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What you must know about the schisms fueling today’s violent upheavals.

The seemingly sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) in the summer of 2014 to be- come the Middle East region’s most dangerous threat has shocked and puzzled most Western observers. Although the “Arab Spring,” the upheavals across the Muslim world that began in earnest in 2011 and continue in various forms today, created the immediate conditions for the emergence of ISIL, the root causes date back decades – even centuries. Indeed, over the centuries, the strong bonds formed by kinship and religious solidarity have too often been used by those with violent agendas to create schisms within the Muslim world that include but go well beyond the split between Islam’s two major denominations, Sunni and Shia, whose antagonism began over 1,300 years ago in A.D. 642.

Therefore, any attempt to understand today’s Middle East crisis must begin with examining the schisms – essentially the civil war within Islam – that are fueling the ongoing violent clashes.


The war within Islam was reignited with the dissolution of the caliphate, the vast Muslim empire that at its height encompassed the Middle East, North Africa, southwest Asia and parts of Europe. The Ottoman Turks took over the caliphate in 1299, transforming it into the Ottoman Empire. The empire peaked in the 1500s but the tide turned against it when the 1683 Ottoman siege of Vienna failed. Centuries of decline followed until it reached its nadir at the beginning of the 20th century when the once mighty empire became known as the “Sick Man of Europe.” By the eve of World War I, the Ottomans had lost their ability to impose Sharia (Islamic law) on the empire’s non-Muslim population, thus changing the nature of its rule from an Islamic caliphate to a de facto secular state.

World War I was the final straw that broke the empire’s back. When the European war broke out, Germany’s kaiser appealed to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire for his support to spread the war with Britain and France beyond Europe. Sultan Mehmed V obliged by declaring jihad against the British, French and Russian occupiers of his former lands. However, the decision to side with Germany and the Central Powers proved disastrous. With the Central Powers’ defeat in 1918, the Ottoman Empire lost most of its remaining imperial possessions beyond Anatolia (modern Turkey).

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk emerged as the leader of Turkey in the aftermath. Atatürk wanted to bring Turkey into the modern era by transforming it into a European-style state. In 1922 he abolished the sultanate, sending Mehmed into exile, and in 1924 he officially replaced Sharia with secular law for Turkey’s Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire took with it the last vestiges of the caliphate. The resulting separation of mosque and state, however, seemed catastrophic to many Muslims who considered that such a separation threatened the religious and cultural lives of the faithful.


The dissolution of the caliphate triggered the birth of militant Islamism. The Egyptian Hasan al-Banna declared Atatürk’s actions “the greatest crime in human history” while chafing under the rule of the Egyptian Wafd Party. Al-Banna blamed the Muslim decline on Western influence and secularism as personified in the “treason” of Atatürk. The only way out of the downward spiral, al-Banna claimed, was to return to Islamic purity and Sharia. Therefore, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as the engine of change to make it happen, and the group operated as an Islamist underground opposition to the ruling Egyptian government. Al-Banna became an enemy of the state and was eventually assassinated in 1949.

One of al-Banna’s acolytes, Sayyid Qutb, emerged as the Muslim Brotherhood’s most influential theorist and prolific writer. He codified the doctrine that inspires the Brotherhood and al-Qaida to this day. Qutb believed that the Muslim world could return to its former greatness by overthrowing the “Near Enemy” (the region’s secular dictators and their apostate regimes) and by driving out the “Far Enemy” (the West with its un-Islamic democracy and man-made law). He also advocated the acceptability of killing Muslims who were insufficiently Islamic.

The Near Enemy autocratic states were too powerful to overthrow, so the Islamists shifted their focus to the Far Enemy. They believed that if they could chase Western influence out of the Middle East, they would eliminate the Near Enemy’s backers, exposing them to defeat. Obviously, Qutb became an enemy of the state, and he was hanged in 1966 for his part in a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Muslim Brotherhood persisted in the shadows, backing Palestinian unrest in Israel while scheming against Egypt’s “pharaonical” rulers. Muslim Brotherhood member Ayman al-Zawahiri participated in the plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, was jailed, and eventually ended up in Afghanistan, where he joined Osama Bin Laden and became al-Qaida’s spiritual adviser.


Militant Shia Islamism struck its first major blow by over- throwing the Shah of Iran and taking over his nation in 1979. In a familiar pattern, the originally moderate anti-shah uprising was co-opted by radicals led by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, thereby converting the Iranian Revolution into the Islamic Revolution. Khomeini became the man behind the movement, preaching rule of the jurist (the supreme leader) and Sharia over secular law. Khomeini rejected the secular provisional government of Shapour Bakhtiar by declaring, “I shall kick their teeth in. I appoint the government.”

