On a particularly gory day, but like so many before it, Shia congregations were attacked in Yemen, a Bohra mosque hit in Pakistan, and the civil war between extremist Sunnis and Alawi Shias in Syria continued to claim more lives.
Not so long ago, and many of us are old enough to remember it, Muslim-majority countries were the targets of Western or Western-backed armies – Palestine (1948 – present day), Iran (1950s), Afghanistan (1979-1989), Iraq (1991), Chechnya (1994-96), among many. Internecine conflicts raged in Sudan, between Christians and Muslims, Lebanon (1975-1990), the Balkans (1992-1995) and the Southern Philippines. The lines were not too blurred. The burden of Muslims anywhere was to be shared by Muslims everywhere – giving rise to massive fund-raising for Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia and many other regions. It led to spontaneous protests even in countries where political expressions are proscribed anyway.
But take a look now – the lines have not only blurred, they have disappeared and become irrelevant.
The post-Afghanistan scenario in Pakistan saw the rise of Sunni extremism, specifically Wahabi-backed and influenced – a branch which does not accord Shia Muslims the status of Muslims. It led to multiple deaths and killings throughout the country, mainly in Karachi-sparking off an exodus of thousands of Shia intellectuals – who settled abroad. Pakistan was not richer without them, and neither wiser after them: the fruit of mistrust sown between Shias and Sunnis in a nation founded by an individual often considered to belong to the Shia community but one who always described himself simply as a Muslim. Iraq, in 2003, post-US invasion, made it worse. No one can ever doubt that Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship had discriminated against, tortured, and killed thousands of Shias – but the regime did that to any opponent of Ba’athist rule. Saddam Hussein was convicted and hanged for the deaths by Poison Gas in the town of Hallabja – a Kurdish town – and not for his crackdown on the Shias in the south in 1991.
The 2003 Iraq saw the rise of a virulent form of Shia nationalism, one that was not necessarily backed by the relatively moderate Shia theocracy of Iran against whom Iraq had waged a war between 1980-1989 (again, backed by Western powers).
And once the fire started, the flames would spread everywhere. Shias and Sunnis had lived in peace for centuries in the Arab world, under Ottoman rule, followed by Western-backed dictatorships in the post-World War era, but nothing could have prepared anyone for what happened when autocratic rule started breaking down – chaos. Hence, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
This moment in Muslim history is going to be pivotal, like Martin Luther’s revolt against the influence of the Church in Europe which led to the gradual erosion of Church authority and the beginning of the Renaissance. No doubt, it lead to a schism, the scars of which Europe and North America still bear- but the division in the Christian world , both in concept and location, and the rivalries it spawned, have shaped history to the present day. More than anything, Europe realised that the endless cycle of hate and violence the leaders of the Church espoused had brought about ruin, just as the endless hateful speeches spewing from so-called leaders on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide does today.
Muslims will either realise the folly of propagating unnecessary political and ideological divides, and focus on the more important issues of poverty, jobs, health-care and development, or they will get sucked into a vortex out of which they cannot escape. The moment calls for foresight, brave leadership, and a vision for the future of Muslims.
—note: the segment “the fruit of mistrust sown between Shias and Sunnis in a nation founded by an individual often considered to belong to the Shia community but one who always described himself simply as a Muslim” was originally worded as “the seeds of distrust between Shias and Sunnis in a nation founded by a Shia Muslim – with the whole-hearted backing of Sunni Muslims.” The change has been made at the Kashmir Reader desk without the writer’s permission.