The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its fervent anti-Shi'ite worldview has once again sparked the debate about the "age-old" conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis with countless "experts" offering analysis rife with clichés that the two largest Islamic sects have been fighting each other for "centuries" and even "millennia." A brief glance at history not only dispels this notion but demonstrates that the rise of Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian warfare has its roots not in the distant 7th century, but in Saudi Arabia's response to Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the Saudi regime as a matter of policy began to counter Iran's revolution by financing anti-Shi'ite Islamists across the Muslim world. That policy has born fruition with Islamists in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere taking up arms in the name of an Islam that is diametrically opposed to Shi'ism, the minority sect in Islam.
The Saud dynasty established modern Saudi Arabia and was always anti-Shi'ite in its worldview, which is apparent in Ibn Saud's famous quote to his British confidant, John Philby: "I should have no objection in taking to wife a Christian or a Jewish woman...The Jews and Christians are both people of the book; but I would not marry a Shi'a... [who] have been guilty of backsliding and shirk [polytheism]..." (1) Such prejudice was echoed in the 90s by Abdul Aziz ibn Baz, the chief state cleric in Saudi Arabia, when he issued a "ruling against the Shi'is, reaffirming that they were infidels and prohibiting Muslims from dealings with them." (2) Predictably, such an approach had dire consequences for the Saudi Shi'ite minority that predominate in the peninsula's east, but the Saudi regime as a matter of foreign policy collaborated with pre-revolutionary Iran, the Shi'ite powerhouse.
Iran, one of the most populous countries of the Middle East, is one of a small number of Shi'ite majority countries, but that does not necessarily mean that it has been at odds with its Sunni majority neighbors.
Saudi Arabia, the quintessential Sunni country and home to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, sits across from Iran on the other side of the Persian Gulf, and prior to the Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 had increasingly close strategic relations with Iran.
Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the monarch whose rule came crumbling down in the face of the revolution, worked hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia to counter threats emanating from common enemies.
Both were opposed to the spread of Communism in the region, both funded Islamic groups to preach religion as a counter to godless Communism, and both monarchies opposed Republicanism and populous Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.
So close were these two countries that the Shah, in exile after the revolution, had nothing but praise for his Saudi counterpart:
"Twice I had the great joy of making the supreme pilgrimage. As a faithful Muslim and Defender of the Faith, I hope that Saudi Arabia will always remain the guardian of these holy places, Mecca and Medina, where millions of pilgrims travel every year on the path to God. History has recorded the stature of Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia. He was wise and brave and an excellent administrator. When one considers the fatal events for which Iran is now the theater [in 1980], one cannot but rejoice at seeing Saudi Arabia still free and independent. One can only pray to God that it remains so." (3)
The Shah's summation that Saudi Arabia is "free and independent" coupled with his tribute is all the more astonishing given how much distrust and animosity exists between Iran and Saudi Arabia today, which is a direct consequence of Iran's Islamic Revolution.
The revolution was doubtless a watershed moment in the history of the region and beyond. After assuming power, Ayatollah Khomeini did not hesitate to challenge the status quo of the entire region in a radical way. He called upon all Muslims, irrespective of sect, to rise up as Iranians had done and rid their countries of monarchies and western-backed dictators. His call did not fall on deaf ears.
Iran became an exemplar for action which, coupled with complex local circumstances, proved very consequential. Shi'ites led by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr, the so-called "Khomeini of Iraq," led a revolt against Saddam's Ba'athist rule in 1980, and a four-month uprising in Saudi Arabia engulfed the peninsula's east. What's more, Kuwaiti militants unleashed a bombing campaign, and there was an attempted Iranian-inspired coup in Bahrain. Even Sunni Islamists across the region found inspiration in Iran's revolution and Iran supported Sunni Muslims in Bosnia during the Balkan Wars and Palestinians via radical Sunni Islamist groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Khomeini held special disdain for the Saudi monarchy and challenged the dynasty's Islamic credentials. In an attempt to buttress his Islamic authority, the Saudi monarch exploited the legitimacy that Mecca and Medina afforded him by adopting the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Sites." Furthermore, the Saudis took a more proactive anti-Shi'ite and anti-Iranian approach in their foreign policy in order to inundate Iran's revolutionary message.
First, they financed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980. Second, they sought to depict Iran's revolution not as Islamic but as Shi'ite beholden to Shi'ites only. What's more, they castigated Shi'ites as apostates and spent billions preaching this creed across the Muslim world. Saudi support of the vehemently anti-Shi'ite Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran's eastern neighbor, was an integral part of the state policy of surrounding and quarantining Iran with hostile anti-Shi'ite forces.
Portraying Iran's revolution as beholden to "apostate" Shi'ites was designed to ensure that Sunni Muslims, the majority of the Muslim world in general and in Saudi Arabia in particular, would differentiate themselves from Iran and not heed Iran's revolutionary message, which was a dire ideological threat to the Saudi monarchy, as Iran labeled the Saudi regime an illegitimate usurper beholden to foreign powers.
Iranian authorities may have tirelessly presented their revolution as an Islamic one that had a revolutionary message for the entire Muslim world, and continue to invoke their support of Palestine to demonstrate how Iran's foreign policies serve Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims alike, but the Saudis bankrolled Sunni mosques and madrassas in the majority Sunni Muslim world as well as Arabic language media in the Middle East and North Africa to ensure that the Iranian message is overwhelmed by the Saudi message of anti-Shi'ite sectarianism.
Thus, although the Shi'ite-Sunni divide has its origins in Islam's early years, its explosive modern ramifications, which are manifest in ISIS's puritanical and venomous anti-Shi'ism, are more directly a consequence of Saudi foreign policy since 1979. Prior to Iran's revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia worked closely to counter common threats. They parted ways after the Iranian Revolution when the Saudis responded to Khomeini's revolutionary call by de-legitimizing Shi'ites across the Muslim world as a means by which to counter Iran's ideological challenge and safeguard the continuity of the Saudi royal family's rule.
(1) Nakash, Yitzak. Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 44.
(2) Nakash, Yitzak. Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 50.
(3) Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza. Answer to History: By Mohammad Reza Pahlavi The Shah of Iran. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1980, pp. 134.