The problem of sectarianism undermining the efforts of the Islamic movement
The global Islamic movement, spreading all over the world, and the Islamic State in Iran, the leading edge of the movement, have one major problem in common: the sectarianism of the Muslims within them. And yet all these Muslims are blind to the sectarianism of Muslims in their own communities, those they regard as” our type of Muslims. Thus, “Sunni” Muslims are often oblivious to individuals and leaders in their own communities who cannot tolerate “Shi‘i” Muslims; and equally, “Shi‘i” Muslims are unconscious of individuals and leaders whose attitude to non-Shi‘is is deeply sectarian.
These self-destructive attitudes were major factors during the American-initiated, Iraqi-imposed, and Arab-financed war against the Islamic State of Iran and Imam Khomeini’s leadership of the global Islamic movement. During those years of war, many of the Islamic parties and jama‘ats that make up a substantial part of the Islamic movement were happy to dismiss the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and indeed to cooperate with those determined to destroy it, on the assumption that the whole Iranian experience is a Shi‘a phenomenon that is thus unworthy of any serious consideration. The inability of prominent Sunni figures in the movement to understand that a fundamental change had occurred within Shi‘ism with the particular leadership of Imam Khomeini; their stubborn refusal to recognize that the Shi‘is, like all other Muslim communities, have both their visionaries and their reactionaries; and their reluctance to break out of their financial comfort-zones working with established governmental powers, had two key (albeit unintended) consequences.
The first was that they provided much-needed succor to the Israeli-American schemers working to limit the impact that the Islamic Revolution under the inclusive and non-sectarian leadership of Imam Khomeini had on the wider Ummah. The second was that they made it much easier for Shi‘is with sectarian tendencies to promote the Islamic Revolution as Shi‘i phenomenon rather than an Islamic one. The latent but strong Sunni sectarianism, which leaders in the Islamic movement were unable to overcome in their own outlooks, let alone in the attitudes and actions in those Muslims who looked to Islamic movements for leadership and guidance, created a fissure in the Ummah through which the American and Israeli enemies of Islam could both attack the nascent Islamic State, and fatally undermine the global Islamic movement. The enemies of Islam have proved extremely successful in cultivating the virus of Muslim sectarianism as a weapon in their wars throughout the region – Iraq, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan and other areas – the champions of sectarianism among both Sunnis and Shi‘is have used each others’ sin to justify their own prejudices and atttudes.
During the long years when Islamic Iran was sacrificing the precious blood of its martyrs to try to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussain and liberate the people of Iraq, in the cause of a future Islamic state that could unite the Ummah, we had figureheads of the global Islamic movement moving comfortably in Saudi circles, happy to receive generous donations of petrodollars, and apparently having no compunctions at all about traveling in and out of Washington, New York, and even Disneyland; “Iran” to them may have just as well been on another planet. Although many more junior people in Islamic movements instinctively supported Islamic Iran and recognized its relevance to all Muslims, their efforts were fatally undermined by those who were happy to be rewarded handsomely for their sectarianism. In setting up an Islamic infrastructure in the US and the West, the Wahhabis pioneers were, it seemed, always two steps ahead of their Ikhwani competitors, resulting in deep hostility to Iran among Muslims organizations in the US. To this day, we still hear voices within the Sunni world who say that “Islamic”Iran is an American/British conspiracy to subvert or sabotage the global Islamic movement!
Now there is a war against revolutionary Islam within the Islamic world outside Iran. The same US andIsrael who were obsessed with Islamic Iran then are now obsessed with the global Islamic movement. Now the US, in its “war against terrorism”, is cultivating Shi‘i sectarians, some of whom are willing to emulate the roles of their Sunni counterparts during the 1980s and 1990s. While the American/Israeli military thrust is preoccupied with al-Qa‘ida, salafis, and wahhabis, trying to finish them off, and with them all other Sunni Muslims who aspire to freedom, self-determination and genuine independence, some Shi‘i leaders are happy to cooperate. They, too, like their Sunni counterparts, are unable to realize that there are visionary Muslims in the global Islamic movement as well as reactionaries; they cannot see that there can be a true break with the traditional situation. These Shi‘is are more than willing to side with the US. Some of them are photographed alongside president Bush, others feel honored to be stepping into the State Department or the Pentagon... all paths that have been trodden by Sunnis in the last two decades.
