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Sectarianism in the Age of Endless War

Natana J. DeLong-Bas

Boston College

Headline news from the Middle East—bombings of Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia and in downtown Beirut the expansion of ISIS/Da'esh/the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, Shia Iranian persecution of its Sunni minority, the unified call for reform in Bahrain derailed by Sunni-Shia conflict—suggests that sectarianism is a deeply-rooted historical reality that is an inevitable part of the religious landscape of the Middle East and one that can lead only to disunity and conflict and even to acts of terrorism abroad, as seen most recently in Paris. Indeed, sectarianism appears to present the greatest challenge for national identity politics, as one community asserts its own identity in terms of what the "other" is not.

Historically, the breach between Sunnis and Shia was the result of differences of opinion as to who should take over leadership and in what capacity following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunnis (rooted in the Sunna, or example of the Prophet) accepted the end of prophethood and divine revelation with Muhammad's death so that any successor (khalifah, or caliph) was to serve in the capacity of political leader who would oversee and assure the implementation of Islamic law and practice in the public domain. They believed that Muhammad had indicated that his Companion, Abu Bakr, was to be his successor. However, those who dissented asserted that Muhammad had appointed his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, to take over, not only as political, but also as religious leader, based on special esoteric knowledge passed from Muhammad to Ali that enabled infallible interpretation of the Qur'an, which Ali then passed on to his next descendent as Imam. The term Shia is rooted in the idea of partisanship, namely the Shi'at Ali, or "Party of Ali", demonstrating this difference in reference to and nature of authority in the very names by which these two groups are known. Although the solidification and articulation of these identities took time to become firmly rooted and were also influenced by a surrounding context of an expanding Islamic Empire in which Arab and Islamic identities were posited in opposition to—and often adopted elements of—Persian culture, in particular, the roots of sectarianism are tied to imagined memories of this pivotal moment as decisive and permanent. Thus disagreements over the nature and extent of leadership devolved into accusations of hypocrisy (munafiqah), heresy (ilhad or zandaqah), rejectionism (rafidah), and apostasy (ridda), and even led to the assertion of different sets of hadith (records of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad) as scriptural sources based on their chains of transmission (isnad).

Sunnis have accused Shi'a of rejecting the first three Rightly Guided Caliphs and, thus, of rejecting the pivotal concepts of consultation (shura) and consensus (ijma') suggested by the hadith: "My community will never agree in error." They have further accused Shi'a of violating the central concept of absolute monotheism (tawhid) and engaging in associationism (shirk) through their veneration of the Imams and consideration of the teachings of the Imams as infallible additional sources of scripture.

Shi'a have accused Sunnis of disrespecting the Prophet's family by their refusal to recognize the esoteric knowledge of the Imams and by failure to support Husayn ibn Ali (the Prophet's grandson) in his quest to recover leadership of the Muslim community from the Umayyad dynasty, which could not claim direct descent from Muhammad. This resulted in the martyrdom of Husayn and his followers in Karbala in 680 CE, establishing a paradigm of pathos, suffering, and marginalization that have become hallmarks of Shi'a self-perceptions ever since.

Such political and theological disagreements were not limited to Sunnis and Shia, as other groups also splintered off not only over disagreements about leadership, but also the impact of sinful behavior with respect to membership in the Muslim community (ummah). The Kharijites, for instance, called for emigration (hijra) in the case of an impious leader. Splintering also occurred within sects, as Shi'a split into Fivers (Zaydis), Seveners (Ismailis), and Twelvers (Ithna' Ashari) based on the number and type of Imams followed, some of which came to highlight apocalyptic themes, such as the Ismaili Qarmatians.

The reality of such variation indicates vibrant discussions and differences of opinion about the nature of both leadership and authority. The central question within modern Middle Eastern countries is the relative ability to engage in such debate freely, and the impact this debate can have on citizenship in any given state. In other words, can and should sectarian identity be the determining factor in citizenship status, or do contemporary states have an obligation to recognize the plurality of opinions within their borders while placing the state in the position of guarantor of the freedom to express such opinions? Does the state bolster its legitimacy by protecting sectarian expression or by promoting it? Are there any useful historical examples of peaceful sectarian co-existence to draw upon?

