The Muslim World Is Not Flat

by Arang Keshavarzian
published in MER242

This 1995 CIA map, often used in the media and in classrooms, reminds us that today Shi‘i Muslims are concentrated in only a few nation-states—Iran, Iraq, the Arab Gulf states, Azerbaijan and Lebanon in the Middle East, and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in South Asia. There are also numerous ‘Alawis in Syria, Alevis in Turkey and Zaydi Shi‘a in Yemen. The vast majority of Muslims in the world, approximately 90 percent, are Sunni.

The map also reminds us that North Africans, Egyptians, Palestinians and Jordanians have little direct interaction with Shi‘a. When King ‘Abdallah II of Jordan speaks of a “Shiite crescent,” he is evoking the specter of outsiders, people whose doctrine and practices are largely unknown and typically misunderstood by many in the region. Finally, a careful inspection of the map shows that the Sunni-Shi‘i divide does not explain several regional political issues. Iran, where 90 percent of the population is Shi‘i and the government is headed by Shi‘i clergy, has perennially tense relations with Azerbaijan, one of the very few other majority-Shi‘i countries in the world. In fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran is allied with Armenia in its ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan, which in turn is supported by heavily Sunni Turkey. For this reason alone, mapping the Muslim world in two colors can easily be misleading.

A more fundamental problem with the two-color map is that it portrays Shi‘i and Sunni Muslims as homogeneous and static blocs, presumably unified in fundamental opposition to one another. Multi-sectarian, not to mention multi-ethnic and economically stratified, cities such as Beirut or Baghdad appear as uniform blobs. The viewer is invited to think of “Shiastans” and “Sunnistans,” and to see Samuel Huntington’s “bloody borders” in the heart of the Islamic world as well as at its edges. The map tells us nothing about inter-sectarian cooperation, intra-sectarian differences or historical variations. Why, for instance, did so few Iraqi Shi‘a defect from the Iraqi army during Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran? Meanwhile, those Muslims, Shi‘a and Sunnis, who are secular in mindset or whose religiosity does not color their politics are not on the map. Perhaps more importantly, the map erases intra-sectarian differences in socio-economic and political status. Iran’s dominant Shi‘a are equated with the oppressed Shi‘i minority in Saudi Arabia, while the Sunni minorities in Iraq or Lebanon are likened to the Sunni majorities in Egypt or Algeria.

Compounding the limitations of this visual aid are the omissions: Muslims, whether Shi‘i or Sunni, are completely absent from Western Europe, let alone North America and the Caribbean. The innocent viewer would have no way of knowing that over five million Muslims live in France—among the non-Muslim majority. Finally, the choice of colors is also revealing. “Shi‘i” areas are shaded darker than “Sunni” areas, suggesting that Shi‘ism is a more intense and concentrated form of Islam. (In the 1980s and 1990s a common view among US policymakers and journalists was that Shi‘ism was the more radical, politicized, anti-Western and anti-modern of the two branches of Islam.) In short, the information conveyed by this map, while accurate in a banal sense, is at best obfuscating and at worst dangerous without a great deal of additional interpretation. Sectarian analysis, while having its own political logic, tends to flatten the Muslim world beyond comprehension.

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