July 23, 2011

One student reading describes the growing sectarian violence in Iraq; a second offers background on the historic split between Sunnis and Shiites.

Every day in Iraq, many Sunnis and Shiites are being killed. In some neighborhoods, members of one sect have brutalized the other through "ethnic cleansing."

The first student reading below provides an overview of the sectarian violence in Iraq today and how it concerns neighboring countries. The second reading offers background on the early days of Islam and the historic split between Sunnis and Shiites.

You may also be interested in two earlier related sets of materials available on this website: "2006 Election Issue: Iraq," which provides further information on the sectarian divide, and "Islam and the West," an historical review.


Student Reading 1:

The power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites

District by District, Shiites Make Baghdad Their Own
(from the New York Times, 12/23/06)

"Baghdad, Dec. 22—As the United States debates what to do in Iraq, this country's Shiite majority has been moving toward its own solution: making the capital its own.

"Large portions of Baghdad have become Shiite in recent months, as militias press their fight against Sunni militants deeper into the heart of the capital, displacing thousands of Sunni residents. At least 10 neighborhoods that a year ago were mixed Sunni and Shiite are now almost entirely Shiite, according to residents, American and Iraqi military commanders and local officials.

"For the first years of the war, Sunni militants were dominant, forcing Shiites out of neighborhoods and systematically killing bakers, barbers and trash collectors, who were often Shiites. But starting in February, after the bombing of a shrine in the city of Samarra, Shiite militias began to strike back, pushing west from their strongholds and redrawing the sectarian map of the capital, home to a quarter of Iraq's population."

The U.S. invasion, the insurgency that then developed, and the more recent sectarian violence have made many Iraqi families desperately insecure. "While 1.8 million Iraqis are living outside the country, 1.6 million more have been displaced within Iraq since the war began," according to the New York Times . "Since February, about 50,000 per month have moved within the country." Iraqi families are living with friends and relatives, in tents, in abandoned buildings, in shacks—often without running water or electricity, the children without schools, the grownups without work. ( New York Times, 12/29/06)

Sunni and Shiite Muslims have lived together in Iraq for centuries and, for most of that time, peacefully. Together they resisted the British occupation after World War I. Together they fought an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s, even though most Iraqis, like most Iranians, are Shiites. But today in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are killing and terrorizing one another and subjecting each other to the "ethnic cleansing" of neighborhoods.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party in Iraq, Sunnis dominated the leadership and oppressed Shiites—despite the fact that 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites and only 20 percent are Sunnis. After Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, Saddam Hussein's army brutally suppressed a Shiite revolt, killing tens of thousands of Shiite civilians. A number of prominent Shiites went into exile in Iran. Iran, like Iraq, is an oil-rich country with a Shiite majority. But unlike Iraq, Iran's leaders are from that Shiite majority.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, the U.S. appointed Paul Bremer to head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. He ordered that Saddam's army be disbanded and he prohibited Baathists—including many of Saddam's Sunni colleagues—from government positions. Many of these newly unemployed soldiers and officials became insurgents. Aided by some foreign fighters from nearby countries, they were determined to drive the U.S. out of Iraq and once again become the dominant force in the country.

In the past year, Iraq has conducted an election and ratified a new constitution. As a result, Shiites now hold most of the leading positions in government. For instance, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, who is deputy leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, became Iraq's prime minister. During Saddam's rule, Al-Maliki had lived in exile in Iran and Syria. Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who had lived in Iran during the Saddam years, is now leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Badr Corps, a militia.

During the past year Sunni insurgents and militia have shifted from targeting Americans to targeting Shiites. On February 22, 2006, the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which Shiites revere, was bombed. In revenge, Shiite militias attacked Sunnis and their mosques. The now nearly year-old fighting escalated into a daily bloodbath with suicide bombings at markets, children blown up in buses, and dozens of bodies dumped overnight onto streets in Baghdad and elsewhere.

People in the predominately Sunni Muslim nations near Iraq are very concerned about the growing sectarian violence in Iraq. All-out war and victory for the Shiite majority could cause thousands of Sunnis to leave the country. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have already left, mostly to live in Syria and Jordan. These nations now fear a huge new influx of refugees.

Saudi Arabia's Sunni leaders have also become increasingly concerned about Iran's influence in Iraq and the possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons and become an even stronger force in the region.

