The Eid celebrations were not enough to put an end to the continuing Sunni – Shiite – Alawite sectarian strife that is currently playing out in the region. Today, we are witnessing the peak cultural and sectarian conflict in the modern era of Islam; this is being fuelled by the numerous political conflicts that have spread over a vast geographic area.
Two Lebanese Shiite leaders— Hani Fahs and Mohammed Hassan al-Amin — announced their opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime, and this represented a courageous move in the midst of the Sunni-Shiite divide that has emerged over the situation in Syria. In addition to this, a number of Iraqi religious and cultural figures have come out to warn against the return of sectarian strife following the assassination of three key Sunni leaders. Away from the Arab region, the killing of 20 Pakistani Shiites shook the country, whilst many Sunnis have called for the arrest of the killers, as well as for those who incite sectarian attacks to be held accountable for this.
The most important step in this context was the announcement made by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz at the recent Islamic Solidarity Summit in Mecca. The Saudi monarch called for the establishment of a center for dialogue between Islamic sects in order to put an end to the sectarian strife that has plagued the Muslim world. As for how to end the scourge of sectarianism, views differ between those who want to criminalize sectarian incitement and those calling for the promotion of a culture of co-existence. However, there are still loud voices strongly promoting sectarian sentiments and viewing this as a form of jihad in defence of their religious convictions.
The majority of the disagreements between the Sunnis and Shiites started with political debate that moved into religious and historical terrain and developed into outright sectarian conflict. This reflects a state of tension and political rivalry that results in the proselytization of the followers of other sects, as has been the case in the Gulf region. This is something that we have never seen before. In Kuwait, like elsewhere, the sectarian debate is part of a dangerous game. One of the Kuwaiti MPs said “I have credible information that parties linked to a sectarian reserve army in Kuwait are buying weapons from the black market in preparation for zero hour.” Whether this is true or not, talking about arming is dangerous and exceeds all the limits of political debate that should exist between MPs.
The first step that must be taken in the fight against sectarianism is to convince all activists working in the political arena, not to mention the media, that sectarianism poses the greatest threat to the fabric of our society and states. The on-going conflict in Syria should not be categorized as one being launched by the Sunnis against the Alawites – the sect of President Bashar al-Assad. Many Sunnis have collaborated closely with the Syrian regime, fighting at its side and taking part in its heinous crimes over numerous decades. This is a regime that represents itself, nothing more, and it has been keen to turn the revolution into a sectarian war, something that it has been attempting for the better part of a year.
War against sectarianism is primarily a cultural effort and that is why Saudi Arabia has called for the establishment of a center for dialogue between Islamic sects to assess the problem. This center will, hopefully, return the situation back to normal. Throughout the majority of Islamic history, Muslims of different sects have been able to live together in a state of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. Debate advocates may say that we are in a period that warrants criminalizing sectarian incitement, because it is behind numerous instances of killings, sabotage and destruction. The danger represented by sectarianism is no less than the threat of terrorism, which manipulates religion to justify its acts. All members of our community only moved to confront extremist ideology after they became convinced that it posed a genuine danger and needed to be eliminated, by culture and arms.