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The phenomenon and politics of sectarianism

Zafar Bangash

Sectarianism is projected in some quarters as the greatest challenge facing Muslims when the vast majority of Muslims want unity in the Ummah. Who is stoking the flames of sectarianism?

Sectarian discourse and sectarian induced violence seem to have become major problems facing Muslims today. There are killings in the name of one sect or another in different parts of the Muslim world. Muslims are told that sectarianism is a historical problem that cannot be overcome. Such assertions fly in the face of empirical evidence that posits a completely opposite proposition: most Muslims support unity. For instance, a poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that two thirds of Muslims worldwide want to “unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or caliphate [khilafah].”

While framed in theological terms, sectarianism is essentially a political weapon used by certain vested interests to advance their narrow agenda since they lack a legitimate basis to justify their position or continued hold on power. Like nationalism, sectarianism is also used to whip up mass hysteria. Without justifying it, there are at least some positive aspects to nationalism. For instance, people in one geographical area, ie a country, can be mobilized to stand up against a rival country in the name of patriotism and protecting the “national interest.”

Nationalism’s limitation is that by its very nature it is confined to people living in a certain geographical area. Thus, on the basis of nationalism alone, Pakistanis for instance cannot have the motivation to help the people of Palestine or any other place where there is human suffering. The same applies to other situations. The Afghans cannot appeal to Muslims elsewhere to help them on the basis of nationalism. But, this can be overcome if the discourse is framed in Islamic terms.

Thus, the people of Pakistan can be motivated to help their fellow Muslims in Palestine or Chechnya in the name of Islam. The Pakistanis may not necessarily go there physically — although some have done so — but their sympathies can be aroused and financial donations solicited to help alleviate the suffering of oppressed Muslims in other parts of the world.

The above examples have nothing to do with sectarianism. The people of Palestine and Chechnya follow different schools of thought from those in Pakistan. The common bond between them is Islam. Problems arise when some people — usually rulers of some countries that lack legitimacy — resort to sectarian discourse whose purpose is to create hatred for a particular group or party. Raw sectarianism is often camouflaged by using Islamic terminology.

To understand this better, let us look at Syria. For nearly three years, a war has raged there that can be traced directly to outside forces, primarily the Zionists, imperialists and the Saudis. This can be narrowed further; the imperialists have pulled back somewhat because they have realized that what may replace the current regime led by Bashar al-Asad may turn out to be even worse if al-Qaeda-linked takfiris grab power. The Saudi-Zionist alliance, however, is hell-bent on creating instability and continuing the violence.

The Zionists can hardly appeal to Muslims by claiming to be friends of the Syrian people. No Muslim with even a limited understanding of the nature of Zionism and its oppression and persecution of the Palestinians will accept the Zionists as friends and allies. Enter the Saudis. While they lack legitimacy, they have often used their alleged support for “Muslim” causes elsewhere to polish their ugly image. In the 1980s, they sent thousands of Arabians to fight in Afghanistan. It was not to help the Afghans but to get rid of their own troublesome youth, demanding fundamental rights that were threatening regimes in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Many Arabian fighters returned to create problems for regimes in their home countries once the Afghan war ended.

The Saudis are playing an even more sinister game in Syria. They can hardly claim to be helping the Syrian people to gain their legitimate rights when the Saudis suppress their own people and do not allow women to even drive cars (in Syria, women are allowed to fly planes!). Nor can the Saudis claim that they are supporting the “Sunni majority” in Syria when the Saudi rulers did not support the overwhelmingly Sunni population of Egypt after the Egyptian military overthrew a legitimately elected government last July. Instead, the Saudi regime openly backs the military coup in Egypt. This has left them dangerously exposed in their alleged claim of supporting “Sunni” Muslims.

