Across the Middle East, national and religious leaders fuel sectarianism

The New York Times reports: The Shiite leaders of Iran and the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia traded insults over the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims near Mecca. The government of Bahrain, long criticized for repressing the country’s Shiite majority, expelled the Iranian ambassador, after accusing Iran of shipping arms to Bahrain and trying to foment “sectarian strife.”

And a group of hard-line Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia, fired up by Russia’s intervention in Syria, issued a scathing sectarian call for holy war.

Events over the last few weeks have raised fears of an accelerating confrontation between the region’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims, with Saudi Arabia and Iran escalating their power struggle, extremists attacking Shiite mosques in the Persian Gulf and armed conflict aggravating religious differences in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen.

But as the violence flares and crosses borders, national and religious leaders seem as eager as ever to stoke the fires, mobilizing followers using implicit or naked sectarian appeals that are transforming political conflicts into religious struggles and making the bloodshed in the region harder to contain, scholars and analysts say.

“This is unprecedented, and we don’t have a road map,” said Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “When political dynamics fail, people turn back to religion. We are in this terrible moment of transition where sect is very high in people’s minds.” [Continue reading…]

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