Saudi religious leaders view Shiites, including Saudi Shiites, as heretics. They see Shiite-led Iran as a threat to Saudi Arabia. Some of them, along with a number of university professors, recently declared publicly that their government should actively support Iraq's Sunnis. "And King Abdullah warned Vice President Dick Cheney during a meeting in Riyadh three weeks ago that Saudi Arabia would back the Sunnis if the Americans withdrew from Iraq and a civil war ensued." ( New York Times, 12/22/06)

With Iran's nuclear program on their minds, Saudi and other Persian Gulf leaders recently announced their interest in developing nuclear programs. It was another ominous note in an increasingly dangerous area of the world.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do you suppose that Paul Bremer has been severely criticized for his orders?

3. How do you suppose that Sunnis view the situation in Iraq? Shiites? Why?

4. Why is the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq a concern of other Middle East leaders?

5. What might be the implications of active Saudi support for Iraq's Sunnis? Of Gulf countries developing nuclear power?

6. To ask why Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq are caught up in murderous violence is to ponder how and why humans develop values, attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and prejudices, form in-groups and out-groups, and fight for power. (See, for example, Gordon Allport's classic study, The Nature of Prejudice .) What do students know about the murderous violence that devastated Christians in Europe during the 16th and 17 centuries? Christians and Muslims during the Crusades? Or, more recently, in Bosnia? Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka today? What understanding do they have of such violence?


Student Reading 2:

Historical background on Islam and Sunnis and Shiites


Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects date to the period after Islam's founder and prophet, Muhammad, died in 632. At a meeting of Muhammad's closest associates, Abu Bakr, one of his earliest followers, was chosen as his successor and became the leader, or khalifa (from which comes the English word, "caliph"). Abu Bakr and successor caliphs claimed their right to rule by virtue of their adherence to the Koran and oral traditions about Muhammad's words and habitual behavior (sunna)—not because they were descended from Muhammad. In time, Abu Bakr's followers became known as Sunnis.

But divisions developed within Islam after the deaths of Abu Bakr and the two caliphs who followed him. When Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, became caliph, a civil war broke out. Ali was assassinated. Those who were shiat Ali, "followers of Ali," believed that only direct descendants of Muhammad, like Ali, had the authority to correctly interpret the Koran and the sunna of Muhammad. They became known as Shiites or Shia.

The Shias' leader is an imam, a "prayer leader," who is named by his predecessor. The imam is seen as infallible in his interpretation of the Koran and the sunna of Muhammad. The Shiites' main branch developed the belief that this line of imams had come to an end with the disappearance of the twelfth one in 874. He would eventually return and bring in an era of peace and justice. These Shiites became known as "twelvers."

Over the centuries other splits occurred within Sunni and Shiite branches, just as they did within Christianity. And just as in Christianity, these divisions resulted from differences over interpretation of sacred texts and acceptable religious practices.

Today, for example, the official religion of Saudi Arabia is an austere version of the Sunni religion called Wahhabism. A more moderate version is practiced by the Sunni majority in Turkey. Syria is ruled by the Alawite minority of the Shiite sect—though most Syrians are Sunnis. In Islam there is no pope or hierarchy, as in Christian sects, to determine the "correct" interpretations or practices.

The Koran itself declares:

"Some of its verses are precise in meaning—they are the foundation of the Book—and others ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief follow the ambiguous part, so as to create dissension by seeking to explain it. But no one knows its meaning except Allah." (Sura 3:7, translated by N.A. Dawood)

But in their core beliefs, the world's 1.3 billion Muslims are at one. They include a profession of faith in Muhammad as the messenger of Allah and in the revelations granted to the prophet that are recorded in the Koran.

They are also at one in their acceptance of the five "Pillars of Islam":

1. Professing that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God."

2. Affirming this belief in five daily ritual prayers.
3. Making gifts from one's income to the poor and needy.
4. Fasting from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, the month in which the Koran was first revealed to Muhammad.
5. Performing the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad and site of the Ka'ba, its most sacred shrine, once in one's lifetime if that is physically and financially possible.

Shiites are 16 percent of all Muslims. They predominate in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan. Sunnis, who make up 83 percent of all Muslims, are the majority in most countries following Islam.

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples
Don Best, "The World of Islam," National Geographic, January 2002
Damien Cave, "For Congress: Telling Sunni from Shiite," New York Times,


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What questions might students be interested in investigating? For detailed discussions of question-based inquiries, see "Teaching Critical Thinking" and "Thinking Is Questioning," both of which are available on this website.

Other possible inquiry subjects

  • The Iraq-Iran war, 1980-1988
  • The Shiite 1991 revolt in Iraq
  • President Bush's decision in 1991 not to invade Iraq
  • Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
  • Moktada al-Sadr
  • The origins of Islam
  • Muhammad and the Koran
  • The importance of each of the following places in Islam: Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Karbala, and Najaf

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: