War Of The Worlds The Sunni-Shia divide is a conflict that most people have heard about - two sects with Sunni Islam being in the majority and Shia Islam the minority. Exactly how did this conflict originate and when? We go through 1400 years of history to find the moment this divide first turned deadly and how it has evolved since.
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War Of The Worlds

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War Of The Worlds

War Of The Worlds

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ROBIN WRIGHT: What happens when a tornado sweeps through? You go to the cellar, and you cling to the pillars until the tornado passes. And it's the same thing in this conflict. People are going to the pillars in their soul that have defined them and given them sustenance and support all of their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Is the Sunni-Shia divide about to explode wide open?

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: What began as a protest movement has turned into a fight to the death.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Second day of air strikes inside Yemen by Saudi jets.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Iran supports one side, while Saudi Arabia supports the other.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

...Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: ...To understand the present.

Hey, I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And on today's show...

ARABLOUEI: ...The history of the Sunni-Shia divide.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: So if you follow the news in Yemen or Syria or really anywhere in the Middle East, you've probably heard about the Sunni-Shia divide in Islam.

ARABLOUEI: It's sort of a catch-all phrase used to explain a lot of the conflicts happening there.

ABDELFATAH: But how much do you actually know about the divide - like where it began, for example, what the fight's even about or how big the gap actually is between these two sects of Islam? Now, before we go any further, we should mention that this topic is especially close to home for us. I'm Palestinian and Sunni.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Iranian and Shia.

ABDELFATAH: And we've talked a lot about how frustrating it is to see headlines about the Sunni-Shia divide that seem to be written in a vacuum with no sense of the history behind it.

ARABLOUEI: Or to hear politicians talk about it in the same broad, sweeping way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

ABDELFATAH: So has this conflict been going on for millennia, or are the divisions rooted in events and conflicts much closer to today? To answer those questions, we've got to go way back to the beginning and retrace how we got to where we are - 1,300 hundred years of history in about 30 minutes.

ARABLOUEI: It's a lot, we know. But we're going to break it down for you into four key moments.

ARABLOUEI: The epic Battle of Karbala in the year 680, the moment when this divide first turned deadly.

ARABLOUEI: The Safavid takeover of Iran in the 16th century, which established a Shia empire.

ABDELFATAH: The Sykes-Picot Agreement in the early 20th century, which divided up the Middle East into the countries we see today.

ARABLOUEI: And the rise of political Islam at the end of the 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Part I - the Battle of Karbala.

ABDELFATAH: Let's turn back the clock to the 7th century. We're in the dusty, hot desert of Arabia. Islam is the new big religion. And one guy, the Prophet Muhammad, is spreading that religion throughout the region.

ARABLOUEI: Just a reminder - in Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is the last messenger and prophet sent by God to guide humanity. But he was also a political leader and basically united all of Arabia into one single state.

ABDELFATAH: There's a lot more we could say about him. But the moment when this story begins it's at the prophet's deathbed.

LESLEY HAZLETON: And it took 10 days for him to die.

ABDELFATAH: He was about 62, which was a long life for his time.

HAZLETON: And what's amazing is that after so many battles and so many assassination attempts on him, he was actually dying of natural causes. In fact, it sounds very much today like bacterial meningitis lasted 10 days.

ABDELFATAH: It was a slow, painful death.

HAZLETON: Agonizing headache shooting up through the shoulders.

ABDELFATAH: He was in and out of fever.

HAZLETON: And everybody was there. You know, a sick room in the Middle East at the time was not like a hospital room in the West now. It was just full of people.

ABDELFATAH: And there was one question that was on everybody's mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Who would succeed him?

HAZLETON: There were signs that Muhammad was all too aware of what would happen after his death. One tradition has it that his last words were, oh, God, have pity on those who succeed me. But then what did he mean by that? Was it an expression of humility? Or did Muhammad with his final breath foresee the terrible saga of blood and tears to come? There is no way of knowing. As the old Arabic saying has it, only God knows for sure.

ARABLOUEI: This is author Lesley Hazleton. She wrote a book called...

HAZLETON: "After The Prophet: The Epic Story Of The Shia-Sunni Split."

ABDELFATAH: So as the prophet is dying, the community is anxious, unsure who would lead them after he was gone.

ARABLOUEI: And the uncertainty came down to this - should the new leader be selected by a vote, or should a family member inherit the role? That question led to a lot of ugly infighting among Muslims.

