Fletcher in the News

Prof. Vali Nasr on the Shia-Sunni Divide and Balance of Power

The Economist

Sunni-Shia strife | The sword and the word


It seemed historic. Muslim scholars, 170 in number and representing nine schools of legal thought (including four main Sunni ones and two Shia), gathered in Amman and declared that, whatever their differences, they accepted the others’ authority over their respective flocks. Implicitly, at least, they were renouncing the idea that their counterparts were heretics. Some called that meeting in Jordan in 2005 the biggest convergence since 969, when a Shia dynasty took over Egypt.

Many of the globe-trotting greybeards who met there, and at a similar gathering in Qatar in 2007, remain actively and optimistically engaged. But seen from the outside, feuds between Sunnis, who make up roughly 80% of the world’s Muslims, and the Shia minority (most of the rest), remain savage and are, in some ways, worsening. ...

... These days zealous Sunnis need no longer look to swashbuckling Shias for inspiration. The real action is unfolding in their own homelands, at least in north Africa or the Levant. Nor need they look abroad for political ideology: the Arab spring has established the Sunni sort of political Islam as a powerful, domestically based force that has emerged from the underground or from exile. Rachid Ghannouchi, for example, Tunisia’s best-known Islamist, has returned from London to become probably the most powerful figure in the land. Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in America and a former adviser to the Obama administration, says that—rightly or wrongly—Sunnis believe that Western sanctions are weakening Iran, and that the combined efforts of Sunnis and the West will also topple Iran’s only Arab ally, Syria. From a Sunni perspective, these impending victories outweigh the travails of their co-religionists in majority-Shia Iraq.

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