This guest post over at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, by Sumbul Ali-Karamali, about foreigners blundering and assuming that people who have lived together for centuries should be at each other’s throats.
These are just excerpts of this excellent article:
A lazy way to dismiss conflicts as hopeless is to characterize (usually erroneously) the disputing parties as having been “at each other’s throats for centuries.” It happened in Bosnia when the Christian Serbs started expunging Bosnian Muslims from the area; it happened in Rwanda when the fighting between Hutus and Tutsis erupted; and it’s happening now with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s also happening in Iraq. It is nearly impossible to listen to news about Iraq without hearing of “sectarian violence” and receiving the impression that the U.S. (the invader, remember?) is simply there as the intermediary between the Sunni and Shi’a, who have – of course – always been at each other’s throats.
I’ve gotten so tired of hearing people say, “Those people have been fighting for two thousand years,” that I won’t let that statement pass anymore without pointing out that Muslims fighting anyone for two thousand years would be quite the feat, since Islam has only existed for 1429 years.
And now National Geographic has aired a documentary, Inside the Koran,) which features depictions of the Shi’a as “sinners,” and promotes a fractured view of Islam. (It also contains all sorts of other problems, as it confuses culture with Islamic doctrine, doesn’t explain the context of the verses it quotes, characterizes the Qur’an as inconsistent and contradictory – as if the Qur’an is the only religious text that’s ever been interpreted differently by different people – and features no Qur’anic experts discussing the historical, intertextual, and linguistic features of the Qur’an that actually do render it consistent.) And it contains lots and lots of violence, because so many people erroneously think it is impossible to discuss Islam without explaining it in a violent context.
I find this constant conditioning, and in this particular case, the constant portrayal of Sunni and Shi’a Islam as adversarial, extremely damaging. It’s self-fulfilling, dehumanizing, and inaccurate.
Then there’s a good explanation of the minor differences between Sunni and Shi’a, and then
Therefore, practically speaking, Sunni and Shi’i Islam look very similar. Authority rests in the religious scholars. Sunni and Shi’a celebrate the same holidays, with a few exceptions, follow largely the same religious doctrine, and – here’s the important bit – recognize each other as valid.
The consensus of the great religious scholars today, as reflected in the Amman Message, is that both Sunnism and Shiism are valid branches of Islam, as are their schools of law (madhabs). The Sunni Sheikh al-Azhar signed off on this document, as did the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Even the Wahhabi monarch, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, endorsed it. Although some theological extremists engage in the practice of “excommunicating” (takfir) other Muslims, they are now out of the mainstream of Islam.
Historically, though there was some tension and even persecution at times between the Sunni and Shi’a, it was seldom on the scale of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, either in duration or scope or brutality. Sunni and Shi’a attend the same mosques, intermarry, and identify themselves primarily as “Muslims.”
In fact, Sunni and Shi’a have been intermarrying for years in Iraq, and it is only in the post-U.S.-invasion years that the violence has caused hardships for those families.
Therefore, the characterization of Sunni and Shi’i Muslims as just waiting for opportunities to fling themselves at each other’s throats and even as requiring the U.S. to stand between them holding each of them at arm’s length while they paw the ground, is just not accurate. But more than that, it is self-fulfilling.
It reminds me of India: when the British went to India, they saw a divided country. They ignored the fact that Hindus and Muslims had been living for centuries in a multicultural state in, if not perfect harmony (and when has anyone had that?), a pluralistic equilibrium very different from the homogeneity of Victorian England. The British began to divide and conquer, pitting Muslims against Hindus and Hindus against Muslims. Soon, Muslims and Hindus began themselves to see India as a divided country. And in 1947, they became a divided country in a Partition fueled by fear. India and Pakistan have not yet recovered.
We are doing the same thing in Iraq as the British did in India. From the very beginning of the attack, we focused on the so-called animosity between Sunni and Shi’a. We have continued to reiterate this divisiveness in the news. We carelessly promulge prejudice in documentaries such as National Geographic’s, which not only give a general impression of divisiveness and violence, but which contain specific inaccuracies.
I may be agreeing with this so strongly because it exactly what I’ve been saying for five years now. (Not on this blog, the blog is too new).