History of a conflict

Key facts about Sunni and Shia Muslims

Islam divides into two main sects - Sunnis (followers of the Sunna, or traditions: 85-90 per cent) and Shias (followers of the Shiat Ali, or "Party of Ali": 10-15 per cent). Often compared to Catholic-Protestant split in Christianity, but has not been as divisive or bloody - until now.


656: Twenty-four years after Muhammad's death, a crisis over succession leads to Sunni- Shia rift. Sunnis accept rule of elected caliphs, while Shias recognise only imams, descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and his cousin and son-in-law Ali.

680: Prophet's grandson Hussein is killed by Sunni forces at Karbala, a martyrdom mourned each year by Shias on the day of Ashura.

874: Muhammad al-Mahdi, Shia "Twelfth Imam", disappears in Samarra, Iraq. "Twelver" Shias believe he will reappear in the "last days" to re-establish Islam throughout the world.

16th century: Shia Persian Safavid dynasty battles Sunni Ottomans for control of Iraq - Sunni militants in Iraq today describe Shia opponents as "Safawis".

1979: Shia Islamic revolution in Iran fails to set off feared Sunni-Shia conflict in Middle East.

1980-88: Iran-Iraq war. The west supports Saddam Hussein's Sunni Iraq against Shia Iran.

1985: Hezbollah formed in Lebanon, with Iranian support, to defend Lebanese Shia interests.

2003: Sectarian conflict in Iraq worsens Sunni- Shia divide and threatens to spread.

2006: Saddam Hussein executed on the first day of Sunni Eid festival, exacerbating tensions.


Sunni and Shia beliefs are the same in principle, but are sometimes applied differently: Shia scholars have more latitude to interpret the Koran. Some doctrines - including taqiyya (concealing one's faith) and nikhat mut'aa (temporary marriage) - are Shia only.

Balance of power:

Arab leaders usually come from the "orthodox" Sunni sect, even in countries with sizeable Shia populations, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. Shias often suffer discrimination and repression.

The wealthy and militarily powerful Shia Iran provides a counterweight to Sunni dominance of the region. Since the 1979 revolution, Sunni rulers have feared Iran will encourage unrest in their own domestic Shia populations.

Shia ascendancy in Iraq marks the first time Shias have been politically dominant in a key Arab country, worsening these fears.

Jordan's King Abdullah has warned of a "Shia crescent" stretching from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, destabilising the Gulf; also accuses Tehran of "buying" a stake in Palestinian negotiations by sponsoring Hamas. Egypt's President Mubarak has accused Shias of being more loyal to Iran than to their own states.

Iraq provides a potential focus for sectarian war across the Middle East - Sunnis target Shia mosques and shrines. Anti-Shia paranoia is sweeping the region, spread by mobile-phone video clips allegedly showing Shias attempting to convert Sunnis.

Related articles from this issue
Sunni V Shia Zaki Chehab
Too complex for Dubbya Andrew Stephen

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times