The terms Sunnis and Shiites are thrown around a lot when talking about Middle Eastern conflicts.
Sometimes it's useful, but other times it's just shorthand for "these people hate each
other". But there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and there is no way they are
ALL involved in some Hatfields and McCoy style blood feud. So, what's going on?
Well, not all Sunnis and Shiites are at war with each other. There are tons of places
where they co-exist peacefully.
The United Arab Emirates or Dearborn Michigan for example.
Their religions are also not diametrically opposed. In fact,
the Sunni-Shiite conflict isn't even really about religion. It's about power.
Originally Muslims were one unified group under the prophet Muhammad. Then in the year
632, Muhammad died and Muslims split into two groups.
The Sunnis wanted Muhammad's successor to be chosen by the community of his followers.
The Shiites wanted the leadership to stay within the prophet's family.
Sunnis, who were in the majority, chose a new leader to be their Caliph, which basically
means head of state.
The Shiites didn't recognize this new leader and chose Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, as their
new Imam, which also basically means head of state.
That was the split and things didn't go smoothly from there.
Early on most of the Shiite Imams met violent ends at the hands of the stronger Sunni Caliphs,
including Imam Ali's son Hussein, whose beheading is still marked as a major event/holiday for
There are far too many conflicts and subtle differences between the two groups to go into
here, so instead let's just jump ahead to modern times.
Today, there are numerous Sunni and Shiite Militant groups, terrorist organizations,
and oppressive governments.
Being Sunni or Shiite doesn't make you a member or even a supporter of any of these groups,
but they are still split down Sunni and Shiite lines.
In fact in every nation where there are Sunni-Shiite conflicts there are large militant groups
on each side. The nations also have a history of one group oppressing the other and vice
versa depending on who happens to be in charge at the time.
Iraq for example was run by an oppressive Shiite regime before Saddam, then an oppressive
Sunni regime under Saddam, then an oppressive Shiite regime after Saddam. And now the oppressive
Sunni militant group ISIS is threatening to take over huge parts of the country.
The point is Sunni-Shiite conflicts are more about power, politics and retribution than
religion. And the words "Sunni" and "Shiite" aren't even the best words to use when discussing
Sunni-Shiite conflicts. They are way too general. If you're talking about Militant Jihadists
or Terrorist networks and you mean Al-Qaeda or ISIS?... just say Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Otherwise,
you're including billions of people who aren't involved and most likely don't share the beliefs
of those fringe organizations.