In Syria, however, the Saudis have played the sectarian card effectively. Accusing the Bashar al-Asad regime of being ‘Alawi (the ‘Alawis are an offshoot of Shi‘ism), the Saudis and their tribal allies in the region have whipped up sectarian tensions and created massive problems in the Ummah. The regime in Syria is neither ‘Alawi, nor Shi‘i or Sunni. It is not a religious-based government at all. There are Sunni ministers in the government as there are Shi‘i ministers. There are Christians and yes, there are ‘Alawis in the cabinet but none of them is committed to any particular sect. There are men as well as women in government but they are all secularists. Their overriding loyalty is to the secularist nationalist Ba‘th party system and their position in it.

The Saudis are using sectarianism in Syria to whip up hatred against the regime, which it wants to overthrow. This is part of its pro-Zionist policy and is also meant to secure an extension of its own existence that looks increasingly shaky given current trends in the region as well as internal developments in the kingdom. There is much discontent in the kingdom with nearly 30,000 political prisoners languishing in horrible conditions in various prisons. The Syrian crisis, however, is a recent phenomenon. The Saudis have used sectarianism as a tool in such places as Pakistan and Lebanon for many years and more recently in Iraq with deadly consequences.

In the backdrop of Saudi-induced sectarianism is fear of the rise of Islamic Iran on the political landscape as a major player. True, Iran is a predominantly Shi‘i country but it has not launched a sectarian crusade to brand non-Shi‘i Muslims as kafirs. Nor has Iran encouraged the killing of Sunnis anywhere. In fact, Iran has tried hard, within its means, to create understanding among Muslims of different schools of thought. The Tehran-based Majma‘ al-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah regularly brings together scholars of different schools of thought to promote Muslim unity. It can be argued that this has not eliminated sectarian-induced conflicts but it is not for lack of trying. It is a lot easier to create fitnah (sedition) than to establish peace and harmony.

It would be appropriate to reflect on some areas of the Muslim world where sectarian tensions have been running high. Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria immediately come to mind. Add to that Bahrain and we can begin to form a picture that these are countries with populations predominantly of one sect but also with a sizeable population of the other. Thus, while Pakistan is predominantly Sunni, there is also a sizeable Shi‘i population there. In Lebanon’s complex confessional pot pouri, the Shi‘is are more than the Sunnis but with a significant Christian population, the political landscape is more complicated. In Iraq the Shi‘is constitute an absolute majority who were denied basic rights for decades. Unfortunately, since the rise to power of a Shi‘i dominated government, peace has not been restored. Bahrain is overwhelmingly Shi‘i ruled by a tiny minority “Sunni” family clique.

But how does one explain the lack of sectarianism in places like Turkey, Azerbaijan or Kuwait? Turkey has a sizeable Alevi (‘Alawi) and Shi‘i population (about 15%), Azerbaijan is an overwhelmingly Shi‘i country while Kuwait has a sizeable Shi‘i (about 20%) population. Kuwait’s example is instructive because it follows the same Wahhabi ideology that the Saudis subscribe to from whence it emerged in the 18th century yet there has been no sectarian conflict in Kuwait.

We also have the curious phenomenon of sectarian tensions arising in places like Malaysia, Indonesia and South Africa. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world almost all of them Sunnis following the Shafi‘i school of thought. There are only a few thousand Shi‘is there at best. The same applies to Malaysia and South Africa. The question is: why has sectarianism reared its ugly head in these places? The same question may be asked about Egypt where days before his ouster from power, President Mohamed Mursi had indulged in crude sectarian rhetoric. Some Shi‘is were publicly lynched when the Shi‘is in Egypt are no more than a few hundred thousand in a population of some 80 million. It needs recalling that Egypt was at one time a predominantly Shi‘i country under the Fatimids and al-Azhar University was established by them more than 1,000 years ago!

In Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa, Saudi agents have deliberately created a sectarian crisis as part of their attempt to keep the Ummah divided. After all, neither place has a significant Shi‘i population and in South Africa, the total Muslim population itself is miniscule compared to the country’s overall population. There are, however, some maulanas that have close links with the Saudis through such Saudi front organizations as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) whose representatives frequently visit South Africa disbursing largesse (the US has declared WAMY a terrorist organization).