ABDELFATAH: At the time, the Islamic empire was starting to spread throughout the Middle East.

ARABLOUEI: So there was a lot of power at stake.

ABDELFATAH: And the person who would succeed Muhammad, the caliph, would hold all of that power. By the way, caliph is an Arabic word meaning ruler, and the kingdom that a caliph rules over is a caliphate.

ARABLOUEI: So the prophet's cousin - his name is Ali - has a bunch of followers who think he should be the first caliph, that he should inherit the spot as a family member. But the people who wanted to vote in a caliph, they win out. So Ali is not the first caliph. Three other people rule before he gets the chance to.

ABDELFATAH: Eventually, he does become caliph. But he's assassinated pretty quickly into his rule.

ARABLOUEI: Which basically crushes the hopes of all of his followers, who by this point are known as the Shiat al-Ali, or the Shia.

ABDELFATAH: Then a new guy named Muawiyah takes over as caliph.

HAZLETON: I wish he were better known in the West because without him, I'm not sure that Islam would have survived.

ARABLOUEI: Lesley says, unlike Ali, who was thought of as this honorable, upstanding leader...

HAZLETON: None of this applied to Muawiyah. He wanted power. He was ruthless about how he enforced it. His governors were Saddam Hussein-types, basically - completely ruthless autocrats. And Muawiyah, by the way, was known as the son of the liver-eater.

ABDELFATAH: Yep, you heard that right - son of the liver-eater.

HAZLETON: And the liver-eater in question was Hind, who had been the wife of one of Muhammad's main opponents when Muhammad was still alive.

ARABLOUEI: And is this - this is the Hind that allegedly...

HAZLETON: Ate Hamza's liver.

ARABLOUEI: ...Ate Hamza's liver. OK.

HAZLETON: Yeah. That great story. But, you know, OK. That's going into too much detail (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: Sorry; tangent. OK. So under Muawiyah's rule, the followers of Ali - the Shia - were not treated well, especially in Iraq, where a lot of Shia lived at the time. Under Ali, Iraq had been the center of the Muslim empire. So a lot was at stake there.

ARABLOUEI: Eventually, Muawiyah dies and appoints his son Yazid as the next caliph. He turns out to be even more ruthless than his father. And under Yazid, the repression of the Shia in Iraq gets even worse.

ABDELFATAH: This sets the stage for a battle that - I don't think it's far-fetched to say - alters the course of Islamic history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Here's how the story goes. A group of Shia who were living in Iraq became really frustrated with the rule of Yazid, who, remember, is the caliph at this time. So they called on Ali's son, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson - his name is Hussain - to travel across the desert from Arabia to Iraq to rescue them.

ABDELFATAH: Hussain, by this point, had taken up the mantle as the leader of the Shia.

ARABLOUEI: Now, keep in mind all these political feuds had pretty much nothing to do with any religious disagreement. They were really about power - who should rule and how they should rule.

ABDELFATAH: On one side, you have a small band of Shia - almost all of whom were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad - led by the Prophet's grandson Hussain, storming towards Iraq to confront Yazid. And on the other, you have a massive Sunni army waiting for them. So let's just say the odds were stacked against the Shia.

ARABLOUEI: We'll that Lesley Hazleton pick it up from here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAZLETON: And here is where begins a passion story that is equal in power in Islam to the passion of the Christ in Christianity. Takes three weeks to travel by camel - which is how everybody traveled at that time - from Mecca to Iraq. And during those three weeks, he got warning after warning. The Iraqis will betray you. Their mouths are big. Their swords are not. You know, repression will win out. Turn back. Turn back. And every time, he would sort of nod, acknowledge the warning and continue on. His most famous saying is that man travels in darkness and his destiny travels toward him. Was this heedless on his part? Was this naive on his part, to believe all the promises coming to him from Iraq? Or did he know what he's - was doing? Did he know that he was traveling towards his own death and that of all his family? In other words, was he deliberately sacrificing himself?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAZLETON: He reaches Iraq. Yazid's men prevent him from reaching his followers, who, by that time, had given in completely, in any case. And he and his small band of followers are basically besieged on a bluff not far from the Euphrates River but not within reach of the water. And what happened next lasted 10 days. The instructions from Yazid are to starve them out by thirst. And one by one, they will capitulate. And surround them with an army of what would be 4,000 men.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAZLETON: So you have the eve of the final day, right? And those of his men who still remained, Hussain said to them, I hereby absolve you from your oath of allegiance to me. Go home now, under cover of darkness. Get out. Use the night as a camel to ride away upon. These men of Yazid's want only me, he said. And of course, they stayed. They swore never to leave him. That night, he took off his chain mail. And he put on a white seamless robe - that is, a shroud. And they burned incense and anointed themselves and basically prepared themselves for death. And one of Hussain's daughters said, and we knew then that the final tribulation had come upon us.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE GALLOPING)

