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Sectarianism in Islam

The conference on sectarianism held in Abrar House, London, on Jan 14th was an interesting insight into one of Islam’s most controversial issues. It dealt with the development of sectarianism, which is disrupting the union of the “Ummah” as well as encouraging the grounds for terrorism and strife.

The main point made here is that Muslim sectarianism has developed during the last 100 years or so following a number of events: the 1857 “Indian Mutiny”, when Indian Muslims had to bear the brunt of a brutal British repression which made Muslim thinkers take stock of why they had been so easily made to suffer. On the one hand one Saused Ahmed Khan put the blame on the immobility of Muslim culture, and encouraged the development of advances in education and the emancipation of women. On the other, Muslim failure was put down to Muslims not being Muslim enough, and that they should be more pure, with the inference that this excluded the types of developments favoured by Saused. This latter viewpoint was the root of what is known as Salafism. As far as it went Salafism was not a problem but it had roots and seeds which could easily develop into extremism. And if you go back today you can see that the Taliban have come out of the Deobanda way of thinking. The closed restricted minds, the hatred of other cultures and civilisations. And the legitimisation of killing anyone who does not agree with you. According to the speakers it is that principle which has developed and has been tapped at different times by political, religious and sectarian factions to create havoc.

Another parallel development with a similar outlook was the rise of Wahabbism in the Arabian peninsula. These two factors are key to understanding what is happening today. After the Wahhabis and the Deobandis together (the first financing, the second fighting) chased the Russians out of Afghanistan, the incumbent Muslim dictators such as Mubarak and the ageing, immobile Saudi royalty have become afraid of the havoc that the returning fighters and activists could create in their own countries, so they distracted their people by inciting a campaign, mainly against Shias. As the Egyptian Government reduced finance to the liberal Al Azhar University in Cairo, foreign and local students were lured to the new universities in Medina, where the thinking was decidedly based on Salafi principles and philosophy. This has created a flood of Salafist-thinking adepts and teachers which has, and is, spreading all over the Muslim world, from East Africa to Malaysia. And nothing good can come out of this.

The conclusion of the speakers is that the current sectarianism, although partly based on traditional differences but never before a real cause for concern, are now being whipped up and exploited by a regressive, conservative group of people in power, mostly of Sunni belief, in order to ensure and extend  their position. This, although it currently takes the form of bombing, killing and harassing Shiites, is ultimately bent towards the suppression of the rightful demands for progress and human rights demanded by the Sunni populations which they rule. The speakers also stated that the solution to this situation can only come from within the Sunni community itself, whose population will see through the schemes of the leaders and take matters into their own hands.

It was quite interesting, although perhaps the views expressed are a bit restricted and parochial. Perhaps the reasons for sectarianism are deeper? And become enhanced when there is a period of crisis, a wider threat to the culture, as well as to positions of power. So the solution is perhaps not as simple as is suggested. But what is particularly important is that these issues are finding their way to the general public – albeit still limited to a small group in a hall dedicated to Islamic subject matter – , where the problems are openly discussed.

It was fascinating to note one member of the public, who was evidently a partisan of the Saudi-Wahhabi camp, and quite conservative, trying to make his condemnation of the arguments put forward by the speakers and evidently shared by most of the public: he appeared so hopelessly out of touch and distant, one could only feel a sense of pity for him. How long will it take for that unfortunate turn of Islam to be recognised for what it is by all?  

Brandino Machiavelli is a retired documentary filmmaker who now works in business development consultancy.