February 21, 2016


Islam Versus Islam (Shahid Javed Burki, 2/18/16, Project Syndicate)

Today, most of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunnis. They are widely dispersed, spread over a vast swath stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. After decades of migration to Europe and North America, there are also strong Sunni communities in several Western countries.

The Shia number 225 million and are geographically much more concentrated. Iran, with 83 million, is the world's largest Shia-majority country, followed by Pakistan with 30 million and India with 25 million. The "Shia crescent" - including Iran and its immediate neighbors Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey - accounts for 70% of the sect's total population. [...]

Sunni Islam, for its part, was first spread through South Asia by the Sufi saints, most of whom came from Central Asia and preached a more tolerant and inclusive form of Islam than that of the Arabian Peninsula. But the rising influence of Saudi Arabia after the 1970s, when skyrocketing oil prices boosted the country's wealth considerably, helped to spur the spread of the Kingdom's dominant and austere Wahhabi sect.

Beyond attracting millions of Muslim workers from South Asia, Saudi Arabia financed the establishment of Wahabbi madrassas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Taliban (which, in Arabic, means "students") in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are the products of these seminaries, as are militias like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which have mounted attacks on religious sites in India.

Today's turmoil reflects a clash of worldviews that is both theological and political. Conservative Sunnis, such as those who adhere to fundamentalist Wahhabism, favor theocratic authoritarian rule, whereas more moderate Sufi Sunnis would prefer liberal and inclusive political systems. The same is true of the Shia. Iran has long stuck to theocratic rule, but now seems to be looking toward reform. Whether the sectarian divide can ever be bridged most likely depends on whether reformists can gain sufficient influence in both camps. If not, the conflict will continue to rage, accelerating the breakdown of regional order we now see.

Posted by at February 21, 2016 8:37 AM