HAZLETON: On the tenth day, he rode into battle alone. Nearly all the male members of his family had been killed one by one. He rode alone right into battle against 4,000 men and, of course, was cut down. There were 33 sword cuts on Hussain's body. As soon as he fell from his horse, hundreds of men fell upon his body, just hacking at it. The head was cut off. In fact, the heads were cut off all 72 of his warriors. The women and children were not killed. And they were all taken to Damascus along with the 72 heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HAZLETON: Basically, what had happened was that all the members of Muhammad's blood family - his blood relatives, his immediate blood relatives - had been killed by other Muslims.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Man, that story is intense.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: I never heard it told like that when I was a kid.

ARABLOUEI: I actually heard that story just like that (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: I mean, you're a Shia.

ARABLOUEI: A lot when I was a kid - yeah, no.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, that makes sense.

ARABLOUEI: It's such a central part of being Shia to know this story. And what happens at Karbala turns Hussain into a real martyr figure for most Shia.

ABDELFATAH: You know, as I understand it, it made him a legendary figure for centuries to come. And that mythology is going to fuel the growth of the Shia movement all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part II - here come the Safavids.

ARABLOUEI: After the Battle of Karbala, the most important date on the Shia calendar quickly became a day called Ashura.

VALI NASR: A commemoration of the Battle of Karbala. Now, that date doesn't exist in any Islamic scriptural text. It's a cultural spiritual experience that's very unique to Shiism.

ABDELFATAH: This is Vali Nasr.

NASR: Dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

ABDELFATAH: And as he pointed out to us, this battle was huge because it gave the Shia something to rally around.

ARABLOUEI: A battle that, remember, was centered on succession and politics, not a difference of opinion about theology.

ABDELFATAH: For a few centuries after the Battle of Karbala, the Shia were in the minority and basically had very little political power. So the main political authority in the Islamic world, really from the beginning, was in the hands of the Sunnis.

ARABLOUEI: Despite that, Sunnis and Shias lived for centuries in relative peace until...

NASR: A Mongol invasion destroyed the Abbasid caliphate that had ruled from Baghdad.

ARABLOUEI: And over the next few centuries, power passed from empire to empire in the Middle East ending what's now known as the Golden Age of Islam. In the 16th century, three major empires controlled the region - the Mughals from India, the Ottoman Turks and the Safavids.

ABDELFATAH: Like most of the Muslim world, the Mughals and Ottomans were Sunni. But the Safavids were Shia, and they set out to conquer Iran.

ARABLOUEI: Which brings us to the third moment on our journey, a moment that changed everything yet again. Because while today Iran is pretty much the center of Shia Islam, up until the Safavids arrived, Iran was almost entirely Sunni.

NASR: Until the Safavid came, Iran actually was the seat of Sunni philosophy, theology, high learning. But once the Safavid took over, they began to declare Iran as Shia, partly because they were Shia. And much like medieval European princes, once you took over a territory, the identity of the prince becomes the identity of the territory. And partly, also they wanted to create a differentiation with the two other rival empires on their borders.

ABDELFATAH: This was news to me. I mean, did you know about this, Ramtin?

ARABLOUEI: No. Not until we talked to Vali Nasr, I didn't.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. Yeah. Same.

ARABLOUEI: For me, growing up, I was always led to believe, like so many Iranians, that Iran had always been Shia.

ABDELFATAH: And it turns out that so many of the early Sunni scholars were actually Persian, like al-Bukhari, al-Ashari.

ARABLOUEI: And so the natural next question is, how did the Safavids turn such a Sunni country Shia?

NASR: You reward those who convert by patronage, and you punish those who don't convert by denying them resources.

ARABLOUEI: Well, actually, there was another way, too - by force. And that was really brutal. The Shias persecuted Sunnis and attacked anyone who refused to convert.

ABDELFATAH: A lot of blood was spilled. And by the time it was all said and done, the Safavids were successful. Iran had become majority Shia.