For example, although there is a tendency today to portray Iraq as torn apart by "age-old" sectarian rivalries at the political level with long and strong historical precedents, simply attributing such conflicts to inherently unresolvable theological conflicts fails to consider the broader context in which sectarian strife has arisen, and even been generated, by external influences and other internal dynamics. The impact of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and removal of the former Baathist regime, which was secular in ideology, although associated with the Sunni minority, resulted in the inflammation of sectarian identities along political lines. Removal of between 500,000 and 1 million people from their jobs—literally overnight—because of "Baathist sympathies" (a requirement for employment under Saddam Hussein's regime) resulted in immediate poverty, refugee status, and, ultimately, powerlessness and humiliation that have played out in expressions of sectarian hatred. "Shi'a" were placed in positions of power simply for what they were not (Baathists), rather than for what they were (qualified and experienced professionals), as a matter of an externally driven, rapid redressing of a perceived imbalance of power. Such conflict, particularly in a country where Sunnis and Shi'a lived in the same neighborhoods and even intermarried, was neither "inevitable" nor necessarily theologically rooted. Competition for power, rather than religious belief, is at the heart of such conflicts, suggesting that there could be potential for cooperative coexistence if sectarian identity is not the determining factor in social or employment status.

Saudi Arabia has long been considered one of the most extreme states in terms of its insistence upon a singular theological ideology, popularly known as Wahhabism, as the religion of state. Its absolute exclusion of alternative interpretations from positions of power, at the levels of both the government and the religious establishment, has contributed to a situation in which the Saudi Shi'a of the Eastern Province reside in an area that is both the main source of the Kingdom's wealth, and the most underdeveloped in terms of infrastructure for its population. The events of 9/11 brought to stark light the potential for such exclusivist ideology to provoke hatred and violence against anyone considered to be "other"—non-Wahhabi, non-Saudi, non-Muslim, etc. Saudi Arabia came under global pressure to eradicate such exclusivism both from school curricula and from the religious establishment. Moments of hope followed with the implementation of the National Dialogues, which included not only Sunni and Shi'a, but also opened new space for women's and youth participation. Moreover, the voices of Sunni law schools other than Wahhabi were included, and the government emphasized the need to promote wasatiyya (moderation) as part of the project of wataniyya (love of nation) in the hope of building a more moderate population sharing the common goal of becoming educated and contributing citizens. Yet, the realities of the regional uncertainty ushered in by the Arab Spring highlighted the ultimate fragility of such efforts. Concerns about state stability translated into a return to authoritarianism and a focus on "the enemy within." Saudi Shi'a were accused of collaboration with Iran and Iranian regional intervention and disruption became the battle cry for many of the Gulf countries, leading to renewed sectarian conflict played out through Saudi-Iranian rivalry, as exemplified by the proxy war in Yemen. Efforts between Sunnis and Shi'a to work toward common reformist goals devolved into accusations of disloyalty as Shi'a protests in the Eastern Province, demanding greater rights and recognition, continued unabated and were punished with the proverbial "iron fist."

The so-called Islamic State represents the greatest danger to regional security not only by fueling sectarian conflict, but taking it to the extreme of executing those not on board with its political program. Playing on an invented memory of a glorious past in which the entire Islamic ummah was united under a single caliph (a reality that never fully existed), the IS has sought to stir up the hearts of youth, in particular, with the recovery of a past that claims to provide power and security in the name of singularity of belief and practice, insisting on an approach to politics and religion based on conformity, rather than expression of difference of opinion at any level.

Herein lies the greatest lie of the IS, then: its insistence upon a singular vision of the past conflating security and stability with a monolithic monotheism as a faithful recreation of a fairytale past, thus stifling any ability to express difference. The reality of the historical record shows a great variety of opinions and ideas being expressed and implemented, with the greatest, most stable, and longest-lasting empires being those that learned to appreciate difference and permit different populations to express and maintain their identities and religious laws in a way that allowed for their inclusion as subjects, rather than being objects of persecution.

The challenge for the future will be to take back both history and theology from those pushing sectarian agendas, those bolstering their own claims to power by manipulating tensions that have more to do with socio-economic and political status than they do with sectarian identity. Stripping away the purportedly religious mask to expose the realities of inequality, discrimination, and lack of opportunity and participation as the root causes of social unrest could create the space needed to nurture genuine institutions of civil society and a more constructive path forward into the future. That task must necessarily begin with the provision of personal security, both for refugee populations, largely from Syria and Iraq, and for domestic populations being torn apart by violence in the name of sectarianism, whether manipulated by outside influences or the product of domestic policies. At heart are the questions of identity and belonging: Is sectarian identity a singular, exclusive, and terminal identity assigned from the outside, or is it simply one piece of a complex mix of identities that, together, constitute the contemporary citizen?


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Related Content

Subject Entries

Sunni Islam
Shi'a Islam
Saudi Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria
Arab Spring
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