The Muslim world is plagued by many ills: poverty, corruption, elitism, ignorance (lack of education), dictatorship, nationalism, tribalism, and in recent years, sectarianism. None of these phenomena is new but sectarianism is being deliberately promoted and for a very specific purpose. Its latest eruption can be traced to the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.
Prior to 1979, two myths were popular. First, Western policy makers had assumed that like Christianity, Islam too had been reduced to a set of rituals that no longer posed a threat to imperialism and Zionism. Second, the Muslim world’s leadership was in the “safe” hands of Bani Saud, the clannish rulers of the Arabian Peninsula who had kept Muslims engrossed in trivia and rituals: long beards, trousers above ankles, and saying ameen loudly in prayer. These constituted the hallmarks of a “muttaqi” (committed) Muslim, according to Bani Saud and their court preachers. The “good” Muslim was not supposed to indulge in politics; that was best left to “enlightened” rulers.
The Islamic Revolution exploded both myths. First, it overthrew the Western-imposed and backed regime of the Shah that had been declared “an island of stability in a sea of turbulence” by then US President Jimmy Carter. Second, the Islamic Revolution was led not by a nationalist leader but by a muttaqi leader who had little or no contact with the West. Imam Khomeini had emerged from the very roots of Islam and embodied the Islamic spirit in all its manifestations. In his speech, manner and demeanor, he embodied everything that Islam stood for. His taqwa immediately exposed the fraudulent claims of the imperialist-Zionist agents — Bani Saud — to leadership of the Muslim world. Muslims around the world too could see the difference in the style of the two: the Imam was the embodiment of simplicity and taqwa, Bani Saud reflected the worst forms of opulence and vulgarity.
The imperialist-Zionist duo and their local puppets could immediately sense the danger the Islamic Revolution posed to their hegemony and vested interests in the Muslim East (aka the Middle East). It had to be destroyed. The imperialists and Zionists assumed that this would not be difficult because the ‘ulama of Iran — indeed ‘ulama everywhere in the Muslim world — had little experience with running a complex modern state. Insofar as their assumption was concerned, they were not far off the mark but what they had not accounted for was the wisdom and sagacity of the Imam and his great spiritual insights. His taqwa transcended all barriers. Those that have total faith in Allah (swt) can hope for divine help in the most difficult circumstances.
Despite lack of experience in running a modern state, the Islamic State in Iran did not collapse. Internal sabotage, external aggression, and sanctions did not bring the Islamic Revolution to its knees. True, the leadership and people of Iran paid a very high price for maintaining their dignity and independence but these cannot be achieved without immense sacrifices, as exemplified by the Sirah of the noble Messenger (pbuh).
While the imperialists, Zionists, and their regional puppets failed in direct confrontation with the Islamic State, they did not give up. Western think tanks had hit upon an internal weakness in the Ummah: sectarianism. Playing on people’s emotions is an old trick. They can be made to do terrible things by riling them up on certain issues. The West’s so-called War on Terror is being waged on numerous falsehoods. Within the Muslim world, sectarianism has been used to deadly effect.
The fault line that was created soon after the khilafah was subverted into mulukiyah (hereditary kingship) has been deepened through whipping up sectarianism. The first victims of this were those Muslims who call themselves “Sunnis.” They were separated from the Islamic Revolution and its liberating influence by playing up the sectarian card. Many court ‘ulama (scholars for dollars) were also roped in to advance this diabolical plot. Sectarian Shi‘is provided additional impetus with their ignorance and prejudice fuelling anti-Iran propaganda by declaring it “Shi‘i.”
The imperialists and Zionists could not have imagined the success they would achieve through sectarianism. Islamic Iran’s leadership has tried to bridge these differences but it must be admitted that the challenges they face are immense. They have to put out brush fires on both sides. Unfortunately, there are few ‘ulama in the “Sunni” world to match the caliber of the Shi‘i world. What is, however, heartening is that there are more “Sunnis” supporting the Islamic Revolution than there are “Shi‘is.” And “Sunnis” that constitute the Muslim world’s majority do so out of Islamic conviction. This gives cause for optimism.
Sectarianism is a disease that must be confronted aggressively because it has the potential to undermine the Ummah from within. God forbid, if it succeeds, Islamic Iran would not be the only victim. Muslims everywhere would suffer its deadly consequences.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought