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In Denial: Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia Bury Their Heads Deeper in the Sand | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) pledges to achieve what Arabs, Muslims and the whole world has failed to do; to end the dissension in Iraq – at least that is what is currently being reported by the international news media. According to the organization, it is currently putting together the final touches to the conference that aims at reconciling Iraq’s Sunni and Shia and religious leaders of both groups who will be in attendance. But up till know, we cannot really tell who will attend and who won’t, or who will be tolerant and who will be rigid. We don’t know what the stances of the Association of Muslim Scholars, or members of al-Hakim group will be. The OIC announced that the conciliatory meeting will be held on the 27th and 28th of this Ramadan by the Holy Mosque in Mecca; the timing was carefully chosen in accordance with the common belief that Laylat al-Qadr falls on either of these two days. (The Night of Power, the exact date of which is unconfirmed, when the Quran was revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Mohammed, pbuh). Optimistic statements were issued by the organization last October saying that the conference aims to declare an agreement and publish a document for the world to see that condemns terrorism and affirms that Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia are “in a state of harmony and agreement”, (the exact expression used by the organization).

Ambassador Ezzat Mufti, assistant Secretary-General of the OIC elaborated saying, “Members of the Sunnis and Shia groups are invited to discuss the conflicts that are ascribed to them by irresponsible parties in order for a consensus, treaty and final statement to be reached. Any attempts of attack will be penalized, and the whole process will be monitored by the Islamic Jurisprudence Academy and the Organization of Islamic Conference”. Mufti added, “Other partners who will attend the conference include religious scholars from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, however only as advisors. The final decision will be made by the scholars and the leaders of the Sunni and Shia parties.”

This is what OIC aspires to and expects, which obviously shows enormous ambition.

To the present moment, there is an indication that Grand Ayatollah al Sistani has agreed to attend the conference (revealed through a representative, of course). There is also a reference to certain reservations that could be expressed by the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) and which may resemble those expressed by Secretary General Harith al-Dhari [of the AMS] at the famous Cairo conference. Despite how precious such steps towards reconciliation might be, one still wonders: Is the conflict between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia ideological, on a doctrinal level, or is it only about denouncing the other as an non-believer?!

We see that the statements issued by the religious symbols of both parties never tire of emphasizing the essence of brotherhood between them and the fact that they are descendents of the same nation who follow the same religion. We all remember how Sheikh Abdul-Ghafur al Samarrai, the Sunni cleric and president of Iraq’s Diwan al Waqf al Sunni (Sunni Endowments Council), expressed his grief for the bombing of the shrines in Samarra, condemning Sunnis who denounce others as infidels. Simultaneously, we witnessed Ayatollah al Sistani proclaiming the necessity of maintaining Sunni rights, refraining from attacking them, all the while asserting that both parties follow the same religion. Even Muqtada al Sadr refers to the “Sunni brothers”, while Harith al-Dhari talks about the “Shia brothers”. So what seems to be the problem then?!

Are we all in a mass state of denial?! Who is attacking the Sunnis in Basra and in Baghdad, slaughtering them in the name of identity? Who is attacking the Shia Husseiniyat [where Shia gatherings are held] killing visitors in Najaf, al-Kazemiya and Karbala? Who blasted the Dome of Samarra? Indeed, there is a state of public denial, but it would not be true to say that the problem in Iraq lies in sectarian, factional, ethnic or even religious differences. The situation has not changed much in Iraq for 1400 years when there was no Sunni/Shia issue so why have these sects suddenly become a problem today?! The real problem in Iraq, and elsewhere, is the exploitation of religious sentiments or those of identity, under a general banner such as sect, religion, race, or region, in the attempt to strengthen one party or another, based on the country’s ancient legacy and its former political formula. Recently appearing on Al Arabiya the ‘Americanized secularist’, Ahmed Chalabi, was asked about his part in fuelling the existing sectarianism and his contributions through the ideas of the ‘Al Bayt al Shi’i (The Shi’i House) and then the Shia Coalition. In response he smiled and said, “Even the Iraqi Communist Party is following the new trend and has changed its slogan from ‘workers of the world, unite!’ to “workers of the world, may God grant His Peace and Blessings upon the Prophet’ (pbuh)”.

