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Secterian Divisions: A time for forgiveness - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Commenting on the recently held “First Jaafari Waqf (religious endowment) Forum” in Kuwait, which was attended by leading regional and international Shiaa figures, the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al Sabah, indicated, “There is no difference between Sunni and Shiaa in Kuwait; they are all Kuwaitis”.

I wish his words were final and were not accompanied by opposing remarks or qualified statements! Yet, despite the noble intentions behind such talk, reality is often different.

In fact, divisions along sectarian lines exist throughout the Muslim world, especially in the Persian Gulf region.

From the early days of Islamic civilization, Muslim leaders failed to hold off the flow of differences and disagreements overtook unity. Coexistence was based on pragmatic considerations and not a deep-rooted belief in tolerance.

Supporters of every sect believed they were exclusively in the right and that “everyone else was at fault”. If any faction chose to compromise, the most it would do would be not to force others to embrace its beliefs… following the logic of the majority as a Saudi reformist sheikh stated in an article entitled, “When the minority rules the majority”.

Life is full of colors and hues. It derives its richness from this multitude. Imagine if all the faces were identical, all voices had the same tone, all winds blew from a single direction, would life be bearable?

Religious and sectarian conflicts are bound to bring about blood, pain and everlasting hatred. In fact, the blood spilt in religious wars increases the stubbornness and extremism of its victims… a historical figure ascends to the level of a mythical and saintly hero.

What is the solution? Should we continue to allow religious and sectarian differences to consume us, especially as we witness this dangerous rise of secondary identities in our Islamic world? Killing by the identity card is ravaging Iraq and, in a concealed insidious manner, Lebanon as well, with the talk of a “Shiaa problem”. As for the Gulf, there is no lack of sectarian verbal abuse, which sometimes takes on archaic forms.

Identities should not melt away and be absorbed in a single cultural identity. What is needed is to end the conflict and leave the inappropriate scene!

Iraq is currently witnessing a sort of harmful mobilization with regard to sectarian divisions. In an article published by Asharq al Awsat, Jaber Habib Jaber, explained that fear was to blame for voting along sectarian lines took place, which is expected to favor the Shiaa alliance. Sunni voters behaved in much the same way and supported the Consensus Front.

“In light of this blind violence which takes pride in bombing mosques and marketplaces [in Shiaa areas], it is not difficult to see [Shiaa voters] rally to support the United Iraqi Alliance” by fate and not by choice, Jaber wrote.

An Iraqi reader, Ali al Nasseri, from Australia, wrote in support of this analysis: “I gave my vote to the Alliance despite their shortcomings. I was motivated by the same reasons the article mentioned, especially as I sense I am being targeted because of my identity. My blood is spilt, no matter how tolerant I try to be.”

On the other hand, the Sunnis in Baquba and western Iraq supported the Consensus Front, raising the pictures of Adnan al Dulaimi and Tariq al Hashemi. This was caused by the killing and torturing of Sunni figures by extremist Shiaa and following the torture scandal inside Interior Ministry prisons.

In Saudi Arabia, national dialogue meetings were held and continue to take place, most recently in the Southern city of Abha, under the title, “Us and the Other”. These meetings hope to bring together representatives of the different social and cultural sections of Saudi society with the aim of placating feelings of suspicion between sects and factions. These sessions are constructive. Different figures, such as a Salafi Sunni sheikh and a Shiaa leader appeared together under one roof and in a recent session, a woman from the Ismaili sect criticized the culture of sectarian divisions.

This considerable financial investment appeared at once, as if it was hiding behind a wall of avoidance and within a culture of putting off issues to allow time to heal! Despite these positive steps, have we truly rid ourselves of our sectarian criteria? Or do they remain entrenched, despite the best intentions of our intellectuals and the optimism of our leaders?

Intellectuals and “enlightened” Muslim clerics ceaselessly speak of tolerance but are anxious at the first practical test of their words. The existence of a direct dialogue and a practical test for tolerance is helpful but not enough. What is needed is a more long term solution, a comprehensive political attack on the culture of extremism and an education that fights sectarianism and the hatred of the other.

The problem is one of definition. Much as the controversy surrounding the definition of terrorism, defining the “other” is a complex matter. Some people believe the term refers to those who disagree with them on a legal principle. Others might see “the other” as someone from another faith, a Christian, a Jew or an atheist, each according to their own level of tolerance.

I received an email from Yahya, a reader in Riyadh, who wrote, “Today, I went to visit the sports teacher to discuss why my son was forbidden to practice sports during class. The teacher explained my son was excluded because he wore a t-shirt with a number on the back! He said he’d acted according to a 15-year-old directive from the Ministry of Education which he was applying because students might admire infidel players, such as Ronaldo, and put his number of their back. I said to him, “At university, I used to support [the Brazilian player] Rivilino. I wore a t-shirt with his number and printed his picture on the front. Here I am today a Muslim as I have always been.” I explained to the teacher that young men are bound to admire certain figures until they grow up and become mature and start creating their own personality. The teacher replied that he was bound by the ministerial decision.”

You are right, Yahya: You admired Rivilino while others liked the Beatles, or the Indian actor Amitabh Bachan… But this was at a time when sectarian and factional identities had yet to flourish again and a time when we did not need sessions to learn how to communicate, we just communicated! This was before people of Iran supported one Shiaa sheikh and those of western Iraq another Sunni sheikh…

We need another time to admire Rivilino without feeling guilty… or convince the teacher. Until then, we will remain in crisis!

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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