The current thinking in the West of a Shia arc of influence seems to be exaggerated. Discuss.

The muslim world is divided majorly in to two sectors- The Sunni and The Shia. Sunnis for centuries together have established their hegemony across different countries of the world. As a result, they make up to more than three-fourths of the entire muslim population. Shia islam is nascent and is designated as official religion by the Safavid Empire only in16th century. Shiite sect is imprinting its dominance only for the past few decades. The Shiite power is growing since the early 90s. Different Shiite states have coalesced in the Middle East with Iran as their leader. According to a 2011 study by Pew Research Centre, the Shia sect emerged as a majority in countries like Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Iraq. It also stands as a dominant minority in Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghan, Qatar, Oman, Lebanon, Pakistan and India as well. 
This arc of Shia influence across different countries seems to be strong and growing but has inherent flaws because of which, it might tumble soon. some of the reasons include, 

  • The first and foremost reason is the lack of numbers. Shiiite population is just a fraction of the total muslim population.
  • The Shia sect is further divided into the Twelvers, the Seveners, the Zaidis aka Fivers, Alawites, Druze, etc. this further weakens the unity of Shiite sect. 
  • A lack of strong control and rulers from the past. Shia rarely ruled over the countries. Although there are few exceptions like the Fatimids 10th to 12th century, Buyid- the Persian Twelver empire 923 AD to 1055AD, the Ilkhanate, the Zaidis rule of Yemen till 1962, etc. there are no great instances of Shia regimes like the Ottoman and Mughal rulers of Sunni sect. 
  • Expansion of the influence is not an easy task in this era of globalisation and multipolar world. The wars of the past like Iran-Iraq war, The first Gulf war, Afghan war, etc. and political weaknesses helped Iran establish its influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Such conditions do not exist today. On the contrary, Syrian civil war, the ethnic and religious constraints are weakening the expansion. 
  • The rise of Salafism, Which is ultra- conservative and anti-Shia further weakening the influence of Shia in Sunni majority areas.
  • The fall of current Shia regime in Syria (Al Assad government) and establishment of Sunni control might effect Shia dominance in Lebanon and Iraq. 
  • Sunnis are gradually gaining ground in the Syrian Civil war by forming allies with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
  • The age old traditions and religious restraints of muslims would not allow the shiite rule over holy cities like Mecca and Medina.
  • The current political situation in Iran, the rise of tensions among the liberal and the conservative factions, the democratic vs the theocratic factions have occupied Iran’s attention. 

Thus, all the above stated show that the strong foot hold and the expansion of the Shia arc of influence is weakening.

Question for UPSC Mains:
"The current thinking in the West of a Shia arc of influence seems to be exaggerated." Discuss. [Stratfor]

Published: January 1, 2018 | Modified:June 27, 2019

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