While Shiite assertiveness gives rise to concerns and nervousness among Sunni regimes, observers should be careful not to explain all developments and attitudes through religion and also be aware of the significance of political dimensions and alliances.
This was the implicit message in several papers presented at the international conference on Sunni–Shia relations organized by the Catholic University of Louvain and several academic partners that took place in Brussels from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, which RW attended. A discourse on the threat of “Shiitization” or “Shiite penetration” can be heard in Palestine, developed both by Salafi groups and members of the Palestinian State Authority, but the reality on the ground gives very little evidence of conversions to Shiism.
The discourse on the “Shiite threat” serves mostly opponents of the Islamic movement Hamas, due to some cooperation of the latter with Iran, explained Jean-François Legrain (National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS, France). But such discourse ignores competition between Lebanese and Iranian Shiite channels of influence, as well as the fact that Hamas is an independent actor that makes political alliances in accordance with its interest. There are common interests between Hamas and Iran, but Hamas does not follow Iranian orders, summarized Azzam Tamimi (Institute for Islamic Political Thought, London).
The impact of an anti-Shia discourse has much more severe consequences in areas where there is a significant Shia population, such as Pakistan (which has a 15– 20 percent Shiite population). Until the 1970s, religious differences generally played little role in Pakistan, but Shiite assertion (with Iranian support until the mid-1990s) and the development of radical Islamist, anti-Shia groups changed this situation. Currently, Pakistani Taliban attempt to exploit sectarian differences in order to expand their operational space, reported Mariam Abou Zahab (Center for International Studies and Research, CERI, France)—and not only Shia have become targets, but all other minorities too (Christians, Hindus, Sikhs).
On the border with Pakistan, though in Iran itself, Sunni-dominated Baluchistan is less the peripheral region that it used to be, stressed Stéphane Dudoignon (CNRS). Following the suppression of Baluchi elites during the pre-revolutionary period in this area of Iran, religious leaders have come to play a stronger role. The Iranian Revolution and the emphasis upon the Shia nature of the country has led to an awareness of this region’s Sunni religious identity. Especially during the last four years, tensions have been growing, including attacks by Sunni militants, no longer targeting only police posts, but also Shiite institutions.
However, explained Dudoignon, Sunni–Shia relations in Iran cannot be reduced to tensions: there is also interaction, which one should keep in mind in order to have the whole picture. In Syria, a country that has good relations with Iran, irritations have been felt in recent years following increasingly visible Shiite activities during the past three decades, reported Thomas Pierret (Catholic University of Louvain)—and this despite a very modest Shia statistical presence (less than one percent of the population). Since the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Iranian tourists/ pilgrims have come to visit Shia holy places in Syria.
This created some resentment in Syrian Sunni circles, which has been reinforced by the arrival of Iraqi refugees. The performance of Shiite rituals in public space also contributed to such feelings. Since 2006, there has been an upsurge of anti-Shia rumors and accusations of Shiite proselytism. In Saudi Arabia, where the Shia minority has often experienced repression, there have been efforts by the state to start a rapprochement with its Shia population following the changes that have taken place in Iraq, explained Laurence Louër (Sciences Po, Paris). What Saudi authorities primarily want is stability: for this reason, they will not tolerate attacks against Shiites, such as those taking place in Pakistan, although anti-Shia feelings remain strong.