“Islam, unlike many other religions, isn’t simply a religion—it is a way of life. As such, it requires its followers to adhere to its teachings in a different way than other religions” (PSU, 2017). This is how Lesson 7 opens and one might easily think every person practicing Islam is on the same page. If you look a little deeper however, you’ll find this is not so cut and dry. Not only are there differences in diversity and culture there are also differences in religious practice across the entire Middle East region. The Muslim religion, “like every other religion, there are various branches that interpret the words of the Qur’an differently” (PSU, 2017). How can a grouping of country’s so devout in their religious beliefs find synergy for mutual prosperity among themselves, let alone thrive in times of globalization? To be successful in both business and politics there must be an environment where listening is valued and change is embraced. This is overwhelmingly influenced by leaders who are willing to put these values first on their agenda for the greater good. Easy to say, hard to do.
Consider Saudi Arabia where the population is 100% Muslim; 85-90% Sunni and 10-15% Shia, (Moran, Abramson, Moran, 2014). The divisions between Sunni and Shia have deep historical roots linking back to circa 632 with the death of the prophet Muhammad and subsequent selection of Abu Bakr as the new spiritual leader. The fundamental divide is that some people believed the successor to Mohammad should come from the who are “qualified and others believed the new leader should come from the “bloodline” and thus resulting in; “members of one Islamic group do not usually recognize members of other groups as fellow Muslims, and open conflict between sects is not uncommon”, (ReligionFacts.com, 2016).
The religious split between Sunni and Shiites comes down to how each sect interprets the religion, similar to how Catholics and Protestants are different within the Christian religion. While both Sunni and Shiite Muslims accept the Koran, the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as the basis of their religion and share many of the same traditions, it is their views on how to follow the faith that cause tension. “Sunnis tend to focus more on interpreting Islamic scripture, for example, while Shiites follow the guidance of religious leaders” (Taylor, A. 2016).
The contention between Sunni and Shiites has not always been problematic and there are many areas where they live together quite compatibly. An increase in more recent events, (primarily politically driven), have served to shine a light on these differences and in some cases have caused international scandal more visibly portrayed through the world news such as;
- Saudi Arabia executes prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, upsetting Iran
- Civil war in Syria where Sunni forces are set in opposition of Shiites
- Iraq’s political paralysis is in large part due to Sunni-Shiite violence and mistrust
- Pakistan and Afghanistan, deep tensions remain between the Shiite minority and Sunni extremists
- Debate on whether or not Saudi Arabia is funding ISIS terrorism
In many places, Sunnis and Shiites lived happily together, intermarrying and sharing places of worship so why is it so difficult to find collaboration on a greater scale? What appears to create the obstacles in the KSA are politics and oil. This is not unusual in the world where politics are predictably central to conflict and the metaphor of “oil” serves as the placeholder for whatever dominates an economy.
All of the above point to an obvious baseline shift that needs to occur in order to mitigate further unrest driven by religious/political factors. Since non-Muslims are not allowed to have Saudi citizenship and non-Muslim places of worship are not permitted; “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (Armstrong, 1969) would be if the leaders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would endorse and make legal the right to worship without discrimination.
Unlikely any time soon, perhaps a pipe-dream, but no doubt a change that could lead to positive outcomes in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and across the globe.
Central Intelligence Agency ( CIA ). (n.d.). The world factbook. Retrieved at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html
Moran, R. T., Abramson, N. R., & Moran, S. V. (2014). Managing cultural differences: Leadership skills and strategies for working in a global world. New York: Elsevier.
Pennsylvania state University. World Wide Campus. (2017) OLEAD 410. Leadership in a Global Context. Lesson 7: Doing Business with Middle Easterners.
ReligionFacts, 2016. “Islam.” Accessed 26 Feb. 2017, www.religionfacts.com/islam
Taylor, A., 2016, “5 facts about Sunnis and Shiites that help make sense of the Saudi-Iran crisis”, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/01/05/5-facts-about-sunnis-and-shiites-that-help-makes-sense-of-the-saudi-iran-crisis/?utm_term=.35aa39cf8c4e