ARABLOUEI: And an important thing to note here is that the vast majority of Iranians are not Arabs. Ethnically, they're some variation of Persian or Turkic. And this isn't a Sunni Arab dominated region. So now they're not only ethnic outsiders. They're ideological outsiders, too.

ABDELFATAH: So Shias is now have a country, a military and an ethnic identity. And remember our original question about the impact of the Sunni-Shia divide on modern conflicts? Well, this is when Iran as we know it, as a solidly Shia state with political ambitions, begins to take shape. And that sets the stage for the divisions we see today, Arab-Sunni and Iranian-Shia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: So a couple centuries after the Safavids arrived in Iran, a new religious movement emerges in Arabia that shakes up the political order of the region. It's called Wahhabism.

STEVE COLL: Wahhabism is a revivalist strain of Sunni Orthodox theology that was born in the harsh, impoverished deserts of what's now Saudi Arabia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: And this movement allied itself with one of the most prominent clans in Arabia, the Saudis. You might recognize the name because later on, after conquering all of Arabia, they named it after themselves.

COLL: One of the characteristics of Wahhabism was to go back to the time of the prophet...

ARABLOUEI: By the way, this is Steve Coll, dean of Columbia University's journalism school and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ghost Wars."

COLL: ...And to preach that true Islamic faith and practice required imitating the faith and practice present in the seventh century during the life of the prophet, and that all of the evolutions of Islam since then had been forms of corruption.

ARABLOUEI: And this includes all of Shia Islam. So fast-forward to the 20th century. Two powerful, oil-rich countries emerge in the Middle East - Shia Iran, the descendants of the Safavids, and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Their rivalry will redefine the Sunni-Shia divide and fuel a series of bloody conflicts across the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part Three. Sykes-Picot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Now we're in the early 20th century, and the world's about to enter the war to end all wars...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

ARABLOUEI: ...World War I. On one side where the allied powers, including the U.S., Great Britain and France. And on the other side, Germany and, most importantly for us, Turkey, which was then called the Ottoman Empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

ARABLOUEI: Well, the side with the U.S. - the Allies - they won the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

ARABLOUEI: The Ottoman Empire collapsed, and all of the land it controlled in the Middle East goes to the allies.

DANIEL NEEP: The longer historical context is that Britain and France have been chipping away for decades at the territories of the Ottoman Empire.

ABDELFATAH: This is Daniel Neep, assistant professor in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

NEEP: What Britain and France can do is think about how they're going to be dividing the Ottoman Empire and how they're going to take control of it and what the post-war settlement will look like.

ABDELFATAH: So what happens is these two guys, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George Picot, from England and France, sit down at a table and decide to come up with an agreement to divide up what we call today the Middle East like a turkey.

ARABLOUEI: Like a Thanksgiving turkey.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. They just carve it up into new nation-states.

WRIGHT: It cut through, whether it was tribes, ethnic groups, religious factions.

ABDELFATAH: This is Robin Wright, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

WRIGHT: There's a famous quote when Sir Mark Sykes was explaining to then-Prime Minister Asquith how to define the region. And he said he wanted to draw a straight line from the E in acre all the way to the K in Kirkuk.

ABDELFATAH: Cutting through what we know today as Syria, Iraq and Jordan. So going back to something Daniel Neep said, this arbitrary line was a serious problem. Because in countries like Syria and Lebanon, the populations were actually really diverse.

NEEP: We have Sunni, of course. We have Shia populations. We also have various - what are considered heterodox offshoots from Islam. So we have the Druze faith, the Alawi community...

ABDELFATAH: Before Sykes-Picot, these communities were governed by empires, and the rulers were far away in distant cities. So for the most part people could maintain their local customs, and diversity was kind of just a fact of life. But Sykes-Picot disrupted all of that. Suddenly, arbitrary boundaries created by the West were superimposed onto these centuries-old communities, and authoritarian rulers were put in power who, in most cases, were propped up by the West. So tensions began to build between different communities, including Sunni and Shia, that used to get along pretty well. Still, for a while these new countries functioned relatively OK. But then...

ARABLOUEI: In the 1950s and '60s, those tensions boiled over. A revolutionary wave swept through the region, and autocrats began to be removed in coup d'etats. Generally, these uprisings resulted in leftist, secular dictators gaining control, including in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein eventually came to power. But the problem was these leftist, secular dictators, although they were keeping the peace, they were also viewed as propped up by outsiders. And this frustrated the people in the region.

