Stealth Sectarianism

by Sanam Naraghi Anderlini

Not a week goes by without Saudi Arabia and Iran ratcheting up their war of words. In the latest round of colorful insults, the Iranian leader called Saudi leaders “puny satans” incapable of managing Hajj while the Saudis retorted that Iranians are not real Muslims but, rather, Zoroastrians or “sons of Magi” (no mention was made of Iranian women). These exchanges support the conventional wisdom that Sunni-Shia sectarianism—with Saudi Arabia the leader of the Sunni world and Iran the Shia—is the greatest global threat to Muslims and the societies in which they live.

Certainly, the threat of sectarianism is growing. But the Shia-Sunni division is not the most urgent problem. Indeed it is convenient straw man that has detracted attention from the spread of extremely strict and intolerant Wahhabi and Salafi sectarian ideology from the fringes of the Sunni world into the mainstream. This sectarianism by stealth has been expanding globally over the past 30 years.

The roots and support branches of these sects are in Saudi Arabia (and more recently other Gulf States). The ideologies and practices have inspired and given rise to the militant movements such as al-Qaeda. al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) that have sown fear into societies from Belgium to Bali. It has pitted not only Muslims against each other—turning the Shia-Sunni issue into a self-fulfilling prophecy—but also Muslims against Christians and others in every society in which they have historically co-existed peacefully.

This is not to deny the Iran-Saudi rivalry, or the involvement of Iran in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. But Iran and Saudi Arabia are not playing the same game by the same rules. Iran has not and would not foment social sectarianism for a very simple reason: the numbers don’t add up.

The Limited Influence of Shiism

First, Shias make up just 10-13% of the entire Muslim population of the world. The remaining 87-90% are Sunnis. In other words, of the 1.57 Billion Muslims worldwide, some 204 million are Shias. The vast majority live in just four countries: Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, and India. In the Arab world, just Iraq and Bahrain have majority Shia populations with Kuwait, Yemen, and Lebanon having sizeable minorities. Iran, a non-Arab state, has the largest with 77.5 million.

Besides, the notion of ‘Shi’ism’ itself is not a homogenous unifying identity. There are multiple branches and ideologies under the broad Shia umbrella, including Ismailis, Zaidis and Twelvers. In principle they are united in believing that Ali was the designated successor to the Prophet Mohammad, but they have different doctrines and competing views. Over the past decades, Iran has not sought to unify or control these branches. Nor is it likely that any would accept such control.

If both Iran and Saudi were engaged in a similar Shia-Sunni competition, there would be evidence of Iran’s success in converting millions of people from Sunnism to Shi’ism. But just as most Protestants are unlikely to convert to Catholicism or vice versa, the same holds true among Muslims. The ratio has not altered over the years. There is no doubt that the Iranian revolution inspired Muslims in other countries—notably Nigeria and Indonesia—but there were no systematic efforts to convert people.

Iran’s involvement in its neighborhood and beyond is a classic example of a state-oriented hard-security approach to geopolitics. It is seeking to protect its own borders, while exerting influence abroad. It does so by forging security, political, and economic alliances with states and political parties alike. Even with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Lebanese Shias first rejected Iran’s overtures, and only sought its support it after the Israeli invasion of 1982. Iran’s alliance with Syria’s Assad is far less about a shared Shia ideology or affinity per se (the Syrian regime is secular) and more about self-protection and paying back past favors (Syria was among the few countries in the world to assist Iran during the bloody eight-year war with Iraq).

Moreover Iran is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically different from its Arab neighbors. Despite ancient affinities, mutual animosity has defined much of their recent history. Evidence of the Arab-Persian division overriding Shia unity is plain to see. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, for example, 60 percent of the Iraqi army was Shia. But they did not desert or ally with Shia Iran. They were Iraqis and Arabs first. Similarly in Bahrain, the majority Shia population has protested against a repressive regime in their own land, not in favor of affiliating with Iran across the Persian Gulf. Claiming that Bahraini protesters or, for that matter, Houthi rebels in Yemen are Iranian puppets or proxies is a convenient means for the Bahraini and Saudi regimes to justify their repression.

This is not to exonerate Iran’s support for Assad in Syria and militias in Iraq or its involvement with pockets of Shia populations in countries beyond its own borders. But it is important to avoid the trap of assuming equal capacity for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Spread of Wahhabism

The Saudis, have played a longer game, with deeper pockets and a more potent mix of hard- and soft-power strategies. In 1980, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia was a prime source of money and weapons for the mujahideen fighting the occupation. The framing of the struggle as a jihad for Muslims made Afghanistan of the 1980s for Sunni Muslims worldwide what the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s was to liberals and progressives in the West.

But alongside the military support, they also deployed their soft power in the region, particularly in Pakistan: funding and introducing madrassahs and mosques, training or sending Imams, and preaching their ideology. These developments helped influence Pakistan’s Zia-ul-Haq to change the trajectory of his country. Pakistan was founded as a moderate Muslim state, but the diverse religions, cultures, and Islamic sects coexisted peacefully. The shift that ul-Haq made under the influence of Saudi Wahhabism has, over the years, turned Pakistan into a country that invokes blasphemy laws against minorities and where impunity and violence against Christians and various Muslim sects is a fact of daily life.

The soft-power model has been expanded far and wide. From Indonesia to England, Wahhabis (and now Salafis) have funded schools and mosques, and beamed satellite TV across the world promulgating their beliefs. They have successfully overtaken moderate versions of the Sunnism practiced across the world for generations. In Sri Lanka for example, the impact of Wahhabi money and ideology became evident in 2006 when extremists attacked historic Sufi communities and set fire to 117 homes.

