June turned out to be a month of speeches and conferences for this writer. It began with Imam Khomeini memorial programmes in the UK. These were followed by a visit to South Africa, which was as special as always, and where I spoke at a conference organized by the local office of Crescent International, along with Zafar Bangash and Imam Muhammad al-Asi, as well as speaking at a couple of smaller events. At end of the month there was a major conference on Islamic unity isn London, attended by a number of senior figures from around the world, at which I also presented a paper. Inevitably, discussions were dominated by two or three topics: Iraq and the tragic blood-letting there; the problem of sectarianism; and, because they were in the news at the time, the recent developments in Palestine in particular.
There seems, however, to be a certain reluctance to speak about the key factor linking two of these issues, sectarianism and the tragedy of Iraq. Speaking of Iraq, the main topic is of how brutally the US is behaving there. Speaking of sectarianism, the dominant theme tends to be to reassert, yet again, everyone’s firm belief that unity is essential and that disunity extremely dangerous and damaging. And yet the undeniable reality, that there has been appalling sectarian warfare in Iraq in which militias of both the Sunni and Shi‘i communities have been involved in atrocities against members of the other community, is somehow a taboo subject. If it is discussed at all, there is a depressing tendency for people to attribute the sectarian violence to the American and British occupiers of Iraq. While it is true that the occupiers have undoubtedly tried to divide the Iraqis, in order better to rule them, and there is considerable evidence of their responsibility for atrocities that have been generally reported as sectarian in nature, the suggestion that there has been no sectarian problem there, and that it is all Western propaganda designed to sow discord in the Ummah, cannot be sustained.
The unfortunate reality is that there has always been a tendency towards sectarian attitudes in Iraq, among people of both the Sunni and Shi‘i communities; that similar attitudes have also been brought into the country by non-Iraqi mujahideen coming to fight the occupiers; that the atrocities by Sunnis that started the sectarian warfare were entirely in keeping with the actions of similar groups elsewhere; and that many Shi‘is in Iraq were only too willing to see the situation in equally sectarian terms, both politically in the first instance, and then in terms of military action against those that they blamed for opposing the “elected government” that many Sunnis saw as collaborating with the US. The result: a spiral into sectarian ethnic cleansing that is likely to scar the country for generations.
What is interesting is that when these issues are probed, some explanations for this reluctance to discuss these issues emerge. It is not only that they are difficult to discuss, and people would simply prefer to ignore them. It appears that many people are aware of a degree of sectarianism in their own attitudes to what is happening in Iraq. We all, after all, identify with one school of thought or another to some extent. This is inevitable and not necessarily undesirable; it is a part of the diversity of the Ummah. The problems begin when this identification extends to blind and instinctive political allegiance, regardless of other considerations. This happens when sectarian identities become so strong that they supersede our common identity as Muslims, which is what joins the global Ummah of Islam together and distinguishes us from non-Muslims.
Iraq has become a litmus-test for our sectarian attitudes. Those of us who instinctively identify with the interests and concerns of a particular community in Iraq, over and above the victims in other communities, are betraying a subtle, deep-rooted sectarianism in ourselves. The only truly Islamic attitude, transcending all sectarian divides, is to identify with the victims of all sectarian violence, whoever they may be, while condemning the perpetrators and justifiers of all sectarian violence, whoever they may be.
Iraq has become a litmus-test for our sectarian attitudes. Those of us who instinctively identify with the interests and concerns of a particular community in Iraq, over and above the victims in other communities, are betraying a subtle, deep-rooted sectarianism in ourselves. The only truly Islamic attitude, transcending all sectarian divides, is to identify with the victims of all sectarian violence, whoever they may be, while condemning the perpetrators and justifiers of all sectarian violence, whoever they may be. That may be a high standard to demand; but until meet it we cannot claim to have genuinely risen above the quicksand of sectarianism.