matthiesen1_Bandar Algaloud  Saudi Royal Council  HandoutAnadolu AgencyGetty Images_MBSal-sadr Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Council Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Whither Sunni-Shia Relations?

Sunni-Shia antagonism, a root cause of violence across the Middle East in recent decades, has diminished lately. But provocation by either side could undo this progress, so a Saudi-owned television channel's decision to air a series about a controversial episode in Islamic history is cause for concern.

LONDON – Sunni-Shia relations have improved substantially in recent years as Saudi Arabia has toned down its anti-Shia rhetoric, and as some Arab Shia have tried to distance themselves from Iran (which itself has been beset by street protests). But longstanding animosities and historical controversies could easily return to the fore and re-erupt, especially given the role that Satellite television and social media now play in the Arab and wider Muslim public sphere.

One spark may come from a forthcoming TV series. This Ramadan (March 23-April 22), the Saudi-owned news channel MBC plans to air a major historical drama about Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, an important but controversial figure in early Islamic history. The founder of the Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphate dynasty, Muawiya’s reign coincided with Islam’s first civil war, the so-called fitna, wherein he became the standard-bearer of those opposing Ali, whom Shia consider the rightful heir to the Prophet Mohammed.

With one of the largest budgets in Arab television history (rumors put it at around $75 million), the new series is the latest example of a longer-running trend. Ramadan series are incredibly popular across the Muslim world, where people, like elsewhere, increasingly absorb ideas about history through televised or streamed series. An earlier MBC historical drama on the Caliph Umar drew criticism from Sunni clerics who argued that no Companions of the Prophet should be depicted (and from Shia critics who disagreed with the show’s historical narrative).