Wahhabi evangelists believe that they, the protectors of Mecca and Medina, are the true purveyors of “real Islam.” This message has resonated with local political institutions and organizations across Asia and the Middle East as they are drawn to this framing of their ‘true’ religion to counter colonial legacies and so-called Western values and norms. It has, among other things, prompted a backlash against women’s rights, which have become synonymous with “Western” values, despite their own indigenous roots and histories of women’s active presence in public and political spaces.

The impact is evident not only in the teachings in mosques but also legislative changes and social practices. In 2009, for example, Malaysia’s Islamic Council issued a fatwa claiming that female circumcision (aka female genital mutilation) was a religious obligation. In Indonesia too, tetesan as it is known locally has been a contentious issue pitting moderate Muslim scholars and the state against the surge of Wahabbi and Salafi teachings, which claim the mantle of “pure” Islam. Writing in 2012, Matthias Hariyadi notes the “[Muslim} Faction that supports tetesan is linked to the Salafi and Wahhabi community, which…are concentrated in Bandung and Aceh.” A 2012 study in Malaysia revealed that 60-90% of girls have undergone the procedure. Similarly a Population Council study of six Indonesian provinces indicated that between 86% and 100% of teenage girls had undergone the procedure.

Wahhabis have also been strategic in adapting their messaging and tapping into local grievances, particularly among non-Arabic speaking societies. By using the grassroots as an entry point, they have infiltrated the psychosocial and cultural fabric of Muslim communities. As a result people are changing indigenous practices they’ve come to believe are inauthentic in favor of norms of Islam that Wahhabis and Salafis preach are “true” religious duties. The sect’s takeover of Sunni communities is also becoming self-perpetuating, as people either seek to demonstrate their piety or social status by dressing and behaving in accordance with Wahhabi teachings.

Inundating India

Money plays its part too. Writing for in 2015, Vikki Nanjappa reports that some 25,000 Wahhabis entered India between 2011-2013, bringing with them an estimated $250 million to spend on spreading their word and influence. They are also establishing four Wahhabi universities to cater to the sect’s teachings. Local mosques are fighting the new arrivals, but the Wahhabis have gained ground in Kerala and elsewhere. Their restrictive messages reflected in their rulebook are a stark contrast to the moderate ways of Indian Muslims. Among the rules introduced:

  • Shrines shall be forbidden
  • Every Muslim woman should wear purdah or be subject to severe punishment
  • Men have to compulsorily grow beards
  • Women should not be allowed to work. Exception can be made only if the family is in need.
  • Men and women should not mingle together in public.
  • No weeping loudly at funerals.
  • Abide by the Sharia law; every offense committed shall be punishable under this law.
  • All men should wear trousers, which are above their ankles.
  • No laughing loudly or listening to music; no dancing or watching television.

True, these developments are not part of the official government policies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or other states. Indeed these governments are fighting the same phenomenon. But whether the export of this ideology is state-sanctioned or not may be irrelevant now. The Wahhabism historically practiced by a small minority at the margins is now flooding mainstream Sunni communities. Precisely because they preach strict rules, Wahhabis are intolerant of diversity, especially among minority Muslim sects. This in turn is fomenting a self-fulfilling prophecy of Shia-Sunni sectarianism with attacks on Shia’s increasing globally. As Shias are attacked and threatened, they are reacting by mobilizing, forming militias or retaliating, and some are seeking support from Iran.

Violence between Shias and Sunnis may continue to escalate, but the capacity of Shias will remain circumscribed by virtue of their numbers. Meanwhile the Wahhabis’ potential for sectarianism by stealth still has significant capacity for penetration deeper into Muslim communities. As they spread, their intolerance of other religions and practices may become normalized, erasing the peaceful co-existence of centuries. As the plans for universities in India indicate, they have a long-term vision.

At a time in human history when societies are characterized by growing pluralism—ranging from religion and ethnicity to gender and sexuality—acceptance of and respect for diversity is critical and essential. The spreading Wahhabism is an anathema to this. This sectarianism by stealth demands urgent attention.

Photo: Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s mosque at Diriyah.


Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini

Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini is the Co-founder and Executive Director of ICAN. For over two decades she has been a leading international peace strategist. In 2000, she was among the civil society drafters of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. In 2011, Ms. Naraghi-Anderlini was the first Senior Expert on Gender and Inclusion on the UN’s Mediation Standby Team. She provides guidance and training to senior personnel in UN agencies, governments and NGOs worldwide, and has worked in conflict affected countries globally, including leading assessments in Maoist cantonments in Nepal. Between 2002 and 2005, as Director of the Women Waging Peace Policy Commission, Sanam led ground breaking field research on women’s contributions to conflict prevention, security and peacemaking in 12 countries. Between 2008-2010 she led UNDP’s 10-country action research on men in crisis settings. She has served on the Advisory Board of the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), and was appointed to the Civil Society Advisory Group (CSAG) on Resolution 1325, chaired by Mary Robinson in 2010. Since 2013, she has served in the Working Group on Gender and Inclusion of the Sustainable Development Network. Ms. Naraghi-Anderlini is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and between 2004-15 she was Research Associate and Senior Fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies. She has published extensively on peace and security issues, including Women building peace: What they do, why it matters (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007). She was the 2014 recipient of the UN Association of the National Capital Area Perdita Huston Award for human rights and the 2016 Greeley Peace Scholar at the University of Massachusetts. Ms. Naraghi-Anderlini holds an M.Phil in Social Anthropology from Cambridge University. Iranian by birth, she is a UK citizen, and has twin daughters.



  1. @AMKhan: can you clarify what diatribe you are referring to? If you have issues with the content or conclusions of the article, please address them directly so others can understand what you want to convey.
    Thanks in advance

Comments are closed.