EVAN BARRETT: Some of these leftist movements were tarred as sort of the people who wrote these books have European names. Europeans are the ones who drew these fake borders. They're the ones who set up this tyrannical government.

ARABLOUEI: This is Evan Barrett, former deputy director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

BARRETT: The legacy of colonialism and the sort of perception of the West as belligerent, over time, landed a real skepticism about secular movements.

NEEP: In this context, it becomes almost perhaps natural for opposition to these secular, socialist, authoritarian regimes to take on a different - an alternative ideological hue.

ARABLOUEI: This serves as the backdrop for something big that happens in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The streets were lined with literally millions of supporters.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Residents, revolutionaries, soldiers driving through the streets, waving pistols, rifles, machine guns.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Iranians continued to vote today on the new Islamic constitution. There's little question who that one supreme power will be - the Ayatollah Khomeini.

ARABLOUEI: The Iranian Revolution erupts. An Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, assumes power in Iran. And he becomes the leader of a movement that takes hold of the Middle East - political Islam.

NEEP: The turn to political Islam is usually mapped onto the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which marks the first time that Islam burst onto the scene as a political force. And then it seems to become increasingly prominent across the region.

ABDELFATAH: All right. This is a big deal because Iran, which is Shia, is the leader of this political Islam movement and kind of an unlikely leader, right?

ARABLOUEI: Can you imagine what it appears like to other Muslim fundamentalists in the region at that time?

ABDELFATAH: They're probably freaking out.

ARABLOUEI: They've been trying to achieve an Islamic revolution for years. And all of the sudden, it's this Shia Iranian cleric that achieves it for the first time.

ABDELFATAH: Like, Saudi Arabia especially is probably really freaking out because they knew that there are Shia minorities in Saudi and other Arab countries that might be tempted to rise up now.

ARABLOUEI: It introduces a tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in the region.

ABDELFATAH: And that tension - it's going to shape future conflicts until today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Part IV - the proxy war.

ABDELFATAH: All right. So by now we've glided through more than a thousand years of Islamic history. And we're getting close to modern day. But in order to get to the situation we see today and to really understand it, we have to start at a moment 30 years ago in the deserts of southern Iraq - the same place where the Prophet Muhammad's family was killed nearly 1,300 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ABDELFATAH: Just months after the Iranian Revolution, Saddam Hussein - Iraq's secular dictator - sees an opportunity and invades Iran. His goal: to annex the oil-rich majority-Arab province of Khuzestan. In response, Iran mounts this epic defense and repels the Iraqi army after a few years. The Iraqis offer a peace deal, but Khomeini rejects it and, in retaliation, calls on the Iranian military to invade Iraq under the guise of a religious war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

COLL: The Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war did inflame sectarianism greatly, soaked it in blood.

ARABLOUEI: This is Steve Coll again.

COLL: In Iran, that mobilization was part and parcel of the revolution - big, public cults of martyrdom and the pursuit of purity through sacrifice. And of course, then, you know, the big billboards spring up all over Iranian cities with the faces of martyrs. And just the whole mobilization of war was sectarian in character in important respects.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Singing in foreign language).

ABDELFATAH: This is one example of those public displays - an Iranian war song urging soldiers to invade Iraq and recapture Karbala from its Sunni rivals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in foreign language).

ARABLOUEI: Listening to this song in Farsi, it really captures the heart of what Shi'ism is about. The emphasis on what happened in the battle of Karbala creates an entire mythology and rituals that fuel Iran's war effort.

ABDELFATAH: Which seems like a pretty effective way for the government to play on people's fears and use sectarianism as a weapon of war.

ARABLOUEI: And on the other side, Saudi Arabia came to the aid of its Arab ally, Iraq, beginning a series of conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The war goes on for eight bloody years, costing over 1 million lives, and ultimately produced no winner.

ABDELFATAH: The war left Iraq seriously weakened. Still, in the early 1990s, Iraq decided to invade Kuwait, suspicious that they were stealing oil from the fields on the Iraq-Kuwait border - sparking the first Gulf War. And all these conflicts culminated with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Tonight, the president will give Saddam 48 hours - not 72, 48 - to get out of Iraq or face a U.S.-led invasion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: You probably know this story. The U.S. invades Iraq in 2003, ousts Saddam Hussein, destroys all statues, billboards, any remnants of his government. And as many experts predicted, with no viable government to provide services or security, chaos ensues. And a fight for power and resources pushes people to cling to their sectarian identities. Civil war erupts. Iran and Saudi Arabia quickly start supporting different sides based on sectarian lines. And this isn't the last time they'll fight this proxy war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Chanting in foreign language).

