While international observers fixate on the Sunni-Shia rivalry’s role in shaping geopolitics in the Islamic world, deep fissures within the Sunni arc that stretches from the Maghreb-Sahel region of North Africa to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt are increasingly apparent. Moreover, it is Sunni communities that produce the transnational jihadists who have become a potent threat to secular, democratic states near and far. What is driving this fragmentation and radicalization within the ranks of Sunni Islam, and how can it be managed?
The importance of addressing that question cannot be overstated. The largest acts of international terror, including the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, DC, and the 2008 Mumbai attack, were carried out by brutal transnational Sunni organizations (Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, respectively).
The Sunni militant group Boko Haram, known internationally for abducting 276 schoolgirls in April and forcing them to marry its members, has been wreaking havoc in Nigeria for years. And the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State, whose dramatic rise has entailed untold horrors to Iraq and Syria, are seeking to establish a caliphate, by whatever means necessary.
The influence of these organizations is far-reaching. Just last month, individuals inspired by these groups’ activities carried out two separate attacks, one in the Canadian parliament and another on police officers in New York.
Political and tribal sectarianism in the Sunni Middle East and North Africa is both a reflection and a driver of the region’s weakening political institutions, with a series of failed or failing states becoming hubs of transnational terrorism. A lawless Libya, for example, is now exporting jihad and guns across the Sahel and undermining the security of fellow Maghreb countries and Egypt. Several largely Sunni countries – including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan – have become de facto partitioned, with little prospect of reunification in the near future. Jordan and Lebanon could be the next states to succumb to Sunni extremist violence.
The Sunni tumult has underscored the fragility of almost all Arab countries, while diluting the centrality of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The post-Ottoman order – created by the British, with some help from the French, after World War I – is disintegrating, with no viable alternative in sight.
The sectarianism plaguing the Sunni belt is affecting even the relatively stable oil sheikdoms of the Gulf, where a schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council is spurring new tensions and proxy competition among its members. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view Qatar’s efforts to aid Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat, even as their own wealth has fueled the spread of Salafi jihadism and Al Qaeda ideology. Both countries, along with Bahrain, have recalled their ambassadors from Qatar.
This rupture is compounded by a rift between the Middle East’s two main Sunni powers, Egypt and Turkey, whose relationship soured last year, after the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government, backed by pro-Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Egypt recalled its ambassador from Ankara and expelled the Turkish ambassador from Cairo. In September, the Egyptian foreign ministry accused Erdoğan of seeking to “provoke chaos” and “incite divisions in the Middle East region through his support for groups and terrorist organizations.”
A similar divide exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the latter’s provision of aid and sanctuary to Afghan militants – a divide that will only deepen when the United States-led NATO coalition ends its combat operations in Afghanistan this year. Pakistan’s support has spawned two incarnations of the Taliban: the Afghan Taliban, sponsored by the Pakistani military, and the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani military’s nemesis. Successive Afghan governments have refused to recognize the frontier with Pakistan known as the Durand line, a British-colonial invention that split the large ethnic Pashtun population.