Painful though it is to admit it (it would be so much easier to focus on the successful resistance to the US occupation), it is undeniable that the communal strife in Iraq is resulting in a frightening increase in sectarian tensions throughout the Muslim world. US policies after the invasion institutionalised Iraq’s communal divide, but until the bombing of the Askariyya shrine in Samarra on February 22 it was possible to regard the sectarianism as a unfortunate side-issue that could be resolved by inter-communal dialogue, confidence-building measures and a process of reconciliation between the various political and communal groups. But the Askariyya bombing unleashed an orgy of blood-letting that appears to have obliterated every trace of the restraint, sanity, ethics and even human reason and decency that are required to keep the animal instincts of mankind in check.
The tactics employed in the butchery in Iraq are becoming increasingly brutal. The scenes are all too familiar. Everyday scores of Iraqis are being kidnapped and killed, and their mutilated bodies dumped in the streets, rivers and open fields. There have been reports of patients being abducted from hospitals and killed. Suicide-bombings and military-style attacks have been launched against unarmed civilian gatherings, neighbourhoods, mosques and other houses of worship. Iraqi security forces are at best standing idly by while such heinous acts are beingcommitted, and at worst colluding with them or even taking part in them. Ethnic cleansing (or sectarian cleansing to be more accurate) has turned previously-mixed neighbourhoods, villages, towns and even parts of some provinces into uniformly Sunni or Shi‘i areas.
The tragedy unfolding in Iraq has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in the tempo of sectarian discourse. Derogatory terminology culled from crude, outdated, chauvinistic and narrow-minded sectarian polemics, which feed on a simplistic, prejudiced and distorted reading of Islamic history, are gaining more currency. More and more Sunni Arabs in Iraq have taken to calling Shi‘as “rawafid”(rejectionists), “Safavids” and “Buyids” (Buwayhids). Shi‘as in turn have taken to calling Sunnis “nawasib” (enemies of the Ahl al-Bayt), “Umayyads” and “Wahhabis”. It is a measure of the levels that the sectarian discourse has reached that Adnan al-Dulaymi, the leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in Iraq's parliament, used almost unimaginable language at the Conference for the Support of the Iraqi People in Istanbul on December 13-14. “It is a sectarian war. It is a sectarian conflict that aims to destroy the Sunnis,” an enraged Dulaymi shouted from the pulpit. “Anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong and must reconsider his position,” he added before declaring : “Yes, we are sectarian!”
Such language is matched by implicitly sectarian attitudes masquerading as concerns for law and order among Shi‘i leaders who are in government. During a recent visit to Washington,Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who heads the largest Shi‘a bloc in the Iraqi parliament, called on the US-led coalition forces to employ more lethal force against Sunni insurgents. Speaking at the US Institute for Peace, after talks with president George W Bush, he said: “The strikes [the insurgents] are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts... Eliminating the danger of the civil war in Iraq can only be achieved through directing decisive strikes against thetakfiri [those who excommunicate other Muslims, declaring them kafirs] terrorists and Ba'athist terrorists in Iraq.”
Both sides, of course, blame the other for starting this process. For the Shi‘i’s, the fault lies with the anti-Shi‘i sectarianism of al-Qa‘ida and associated militants who have come to Iraq to join the resistance; Sunnis blame the Shi‘is for preferring to joining the US’s power structure, rather than making a common cause against the invaders. Both explanations have an element of truth. But it is also true that many on both sides were predisposed to communal and sectarian understandings of the situation, and quick to act on such grounds rather than seeking out other bases for understanding and action. This must be counted as a massive failure on the part of Islamic leaders of both communities, particularly after their promising cooperation early in the occupation.
Muslims need to break this vicious cycle of sectarian mudslinging; only a zero-tolerance approach is acceptable. Any failure in this regard will simply fuel the fire of sectarian bigotry, encouraging violence between Muslims, and playing into the hands of those who wish to see us divided, weak and subservient to the powers of modern kufr.
Even more disturbing is the fact that echoes of this exclusivist and sectarian discourse are now appearing and getting louder in other parts of the Muslim world. These echoes are partly rooted in the same popular tendency towards sectarian attitudes that we saw in Iraq; but are also being encouraged by Arab regimes concerned about the increasing influence of Islamic Iran. The strong passions that sectarian prejudices arouse provide rulers in many parts of the Muslim world with a useful means of distracting their people from more dangerous (to the rulers) political issues. Thus we see sectarian ideas being deployed by secular regimes and politicians (whose commitment to any aspect of the deen is at best tenuous) to serve selfish political interests. As long ago as December 2004, King Abdallah II of Jordan told an American journalist that “If it was a Shi'a-led Iraq that had a special relationship with Syria andHizbollah and Lebanon, then we have this new crescent that appears that will be very destabilizing for the Gulf countries and for the whole region.”
Sectarian prejudices foster unnecessary “us”-versus-”them” divisions and barriers that undermine the Islamic concept of a unified community of believers that transcends all other identities – the Ummah. As such, it nurtures indifference, callousness and selective compassion towards the suffering of fellow Muslims. An example is the verbal brawl that erupted in the Bahraini parliament in November 2004 over a proposed motion to condemn the US-led assault against Fallujah. The appalling destruction of Fallujah should have been unreservedly condemned by all Muslims; instead, the motion proposed by Sunni MPs was opposed by their Shi‘a colleagues, arguing that it amounted to supporting “terrorists” in Iraq. In the end, a compromise was reached: a hollow statement censuring the death of civilians. Last month, Sunni and Shi‘i Islamic groups both did well in Bahrain’s parliamentary elections. Working together, they could achieve a great deal. But there are already signs that sectarian differences will prevent this.
The demons of sectarianism, conveying a message of hate, inciting Muslim-on-Muslim violence, fostering internecine conflict and obstructing inter-communal harmony, are perhaps the greatest internal threat facing the Ummah and the Islamic movement today. Muslims need to break this vicious cycle of sectarian mudslinging; only a zero-tolerance approach is acceptable. Any failure in this regard will simply fuel the fire of sectarian bigotry, encouraging violence between Muslims, and playing into the hands of those who wish to see us divided, weak and subservient to the powers of modern kufr. Iraq may be all but lost; the rest of the Ummah must not be allowed to follow the same tragic path.