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The Shi’a-Sunni Divide, and the Iraq War

November 22, 2006 by  


By Dr. Aslam Abdullah

The daily destruction of human life in Iraq has reached to the proportion of a civil war. Much of the destruction is brought by Muslims against fellow Muslims. Shi’a and Sunnis, armed to the teeth, are killing each other freely.

Others who have everything to gain from the prevailing chaos are also joining the spree overtly or covertly. People blame the US occupation for the killing, and justifiably the argument can be made that all the bloodshed could have been avoided if the US had not invaded Iraq and tried to change the regime in Iraq. Needless to say, the people whom history will recognize as the perpetrators of this century’s first big bloodbath are none other than Bush, Cheney and Rumsfield. They failed in their diplomacy and in their war. However, their mistakes have resulted in a slaughter of innocents which continues unabated and unchecked.

But part of the blame has to be shared by some of those who claim to be the leaders of Sunnis and Shi’a in Iraq as well as in the greater Middle East. Some of them must also be held accountable for spreading lies and hatred about each other through websites or through their speeches.

Much of the religious discourse between those who identify themselves as Shi’a or Sunni is ugly and inhumane. Judged from the Islamic criterion of decency, it is unacceptable. Analyzed from the perspective traditions of the Prophet (s), it is unimaginable. Yet, the sectarian bigotry has taken the hatred to a level where many have tried to justify the killing of others on religious grounds.

Many scholars are afraid to speak up, either because they are afraid, or because they want to be politically correct. One has to admit loudly and clearly that the way Sunnis and Shi’a behave towards each other in general is not right and far from Islam’s normative patterns. Many of them hurt each other, humiliate each other and denounce others as non-Muslims. Even though many are themselves ignorant of the Qur`an and the teachings of the Prophet (s), they denounce some of the early companions of the Prophet (s) for their actions and decisions.

They think that either they or their scholars are far superior in finding correct answers to their problems. Many of them have arrogance and distrust of the “other.” Many of them have total disregard of the life of the other. In their hatred they are willing to destroy everything that comes in their way including the Qur`an or mosques.

Some of their leaders promote a weird notion of loyalty to their sect almost to the point of putting that above God. Violence is considered a normal means rather than a deviation to resolve their differences. It is these issues that the majority of Shi’a and Sunni leaders have refused to address. Sometimes, to make a statement of political correctness, they shake hands with each others and issue statements of unity, but when most retire to their supporters, they speak a different language, a language that is insulting and un-Islamic.

What is happening in Iraq–is it the result of deep-rooted hatred and suspicion that has been cultivated by hateful preaching over decades or centuries?

The majority of the leadership of the two communities has failed to address some of the most fundamental islamic and human issues. Must human beings be killed because they differ with someone’s opinion? Must people always humiliate and denounce the other in order to prove their supremacy? Must the other be condemned to death for adopting a different point of view? Must God be pleased by the hurting of His creation? Must religious identify be expressed in an arrogant and violent manner?

Unless the religious leadership of the two sects develop an Islamic response based on the teachings of the Qur`an and the Prophet (s), they would continue to remain the prisoners of history as has been the case presently. They have a window of opportunity to discuss these and other related issues in the context of Iraq sooner rather than later. Both can play a dynamic role in bringing the two groups together and helping them overcome their differences without violence.

Perhaps a summit of Sunni and Shi’a leaders drawn from Iraq, Iran and other parts of the world should take place in Iraq to address the ongoing conflict between the two communities. Perhaps they have to address the issue head-on, without being concerned about political correctness. Perhaps they have to go back to the most basic message of the Qur`an about the dignity of the children of Adam–a dignity which cannot be preserved without giving value to another’s right to live. Perhaps this summit can adopt a resolution seeking a non violent resolution of the conflict.

Even if they fail to resolve their conflicts, they can at least convince them that violence must never be allowed to resolve their differences–because violence is anti-Divine.

Dr. Aslam Abdullah is editor in chief of the weekly Muslim Observer. He is also the director of the Islamic Society of Nevada and the acting president of the Muslim American Council. Recently, he joined the Lahore based International Iqbal Institute of Research, Education and Dialogue (IRED).

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