By İbrahim Kalın
17 June 2014
The unstoppable march of ISIS into Mosul and other Iraqi cities has changed the dynamics of the civil war in Syria and the political landscape in Iraq. As ISIS makes more gains on the ground, the conflict takes more of a heavily sectarian color. This is a very dangerous development for both Sunnis and Shiites. Political and religious leaders need to make every effort to prevent a sectarian war.
ISIS is clearly driven by an anti-Shiite ideology. Its goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate extending from the north of Syria to Iraq. Its methods are brutal and go against the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence. It is a terrorist organization that uses modern means and instruments with a rigid ideological discourse.
ISIS is, however, just one piece of the puzzle. The anti-Maliki coalition that formed under ISIS in Mosul is actually comprised of ex-Baathists, Islamists and other Sunni tribes and other smaller groups in Iraq. It looks like the ex-Baathists are handling the political designs and the ISIS fighters are carrying out the attacks. Eight years of sectarian, authoritarian and exclusivist policies of the two successive Maliki governments have brought the most unlikely enemies together and prepared the ground for a sectarian war.
The legacy of imperialist interventions, failed states, poverty, illiteracy and the sense of dispossession and alienation has created deep wounds in the social and political landscape of the Middle East. A divisive identity politics has become a powerful ideological tool. In the name of religion, nationalism or anti-imperialism, political opportunists have used the longstanding grievances of ordinary people to advance their political goals. Places like Iraq where the Bush administration opened the Pandora's Box have fuelled sectarian resentment.
In the final analysis, this should be about a political battle for justice, equality and representation in the Muslim world. Bu ironically, Sunni and Shiite extremists are fighting for a plainly secular goal: political domination. Whether in Iraq, Yemen or Pakistan, they are using the methods of nationalist or communist groups that seek power at all costs. They are using religious arguments for a worldly prize. Sadly, those who fight and kill in the name of Sunni or Shiite Islam are violating the basic principles of their religion.
There is no denying the fact that Muslims have had their share of sectarian differences in the past. They have witnessed periods of both calm and strife over the centuries. While certain theological and legal differences remained, Shia and Sunni scholars, philosophers, Sufis, travellers, scientists and artists worked together, shared ideas and built a culture of co-existence. Besides belief and culture, imperial politics played a key role in shaping communal and sectarian attitudes from the Balkans and Anatolia to the Middle East and Asia.
Today, the new proxy wars in the Middle East are using sectarian identities as a smoke screen for narrow political agendas. What is reassuring is the fact that the vast majority of Sunni and Shiite Muslims do not consider themselves as soldiers of a sectarian war. Yet the danger is that historical grievances and theological differences are easily manipulated to raise tensions.
Not all communal conflicts are caused by religion or sectarian allegiance. Neo-sectarianism is mostly political and driven by a mixture of what Ibn Khaldun called 'Asabiyyah, 'group solidarity', identity politics and power struggle. When misused, 'Asabiyyah can lead to division and fight rather than unity and creativity as Ibn Khaldun hoped the Muslim communities of his time would do.
As elsewhere, in the Muslim world group identities, whether religious, ethnic or secular, are intertwined with a wide range of social, economic and political factors. Recognizing this complexity is vital for managing and overcoming sectarian tensions. Pitting Sunni 'Asabiyyah against Shia 'Asabiyyah is wrong and dangerous.
In the modern period, a number of attempts have been made to create a Sunni-Shiite rapprochement. For instance, in 1959, Mahmud Shaltut, the Shaykh of al-Azhar University, issued a fatwa authorizing the teaching of Shiite jurisprudence as part of al-Azhar's curriculum. Ayatullah Burujardi, one of the most influential Shia scholars of his time, reciprocated by doing the same for Sunni jurisprudence. Shaltut and Burujardi went beyond academic teaching and laid the groundwork for a serious dialogue between Sunnis and Shiite.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution of Iran, supported Sunni-Shia reconciliation efforts and never considered the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s a sectarian conflict. In February 2007, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Sunni scholar, appeared on al-Jazeera to call for an end to hostilities and fighting between Sunnis and Shiites. On March 3, 2007, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, pledged to work for the unity of all Muslims in Iraq, the Gulf and the larger Muslim world. More should be done to support reconciliation and avoid confrontation.
The new power struggle in Iraq, Syrian and other parts of the Middle East is leading to an "intra-Muslim Cold War" through sectarian tensions and identity politics. Political and religious leaders must stand united against this extremely dangerous course.