1730 Seutter Map of Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Persia and Arabia - Geographicus - MagniTurcarum-seutter-1740
1730 Seutter Map of the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Arabia (Wikimedia commons)
On January 24, The Daily Brew (Yahoo! Canada News) interviewed Walid Saleh in an article outlining the historical and cultural context of the Sunni-Shia divide. The interview is excerpted below:

The historic enmity between Persia and the Ottomans has translated into a modern struggle between Sunni-controlled states and modern Iran’s Islamic Republic, the main Shia bulwark, said Prof. Walid Saleh of the University of Toronto’s for the study of religion.

“What you see now is like a fault line that was historically there between the two empires,” Saleh, also part of the university’s department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, told Yahoo Canada News. “Now it’s shifting.”

Iran has helped prop up the Assad regime in Syria, support the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government and bankrolled sectarian-based movements such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah. Hamas, which rules Palestine’s Gaza Strip, used to be bankrolled by Iran but funding is said to have dried up when it refused to support Assad in Syria. Money apparently now comes from sources within Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Yemen, now sliding into a new phase of instability, is the latest venue for the proxy war between Sunni and Shia powers, said Saleh.

But doctrinal differences over religious practice seem to have little to do with the current struggles.

“How far the differences between Sunnism and Shiism can in itself be reason for political strife is really not clear,” said Saleh.

Discrimination and oppression may indeed take place, he said, but it may cloak the larger power struggle.

“It’s local grievances that get pulled into major geopolitical situations,” he said.

The Syrian civil war is a strong example of how religion and politics intersect.

“The only people who were willing to sustain the conflict were the religiously motivated people,” said Saleh. “You end up with a conflict that started as a civil society movement, very quickly degenerating into a sectarian fight now.”

Whether sectarianism is the cause or the consequence of this kind of conflict is a matter for debate, he suggested.

>> Read the full article including Prof. Saleh’s interview here


Saleh, WalidWalid Saleh was born in Colombia to immigrant Lebanese parents, who soon returned the family to the Middle East so the children would learn Arabic. He grew up in Lebanon during the ’70s and ’80s. Dr. Saleh’s undergraduate degree was at the American University of Beirut, where he studied Arabic literature and language. His interest in these two topics still animates his research, and he is a close follower of modern Arabic poetry. In addition to his doctoral studies at Yale University in Islamic Studies, where he studied the Qur’an and its exegesis in medieval Islamic Civilization, Dr. Saleh has also studied at Hamburg University. His first teaching appointment was at Middlebury College. He had fellowships from the NEH, the American Research Center in Cairo, and the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He was also awarded a three-year fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.