Khomeini picked his own prime minister, warning that disobedience to him was a “revolt against God.” The Shia Islamic Republic was born. Khomeini built a “dual state” with a conventional government consisting of executive and legislative bodies acting as Iran’s face to the world. The real power, however, resided in Iran’s Islamist shadow government of imams, mullahs and ayatollahs – the face of Iran to the Muslim world.

In 1980 Khomeini exported the Islamic Revolution to Iraq, precipitating a bitter eight-year war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime. In 1985 Khomeini inserted Islamism into the Lebanese conflict by creating Hezbollah. Hezbollah united the Lebanese Shia, undermined Lebanon’s government, introduced suicide bombing and served as Iran’s proxy, waging jihad against Israel from terrorist bases in Lebanon.


Militant Sunni Islamism, ever present in the Wahhabi tribal community of Saudi Arabia, found its inspiration on the battlefields of Afghanistan. From 1979-92 Islamists fought the Soviets, and from 1992-96 Sunni and Shia Islamists fought each other. The Afghan seesaw gave birth to the Taliban and, of course, al-Qaida, as it inflamed Sunni Islamism in the region and around the world. The Taliban ruled from 1996- 2001 when they were unseated by Operation Enduring Freedom, giving way to the current fight between militant Islamists and moderates in Afghanistan.

Islamists lost the 1992-2004 Algerian Civil War when leaders of the two main opposition groups (the Salafst Group for Teaching and Combat, and the Armed Islamic Group) were killed. Despite the loss, however, the conflict sparked the birth of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which continues to seek to overthrow the Algerian government and to establish an Islamic state that would encompass much of North Africa. (See Special Feature, September 2013 issue of ACG.)


The wave of demonstrations, protests, riots and civil wars known as the “Arab Spring” began as a moderate revolution against the region’s autocrats and dictators, and it aspired to install modern democratic governments. However, the Arab Spring became an “Islamist Winter” – a religion-driven sectarian counterrevolution designed to install Islamist governments. It has transitioned back to a moderate counter-counterrevolution designed to preserve the original intent of the Arab Spring. But during this latter stage, the season of change began to morph again into a Muslim civil war.

The timeline of revolution, counterrevolution and counter-counterrevolution that the Arab Spring has unleashed across the Muslim world reveals the ebb and flow of the competing movements:

  • Iran, 2009: Moderates lost the presidential election, then contested the results; the Green Movement protesting the fraudulent election was repressed.
  • Tunisia, 2010-11: Dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted; Islamist-leaning government of Mohamed Ghannouchi took over.
  • Egypt, 2011-13: Dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted; Islamist Mohamed Morsi took over; Morsi and the Islamists were ousted by a coup led by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
  • Libya, 2011-14: Dictator Moammar Gadhaf was ousted; moderates under Mustafa Abdul Jalil created a “transitional government”; factional power struggle continues.
  • Yemen, 2011-14: Dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down; moderates came in under Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; civil war between al-Qaida and al-Houthi continues.
  • Syria, 2011-14: Crushed uprising against dictator Bashar al-Assad led to the formation of the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA); FSA successes prompted Iran to back the Assad regime; ill-equipped, unsupported FSA gave way to well-equipped, well-trained Islamists (ISIS) seeking Assad’s overthrow; civil war between Assad regime, Iran’s proxies, FSA and Islamists continues.
  • Bahrain, 2011-14: The Sunni monarchy clashed with its Shia subjects who were demonstrating for greater political freedom and respect for human rights; inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, protesters held their ground until a brutal crackdown arrested nearly 3,000 Shia oppositionists; some protests continue.


The Islamic State (ISIL, or ISIS) was the first Islamist terrorist group to make the leap to pseudo-state/“statelet” status, but it was a long journey to that point. The group went from near extinction to near domination in some seven years and it elevated the Sunni-Shia schism to all-out civil war. While most Sunni states hesitate to challenge Shia-led Iran, ISIL has said it will fight the Iranians and that it will begin by killing all its apostate Shia supporters in Iraq.

The Islamic State was founded in 2004 by Jordanian jihadi Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a terror start-up group called the Organization of Monotheism and Jihad. Al-Zarqawi’s bloody operations made headlines and attracted the attention of terror group leaders in Pakistan who arranged a merger, prompting al-Zarqawi to swear loyalty to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida. The group then changed its name to the Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers. This clunky name was too hard to remember so the world just called them Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). Al-Zarqawi grabbed international headlines with his 2004 video of the beheading of American Nicholas Berg. He also drew scrutiny from U.S. forces in Iraq, which killed him in 2006.

Al-Zarqawi’s death brought in Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi as leader and a new group name, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).Baghdadi was as vicious as his predecessor, earning his group theire of the notoriously independent tribes of Iraq’s Anbar province,who joined the United States against it. Baghdadi was killed in 2010and was replaced by a new Baghdadi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, thecurrent boss. ISI barely avoided total defeat by the Anbar Awakeningby moving to Syria to join the fight against Assad.

