It is very painful to say it, but the bitter truth is that sectarian tensions in Iraq are getting worse. In the past two months, public recriminations from Sunni and Shi‘a religious figures alike have eclipsed their earlier statements asking people to arrest their country’s slide into sectarian strife. It is not just the bigotry and prejudice that are worrying, but also the inhuman and ruthless cycle of sectarian-motivated violence that has cost the lives of thousands.
Several times in May the bodies of Sunni men were found in predominantly Shi‘a areas around Baghdad. The spate of murders, including some ulama, has triggered strongly-worded charges and counter-charges on both sides of the sectarian divide. Speaking to reporters at a press conference on May 18 at the Umm al-Qura Mosque, Baghdad, Shaykh Harith al-Dari, chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), accused police commandos and militiamen of the Badr Organization, which is a part of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), of masterminding the murders. A joint appeal by the AMS, the Islamic Party of Iraq and the Sunni Waqf Department also announced a three-day closure of Sunni mosques from May 21. They described this closure as a protest against the killings and raids against mosques. In reply, senior officials of the Badr Organization have accused the AMS and Dari of involvement in “terrorism.” A communiqué issued by the organization on May 19 said that Dari’s statements were intended to “drag us into a sectarian battle to fulfill the dream of Al-Zarqawi.” The statement also spoke of alleged “evidence and admissions by a section of the mosque imams” incriminating Dari in “supporting terror and backing terrorist operations.”
The sectarian nature of many acts of violence in post-Saddam Iraq is not new. Armed salafi groups, especially those associated with the al-Qa’ida-linked organization Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, led by Jordanian Ahmad al-Khalayleh (better known as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi), have been committing vicious attacks against Iraqi Shi‘as. These attacks range from suicide-bombings targeting Shi’ite neighborhoods, mosques, husseiniyyahs, weddings, funeral gatherings and processions, to the abduction and assassination of Shi‘as, especially on the highways between Baghdad and the Shi’ite shrine-cities of Karbala and Najaf in the south.
Unfortunately, sectarian passions have grown in tandem with the escalation of the anti-occupation insurgency. Salafi elements of the Iraqi resistance, imbued with characteristic anti-Shi‘a tendencies, have been involved in an apparently deliberate attempt to provoke Sunni-Shi‘a civil war. Zarqawi has made no secret of his contempt for Shi‘as in general; in an infamous letter in February 2004, Zarqawi used extremely offensive language to describe Shi‘as as the “sect of treachery and betrayal, fifth columnists, polytheists and worshippers of graves,” and even worse terms.
Ruthless counter-insurgency measures by the Iraqi and US-led multinational forces against Sunni areas can only breed more insurgents. Other measures betray insensitivity on the part of Iraqi officials to the sectarian passions running high everywhere. Units of the elite Wolf Brigade have been given names with Shi‘a overtones, such as the al-Hussein or al-Qarrar contingents (Haidar al-Qarrar is one of the titles of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib ra). Composed mainly of Shi‘a soldiers, these contingents have been sent to carry out raids and search operations in predominantly Sunni areas, such as the Adhamiyyah quarter in Baghdad and towns in al-Anbar province. Such ill-considered acts can only inflame sectarian passions and add to the paranoia that is turning Iraq into a whirlpool of blood.
The fissures separating the two communities are becoming deeper with every car-bomb targeting a Shi‘a gathering or marketplace, with every slaying, beheading or mutilation of Shi‘a men traveling to perform ziyarah (i.e. visit) at the shrines in Karbala and Najaf, with every Sunni Arab murdered, arrested or tortured, with every pre-dawn raid against Sunni Arab neighborhoods, towns and villages instilling terrible fear in the hearts of women and children.
The political process has also exacerbated the polarization of Iraqi society along sectarian and ethnic lines. The formation of Ibrahim al-Ja’afari’s Shi‘a-dominated government has deepened the sense of disenfranchisement and marginalisation among Sunni Arabs, whose boycott of the elections helped to tip the balance of power towards the majority Shi‘as. The election campaign itself had earlier done its part in inflaming inter-communal tensions in Iraq. These developments followed the precedent set earlier by the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council, which was based on sectarian and ethnic quotas.
These tensions have not yet led to civil war. Credit for this goes mainly to the wisdom and perspicacity of community leaders on both sides, especially Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, who has constantly urged the Shi‘as to practise restraint and self-control. Ayatullah Sistani has many times reportedly stepped in to prevent Shi‘a tribal leaders from ordering tribesmen to commit acts of retributive violence.
The situation now is a far cry from the early days of the post-Saddam era, which was characterized by a sense of harmony and togetherness in both Sunni and Shi‘a communities. Back then, Muslims from both communities rallied in the streets of Baghdad, chanting slogans eschewing sectarianism and appealing for unity. In unforgettable scenes, demonstrators from the predominantly Sunni Adhamiyyah quarter joined fellow Iraqis from the predominantly Shi‘a Kazimiyyah quarter and marched in the streets chanting: “Islam Sunna wa Shi‘a, hadha al-watan ma nabi’a” (“Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’ites, we’ll never sell this country out”). The same sense of brotherhood was also demonstrated in the first few months of the occupation, when young men from both communities organized themselves to guard and protect mosques belonging to either community that had been the targets of attacks.
In fact, this was not the first time in modern Iraqi history that the Sunnis and Shi‘as came together in the face of foreign occupation. The same spirit wasevident during the insurrection in 1920 against British rule in Iraq. Sunni and Shi‘a Arab tribes joined forces to fight the British occupiers. Wonderful pictures of harmony and unity were painted during the five-month insurrection. Sunnis and Shi‘as in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities congregated at each other’s mosques to perform Friday prayers and celebrate their respective holidays together. Iraqi Muslims also visited the homes of Christians and Jews to invite them to join anti-British protests and demonstrations. It is these traditions of harmony and unity that must be revived and emphasized now.
Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence has so far been the main obstacle to the expansion of the resistance to the US-led occupation. Unrestrained, senseless and outrageous acts of violence against Iraqis restrict the resistance’s chances of success in liberating the country, and threaten to plunge Iraq into civil strife. No national liberation movement can succeed if it fails to establish a broad base of support. By targeting civilians from certain communities, the salafis are jeopardizing the development of broader support for the armed resistance. Worse still, such ill-advised violence opens the door wide for internecine bloodletting. Nothing could be more damaging to the prospects of the resistance.
Sectarianism is the opposite of the true community and brotherhood of Islam. It denotes rigidity and doctrinaire narrow-mindedness that pits a sect and its members not only against members of other sects but also against the broad, all-inclusive deen of Islam. Sectarian attitudes and structures run counter to the Islamic concept of the Ummah, which is supposed to be a righteous community of believers sharing a sense of destiny that recognizes differences – be they doctrinal, political, jurisprudential, etc. – but transcends divisions.
The specter of sectarian bloodshed stalks Iraq. Leaders of both communities need to summon their moral courage and draw their communities back into the folds of cohesion and harmony. “And hold fast, all together, by the rope of Allah, and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favour on you, for you were enemies and He united your hearts, so that by His grace you became brothers” (al-Qur’an 3:103).