In both Indonesia and Malaysia, the regimes are behind the anti-Shi‘i campaign although there are also strong voices raised against stoking sectarianism. Leaders of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) as well as many leading academics and intellectuals have spoken out forcefully against sectarianism and warned against the negative consequences of this campaign.

It is interesting to note that there was no sectarianism in Pakistan until the early-1980s when the Islamic Revolution in Iran succeeded. This was a deliberate policy pursued by the Americans, British and Israelis as well as some segments of the Pakistani establishment. Their aim was to prevent the influence of the Islamic Revolution from spreading into Pakistan. Given strong cultural and linguistic affinities between the two countries, the latter was a natural arena for accepting the revolutionary fervor sweeping Iran. Yet under a carefully crafted policy, promoted by some segments of the Pakistani establishment, anti-Shi‘i sentiments were allowed to flourish. Unfortunately the Pakistani Shi‘is also played a negative role and inadvertently helped the “Sunni” extremists. Those Shi‘i scholars (like Syed Arif Hussaini Shaheed), who were striving to create understanding between the two communities, were eliminated. This not only exacerbated Shi‘i-Sunni tensions but also allowed space for more narrow-minded sectarian Shi‘is to emerge.

When the struggle against the Soviets was raging in Afghanistan, extremist “Sunni” outfits were promoted in both countries to confront the Red Army. This, however, could not remain confined to Afghanistan since much of the ideological indoctrination was coming from Saudi Arabia via Pakistan. Helped by Saudi funds, many madrasahs sprang up in Pakistan and in its tribal belt. The students who emerged from these madrasahs carried the narrow-minded strain of Wahhabi sectarian ideology that denounces every non-Wahhabi a kafir.

Unfortunately some otherwise respectable scholars also lent their weight and prestige to this divisive campaign. The late maulana Abu al-Hassan Nadvi (d. 1999) was one of them as was his close associate Manzoor Ahmen Naumani. Both scholars succumbed to the temptation of petrodollars and despite their learning, embarked on a sectarian crusade that has caused immense damage to the Ummah. While the two Indian maulanas waxed eloquent against Shi‘ism, they never mustered the courage to say a word against Hindu fascism or the mistreatment of Muslims in India that continues to this day.

In a telling episode in the early-1990s, Indian security forces raided Nadvi’s madrasah in Luckhnow following a tip that Kashmiri mujahideen were sheltering there. The security forces broke down dormitory doors, smashed furniture and beat up many of the tullab (students). No Kashmiri was found there. The Indian government offered a mere 200,000 rupees (approx. $4,000) as compensation and the maulana kept mum despite some Muslim leaders in India urging him to take a stronger stand against such acts of state terrorism.

Disturbing as the rise of sectarianism is, there are important voices being raised against it. Last August, a conference in Kuala Lumpur attended by academics and scholars from different schools of thought presented persuasive arguments against sectarianism. Similar efforts elsewhere, for instance in Turkey in November and early last month in Pakistan, point to the fact that ‘ulama and Islamic activists are taking steps to confront the menace. In Turkey, an 11-point agenda was agreed upon while in Pakistan a nine-point agenda was unanimously agreed by ‘ulama that represented major sects — Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-e Hadith and Jafari schools of thoughts. The Pakistani meeting was convened under the auspices of the Punjab Auqaf and Religious Affairs ministry in Lahore.

Important as these steps are, more persistent efforts are needed to isolate and thus weed out the extremists that constitute a tiny minority but grab huge publicity because of their violent acts. The government of Pakistan has a major responsibility in confronting the menace of sectarianism otherwise it will tear the fabric of society apart in which there will be no winners.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 11

Rabi' al-Awwal 01, 14352014-01-02

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