ARABLOUEI: Eight years after the fall of Saddam in Iraq and just months into the Arab Spring, unrest begins in Syria. It's 2011, and the people in Syria are frustrated with a failing economy and the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad, who, by this point, has been in power for nearly 11 years. And so the people take to the streets.

BARRETT: So there's this big solidarity. And you saw really multi-ethnic, multi-faith participation in these protests. I mean, one of the big phrases of these early protests was (foreign language spoken)...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (Chanting in foreign language).

BARRETT: ...Which is, like, the Syrian people are one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (Chanting in foreign language).

ARABLOUEI: But that unity wouldn't last because the Assad regime - which is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiism - decided to paint the protesters as some kind of fringe Wahhabi Sunni movement.

COLL: And that only reinforced the sectarian trend on the other side, including outside interference. So once the revolt kind of hardened in Sunni-majority territory to the north of Damascus, rebels, you know, often increasingly were mobilized by religious community and sectarian community and then aided by Iran's Gulf opponents - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates - primarily wealthy states. I think aid from the Sunni Gulf states as well as the volunteerism that gathered in the territory claimed by the so-called Islamic State ended up creating the stalemate that we see today.

ARABLOUEI: After 2013, the Islamic State, or ISIS, emerged in Syria and Iraq and took sectarianism to a new level.

ABDELFATAH: In large part because of ISIS, the Syrian war went from a localized conflict to basically now an international one. Iran got involved, providing military support to the other side. So it was no longer just Syrians fighting Syrians.

ARABLOUEI: And ISIS used sectarianism for recruitment to motivate its soldiers. They even used language like calling the Iraqi government and their Iranian supporters Safavids.

ABDELFATAH: Alluding to that 16th century dynasty, which has nothing to do with anything today.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. It's just a clever use of language.

ABDELFATAH: And as we've kind of talked about, the problems of that time are not the problems of today. But nevertheless, it's dictating the narrative now not just in Syria and Iraq but also in Yemen, where this proxy war has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

ARABLOUEI: And this brings us back to today, 2019, and, really, back to our original question.

ABDELFATAH: Are people in the region killing each other because of a thousand-year-old conflict? Or is it just a convenient weapon being used by both sides in these modern proxy wars?

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NASR: We're dealing with a real ethnic conflict in the region. This is not a millennial-old conflict. Look. In any other ethnic conflict we've dealt with, their identities go back in millennia, too.

ARABLOUEI: Right.

ABDELFATAH: Mmm.

NASR: Right?

ARABLOUEI: Mmm hmm.

NASR: It has to do with today's grievances.

HAZLETON: For most of history, Shia and Sunni have coexisted perfectly peaceably. What we focus on - because we're as guilty as those, you know, cheap television news shows, which always go, you know, flames first, flames lead - what we focus on is when it erupts into flame and it erupts into actual warfare, when there's blood and guts and so on. We tend not to focus on the times when it actually works. We only focus on the breakdown, on civil war.

COLL: The best evidence that this conflict is not fundamentally sectarian is the successful pluralism that existed in both Syria and Iraq prior to 2003. You don't have to walk far through refugee camps to hear people talk authentically about the really fine, mutually respectful and supportive relations they had enjoyed in their old neighborhoods in Baghdad or Damascus with Sunni or Shia or Christian neighbors, depending on the street that you're talking about. And that stability had been present for decades.

NEEP: Although this kind of narrative of a Shia-Sunni split in the region is very convenient, religious identity's - communal identity is used as a shorthand for something other than it actually is.

WRIGHT: At the end of the day, it's not like the tension is related to how many times a day anyone prays. This is really not about dogma. It's really about the balance of power in the Middle East.

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ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: The show was produced by Rund and me.

ABDELFATAH: Our team includes...

ARABLOUEI: Jamie York.

ABDELFATAH: Jordana Hochman.

ARABLOUEI: Lawrence Wu.

ABDELFATAH: And N'Jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: And special thanks to Jeff Rogers.

ABDELFATAH: Alison McAdam.

ARABLOUEI: Sanaz Meshkinpour.

ABDELFATAH: Larry Kaplow.

ARABLOUEI: And Ayda Pourasad.

ABDELFATAH: Original music was produced by Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea, please write us at throughline@npr.org or find us on Twitter at @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Hope you enjoyed the show.

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