawite fatwa was as much motivated by politics as by piety”
But what about in nations such as Syria, where a Shia government is fighting against a Sunni population? Surely here the claim of a Sunni-Shia conflict has merit? Again the reality is more complicated. It was only in 1973 that modern Shia formally accepted Allawis (the religious sect to which the Assad family belong) as a branch of Shia Islam. Musa al-Sadr, a senior Shia cleric in Lebanon, issued a fatwa bringing centuries of ambiguity to an end. Until then the Allawis were an unknown quantity. Their religion was certainly influenced by Islam, but much else too, and both orthodox Sunni and Shia were sceptical of the highly secretive tradition. Al-Sadr's fatwa was as much motivated by politics as by piety but it should underscore the fractured nature of religion and power in the Middle-East, a fracturing that is most clear in Syria today.
The framing of the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms also adds to a pressure for religious groups to adhere to a particular political standpoint. James Gelvin, a professor of social and cultural history of the modern Middle East at the University of California, Los Angeles, calls this "legitimacy by blackmail." In identifying the government with a particular sect, "they have... forced other members of that sect into support of the government." This practice can be found repeated in Bahrain: "the government tells [its sect], 'if you do not support us, you're dead, the majority will do something to you.'"
The war in Syria and now Iraq has left our political class struggling to provide a coherent account without stumbling over themselves – so we should certainly be wary of newspapers that simplify the problems of the Middle East in terms of the Sunni-Shia schism. James Gelvin again: "In terms of [conflict in] the Middle East, the straw people always grasp at first is religion. They don't do that in the case of the West. If there is a problem, it's not a national problem, it's not an economic problem, it has to be nailed on religion. It's facile, simplistic and lazy analysis."