Protests in the Arab world seem to be moving from the ideal of establishing democracy towards increasing polarisation and sectarianism in the region.
A year on from the Arab Spring, the Islamists have become more powerful because of the popularity that religious political parties – both Sunni and Shia – enjoy among their respective communities. Shifts in the ruling systems of various countries appear to point the same way – the rise of Islamist movements from the dominant faith group to a position of leadership.
Recent elections in Tunisia and Egypt put Sunni Islamist parties ahead. Protests in Morocco led to reforms which resulted in greater power for Sunni Islamist movements, and a similar outcome is expected in Libya. In time, Yemen may also follow suit. The low-key protests which erupt from time to time in Jordan are also led by Islamist groups, mainly Sunni.
Unlike secular parties which separate religion from politics, Sunni and Shia political movement see these matters as two sides of the same coin. Religion is seen as the route to establishing the right way of life, and politics is viewed as a means to enact religious ideals, with no boundaries between the two spheres.
Leaving aside other faiths, the two main schools of Islam do not share a common ideology. Sunni and Shia Islamists are keen to keep within their own religious beliefs, which differ from or even contradict the other group’s beliefs. An example of this is the ritual public display of grief among Shia Muslims for the death of Imam Hussein, including weeping and self-flagellation. This is regarded as “haram” or “forbidden” by Sunnis. Were a Sunni lslamist leadership to ban or denigrate such practices, it would increase sectarian divisions.
It is hardly surprising that Sunni and Shia communities are divided – the tensions began 14 centuries ago. And just as sectarian disputes stretch back through history, ties among each faith community have no respect for borders.
Recent events seem to point to a future in which the region is made up of states in which states with either a Shia or a Sunni majority population are run by governments controlled by the dominant faith group. Across the region, there is not one country that is exclusively Sunni or Shia, so this prospect heightens the risk of conflict as new disputes combine with centuries-old grievances.
In Iraq, the Shia majority took power from the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. In neighbouring Syria, the Sunni majority feels unfairly treated under the rule of the Allawi minority. The same sense of persecution is experienced by the Shia in Bahrain, where they form the majority. Protests continue in Bahrain, and are a cause for concern in Sunni Gulf states, especially with regard to the role of Iran as a Shia-led external player.
A Sunni Islamist satellite channel recently announced a “jihad” against Shia throughout the region, while radical Shia say prophecies predict that they will one day inherit all Muslim lands including now under Sunni control. Such ideological positions only increase the chances of conflict if radicals from either side gain power.
With the likes of the Shia Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and the Sunni Palestinian movement Hamas – both backed by Iran – as well as other smaller insurgent groups scattered across the Middle East and North Africa, the scene is so complex that an armed conflict in one part of the region is likely to spread widely and rapidly.
Democracy is supposed to ease sectarian tensions rather than exacerbate them, and the value it places on human rights should translate into respect for all minorities. But in the fragile systems we are seeing emerge in the region, minority rights will not be automatically protected, and there is a danger that the Arab Spring will lead instead to sectarian violence.
Abeer Mohammed is IWPR editor for Iraq.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.