In a recent piece written for Foreign Policy magazine, author Christian Caryl, senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, argues that the 21st Century will be dominated by the war within Islam—the battle between Shi’a and Sunni for the soul of Islam. While this article offers several important insights into specific trends occurring in the greater Islamic world, its key argument is fatally flawed. A far more fundamental and potentially far-reaching dynamic has already begun taking shape in the Muslim world—one with ideological origins in the West. The idea which has begun upending societies throughout the Muslim world is the simple premise best expressed in the phrase coined by Abraham Lincoln—namely that the most legitimate form of government is government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Simply put, the most important battle occurring within the modern Islamic world is whether Islam and democracy are compatible. And it appears that most Muslims today believe it is.
Caryl is correct that sectarian tensions exist throughout the Muslim world. His observation that the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran has led to the politicization of Shi’i in other parts of the Muslim world is also true. And there is likewise some merit to the claim that, in the words of Olivier Roy, there has been a “Salafization” of Sunni Islam, as evidenced by the surprising electoral success of Salafist parties in Egypt.
However, all of these observations need to be seen in a much larger context. To begin, it seems much more likely that our own present-day obsession with threats emanating from the Islamic world is focusing our attention there at the expense of other potentially much more important global trends likely to shape the 21st Century—the rise of China, for example. When assessing the threat from violent Islamist groups, it is sometimes necessary to step back and realize that far more Americans have been killed by heart disease and in auto accidents since September 10, 2001 than by jihadists. While jihadist groups will continue to constitute a security threat to Western nations, that threat is not existential. Nor is that threat likely to fundamentally alter the balance of power on a global scale.
Secondly, much of this is not inherently new. Sectarianism has been a feature of the Islamic world for centuries and there have been Shi’a dynasties in the region far more powerful than the Islamic Republic of Iran. As Caryl also notes but seems not to fully appreciate, much of what he describes as sectarianism can be attributed to other causes. For example, Syria’s alignment with Iran might best be explained as the legacy of a political rivalry which split the Ba’ath party in the 1970s, causing Syria to seek Iran as an ally to counter the influence of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Iraq.
The recent focus on sectarianism in the Arab and Muslim worlds is largely the result of two important events—the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the resulting internecine fighting that ensued, and the fallout from the so-called “Arab Spring.” The problem is that in both of these cases, sectarianism was a by-product of, rather than the primary driver of the event in question. As Caryl himself notes, there has historically been a relatively high degree of religious intermarriage in Iraq, which calls into the question the strength of any alleged primeval attachment to sectarian identities in that country. Likewise, the protests which swept Syria during the Arab Spring represented a popular demand for greater political rights and participation (which Caryl himself acknowledges explains the unrest taking place in Bahrain as well). The sectarian element only reared its ugly head after the Assad regime brutally cracked down on the protests and the conflict metastasized into a civil war. It is precisely this push for greater political freedom which has swept not only the Arab world, but the larger Muslim world itself. Even Iran, which Caryl sees as the bastion of Shi’i radicalism, has not been immune from this trend, as the country seems to be divided between those seeking an end to clerical rule and defenders of the Islamic state.
There is also hard data to verify the notion that Muslim publics are increasingly embracing the idea that their societies should be governed by democratic principles rather than through theocratic rule. This is true even in the wake of the violence characterizing post-Arab Spring instability. However, it is precisely this instability which leaves open the possibility that more conservative religious forces could win the battle for the soul of Islam.
While sectarian tension in the Muslim world is unlikely to disappear in the 21st Century, such tension is not likely to dominate it either. Even within the Muslim world, there are other forces and debates going on that are more fundamental to its future than the historical force of sectarianism. Precisely how these forces will become manifest in the coming years is anyone’s guess, but given the available data, there are good reasons to be optimistic that the 21st Century may mark the turning point from authoritarianism to democratic forms of governance throughout much of the Muslim world.