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Shia-Sunni rift important to U.S. policy

WASHINGTON — While the Arab Spring upended some long-standing power balances in the Middle East, it also appears to have deepened the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in many of the region’s states.

Richard Norton, director of the Institute for Iraqi Studies at Boston University and an author of a new book on the two predominant Muslim sects, will discuss the trend and why it matters for Americans at a lecture Friday in Albuquerque.

The talk is the last in the Albuquerque International Association’s four-part series on political Islam.


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The Shia-Sunni division dates to the death of the Prophet Muhammad and stems from questions about who would assume leadership of the Muslim nation. Sunnis generally believe the religion’s spiritual leader should be elected among qualified candidates. Shia Muslims – concentrated primarily in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon – have historically not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders and instead followed a line of imams they believe are appointed by the Prophet Muhammad, or god. Sunnis comprise the majority, about 85 percent, of Muslims all over the world.

In a Journal interview, Norton said the centuries-old rift has gradually grown more heated.

“In recent centuries, and decades certainly, the larger issue has really been the question of the loyalties of the Shia communities in the Arab world,” Norton said. “There has been a long suspicion back to the Ottoman Empire that the Shia Muslim communities in places like Iraq and Lebanon were fundamentally loyal to Iran, which had this sort of non-Arab orientation.”

So why does it matter to the U.S.?

“It’s become an issue largely because it is overlaid by the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he explained, noting that Iran is mostly Shia and Saudi Arabia mostly Sunni. “It puts the struggle between the U.S. and Iran in terms of geopolitical positions in the Middle East.”

Norton and other experts contend the U.S. has generally supported Sunni interests with complicated ramifications.

“There have been several periods when we’ve taken a rather provocative position,” Norton said, explaining that during the George W. Bush administration, U.S. policy alienated Shiites in Yemen in its zeal to isolate and vilify Iran.

“In parts of Yemen there is a Shia community, but it’s a different kind of Shia community with different beliefs but the thought was that this was an Iranian outpost,” Norton said. “Unfortunately those kinds of accusations had a kind of self-fulfilling quality. People in the region acted on those charges and the people in that part of Yemen then sought support from Iran because they thought they were under fire.”

Norton said the war raging in Syria is the best illustration of how the sectarian divide is bleeding into international politics.

“In Syria there is a situation in which you do not really have an effective central government, you have a lot of militias who are competing for power,” he explained. “You’ve got Turkey, Saudia Arabia, Kuwait, the U.S., Britain, France supporting their favorite groups ranging from jihadists who are linked to al-Qaeda to more secular opposition groups, and Iran and Hezbollah and other parties supporting groups on the other side.

“Syria is the most vivid example and probably the most consequential one because it’s likely to fester and continue; it’s not going to be solved this year or next,” he added. “Like it or not, the U.S. is a big player in the Middle East and to the extent that any country is affected by conflicts in the region our interest is very much impacted by what goes on.”