Politicisation of Sectarianism
By Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
16 April 2015
Sectarianism by definition is when people “adhere in a bigoted or narrow-minded fashion to a sect or body of persons who have agreed upon particular doctrines or practices”. Consequently, these people would assume that they are the "chosen" group and despise other sects and the people who follow them. It can occur on individual, cultural, or even institutional levels and its manifestation would range from jokes and verbal abuse to physical violence and civil wars. Because sectarianism has plagued almost every major religion in the world, a plethora of research can be found on the subject in different religious traditions contemplating its causes and suggesting possible solutions. The overwhelming majority of research in sectarianism in Islam asserts that it is part of the "divide and conquer" strategy and it is considered to be a natural byproduct of the "wretched" divisions of sects and denominations in Islam.
Although it sounds like a cliché, it would be naïve to dismiss the argument of "divide and conquer" as it has been implemented successfully throughout history in many parts of the world. Sectarian conflict is particularly effective because it manipulates what many people hold most sacred, which is their religious beliefs. Weakening a country or even a whole region by debilitating its resources facilitates colonization or even opens a profitable market for selling weapons. As tempting and convenient as this argument sounds, our problems will not be solved if we do not also own up to our part in the problem. Unfortunately, the spark of our inter-religious conflicts started long before the creation of the British Empire or even the discovery of America, the two countries we blame for using our sectarian conflict to benefit their own interests, which means that they could not have been feeding this fire had it not already been there.
The roots of the conflicts between Sunni and Shia started after the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when Muslims were divided choosing their leader between Ali Bin Abi Talib and Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq. The dispute kept gathering steam in the following years until it exploded after the brutal murder of the Prophet’s beloved grandson Hussein Bin Ali and his family by the army of the second Umayyad Caliph Yazid Bin Mu’awia. Unlike most sectarian conflicts in other religions, which were based on doctrines and beliefs, this conflict started as a political conflict with Shia, which conceptually means the party of Ali, being a political party and which then gradually developed its own religious distinctiveness transforming into a religious sect.
Aside from extremists, the differences in religious teachings and interpretations between Sunni and Shia were similar to the differences between any Sunni schools of Islam. Most of the Shia religious leaders and imams did not even label themselves as Shia because they were the descendants of the Prophet (pbuh) and were scholars on their own merit and their teachings were rightfully acknowledged and valued by all Muslims not only Shia.
The major religious differences, which were implemented on a governmental level that drastically distinguished Shia from Sunni were not implemented until Ismail I Al-Safavi of the Safavid dynasty came to power distinguishing Persia from the rival Ottoman Empire in a way similar to what the Romans did with Christianity when they used it to legitimize their power and distinguish themselves from the Jews. It is interesting to note that Persians were not even Shia to the extent that the ruler had to bring Shia religious scholars from outside because there were no Shia scholars in Persia as the population were primarily a Sunni sect.
Some people argue that the problem is in the existence of different denominations, sects and schools of Islam. The call to eliminate denominations and sects is to consider the possibility of eliminating intellectual, ethnic, cultural, and educational differences among people, which is unattainable. “And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ” (16:93). We cannot be "one" because it would lead to predestination eliminating free will and denying human’s choice and intellectuality.
Kathim Al-Shabeeb identified in his book, The Issue of Sectarianism (Al Mas’ala Al Ta’efiya), many causes of sectarianism in the Arab and Islamic world, which include some people’s adherence and attachment to historical conflicts, which have kept them living in a time capsule detached from their present and surroundings. Inequality, discrimination and lack of acknowledgement and appreciation for religious pluralism perpetuated by media and the politicization of religion have also contributed immensely to this social problem.
The politicization of religion has exacerbated the destructive conflict that we are witnessing in the Islamic world nowadays. Al-Shabeeb argues that we cannot understand sectarian pluralism and accept it until we realize the difference between the legitimacy of religious sects and politicized sectarianism. Religions are bound to evolve and change as their followers do and we should acknowledge, appreciate and respect this sectarian pluralism. Different teaching represented in different sects and schools of Islam constitutes the guidelines that help us to understand and implement our religion, but our belief in one God and his Prophet (pbuh) will always unite us.