BBC backgrounders on Sunni-Shia divide downplay religiosity

Last month’s flare-up of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia prompted many Western media organisations, including the BBC, to provide their audiences with material ostensibly explaining the background to the story.Sunni Shia 1

In an article headlined “Iran and Saudi Arabia’s great rivalry explained” which appeared on the BBC News website on January 4th, readers were told that:

“Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing sides of a more than 1,000-year old argument at the heart of Islam – between Sunnis and Shia.

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, his followers split over who was his rightful heir.

It is important not to overstate the division. Sunnis and Shia share fundamental beliefs, and have co-existed for centuries – the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia is better understood in terms of a power struggle in the Middle East and beyond.”

On January 5th a filmed report shown on BBC television was posted on the BBC News website under the title “Saudi Arabia and Iran – The tension explained“. Viewers of that report were told that:Sunni Shia 2

“It’s not really about religion. […] It’s not a clash of religious narrative.”

Instead, viewers were told, “the geo-political, the political and the economic elements definitely play a role here”.

Of course there is nothing novel about the phenomenon of Western commentators preferring to avoid the quagmire issue of the religious dimensions of Middle Eastern conflicts and instead opting to frame them in terms of narratives more familiar to their audiences.

It is, after all, that practice which leads to the presentation of terrorism with Middle Eastern roots against Western targets as being ‘grievance-based’ and it is the same framing which facilitates the portrayal of religiously affiliated terrorist groups in the Middle East such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Hizballah as “militants” engaged in “resistance” against a geo-political status quo.

But is especially noticeable that in this case the BBC has elected to downplay the religious aspects of a clash between two states which are theocracies: countries in which the separation between state policy and religion is non-existent.

In the filmed report BBC audiences were told that:

“In a sense there has been a cold war going on between the two – what many pundits call a war by proxy. They are in effect fighting each other through groups that they’re supporting in Syria and Yemen in particular.”

Of course those proxies are inevitably tied to their sponsors by ideology which is primarily based on religious identity.

As many Middle East experts have been documenting for quite some time, one of the side-effects of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has been a rise in Sunni-Shia rivalry and tensions. In 2013 the late Professor Barry Rubin noted the appearance of a paper published by a Muslim Brotherhood linked organization in Britain which identified Iran as “the greatest threat” and concluded “We no longer have any choice but to defend ourselves against Iran,” which holds “a sectarian, ethnic, Persian agenda.”

Also in 2013, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center noted that “the escalating anti-Shi’ite rhetoric from Sunni clerics belonging to different schools of thought reflects an agreement that the Shi’a is the enemy of the moment—one that is more pressing than the West and Israel.”

“A major force driving the schism is the escalating anti-Shi’ite rhetoric from Sunni clerics who belong to different schools of thought. Of particular note is a speech given on May 31, 2013 by Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, considered by many the current spiritual leader of the Sunni world, in which he said he regretted the many years he had spent on attempts at Sunni-Shi’ite rapprochement. He said that Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics were right to consider Shi’ites as infidels, and adopted their terminology when talking about the Shi’a (“Hezbollah is the Party of Satan”).”

Rhetoric of a similar stripe is no less apparent on the other side of the divide, as documented by Phillip Smyth in his 2014 paper “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and its Regional Effects“.

“Following Assad’s lead, Iran and its proxies have since fall 2012 engaged in an extensive media campaign casting the Syrian rebels, whatever their actual beliefs, as takfiris, or Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy. In turn, when a takfiri accuses other Muslims of apostasy, this marks those “apostates” for death. In Shiite usage, the term is often synonymous with the extremist Sunni Wahhabis, who have historically predominated in Saudi Arabia.

Through the early propagation of the inaccurate view that all Syria’s rebels embrace radical Sunni ideology, Iran and its Shiite proxies have effectively stirred visceral support among their coreligionists. The message especially struck those who feel oppressed in their various cultural and national contexts. “

The BBC’s downplaying of the religious aspects of the latest chapter in the long-standing power struggle between Sunni and Shia and the attempt to portray the issue primarily in terms of “geo-political, political and economic elements” clearly does not enhance the corporation’s funding public’s “awareness and understanding” of the background to this important story.

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