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Modern Middle East
The turbulence in the Middle East continues to attract the attention of the international community as the reports on gross human violations, and the unrestrained wanton bloodshed continues to capture news headlines. The international community can no longer afford to ignore the issues happening in the region as threats associated with the conflicts and destabilizations in the Middle East continue to spread to other parts of the world. Furthermore, the fighting in the modern Middle East has led to an unprecedented increase in the number of asylum seekers to various European countries as well as America. Thousands of immigrants have detached themselves from their families and risked their lives in the last few years since the 2010 Arab Spring with the hopes of finding sanctuary from the constant fighting and bloodshed witnessed in their native lands. How did it come to this? Why does peace and stability among the Muslims remain so elusive in the Middle East despite professing in the same Allah? Would the bloodshed and fighter ever end? Many people ask these questions as the global media houses continue to report about massacres and attacks on unarmed civilians as well as the rise of terrorist organizations affiliated to different governments in the Middle East.
The international community has been largely drawn into the fighting witnessed in the modern Middle East due to varied geopolitical interests. For instance, the United States and Russia have openly shown their support for opposing sides in the Middle Eastern wars despite calls for two superpowers to intervene to end the bloody conflicts that threaten global peace. A worrisome prospect of the issue is that sustainable peace would remain unrealized due to the differences in opinion between Washington and Kremlin. However, a significant factor that often remains underreported or deliberately ignored in the instability in the modern Middle East is the roles of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the issue.
International security analysts and human rights groups have accused the two Islamic powerhouses of supporting various rebel factions and fighting proxy wars to establish regional superiority with the backing of their main allies, Russia and the U.S. respectively. An essential issue in the matter is understanding why Iran and Saudi Arabia remain at odds over the years. An online news article titled “Why Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals” that was published by a BBC reporter, Jonathan Marcus, attempts to associate the constant conflicts in the Middle East with the religious differences that the two countries maintain. The sustained conflicts in the Middle East is due to the centuries-old differences between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims and have little to do with the geopolitical interests of the world’s superpowers. Instead, the United States and Russia appear interested in the continued fighting to support their strategic interests in the region by exploiting the disagreements between the two Muslim factions.
Although the Shiites and Sunnis share some fundamental practices and beliefs, the two sects have contrasting rituals, religious organizations, theology, laws, and doctrines with each faction appearing committed to dominating the other in regional and international matters. Such differences have primarily led to the Shiite versus Sunni conflicts witnessed in the modern Middle East over hundreds of years. Historical accounts indicate that the two sects have always been at odds ever since the death of Prophet Mohammad. The historians observe that the Shiite Muslims recognize Ali ibn Abi Talib as Prophet Mohammad’s chosen successor while the Sunnis consider Abu Bakr as their legitimate leader. Thus, the differences between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims lies mainly to their recognition of the two leaders as the true successor to the prophet, and their disagreements led to numerous wars for legitimacy and migrations. The Iranians initially observed the ideologies of the Sunni teachings of Shafi’i Sunnism. However, the situation changed gradually during the Safawid Empire due to the acceptance of Shiism and the Safawids’ political power. Cleveland and Bunton suggest that the influence of Shiism in Iran became dominant during the reign of Ismail’s successors (96).
While the prevalence of Shiism as a religious culture in Iran did not make it synonymous with the country’s national heritage, it helped in distinguishing Iran from its neighbors who remained Sunni Muslims. The tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis increased significantly after Ismail as the Sunnis considered the threats posed by the Shiites as serious to their existence. Consequently, the levels of hostilities that existed between the Shiites and Sunnis increased during the Sawafid Empire in the Middle East because of the persecutions of the minority groups from either sect in various parts of the region. Moreover, the Shiites established themselves through military conquests and forceful loyalties that caused discontentment among the Sunnis as well as increasing the calls for revenge for the atrocities committed by the Shiites during the conflicts under the Sawafid Empire. Such discontentment and disagreements persist to the modern Middle East as the Shiites and Sunnis continue to fight to establish themselves as the faithful adherents of Islam and Prophet Mohammad.