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Rise of Sectarianism Threatens Arab Societies


By Talal Salman

9 Jan 2013

The citizen has never had his religion put to the test as much as it is today, whether he belongs to the overwhelming majority of Muslims, or to the religious minorities — particularly Christians — who are part of the indigenous peoples of the region.

The region has never been as fragmented by religious slogans as it is today, without concern for the fatal pitfalls that threaten the people of this land. Some of these dangers are related to the Israeli project, while others concern American hegemony. The Americans have withdrawn their troops after discovering that sectarian strife is more destructive than any weapon. They then realized that drones can accomplish their “sacred mission.”

This holds true in Lebanon — whose national unity and political entity are threatened — all the way to Syria, which is up to its neck in the blood of its people and whose state is menaced by the threat of fragmentation and turning into another Somalia, as the Arab and international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned. This trend continues in Iraq, where religious and sectarian strife could lead to fragmentation, and even in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, where citizens are “categorized” according to their religion and sect. Based on this reality, some believe that they have a right to power — due to the sway of powerful Islamists groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who have occupied the political scene — while others are labelled “infidels” or merely “under consideration.”

This issue goes beyond classifying people based on their religions. Labelling has reached the sectarian level, separating “believers” from those “whose interpretation of Islam is questionable.” According to this takfiri logic, not all Muslims in Egypt are considered Muslims, despite the fact that they are all Sunni. Extremists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists have accused most Egyptian Muslims of being infidels. Copts, however, are not included in the classification!

The same goes for Tunisia in the period after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. We can find the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and “the others” — whose beliefs Islamists in power deny, despite the fact that they belong to the same sect.

As for Libya, there is a strange confusion of concepts in the way citizens are perceived. They are all Muslims, although they are from different tribes and ethnicities.

As we look to the Levant, the issue becomes more complicated. In addition to the different sects, Muslim nationals are distributed between Sunni majorities and Shiite, Alawite, Druze and Christian minorities in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The situation is different in Iraq, where the relative majority of Arabs are Shiite and Kurdish nationalism trumps religion in the north, where the overwhelming majority are Sunni. There are also Christian minorities, who are subject to attacks and displacement. Indeed, most of those who contributed to the development of Iraqi civilization since the dawn of history have been displaced.

Iraq and the search for strife

The US-led occupation of Iraq — a country that had been destroyed by Saddam Hussein, who assumed that he represented the dominant Sunnis in power — created a dire sectarian political crisis after power was handed over to the Shiite majority in order to gain their loyalty. The new leaders who received power from the occupation have failed to establish national unity on a solid base. Consequently, political disputes have turned into potential sectarian strife and the Sunnis have accused the Shiites of repeating Saddam’s corrupt approach. Although president Jalal Talabani is Sunni, Arab Sunnis do not consider him their representative in the government because he is Kurdish. Yet they see the Shiites as monopolizing power, after most of the presidential powers were transferred to the head of the government.

Although the “popular uprising” in Anbar in western Iraq has not yet turned into sectarian strife, the bloody events in Syria have overshadowed the Iraqi crisis, particularly since Saudi Arabia and other Gulf rulers claim that this uprising is designed “to provide equity to Sunnis,” so as to spare them from the injustice and exclusion from politics that their brethren in Syria have experienced. Their logic is that restoring power to the Sunnis in Iraq would compensate for the hegemony of Alawites in Syria.

In contrast, Bahrain's ruler continuously alienates the Shiite majority on the island nation from their rights as citizens, barely allowing them to vote. Moreover, when he knew that they would take control of parliament according to any fair electoral system, he created the Shura council, where he holds a majority. Thus, any decision requires the ruling family’s consent. Even when the crown prince succeeded in offering an acceptable draft settlement, the family objected and prevented the enthusiastic young man from following through with these efforts.

Indeed, the Shiite majority constantly faces accusations of being loyal to Iran, despite the fact that this majority has refused to take Iran’s side and has remained committed to Arabism. This was reflected in a referendum supervised by the United Nations 30 years ago, when the Shah of Iran was the emperor of the region and the Gulf acted together to avoid his harm.

