The New Statesman’s latest magazine cover, titled ‘Sunni vs. Shia’, has sparked criticism from social media users and experts for “flattening” the geo-political complexities of the Middle East and “fanning the flames of sectarianism” in the region.

The British weekly political magazine has run the title four times since 2014, with the most recent cover showing two armed Muslim men confronting one another.

Senior fellow in the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Frederic Wehrey, called the cover a “lazy shorthand way of reducing the region’s complexity”, and criticises it for promoting the sectarian narrative.

The problem with this narrative, as Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, explains, is that is “it implies a relation to religion … People assume that it refers to some form of conflict between two religious groups and that therefore religion, and by extension doctrinal difference, are what is at stake … this flawed assumption forms the basis for notions of an intractable ‘1,400 year old conflict’”.

Haddad adds, “The mystification of sectarian identities and sectarian competition is unwarranted … Sectarian identities can be politicised and inflamed just as they can be subsumed into irrelevance”.

Wehrey says scholars have “rejected these notions of ancient hatreds, of centuries old conflict within Islam”, because they are not an accurate representation of the situation. Instead, regional conflicts are often about “power” not “piety” according to the journalist and author, Mehdi Hasan, who has attributed the beginnings of the Sunni-Shia conflict to the rise of “petro-power Saudi Arabia on the Sunni side and revolutionary power Iran on the Shia side”.

Discussing the wider consequences of failing to understand the many nuances of such regional conflicts, PhD candidates, Benjamin Denison and Jasmin Mujanovic, have commented that portraying conflicts in a way which disregards geo-political complexities “makes it easy for international actors to excuse their lack of coherent policy”.

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Dahan, N. (2018) ‘Sunni vs Shia: The New Statesman’s latest cover draws ire’. [online] 6 March. [Accessed 7 March 2018].