By Toby Matthiesen
LONDON – Sunni-Shia relations have improved substantially in recent years as Saudi Arabia has toned down its anti-Shia rhetoric, and as some Arab Shia have tried to distance themselves from Iran (which itself has been beset by street protests). But longstanding animosities and historical controversies could easily return to the fore and re-erupt, especially given the role that Satellite television and social media now play in the Arab and wider Muslim public sphere.
One spark may come from a forthcoming TV series. This Ramadan (March 23-April 22), the Saudi-owned news channel MBC plans to air a major historical drama about Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, an important but controversial figure in early Islamic history. The founder of the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphate dynasty, Muawiya’s reign coincided with Islam’s first civil war, the so-called fitna, wherein he became the standard-bearer of those opposing Ali, whom Shia consider the rightful heir to the Prophet Mohammed.
With one of the largest budgets in Arab television history (rumors put it at around $75 million), the new series is the latest example of a longer-running trend. Ramadan series are incredibly popular across the Muslim world, where people, like elsewhere, increasingly absorb ideas about history through televised or streamed series. An earlier MBC historical drama on the Caliph Umar drew criticism from Sunni clerics who argued that no Companions of the Prophet should be depicted (and from Shia critics who disagreed with the show’s historical narrative).
But such criticism has waned as depictions of Muslim historical personalities on screen have become more common, and as hardline Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia have lost much of their influence. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) – the country’s de facto ruler – has embraced a form of hyper-nationalism that prizes Sunni-Shia unity. Accordingly, sectarian hate speech has been suppressed, and members of the country’s Shia minority have been appointed to key positions.
MBS has also reached out to Shia clerics and politicians across the region to try to lure them away from Iran – Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis. Among these is Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Iraqi Shia politician and cleric. Following the removal of Saddam Hussein, al-Sadr emerged as a symbol of Shia empowerment and Iraqi nationalism and as someone who could push back against Iran’s hold over Arab Shia communities. He has welcomed Saudi overtures and even visited the Kingdom.
On February 14, however, al-Sadr urged Saudi Arabia and other countries not to broadcast the new MBC show, arguing that Muawiya is the source of the sectarian split in Islam. Soon after, the Iraqi Communications and Media Commission banned its airing, as well as a Shia-financed drama about Abu Lulua, a figure despised by Sunnis because he killed the Caliph Umar. MBC agreed not to show it on its Iraqi channel, and the Shia channel decided not to move ahead with its provocative project. But MBC is unlikely to pull the show altogether, owing not just to its price tag but also to the reaction MBC and Saudi Arabia would face from Sunni hardliners.
Thus, a big-budget drama replaying the historical episodes most contested by Sunnis and Shia is likely to proceed, inevitably renewing sectarian tensions. The drama will still be aired on its pan-Arab main channel and clips of contentious episodes will surely circulate on social media. And, although the future of the Abu Lulua show is unclear, other Shia-funded series outlining the early period from a Shia perspective have been shot in recent years, often funded by Iran, in turn provoking Sunnis.
This is lamentable given the remarkable recent improvements in Sunni-Shia relations, which followed on the heels of some of the worst Sunni-Shia violence on record in the 2010s. Violent sectarianism was a major element in Syria’s civil war and in the rise of the Islamic State, which massacred Shia and other non-Sunnis in territory under its control and attacked Shia targets from Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh. Behind many of the region’s sectarian clashes were proxy battles between Saudi Arabia (mostly backing Sunnis) and Iran (largely backing Shia).
But after the Islamic State’s military defeat in Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia changed course, and anti-sectarian protest movements emerged around the region, helping to ease Sunni-Shia tensions and end the violence. Even the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban reached out to Afghan Shia and allowed some Shia rituals to continue following their return to power in Afghanistan in 2021. Moreover, the massive protests that have rocked Iran since 2022 have showed a remarkable degree of cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian solidarity (with Iranian Sunnis joining protests alongside majority Shia Iranians).
Nonetheless, tensions remain high between the Shia-clergy-led Islamic Republic of Iran and its Sunni-led neighbors in the Gulf. In Bahrain, the political stalemate and disenfranchisement of the Shia opposition continues. In Lebanon, where Iran’s allies control the state, the Gulf States have largely left their traditional Sunni (and Christian) allies out in the cold. And like in Iraq, the sectarian power-sharing system has proven impossible to reform. In Iran and Afghanistan, Islamic State affiliates continue to target Shia mosques and shrines. And Sunni-Shia tensions remain high in Pakistan and parts of Africa.
Initiatives to foster Sunni-Shia dialogue in recent years did produce declarations denouncing deliberate provocations, as well as more personal connections among key figures. But they have failed to carve out much common ground on which to overcome doctrinal differences or opposing views of history. Ideally, both sides would avoid difficult and contentious topics, such as the story of the first fitna, and focus instead on their commonalities. But the historical series will do the opposite.
Moreover, geopolitics is also complicating matters. An Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” with Syria, Hezbollah (in Lebanon), and Shia militias in Iraq has fully aligned itself with Russia, and there are still unresolved regional proxy conflicts, not only in Syria but especially in Yemen. These political dynamics, combined with long-standing animosities, will be sufficient to keep tensions simmering just beneath the surface – where they are liable to boil over abruptly.
Toby Matthiesen is incoming Senior Lecturer in Global Religious Studies at the University of Bristol and has previously held fellowships at the Universities of Oxford, Venice, Stanford, and Cambridge. His global history of Sunni-Shia relations, The Caliph and the Imam: The Making of Sunnism and Shiism, will be published by Oxford University Press in March.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.