The removal of Saddam Hussein inadvertently disrupted the existing power distribution between Shia and Sunnis, precipitating a momentous change to the status quo which had long persisted in the Middle East.
The Sunni hegemony that characterized the region began to falter, yielding a vacuum for Shia transcendence. As part of its efforts to spread democracy, the United States intended to democratize the existing Sunni government of Iraq, but instead, by virtue of free elections, produced the first country in the Arab world whose Shia majority achieved representation in government commensurate with its population.
Shia emergence encountered fierce Sunni resistance in Iraq causing a precipitous increase in sectarian tensions, reviving enmity which traces back centuries. When Islam splintered into two main factions—Sunni and Shia—separate identities emerged, each marked by stark differences in the conception and practice of Islam. The fissure occurred over the secession of the Prophet–the Shia considered only his descendants as legitimate rulers, whereas the Sunnis require the successor need only be a devout Muslim capable of righteously managing political and religious affairs. Sunnism and Shiism are distinguished by different customs, holidays and practices, and most distinctly, have experienced quite different levels of discrimination and persecution. The Sunnis have demonized the Shia as “an enemy from within,” considering them a greater threat than Judaism and Christianity–and the source of Islam’s struggles. In effect, the political and religious participation of the Shia have been stridently suppressed under Sunni dominion. The rise of secular nationalism in the Arab world served to unite all Muslims, but given the exclusion of the Shia, the process, as intended, only reinforced Sunni hegemony.
Although the Sunnis comprise a majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, the 10-15% of Shia form a majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, a plurality in Lebanon, and a significant minority in various other countries. The Shia have never garnered the level of representation corresponding to their numbers until the democratic elections in Iraq. These free elections have revealed democracy’s utility as a conduit for the Shia to secure political power and attain representation in government. Democracy is the key to the Shia revival in Iraq, but on the contrary, the demise of Sunni supremacy. Consequently, the Shia will promote democracy in the Middle East, while the Sunnis will resist it fiercely to obstruct the empowerment of the Shia.
The fall of the Sunni regime in Iraq, coupled with the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan, fractured the Sunni axis after 2001, thus allowing Iran to fortify its regional status. Iran, a majority Shia country, had established the sole Islamic state in 1979, precipitating a Shia awakening and augmenting Shia standing throughout the region. However, it wasn’t until the Shia advancement in Iraq after 2003 that Shia everywhere became inspired by Sistani’s political approach of “one man, one vote,” igniting a subsequent revival with greater momentum. Created as an Iranian proxy, Hezbollah used democratic elections to secure a political footing in Lebanon, where Shia constitute two-fifths of the population. Hezbollah had earned prestige by ousting Israel in 2000, then proved an adept fighting force against the IDF in 2006, emboldening the Shia might trans-nationally. In Bahrain, the majority Shia population demanded democracy and liberation from Sunnis who dominate politically and economically. In countries where they constitute a minority, Shia have also achieved some degree of political footing and more rights. The significant minority of Shia in Saudi Arabia, roused and inspired by the gains made by their brethren in Iraq, have clamored for democracy and reform. To subdue such demands and safeguard their government from potential instability, Saudi Arabia has conceded certain rights to the Shia. Although gains have been made, the Shia have yet to achieve parity with their Sunni counterpart in terms of equality and freedom. The Sunni reaction to this redistribution of power has been vociferous, culminating in Sunni extremism and fundamentalism.
The transformation of Middle East politics is in nascent stages, obscuring the exact arrival and configuration of the new status quo. What is evident is that the Shia can exert greater power, reconstructing political structures and alliances both regionally and internationally—but to what extent is the question. The viability of the democratization project still underway in Iraq is contingent upon bridging the sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia. How feasible is the goal of alleviating such enmity? It is indeed optimistic to believe Sunnis will support a democratic form of governance that will relegate them to a less prominent position; democracy will strain under tense sectarian power struggles. The Middle East will eventually assume a new design, but it may not reflect the ideal vision of equal distribution and peaceful coexistence. The following could be considered possible drawbacks of a Shia awakening beyond Sunni resistance and fundamentalism: Authoritarianism may still reign, but instead with Shia in power; reform could trigger continual sectarian violence, or worst case, civil war as it did in Iraq; a Sunni crackdown suppressing the Shia may alienate and subjugate them to an even worse position. Democracy may indeed prove more auspicious than in the past, owing to the Shia’s vested interest in democratic reform coupled with Washington’s exhortation for democracy.