Given that the sectarian divide between Shias and Sunnis has been the cause of so much bloodshed in the past 1,400 years, one may get the impression that the two main sects of Islam may have irreconcilable differences. But are these differences significant enough to result in different worldviews between the followers of the two sects. For instance, when it comes to views about democracy, free market economy, women rights, and environmental sustainability, do Shias and Sunnis hold divergent views?
Educating the west of the differences between Shias and Sunnis has largely been the dominion of Professor Vali Nasr. His well-received book The Shia Revival: How conflicts within Islam will shape the future along with Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet: The epic story of Shia-Sunni split in Islam are two accessible texts that explain to the uninitiated how and why the sectarian divide was forged in Islam and its implications today. However, books, articles, and other written works by learned authors, such as prolific writer and academic Juan Cole have not made much difference in creating awareness amongst the largely indifferent western populace.
One would assume that before waging not one but two wars in Iraq and another ill-planed misadventure in Afghanistan, the American officials in charge of the trillion dollar military escapades were indeed familiarwith the sectarian fault lines in Afghanistan and Iraq. This, however, was not the case. Writing in the New York Times in October 2006, Jeff Stein revealed that the senior American military officials were clueless about the Shia Sunni differences. The ignorant included “not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress. Stein wondered “how can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?”
While the west remains largely ignorant of, and indifferent to, the details of the Shia-Sunni schism in Islam, even most Muslims may not know if these differences extend beyond the religo-sectarian spheres. Using a 2010 dataset from Pew Research Center I will attempt to explore how Shias and Sunnis diverge or otherwise on non-religious matters. The data are available from Pew Global Attitudes Project’s website. The survey was conducted in 22 countries during April and May of 2010. Over 24,790 individuals were surveyed. The survey was also conducted in seven countries with sizeable Muslim populations such that 28 per cent of all respondents were Muslims (see Table below).
The data also identified Muslim respondents by their sect. I have aggregated the sectarian categories into three main groups: Shias, Sunnis, and those who identified themselves as just Muslims. I am not reporting on other sects for which only a small number of observations were available. The subset thus included 74 per cent Sunnis, 6.3 per cent Shias and the remaining 20 per cent identified themselves as just Muslims. Apart from Lebanon, where Shia and Sunni respondents were in an almost even split, Sunnis were in majority in most countries with the exception of Indonesia where most respondents identified themselves as just Muslims.
Given that Lebanon is the only country in the sample where a sizeable number of respondents identified themselves as Shias, Sunnis, and others, I have further restricted reporting to Lebanon, which also had its fair share of sectarian conflicts that transcended beyond the Shia-Sunni schism and included several Christian sects resulting in a bloody civil war during eighties and later wars with Israel. While the demographic mix in Lebanon is disputed by all concerned, Shias and Sunnis are reported to account for 27 per cent each and a large number of Christian sects account for another 39 per cent of the population.
So do Shias prefer free market economy more than Sunnis? For Lebanon, the answer is yes. When asked if they agreed or otherwise with the statement that most people are better off in a free market economy, 28 per cent of the Shias completely agreed with the statement compared to 10 per cent of the Sunnis. At the same time 22 per cent non-Muslims in Lebanon completely agreed with the same statement. And whereas 14 per cent of the Sunnis reported support for segregating men and women at the workplace, only eight per cent of the Shias showed support for gender segregation at workplace.
A large number of Lebanese Shias (48 per cen) reported being very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in Lebanon compared to Sunnis (30 per cent). Non-Muslim at 66 per cent were obviously the most alarmed about the spread of Islamic extremism in Lebanon. Concomitantly, every three out of four Shias viewed Shia-Sunni differences a very big problem compared to only 40 per cent of the Sunnis who felt the same. Again, only seven per cent of Lebanese Shias showed support for harsh punishments, such as chopping off hands of thieves, compared to 19 per cent of Sunnis.