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Recently, Bahrain’s Al Waqt newspaper reported Bahraini al Wefaq MP, Hamza al Jamri’s comments that Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the al Wefaq party, was more informed in his legitimate duties and was more capable and worthier of leading prayers than the Salafist MP Jassim al Saeedi.

It is not as if the situation was lacking or the sectarian scene was deficient for al Jamri to make such comments.

In such a tense and volatile sectarian atmosphere, it is easy for any statement or comment of this kind to stir up a battle in a land that is yearning to relive the battles of al Jamal and Sefeen. Iraq is the epitome and the living proof of this historical subsistence and rigidity found among Muslims today.

The turbaned Sheikh Hamza al Deiri justified and interpreted this action by saying that Shia scholars, despite being against the al Maki and Madani Imams [those descending from the Mecca and Medina tradition, i.e. the Ahl al Bayt, household of the Prophet Sunni followers], still believe that they can lead the prayers and that praying behind them is valid. He stated that al Sayyid Ali Salman’s prayers were aimed at preventing media exploitation against the Shia, which would have been the case if Salman had refused to be led in prayer by Sheikh Saeedi.

But all this talk is futile and does not help to prevent sectarian prejudice and accusations against the Shia al Wefaq [National Islamic Society] party  and practically against all Shia followers.

Does this mean that the accusation is valid? Or instead, does it indicate a state of ‘hunting and waiting’ between the two parties, Sunnis and Shia alike, in which each group lies in wait to take advantage of any incident or situation of this kind, reloading the sectarian guns with new bullets of accusation against another?

Personally, I am more inclined to believe in the second assumption. I believe there is a state of watchfulness on both sides, and we all know, without any gloss, that there is an abundance of ammunition, evidence and witnesses.

For example, we all remember the sectarian-oriented warnings launched by various extremist Sunni clerics against the Shia. Perhaps the ugliest of these attacks was the one made by the Saudi Sheikh Nasser al Omar in his memoirs entitled ‘Waqie al Rafida fi Bilad al Tawheed’, (The Rafidah Reality in the Land of Tawheed), in which he warned Saudi scholars against being lenient with the Rafidah, and that they, Saudi’s Shia, pose a danger to the state. He prefaced his book with a letter to the late Mufti [the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz Bin Baaz] dated 10 Zulqida 1413 AH, the equivalent of 5 May 1993.

Al Omar spoke of these ‘Rafidah’, whilst completely obliterating the word ‘citizen’ from his vocabulary! Had he forgotten, or deliberately willed himself to forget that the people he referred to were rightful citizens just as he was? This forgetfulness, or this deliberate omission of the understanding of citizenship, stems from an understanding that advocates that the sole legitimate source for existence and action in life comes from the religious ideology of al Omar and his peers.

But the issue is not limited to Muslim sectarian rivalry (between the Sunnis and Shia), but has rather surpassed this sphere to afflict other religious groups. In the last al Matan constituency Chamber of Deputies elections in Lebanon, the furious competition between the two Christian sects was evident. The Maronites were contending over who was more ‘Christian’ and who followed a ‘purer Maronite’ path. When General Aoun, Hezbollah’s ‘friend’, and thus Syria’s by extension, won by a small margin of votes by virtue of the Armenian bloc, Gamayel’s group declared that Aoun did not represent the true Christians.

A day before this event, I was watching a televised debate on the Al Jazeera channel between leadership figures from the Kataeb party and Aoun’s party. The discussion revolved around the Christian ‘marjaeya’ [reference and authority] and whether there should be a religious ‘guide’ for Lebanon’s Christians, and also whether the Bkerke [seat of the Maronite Patriarchate] and the rank ‘patriarch’ could be considered the guide and ‘marjaeya’  or was the post simply a front that is ineffectual?

What is amusing is that the seat of the Bkerke and [the Lebanese] Patriarch himself, do not want to be deeply immersed into politics, deeming the site and post to be ultimately religious, not political. However, the Christian politicians rush to weigh down the clerical garb and the institution with politics, seeking to attract the Bkerke into the realm of politics in its role as the Christian ‘marjaeya’. Even the most secular in Lebanon never stop talking about the fact that Lebanon’s spiritual leaders are, “the safety valves required for co-existence in Lebanon,” in the words of 14 March Coalition Forces MP, Faris Saeed, back in 2004.

Does this mean that the creation of a nationalist state that generates its supreme identity, while binding all the other identities included within it to integrate them so that they can still retain their own unique characteristics, can contribute to the melting pot of national identity?

This evidence, in addition to other proof, clearly demonstrates the failure of the political experiment that seeks to create a state or nation in the Arab world. This even applies to a state like Iraq, which for over a century has continued to raise one flag, while repeating the same discourse about its national identity that is deeply rooted in civilization. Today, all we can see are ‘sectarian islands’ of conflict and struggle. [Abdulaziz] al Hakim discusses the ‘return of the neo-Ummayeds’, while his opponents speak of the ‘Savafid’ invasion.

Sects, as such, are not a problem. A sect is the natural product of communities and is built upon cultural and social diversity. The problem, however, lies in sectarianism, and also in ethnicity. Ethnic race, whether Arab, Kurdish, Berber, or Nubian is not a problem but rather a rich source of power. The problem lies in ethnicity [preconceptions] and racism.

This indicates that the trouble begins the moment politics and interests start exploiting the natural components of communities. This is precisely what has happened and continues to happen in Iraq and also in Lebanon, however, in a less pronounced manner. Iraq was rebuilt a few years ago using a sectarian mold so that it has become difficult to penetrate these fences of sectarianism. What is even worse is that interests and the justification for the existence of various parties was established on this sectarian composition. Likewise, the same applies to Lebanon in varying degrees.

So, does the solution lie in preaching and the propagation of nationalism? Or perhaps even including it in school curriculums for students to study?! This is a gross oversimplification of the problem in my opinion.

I think that putting an end to the sectarian trade lies in creating a tempting alternative. The tempting alternative primarily lies in offering a model for a unifying nationalist state, one that can transcend all sectarian logic. This is the paradigm on which major and successful states are founded; through the management of the sects to ensure that they are part of the national project. A sect is deemed a ‘partner’ in this project and as such, the state becomes a unifying whole to which all the sects belong and in which all parties would protect the state’s best interest.

The enemy of all of this, of course, is if the state were to practice discrimination against a particular segment, since this discrimination would ultimately become the fuel that operates the engines of separatism and sectarianism during times of imbalance.

The events that transpired in Iraq were a lesson  and what a lesson it was  on the repercussions of the brutal discrimination policy practiced by Saddam Hussein against the Shia and the Kurds in particular.

In any case, we are currently at this stage and are bound to remain there for an indefinite period. We are governed by sectarian and ethnic aggravations and provocations, in addition to the demolition of the state and the concept of citizenship  or to be more precise, what has remained of citizenship.

Whoever lives will learn …

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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