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January 04, 2012, Wednesday

Sectarianism a disaster for Sunnis and Shiites

2012 comes with numerous opportunities for the Muslim world. For the first time, many Arab countries have a chance to hold free elections and carry out reforms to establish political rule based on justice, equality and transparency. But there are also challenges, such as political representation and economic recovery.

One of the biggest worries is the risk of sectarian politics between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. The arrest warrant for Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest ranking Sunni political figure in Iraq, issued by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has once again unveiled the dangers of sectarianism. Some see the ongoing fighting in Syria as a sectarian conflict and interpret Iran’s support for the Assad regime as part of a larger Shiite politics. In Lebanon, Bahrain, Pakistan and other places where there are sizeable Shiite communities, sectarian tensions pose serious threats to peace and stability.

Sectarian divisions have a long history in Islam. Not only Sunnis and Shiites but also various theological, legal and political groups within Sunni and Shiite Islam have existed over the centuries. While these groups are united in the most fundamental principles of their religion, their interpretations of certain events in the early history of Islam and canonical sources have varied, leading to the rise of various schools of thought. Muslim communities are not alien to religious and sectarian diversity.

Responsible religious leaders in both the Sunni and Shiite communities have played a constructive role in preventing sectarian fighting over the centuries. They need to reclaim this role today. Most of the tensions that exist between Sunnis and Shiites today have a heavy dose of politics. The power struggle that divides political parties in Iraq has very little to do with the ethical and legal principles of Shiism or Sunnism. But it is couched in the language of the Sunni-Shiite division and religion is made subservient to political ambitions.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shiites of Iraq and the Kurds saw a historic opportunity to have equal representation. This is fair enough. But it is a grave mistake to depict the Saddam era as “Sunni” and to seek the building of a new Shiite identity based on animosity towards the Sunnis. Luckily, this is not the position of the vast majority of the Shiites of Iraq. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for instance, has resisted such temptations and played a key role in lowering tensions between Shiite and Sunni Iraqis.

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last year visited Najaf, the Iraqi city where Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet of Islam and venerated by all Muslims, is buried, he also met with Ayatollah Sistani. The two men talked about various issues, including the importance of maintaining the unity of Sunnis and Shiites across the Muslim world. Ayatollah Sistani thanked Erdoğan for standing up for justice and his support for Sunni-Shiite reconciliation. He also reiterated Erdoğan’s message on the Day of Ashura, when he embraced the pain of the Karbala event -- the most tragic event in the early history of Islam. Erdoğan, in turn, praised Ayatollah Sistani’s constructive role and leadership among his Shiite followers in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Political and religious leaders have a historic responsibility to prevent sectarian conflict in the Muslim world. A number of attempts have been made in this regard. For instance, the Mecca Summit, held on March 3, 2007, brought together Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saudi King Abdullah, both of whom pledged to work to overcome sectarian strife and work against sect-based provocations.

The differences between Sunnis and Shiites are real, but no cause for communal fighting and killing. Those who fight and kill in the name of either Sunni or Shiite Islam are violating the basic principles of their religion and committing a sin.

Shiite and Sunni religious leaders need to educate their followers about the beliefs and practices of both sects, preach moderation and lead by example. They can and do lower tensions in many Muslim countries. They need to be more forthcoming and assertive in their role as peacemakers.

Political leaders must avoid identity politics and refrain from sacrificing religion to their politics. Presenting a political problem as an issue of sectarian identity is a disservice to both religion and politics.

They need to understand that sectarian politics will make everyone weaker, smaller and more vulnerable.

Previous articles of the columnist