Sunni-Shia split the Mideast’s new great divide

Half of believers in the Middle East and North Africa say religious conflict is a major problem for their countries. How did it come to this? Some answers lie in the distant beginnings of Islam.

fomiddleeastsunnishia064cBy Olivia Ward Foreign Affairs Reporter

In the not-so-distant past, the doomsday scenario was a cataclysmic “clash of civilizations” between Muslims and the secular West.

But the Arab Spring has brought a seismic shift in the sectarian landscape. With civil war and political chaos rippling through the region, the deadly divide now runs through the Muslim world itself.

In Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq, Sunni and Shia Muslims are struggling for power while religious intolerance rises violently in Egypt. Meanwhile, the Sunni Gulf States are fighting proxy battles with Shia Iran for supremacy in the region, with Syria as ground zero.

“Violence and brutality have been targeted at particular sects,” says Geneive Abdo, a fellow of the Stimson Center and author of a recent study, The New Sectarianism. “The Syrian war has revived a centuries-old conflict.”

In the Middle East and even tranquil Belgium, mosques have been attacked and bombed in acts of sectarian vengeance between Muslims. Worshipers have been wounded and killed. Rival sects revile each other’s faiths and arm militias for escalating battle.

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