Every year, Muslims around the world mark the first days of the new year of the Islamic calendar by remembering and commemorating the events that led to the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (ra), the beloved grandson of the Prophet of Islam (saw) at Karbala in the 61st year after the Hijra (680CE). The tragedy is, of course, and understandably, marked most prominently by Shi’i Muslims, but it should be noted that there has traditionally been no difference between the Shi’as and the Sunnis in their understanding of the rights and wrongs of the political issues that resulted in the tragedy -- indeed, crime.
Throughout history, there have been episodes of sectarian tension between Shi’as and Sunnis at various times, often deliberately instigated by political or religious leaders for their own reasons. However, contrary to what some people may think, in all parts of the world where Shi’ss and Sunnis live alongside each other, such as India, Iraq and Lebanon, they have shared in their commemoration of Ashura and their mourning for the tragedy that befell Imam Hussain and his family more often than they have clashed.
This year the commemoration of Ashura has been coupled with shock and horror at the sectarian attacks on Shi’as in Najaf, Karbala and elsewhere in Iraqby extreme elements within Iraq’s Sunni community. This is the direct result of the growing influence, in Iraq as elsewhere, of a sectarian strain of “sunnism” (often labelled Wahhabi or salafi, although not all those who consider themselves Wahhabis or salafi are necessarily sectarian), elements of whose outlook are utterly alien to the original traditions of Islam.
The murders that have occurred in Iraq this year are by no means unprecedented in recent history. Pakistan, for example, has also seen sectarian violence -- again, mainly against the Shi’i community -- in recent years. However, the events in Iraq appear particularly shocking because of the high hopes for meaningful Islamic political change that had been raised by the fall of the Ba’athist regime, and the subsequent emergence in the forefront of Iraqi social affairs of Islamic movements in the chaos of the US occupation.
Given the difficulties Islamic movements face in confronting the established and institutional power of repressive authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world, it is natural that periods of rapid political transformation, such as that created by the US invasion of Iraq (the collapse of communism in Central Asia in 1989-90 and the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s are other examples), should raise Muslims’ hopes of Islamic movements being able to use the opportunities to come to power. The point has been made before that this is too simplistic an expectation, and that other powers are far better equipped to exploit such political vacuums, such as the West. Nonetheless, the fact is that Islamic movements have had unprecedented freedom of action in Iraq in recent years, and it is reasonable to consider how well they have performed in the circumstances.
The appearance of sectarianism, which involves more than simply violence, which is an extreme manifestation, is a clear sign of a major failure on the part of these Islamic movements, both Shi’i and Sunni. It is too easy simply to blame the rise of sectarianism on the influence of a particular strand of Sunni extremism and on the divide-and-rule tactics of the occupation authorities. The fact is that, in the particular and peculiar political and social circumstances that emerged in Iraq, there was a clear risk of sectarian tensions and strife, and there were clearly parties that would try to exploit it for their own ends. The onus, in this situation, was on major and established Islamic movements, both Shi’i and Sunni, to recognise this danger and to work to avert it.
Although there were signs of early cooperation between the communities, for example in Shi’i demonstrations of solidarity with the people of Fallujah when it was first attacked last summer, and in the overtures towards the Shi’i leaders made by Sunni community and resistance leaders, this did not last. Although there is nothing to be gained by apportioning blame for the situation, and there have clearly been errors on all sides, the fact is that the onus was on the majority community to ensure that the minority was involved and kept on board at all stages of political discourse, instead of taking its numerical preponderance for granted and disregarding the concerns of the minority as irrelevant. This was politically important, considering that all Iraqis should have been able to recognise that the occupying authorities were deliberately introducing sectarian elements into the political structures and processes. All Iraqis should have recognised the dangers these posed, and the importance of maintaining a united front and consensus.
The fact that some Shi’i leaders dealt directly and politically with the occupation authorities at a time when Sunnis (and other Shi’as, to be fair) were under intense military attack, and pressed on with a political process from which the main Sunni groups were deliberately being excluded, did much to exacerbate relations between the groups, and lend credibility to the anti-Shi’a propaganda of the extremist Sunni groups that have been responsible for sectarian violence. When Sunni groups were pressing for a postponement in the elections to enable Sunnis to be included in the process, and the US was intent on maintaining the political momentum so that Bush could claim a measure of success in Iraq, as well as to ensure that Iraqis were not united, it would have been good to see Shi’i leaders insisting that the Sunnis be given every opportunity to take full part in the process. Instead, it appears that many Shi’i political leaders were themselves thinking along sectarian lines, and determined to secure as strong a position after the elections as possible, ignoring the fact that their position would be stronger were it based on a broader and more inclusive political consensus.
The post-election political situation in Iraq institutionalises the sectarian divide in politics, and legitimises a political order that the US is confident it can manipulate and exploit for its own ends. The unfortunate reality is that the Islamic movements in Iraq have missed what could have been an excellent opportunity for the transformation of the political and social situation in the country, largely because of a failure of vision and an inability to rise above partial, sectarian approaches to the country’s problems. This is a failure for which Iraq’s Muslims are likely to pay a very high price in years to come.