Much of the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’as is more political than religious. For instance, in Iraq before the Second Gulf War, Sunnis dominated the government. After the war, rule was shifted to Shi’as, and this has produced tensions that have often been exploited by extremists on both sides.
In three Arab Spring countries (Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain), the sectarian divide has also been among the many factors playing a role in the conflicts, but the conflicts began for the same political and social reasons that they erupted in other Arab Spring nations. In Syria, the current ruler Bashar Assad and his father Hafez Assad belong to a minority Shi’a sect that has ruled for decades over a majority Sunni population. Assad’s allies are Shi’a—Iran and Hizbollah—who want to keep the status quo, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey—Sunnis—have supported the opposition. So while the two sides appear to be divided along sectarian lines, the conflict there is more a fight between an oppressive dictator and his political opponents than a specifically religious conflict.
In Yemen, the Shi’a-Sunni divide has also played a role, with Saudi Arabia and Iran also supporting opposing sides in the ongoing war there. In Bahrain the Shi’a minority has protested the Sunni government, often suffering repression as a result.
Shi’a-Sunni conflict in Pakistan has its roots in the ruling party’s political exploitation of sectarianism to win the favor of Sunni religious authorities at the expense of the Shi’a minority who continue to suffer from persecution.
While these conflicts are of concern to Muslim Americans who have family in the countries involved, the sectarian conflict has not impacted the larger Muslim American community, in part because Sunni and Shi’a leaders in this country have made concerted efforts to prevent discord and demonstrate unity.