Catherine Lytle: A dialogue about the Shia-Wahhabi encounter

When considering a relationship between countries it is important to understand what the citizens espouse themselves with the most, be it religion, culture, language or ethnicity. It is increasingly less possible to dictate decisions based on Western binarisms and artificially drawn borders and personally I find my identity to often be misunderstood and incorrectly interpreted by observers. Having thought about this quite a lot recently, I often find that it is as much my responsibility for my identity crisis to be as transparent as it is for the observers to not make assumptions and be informed. The same can be said when considering the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If we are to live in a world where our dialogues are as porous as they are fruitful then assumptions and prejudices must be set aside.

Algar argues that the Saudi patrons had the good fortune of acquiring oil wealth which has been in portion used in attempts to propagate Wahhabism in the Muslim world and beyond.1 As the Saudis have enjoyed a relative monopoly over oil in the Middle East, therefore been able to exercise control over their relationship with Western countries buying their oil, the return of Iranian and Iraqi oil back into the market has shifted the alliances and relationships with foreign interest. Their return has meant that alliances have to be reevaluated and therefore a Wahhabi-Shia conflict can emerge. Nasr believes that the Sunni-Shia (therefore Wahhabi-Shia) conflict can be brought under control only if the distribution of power and resources reflects the demographic realities of the region.2 He adds that governments have attempted to address this by imposing the will of the minority over the majority. According to him the only solution is if religion and ethnicity is divorced from social, economic and political injustices.3 However, I feel that this could also be more counter-productive than helpful. Communities should not be divided and dictate sovereignty based on language but rather there must be an equilibrium. By that I mean that there should not be an oppression of languages or ethnicities but that they must be symbiotic. For example, while Bohemia was oppressed by the Austro-Hungarian empire, Czech almost died out, however under the Czechoslovakian government there was a symbiotic relationship between Czech and Slovak when communities did not necessarily feel the need to be divided. A similar case can be seen in Switzerland. There is no need to oppress and divide families and neighbors by looking for differences.

As I mentioned, I believe that knowledge and awareness are key to resolving any conflict because only then there can be a possibility of easing misunderstanding. My argument was beautifully executed by President Eisenhower who either ignored or was not aware of the importance of religion when establishing his foreign policy. Eisenhower wanted to make Saudi Arabia the spiritual leader of the Middle East without understanding that many Sunni Muslims view Wahhabism as intolerant and sectarian.4 Nevertheless successive presidential administrations in the US continued to revere Saudi leadership as the key to their policy in the Middle East until September 11. This is mirrored in the same blunder that only three books were published on Islam between World War II and the 1979 Iranian revolution, highlighting, that the US did not consider culture and religion as an integral aspect of politics in the Middle East.5 Cultural practices have always been integral to communities and therefore it should not have come as surprise when countries turned to cultural and language to instigate a revolution; as was seen in Korea in the 1920s or Bohemia in the early part of the 19th century. It is from this oppression of minorities and majorities alike, as the majority is seen in both Korea and Bohemia under foreign rule, that a desire for equality and justice emanates. Even though oppression sparked cultural revolutions in the aforementioned countries they are no exception to the looming power gap that would emerge if their oppressors were overthrown. If authoritarian regimes had emerged as either a protective layer against communism or as American capitalism, the events in Iraq and Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban and ISIS as key players in contemporary politics should not come as a new idea.

Furthermore, Wahhabi discourse has historically been polemic in nature with respect to Shiites and their doctrines. Wahhabi raison d’être centers around their desire to “dismantle the complex and intricate structures of law, theology… religious practice, that had grown up since the completion of the Qur’anic rev­elation, and to find a way back directly to the twin sources of Islam, to the Qur’an and the Surma.”6 Furthermore, Wahhabi dismissal of all Muslims other than themselves as non-believers7 makes Shiites, in Wahhabi eyes, of an even lesser status than that of Christians. If there have been openly planned attacks8 on Shiites and the destruction of Shia sites have been burned to the ground, this should have given observers a pretty clear idea of Wahhabi ideas and their raison d’être.

Wedded with the historical evidence of Wahhabi ideas we can see the contemporary influence that Saudi Arabia has in its peninsula. While the Wahhabi movement emerged in the Arabian peninsula, it is mostly contained within Saudi Arabia, however, its influence and politics concern itself very much with its predominantly Shii neighbors: Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Oman and Yemen. This means that this Wahhabi— Shii encounter is no longer just religious but also ethnic. Lee presents presents an argument in which a man was stopped at a checkpoint and asked if he was a Saudi. He responded that as he is not a member of the Saudi family he is not a Saudi.9

Caught in a web of alienating non-Wahhabi muslims and the fabrication of “good muslims”10 Saudi Arabia will continue to be at the center of Western eyes. It comes down to the triangular relationship of energy resources (oil), democratization and the conflict between modernization and espousing a state’s core with Religion (as an identity, as a program and as an organization).11 Political transparency is a certain utopia that can never be attainable, however, education and appreciation of knowledge is something that should and must be encouraged.



1. Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. 2

2. Nasr, The Shia Revival, 252.

3. ibid 253

4. Cole, Engaging the Muslim World. 89

5. Mahallati, class lecture, September 2

6. Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. 10

7. ibid 20

8. ibid 24

9. Lee, Religion and Politics in the Middle East, 221

10. ibid 222

11.  Mahallati, class lecture, October 24



Algar, Hamid. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. New York: Islamic Publications International, 2002.

Brown, L. Carl, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000)

Cole, Juan Ricardo. Engaging the Muslim World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009

Lee, Robert Deemer. Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions, and Attitudes. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014.

Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: Norton, 2006.