The truth is that there exists a sectarian intolerance on both sides and all attempts of reconciliation or bringing the two parties ‘closer’ together fail because of the denial involved. There is also the small talk that never leads anywhere. I have no idea what the Iraqi Sunni and Shia scholars can contribute to the Mecca conference that can help reconcile the two parties, or try to breach the widening philosophical and ideological gap that exists between them. This idea of reconciliation by creating common ground is not a new one; it even predates the reconciliatory project that took place half a century ago during Sheikh Shaltoot’s time, in the days when ‘Dar al-Taqreeb al-Madahib al-Islamiya’ (Center for the Reconciliation of the Islamic Schools of Thought) was established.

Joint reconciliatory efforts date back to the famous Najaf conference, which was held in 1743 by Nadir Shah, the Shah of Iran at the time, during whose rule conflict with the Ottomans over Iraq was quickly escalating. One of the catalysts behind this war was the deep-seated sectarian clashes between the Sunni Ottomans and ‘Persian’ Shia, but since political considerations had to precede everything else and because of the heavy price to be paid, Nadir Shah tried to put an end to sectarianism in Iraq, just as the ‘Shahs’ of Iraq are doing nowadays. The conference lasted three days and was attended by a host of Shia and Sunni scholars from Iraq and elsewhere. It concluded with the Sunni scholar Sheikh Abdullah al Suwaidi declaring that Sunnis were guided to ‘the right path’ and how they had defeated the ‘misguided’ Shia. Likewise, the Shia scholars in attendance retaliated with similar claims. The Shah inaugurated this extraordinary conference by saying: “In my kingdom, there are two parties who accuse one another of apostasy and it’s high time to put an end to this.” But the controversy lasted and each side continued to label the other ‘infidel’ – all reconciliation efforts failed. The reason behind this, (considering that that the concept of tolerance among Muslims has reached a crisis point) is that the Shah never really saw the real problem, just like other politicians. The truth is that the enduring sectarian clashes could sometimes be regarded as useful or even required from a political perspective, to some at least! The Safavids were originally the ones who reinforced and protected the Shia movement in Iran; the reason was to create a cultural barrier to counter the Sunni Ottoman cultural barrier. Both parties regarded the sectarian rift as a strong card to play, dealing with the issue from power and political perspectives of which tolerance and peace between the sects was not a part.

But who benefits from this sectarian explosion in Iraq now? Ignore the false and rhetorical discourse that is presented to the public. There are those who can use this sectarian discrimination and doctrinal disagreement to fulfill their political agenda and these are the ones who benefit. But which party and who’s agenda can gain the most from this unyielding sectarian tension, one in which members of the sect are inextricably stuck to their leader who is their shepherd and protector. Of course in this light, the party to shoulder the responsibility of protecting the Shia would either be al Hakim’s organization or al Mahdi’s army. As for the Sunnis, it could be al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups, not to mention Iran’s foreign policy agenda, Syria’s hidden agenda that benefits from Sunni terrorism and so on. Therefore, the ones who benefit from this factionalism in Iraq are the ones who contribute, whether positively or negatively, with their political or security undertakings on the land, and they are the ones responsible for extinguishing or fanning the flames of this sectarian fire, which is not only limited to the religious scholars. Still, the two religious parties can play a significant role in withdrawing or weakening the ‘religion card’ in Iraq, but there will always be other players who could introduce new cards, other than those of religion and sectarianism, in case the aforementioned two prove to be ineffective.

In conclusion, one does not want to rain on the OIC’s parade, nor water down its optimism in trying to resolve the matter. It goes without saying that the sectarian war in Iraq where each side deems the other an unbeliever, massacring in the name of identity, is symptomatic of a disease that has its reasons and is a religious expression and a direct manifestation of the brutal struggle over wealth and power in an unstable Iraq. Will relying on Mecca and the Holy Mosque’s spiritual weight protect them against unfulfilled covenants and promises? If that is the belief, let us not forget the Reconciliation Conference, held under the Kaaba walls between the Afghan Mujahideen upon which they had all agreed and approved. They had barely signed the agreement when the guns started rattling again in the valleys of Afghanistan despite the fact that the Afghan leaders unanimously agreed on doctrines and direction. Without a doubt, the Kaaba and the Holy Mosque have great spiritual significance in the hearts of Muslims, but wisdom has taught us that the instinct for power and influence eclipses the shimmer of faith and spirit. It could even threaten faith, with all its symbols, if it stands in the way of achieving ambitions. The best example for that is when Hajjaj Bin Yusuf al Thaqafi attack the Kaaba after his Umayyad enemy Ibn al-Zubayr sought refuge inside the holy structure.

It remains to be said that the real obstacle lies in the hearts of the Iraqis themselves; a place does not have the power to make anyone holy. I sincerely hope for the success of the Mecca conference and wish it all the best.