Middle East — 04 January 2011
Exploiting Sunni-Shi’a differences to promote secularism

The belief that Shi’a-Sunni disagreements represent a source of continuous conflict amongst Muslims is widely touted as a key dimension in understanding politics of the Muslim world. Whether in Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, many are quick to claim the Muslim world is suffering at the hands of a very serious sectarian problem that stems from a Shi’a-Sunni theological schism. Some have gone on to suggest a ‘Shi’a crescent’, spanning from Lebanon to Iran through Iraq, needs consideration in any analysis of the Middle East. Recent revelations published by Wikileaks show that Gulf Countries had encouraged the US to attack Iran over fears of its growing confidence and military capabilities. Saudi Arabia for example also signed a $60bn defence deal with the US in late 2010 to deal with Iran’s perceived threat.

To that end, critics argue that an Islamic state will simply ignite old religious disagreements and promote civil and political tensions akin to the bloodshed on the streets of Baghdad and Karachi. The alternative proposal is secularism: separating religion from state, to ensure religious disagreements do not affect or influence state operation.

There are a number of problems with this reading of the situation.

Firstly, blaming problems on Shi’a-Sunni theological differences often masks a number of root causes. Sectarian disputes in Pakistan for example involve a fraction of the 170 million plus population and are a complex mixture of tribal, land, wealth and power interests. There are of course religiously motivated conflicts, but these are isolated to certain quarters and are a historically recent phenomenon. In fact, Sunni on Shi’a and vice versa suicide bombings are totally without precedent in Islamic history.

Iraq is a region that has been the site of Shi’a shrines and centres of learning for centuries, yet was under the ’Sunni’ Caliphate for nearly all of this period without such sorts of violence or the systematic destruction of such shrines. Shia-Sunni marriages and inter-family relations for example are particularly well established in the Levant historically. The onset of such violence is confusing not only to non Muslims but to the vast majority of Muslims, who despite disagreements have historically confined these to within an Islamic context. There is clearly much more at play than simply a disagreement over the rightful succession of the Prophet Mohammed driving these conflicts. ‘Sunni-Shi’a’ explanations fail to get to the core of these conflicts and over simplify regional dynamics.

Secondly, secularism is not relevant to the Shi’a-Sunni disagreement and suffers from its own inherent shortcomings.  The separation of God from state has no precedent in either Shi’a or Sunni thinking. For both, Islam is a spiritual and a political system and Islamic texts act a divine source of guidance in both personal and temporal life. Furthermore, it has been in response to secular influences in the Muslim world that calls for Islamic governance have gained prominence amongst both, whether combined opposition to regimes in the Middle East, emergence of the concept ‘Wilayat al-Faqih’ – the governance of the jurist – or increasingly assertive demands for Islamic governance under all its labels: ‘Caliphate’, ’Sultanate’,’Dowla Islamiyyah’ and the like. In the words of one Shi’a marjah “…the separation of religion from politics and the demand that Islamic scholars should not intervene in social and political affairs have been formulated and propagated by the imperialists; it is only the irreligious who repeat them”.

Secularism also naively assumes public and private spheres can be simply separated. Whilst religion and state can be separated explicitly in constitution, religious identity is not easily divorced from public life. Personal and private beliefs influence decision-making in all walks of life and can factor into political choices, even determine the agendas and campaign rhetoric of secular political parties themselves, the recent U.S. elections being a case in point. More importantly, a secular framework does not prevent religious groups, sects or cults forming alliances and participating in popular politics according to their religious identity or interests, making it no less susceptible to competing religious agendas and therefore strife. Secularism in India has done very little to end communal violence, or Hindu-Muslim tensions, and the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, whilst declaring its commitment to India’s secular constitution, ultimately appeals to the hopes of the Hindu majority by virtue of its religious nomenclature and links with organisations such as the VHP. Even within Europe, sectarian violence and tension in Northern Ireland demonstrates that where religious identity has been a big enough issue, even a mature secular democracy has difficulty in dealing with religious differences.

Thirdly, the Islamic political system is not a sectarian state. The Shariah restricts its jurisdiction to temporal matters i.e. it’s jurisdiction does not extend into personal or doctrinal matters. The head of state cannot therefore institute an official state doctrine other than to declare the unanimously agreed fundamentals of Islamic belief, which are common to both Shi’a and Sunni. Nor can the head of state interfere in or stipulate matters of personal life or doctrine, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, or interfere in matters related to the privacy of the home, to the extent that he is prohibited from spying on citizens and from seeking out personal beliefs or views. The sum of this is that Islam restrains discriminatory treatment and persecution against citizens, whether in terms of doctrine, legislative interpretations or private worship. Some rulers may have once chosen to ignore such restraints historically, and present-day rulers choose to marginalise Islam altogether in governance despite acting in its name on occasions, but their failures are condemned by Islam.

A political system based on Islam is the only model for governance consistent with both Sunni and Shi’a, nor contradicts their common basic conception of Islam by demanding that Islam be confined to a ritual code, shedding its rich and abundant reference to temporal governance. Secularism also fails to address the assertion of religious identity in public life, rendering it powerless in the face of sectarian and religious conflicts.

Mistaken commentaries on Sunni-Shi’a disagreements often conveniently form the backdrop for a secular proposal. Not only must such failures be challenged but also secularism confronted over its incoherent and evasive claims.

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