In 2013 ISI changed its name again, becoming the Islamic Stateof Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The name was intended to unite Syrian and Iraqi Sunni jihadis against Assad’s Shia state. It was an overt challenge to the Iranian-sponsored Shia Crescent of Iran operating in Iraq and Syria. ISIS/ISIL’s combat experience in Iraq served it well as it racked up a series of successes, from the conquest of Aleppo to Raqqa in Syria. Beheadings, shootings, crucifixions, hangings and sex slavery followed, with Shia soldiers and civilians of Syria and Iraq suffering as badly as Christians but in greater numbers.So ISIL decided to become what it was emulating by declaring itself as the new caliphate. Baghdadi became Amir al-Mu’minin Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State.

ISIL is composed of true Salaf fundamentalists, similar to the Taliban. They have been blowing up Shia mosques and Christian churches while also destroying graveyards and burial tombs. ISIL’s notorious and bloodthirsty mass shootings of captured enemy soldiers, Yazidi Shia apostates and infidels are eerily similar to the infamous Nazi einsatzgruppen death squad operations on the Eastern Front during World War II.

The Islamic State has resurrected dhimmitude (subjugation of nonbelievers), Sharia, religious apartheid, open-ended war on infidels, state-sanctioned slavery and hatred for Shia apostasy. The bloodbath it has unleashed is shocking but serves its purposes – ISIL beheads Americans and Britons to provoke the West, while it shoots Shia soldiers and civilians en masse to provoke Iran and Iran’s Shia proxies throughout the Middle East. The Muslim internal war has taken a new turn to internecine sectarianism.


A multitude of nationalities are embroiled in today’s Middle East fighting, including Arabs, Turks, Persians, Pashtuns, North Africans, Kurds and many others. With the emergence of the Islamic State, Western Islamists from the United States, Britain, Australia and other countries have joined ISIL’s ranks – raising Western fears of what might happen when these individuals return to their home countries.

There are three major Muslim sectarian factions: Sunni, Shia and Sufi. The smallest group, Sufi, is sitting this one out, while the largest group, Sunni, is locked in a geopolitical and sectarian struggle with the second largest sect, Shia. There are dozens of subsects: Alawites, Yazidis, and Twelvers on the Shia side; and Salafis, Wahhabis, and Daesh on the Sunni side. The players include the Shia state of Iran and its satraps, Iraq and Syria, and its stateless terror group proxies, Hezbollah and (although Sunni) Hamas. On the Sunni side, the leaders are the stateless hordes under the Islamic State and many other Sunni groups with the tacit support of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates. This list is not all encompassing; it merely presents the main actors. This complex mosaic includes numerous subgroups, but the three main groups with distinct worldviews and aims are moderates, Islamists and hegemons:

Moderates – No Sharia: Moderates are semi-secular, claiming a degree of tolerance for other faiths as long as the others remain generally subordinate to Islam. They are wary of unrestrained Western-style democracy, free press, free speech and freedom of religion. Moderates include nationalists, technocrats, modernists, professionals and businessmen. They do not want to return to the 14th century to be ruled by clerics and subject to uncompromising Sharia. Atatürk’s Turkey is the model moderate Muslim state, with el-Sissi’s Egypt being its closest modern-day equivalent.

Islamists – Pro-Sharia: Islamists are utopians seeking the restoration of Islamic purity and regional dominance, with global dominance an ultimate goal. They desire to impose strict adherence to Sharia and total rejection of all non-Islamic man-made influence. They are revisionists, revanchists and irredentists who dream of a resurrected Islamist Empire – a caliphate – that is ever expanding and is all-inclusive of the world’s ummah (Muslim faithful). They seek to eventually extinguish all competing faiths and worldviews, to include secularism and atheism. Islamists are the jihadis’ religion-fueled warriors who advance their cause through terrorism, insurgency or cultural/financial (petro-dollar funded) influence operations. ISIL, al-Qaida, Hamas and Saudi Arabia are Islamist entities.

Sunni Islamists seek a micro-caliphate led by Salafis who reject Persian innovations. They seek a caliphate cleansed of Shia and Sufi apostasy. They seek perfect, and harsh, Sharia. They will subjugate Christians and Jews under the writ of dhimmitude and will seek the extinction of their co-religionist rivals.

Shia Islamists seek Shia-dominated pseudo-states/statelets – independent, autonomous, economically self-sufficient entities completely under their merciless control. They tolerate and use Sunnis while suppressing Christians in their midst along the same lines as the Sunnis. The Shia rally around Iran and, although not Persian, are under Iranian influence or outright control. They also seek the annihilation of Israel, a goal shared by their Sunni brethren though not as high a priority. The Shia also harbor genuine millenarians who seek the Apocalypse as the tool that will provoke the return of the Mahdi (the Muslim Messiah), who will cleanse the earth of non-Muslims.

