One of the most powerful leaders in the Salafist movement in Egypt often holds court in his well-appointed apartment in Alexandria. On a recent December evening, the sun was about to set outside his window over the massive billboard of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the neighborhood of dilapidated and congested streets known as home to many of the country’s influential Salafist voices.
The Salafis are Islamists who yearn to practice the faith the way they think it existed at the time of the prophet Muhammad, 1,400 years ago. They are nearly the only Islamists in Egypt who are neither dead nor in prison, in large part due to their shared views with el-Sisi—not least among them the belief that Shia Muslims have deviated from Islamic tradition and are attempting to convert Sunni Egyptians to follow in their footsteps.
Inside one of the neighborhood apartment buildings, I met Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a Salafist leader who has been at the forefront of a campaign in Egypt aimed at keeping Shia Muslims out of the country and confronting those Sunnis, particularly the youth, who dare to convert to Shiism. I traveled to Egypt to meet Salafis, like el-Shahat, to show how the Shia-Sunni divide has reached even a country where less than 1 percent of the population is Shia, according to statistics from the U.S. State Department. The sectarian conflict in the Middle East—most acute in Iraq and Syria—has now reached all corners, even in the most unlikely of places.
Over four years, I have researched the contours of Islam’s sectarian conflict—from the ground to the Twittersphere—to try to understand the causes. A few regional trends are clear: the Salafi leader tweeting in Saudi Arabia with fourteen million Twitter followers clearly shapes the views of someone like Shahat, whom he does not know. The wars in Syria and Iraq—perceived to be driven by Shia Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Arab world—also frame the narrative the Sunnis throughout the region use to bolster their argument that if the Islamic Republic of Iran had its way, the government would rule every Sunni-dominated Arab country. This fear has reached new heights in recent years, after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the most militant part of the state’s security apparatus, became heavily involved in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
“The Dawa Salafiyya ,” a particular trend in the movement that opposes violence, “has taken up the issue of the Shia to deal with religious minorities in Islam and outside Islam that have deviated from the tradition,” explained el-Shahat, who, at first glance appears a bit frightening with his long beard and stocky frame, but is actually an affable man. “For Iran, the religious and political perspectives are one in the same. They want to create their [Persian] empire again and that means spreading Shiism.” Its
The commonly accepted view holds that rising sectarian tensions in general, and those between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia in particular, are driven primarily, or even solely, by political and geopolitical interests and concerns. As a result, the crucial religious component is downplayed or dismissed outright, leaving Western policymakers ill-equipped to respond to local and regional crises in any constructive way.
Yet this consensus flies in the face of my own experience working, living and traveling in the region over the past thirty years. Rather, the Sunnis see the Shia’s primary motivation as tied directly to their theology, and that any political gain in the process is an added bonus. This is the widespread belief among Sunnis across the Middle East, from Syria and Lebanon to Yemen. This point is well documented in my recent book, published in December: The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Shi’a-Sunni Divide (Oxford University Press).
Although the Shia-Sunni divide has persisted for centuries, the Arab uprisings dramatically escalated the conflict for several reasons.
First and foremost, religious identity has become more relevant to Arabs than in recent decades. The notion of citizenship—being an Iraqi or a Syrian—became less important, due in part to the virtual collapse of states and governments. Second, the political leadership of Shia Iran and its Sunni neighbors, chiefly Saudi Arabia, have openly fanned the flames of sectarian rivalry in their pursuit of power and territory.
In addition, instability and polarization in the region breed a lack of religious freedom. And in a country like Egypt, all freedoms have been curtailed since the uprisings began, the first of which occurred in January 2011 and led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
“In this sense, the Shi’a community illustrates the nature of the barriers to the exercise of freedom of religion and belief more generally, for other sects, the wider citizenry, and even the Sunni majority itself,” wrote Amr Ezzat, who has been studying the problem in Egypt for the last few years. “It also sheds light on the problematic issue of diversity within Islam, especially in the case of the Sunni-Shi’a divide, which is a special case of intra-Islamic diversity because it is linked to disputes over models of (religious) authority and their legitimacy.”