The Bahraini authorities have experienced difficulty in dealing with this popular uprising, partly due to the fact that this island is located only a few miles away from the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, with a bridge linking the two countries. It’s the same bridge that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military forces — coming mostly from Saudi Arabia — used to cross over into Bahrain to confront the uprising, so that Bahraini authorities would not be left to face the Shiites and their alleged Iranian counterpart alone.

Saudi Arabia: a permanent state of emergency

It is known that the eastern region of Saudi Arabia lives in a permanent state of emergency, not because it contains all the country's oil wells and installations — including refineries and export seaports — but because its population is entirely Shiite, and considers itself oppressed. The Shiites are viewed by the Wahhabis as “infidels,” and the authorities deny them fair representation in state institutions, even though they make up about 15% of the total population of this gilded kingdom.

In Yemen, however, political conflict prevails over dogmatic backgrounds. Some believe that the injustice against the south, and the destruction of the state that was established in the 70s and then overthrown as a result of differences among the “Communist comrades,” and later returned by war to the north, is an injustice of a doctrinal nature.

The Zaidi sect, a branch of Shiite Islam, was behind the decision to do away with the Arab Republic of Yemen, which has a Shafi'i majority, though the current leadership in Sanaa is Shafi’i and comprised of people from the south.

Initially, support or objection was focused on political aspects and the practices of ruling regimes. After the outbreak of political Islam, and when the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists were able to rise to power — mainly in Egypt, Tunisia (to a lesser degree) and of course Libya — political rhetoric took on a sectarian and later confessional character.

Thus, the Copts were the first to be removed from the political equation in Egypt.

Then, Salafist voices began to exclude Muslims not affiliated with the Brotherhood or the Salafists from Islam itself.

Takfiris are everywhere, and takfir is a political approach, not a style of worship or a strict application of assumed religious teachings against apostates.

Furthermore, the Salafists and Sunni extremists excluded all Shiites from Arabism, then from Islam as a whole. They raised doubts about their religion due to their alignment with Iran, which embraces Zoroastrianism. They also made accusations against Hezbollah, which commands the resistance in Lebanon, ignoring the fact that the party had confronted Israel for over 20 years and its success in thwarting the Israeli war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

In the context of takfiri campaigns, the Shiites in Iraq are being accused of two different loyalties: one to Iran and the other to the United States, with the aim of marginalizing the Sunnis and excluding them from power as a prelude to ruling unilaterally, and to avoid holding Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accountable for the mistakes he has made since assuming power. The idea is based on sectarian logic, perhaps with the intention of attracting Gulf support, some of whose officials have made statements that assert their engagement in this sectarian war at a time when some Gulf satellite TV channels are inciting sectarian strife.

It is important to note that these divisive calls implicitly resonate among the Kurds, who are comfortable with seeing the central state in Baghdad preoccupied with the risks that threaten the unity of Iraq as a political entity, and thus are moving to further reinforce their autonomy in the Kurdistan region. They are working toward becoming a nearly independent state, while maintaining their share of the Iraqi oil and political decision-making in Baghdad.

It was interesting to see the press conference held by a leader of the banned Baath Party, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, covered by satellite TV channels in the Gulf, after he repented and was guided by God to "true Islam," and joined the ranks of those seeking to liberate Iraq from Iranian hegemony.

Even senior officials in the Gulf states have begun to talk about the revolution of "true Islam" in Iraq to restore power from its usurpers.

Were it not for some reservations, these conversations would have evolved into calls for a full-scale war to liquidate the “strongholds of rejectionists” and return the "misguided" to "true Islam" through persuasion or with the sword.

Many of these challenges and political mistakes that employ sectarianism as a way to rise to power and rule unilaterally depend on the development of the situation in Egypt. If the Brotherhood continues its approach of monopolizing power — while giving a share of it to the Salafists — and adopting the logic of sectarianism by denying the Islam of Muslims who disagree with their views on religion and worldly affairs, as well as non-Muslims, a comprehensive nationalist disaster threatens all Arab countries without exception.

May God protect Muslims from the hell of sectarianism emerging from the Mashreq to the Maghreb.

Talal Salman writes about that the rise of sectarianism and Islamic movements is dividing Arab societies and threatening the future of the region.