Su-shi schisms

Exploring the relationship between socio-political conditions and secretarian division.

by Ramla Bile

The bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra last February marked the beginning civil war phase of the war in Iraq. But as the chaos in Iraq becomes insurmountable, the ongoing fratricide in the country continues to spill over to surrounding countries and across the globe. The “birth pangs” in Iraq have become contagious.

In Pakistan this past year, clashes between Sunnis and Shias have left 300 dead. Recent riots in the streets of Beirut reek of civil war. Gun sales in Lebanon have tripled, and nearly all of the various political factions appear armed and ready – not resembling political organizations but militias. Political tension is so high in Lebanon that in some coffeeshops in Beirut, customers are forbidden from discussing politics.

While institutional racism certainly exists against the other in each society, these differences are often manipulated during crises. We tend to assume that Muslim sects are inherently intolerant toward one another while undermining the role of material factors, such as poverty and high levels of unemployment in creating sectarianism.

The Sunni insurgency in Iraq is largely composed of men who were radicalized in detention centers, many tortured after being picked up in the raids that followed the invasion. Others have experienced, to some capacity, the wrath of the Shiite death squads. Many are also former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the Bush administration began its deBaathification campaign in Iraq. Shias in Iraq have long been the underrepresented and neglected majority in Iraq. Despite the countries religious significance to Shias, they were prevented from taking part in important religious rituals in an attempt by Saddam’s regime to deny Shia empowerment. Today, Shias continue to bear the burden of the most catastrophic insurgent attacks.

This vendetta complex reflects a relationship of political distrust, and at the core, it is a result of identity-based politics and social disorder, it is not representative of an antagonistic history. In such conditions, it’s easy for individuals to become polarized and the political implications behind such loyalties become more significant. Such polarization can consequently create space for racism, discrimination and shared hostility.

But despite the complexity of Middle East politics, there is a practice of simplifying conflicts as uniform and consistent. It’s become a trend in media circles to show demonstrators in Lebanon who are carrying images of Saddam or Khomeini. The two leaders have become the iconic representation of the struggles and political narrative of each group, but many Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon and across the globe take offense to such associations. It’s easy to generalize division in the Middle East as a Sunni-Shiite split. But Hezbollah, for example, represents not only Shias in southern Lebanon, rather the poorest of Lebanon, which includes many Shias in addition to Christian and some Sunni factions. Moreover, Hezbollah’s two main supporters are Iran and Syria; the latter, which is a predominately Sunni state. So how could one explain this allegiance in terms of the accepted Sunni-Shiite schism without delving into the complex socio-political conditions and political allegiances that exist in the Middle East?

Furthermore, by reducing the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon as religious strife, the United States is not only shifting responsibility from itself, but is failing to challenge the very states which are actively perpetuating hostility against various groups within Iraq and Lebanon. There must be dialogue between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Existing interactions convey Saudi Arabia’s strong Shiite racism and concern for maintaining the status quo in the Middle East, and the Bush administrations effective demonization of Iran as the “axis of evil.”

Despite growing hostilities, the current schism it is not indicative of all Muslim societies. In America, sectarianism has taken form in the vandalizing of mosques in Michigan, and in some cases, separation of the two sects at the organizational level. But with this rising friction, there is also growing dialogue between Sunnis and Shias that has not previously existed. Muslim youth across the states have picked up the identity “Sushi” – to deflect the division we see in American, and more dramatically, in Iraq and Lebanon.

Ramla Bile welcomes comments at [email protected]