Hegemons – Khalifa: The hegemons are the wannabe leaders of the ummah, whether the lead entity is called a caliphate (Sunni), imamate (Shia) or hegemonic state. The principal difference between hegemons and Islamists is the issue of who leads as khalifa (caliph). Hegemons are empire builders. Modern-day Iran is the lead hegemon with its creation, Hezbollah, often acting as its violent proxy.


Now that the Muslim Middle East is thoroughly embroiled in civil war, the question is, how will this end. If the moderates win, then we could see either a return to the pre-Arab Spring status quo or we might see a proliferation of semi-democratic Islamic republics. If the Islamists win, then we’ll see a hotbed of hostile sectarian city-states and statelets that are perpetually at war with the West and Israel. If the hegemons win, we’ll see the rise of a dominant regional power, likely Iran. Assessing the possible outcome reveals:

Moderates Win: Under this scenario, el-Sissi’s move to reclaim Egypt succeeds. The Egyptian military and judiciary team up to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and deny its return to power. It would not be a reset of the status quo, however. For the Egyptian moderates to matter, they need to usher in a reasonably democratic government that, by necessity, bars only the Islamist political parties. They also need to embrace religious tolerance of the country’s Coptic Christians, reject Hamas, back the peace initiatives with Israel, and support modernity and the rule of law. This model is exactly the one used by Atatürk to guard his creation, secular Turkey. He established the military, in partnership with the judiciary, as the guardians of modern, secular, semi-democracy. The system worked until 2003 when Turkish Prime Minister (now President) Recep Erdogan outmaneuvered Turkey’s generals and judges and began his gradual Islamization process.

If Egypt can accomplish the above, it can inspire similar movements throughout the Middle East. The great appeal of such a move is its promise of justice and political participation. Protests in Turkey and Iran indicate that there is a thirst for modernity and rule of law.

Islamists Win: Under this scenario, the Islamic State wins in Syria and Iraq, while the Muslim Brotherhood retakes Egypt or keeps it embroiled in internal conflict. To do this, the Sunni Islamists must defeat Assad and his Iranian backers and el-Sissi and the Egyptian military. If the Islamists win, they would establish Muslim theocratic pseudo-states/statelets ruled by Sharia. These entities would be repressive, xenophobic, misogynous, sectarian apartheid states similar to Afghanistan’s Taliban government. Hostility toward Israel and the West would ensure a near continuous state of tension and conflict within the region.

Hegemons Win: Under this scenario, Iran wins Syria’s civil war for Assad, thus eliminating any vestiges of autonomy that may remain. The Iranians would also have to crush growing Sunni and Druze opposition to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The result would be Iranian-dominated governments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Geographically, Iran would have built a contiguous “Shia Crescent” running from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and from Afghanistan to Israel’s northern border. Bolstered with the unfettered development of nuclear weapons, Iran would be the de facto regional hegemon that must be accommodated and appeased.

Stumbling blocks to Iran achieving such regional hegemony, however, include Sunni Turkey’s conventional military might and its NATO membership, Saudi/Gulf Cooperation Council petro-dollars expended to deny Iranian Shia dominance, and the potential for Israel to take unilateral military action to protect itself from the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

No One Wins … Yet: The most likely outcome in the foreseeable future is that no one wins. Factors preventing any one side from achieving total victory include: the Sunni Islamists, both state and non-state, are divided and not disposed to cooperate or coordinate their actions; and the Sunni-Shia schism makes it highly unlikely that either denomination would ever submit to rule by the other willingly. If neither side wins outright, then the ongoing sectarian civil war will continue.


It appears ever more likely that the Muslim world is embarking upon a Middle East version of Europe’s destructive Thirty Years’ War – the 1618-48 conflict that was also fueled by religious, ethnic and political schisms. Already, Shia Islamists fight Sunni Islamists and both of them fight moderates. The fight will include state against state, stateless against stateless, and states against stateless. It likely will end with the belligerents’ exhaustion and the rise of a leader or party with a unifying vision – whether that vision be sectarian or secular. We will either see a modern-day Atatürk emerge to lead a Muslim Reformation or another Khomeini rise up to lead an Islamist Resurgence. We can only hope for the former. The United States’ and the West’s current hands-off, hands-on, sporadic policy of engagement or lack of engagement risks us having little influence in the struggle.


John Sutherland is a retired U.S. Army infantry lieutenant colonel, a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and currently a senior operations and intelligence analyst at the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) group in the Joint Staff. He was a senior analyst and contributor on the June 2012 JCOA “Decade at War” study, which can be read online at War. Sutherland also is the author of the book “Wiki War: the Progressive Regression of 21st Century Jihad,” due for release in January 2015 by the History Publishing Company.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Armchair General.