For the past four years Geneive Abdo has researched the contours of Islam’s sectarian conflict—from the ground up to the Twitter sphere—to try to understand the causes. She traveled to Egypt—which has a Shi'a population of less than one percent in a Sunni dominated society—to show how the wars in Syria and Iraq have affected even the most unlikely of places.
The commonly accepted view holds that rising sectarian tensions in general, and those between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia in particular, are driven primarily, or even solely, by political and geo-political interests and concerns. As a result, the crucial religious component is downplayed or dismissed outright, leaving Western policymakers ill-equipped to respond to local and regional crises in any constructive way.
Abdo found that this consensus flew in the face of her own experience working, living, and traveling in the region over the past 30 years. Her reporting from Egypt and countries across the region shows that religious difference matters and is well-documented in her recently published book, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a–Sunni Divide.
Her interviews show that some Salafists and some religious scholars at al Azhar, a 1,100-year-old university complex and mosque and the historic seat of learning for Sunni Islam, share the belief that there is a Shi’a “threat.” Azhari scholars are considered among the most authoritative on religious matters. But some differ over whether the Shi’a are real Muslims.