And what are these Shi‘is doing cosying up to America? Precisely what they attacked their Sunni counterparts for doing: offering the US and Israel the freedom to pursue their immediate targets, the active and progressive elements of the global Islamic movement. And now they too are fueling sectarianism among Sunnis in exactly the same manner that some Sunnis fueled Shi‘i sectarianism by their actions. There are, of course, some influential Shi‘is who want the global Islamic movement to break this destructive cycle, but – like their Sunni counterparts – have so far failed to achieve their objective. And equally, like the Sunnis who say that the Islamic state in Iran was fabricated by American or British intelligence services, there are Shi‘is who say that the jihadis are the product of the CIA and Mossad.
At least three points stand out in this sectarian theater of the absurd:
1. There seems to be a pool of “Sunnis” and “Shi‘is” who are always willing, even eager, to side with theUnited States (and by extension Israel) against fellow Muslims;
2. There is always a stereotypical generalization of the other side: some Sunnis lump all the Shi‘is together and some Shi‘is lump all the Sunnis together;
3. There is a constant failure by sincere activists on both sides of this divide to come together, work together and sacrifice together.
This article has used the words “Sunni” and “Shi‘i” a lot more than aware and sensitive Islamic activists usually do. Among those in the Islamic movement who understand the damage that such attitudes can do, it is common to talk as though there is no such problem. But the reality of the situation we face needs to be recognized if we are to change it. At this particular time, the appalling and embarrassing state of affairs in Iraq leaves us no choice but to address the poisonous atmosphere there, which is influencing attitudes beyond Iraq’s borders, and arrest the damage before it is too late. Now is the time for all sincere members of the Islamic State and movement to lock hands and realise their best intentions in the inclusive and united spirit exemplified by Imam Khomeini.
The Islamic Uprising in Iran a quarter of a century ago is too important and too special for Muslims to simply watch it wander from its original and true course. We remember all too clearly the impact this breakthrough had on Muslims everywhere. For the first time in modern history, Muslims had risen against a corrupt government and its imperialist and zionist sponsors, and were able to take control of their own country, and begin to show the rest of us how things should be done.
Of course, the road forward was not likely to be smooth. The sponsors of the Pahlavi regime could not be expected to sit and watch a people shape their own future on the basis of their Islamic faith and commitment. Throughout the last 25 years, America and Israel have been working to bring the Islamic government in Iran to its knees, with the support of their Western allies, Iran’s pro-Western neighbours and even supporters within Iran. Iran’s borders amount to some 8,000 kilometers; American troops are now based across six thousand kilometers of this border. This grim scenario has been gradually built over 25 years, and has passed almost unnoticed by most Muslims, and even most Iranians. There has never been any cessation of hostilities between the followers of the line of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), who refuse to compromise when it comes to the independence and sovereignty of the Islamic state, and the numerous other interests wanting to shape the state on their terms.
Part of our object in this new column is to look at some of the gaps that have developed since the passing of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), many of which are rooted in earlier events, and how these gaps have caused serious problems about which we can no longer remain silent. But before we walk into this sensitive area, one point needs to be made absolutely clear. This is that none of the points we make are intended to express any criticism of Imam Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the successor to Imam Khomeini (r.a.) as Rahbar of the Islamic State. Many of the points we make will be highlighting natural processes in the evolution of post-Revolutionary state and society. Others will indeed involve criticism of errors and failures in Iran, mainly on the part of those who have been responsible for aspects of Iranian government and policy at the executive level. It was inevitable that such errors and failures should emerge over a quarter of a century in an unprecedented and highly-pressured historical situation; unfortunately they have contributed greatly to what many now see as the Islamic experiment’s current stagnation.
Sometimes frank statements of truth can be bitter pills to swallow; we hope no-one will consider this column to be too bitter a pill. We say what we say only to express our honest understanding of the issues. If we are correct, we appeal earnestly to Allah to accept our humble words to our humble readers. If not, we request Allah’s forgiveness and correction from anyone able to do so; without, we hope, descending into personal issues or hidden agendas. Ameen.