Sunni and Shia

I came across an interesting Pew study comparing perspectives of Shia and Sunni Muslims.

This led me to reflect on the fact that I have had little experience in dialogue with Shia–a couple visited my World Religion class one year; last week, at the Old Souq in Kuwait City, I chatted with a Shia from Afghanistan about Ashura. I’m going to follow up with him, if I can.

The American perspective of the Shia is filtered through the lens of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. I think it long past time that Americans understand that the Shia reaction to the US is not rooted in “fundamentalism,” but was a reaction to US support of a brutal dictator, the Shah. I appreciate the Obama administration’s openness to speak with Iran. It’s an ancient culture, and a powerful nation; it has pride, and is not the cartoon figure that American politics makes it out to be. Iran is one of the few nations in the region with representation of minority religions in its legislature. Looking beyond Iran, we see that Shiism is represented not merely by the Ayatollah Khomeini, but by the Ismailis, who emphasize dialogue and understanding, and by ordinary Shia who look to Imam Hussein as an example of one who struggled against injustice.

I wonder how much of the Sunni/Shia divide is natural to the sects themselves, and how much of it has been fomented and exacerbated by Western powers seeking to destabilize the region. See, for example, this research connecting figures who were involved in the illegal wars in Central America to exploiting Sunni-Shia tensions in Iraq.

Here in Kuwait, the government has sought to emphasize the unity of Islam, and to downplay Shia-Sunni differences. Preachers who, in masjid or on TV criticize any sect quickly lose their job.

I recently heard someone refer to religion as the “center of gravity” in the Middle East. That’s a term from Carl von Clausewitz; it’s used in all kinds of vague ways today, to refer to the source of strength, identity, meaning in a people. He seems to have meant it in a much more mechanical sense (see Echevarria, 2002).  I suspect it was on the basis of this kind of a connection that some powers have sought to disrupt religion in the region, and exacerbate Sunni/Shia tensions; I suspect this kind of reasoning was what led Guantanamo  and Abu Ghraib interrogators to target religious beliefs and practices in their attempt to break prisoners. And such practices have given American enemies ammunition in their charge that America is fighting a war against Islam. The practices, in other words, have backfired.

I don’t have a problem identifying religion as a center of gravity, or even the center of gravity, in the sense that it is indeed what unifies and gives meaning to groups of people. If we want to influence a region that is heavily religious, then we have to grapple with religion. But not in the clumsy way of ignorant intelligence operators and military planners. Rather, people of faith need to engage in and encourage interfaith dialogue. We need to support those centers and individuals and programs that seek to bring people together, be they Sunni and Shia, or Muslim and Christian and Jew. The way to attain stability in the Middle East is to minimize religious conflict. And that is done through dialogue, and respect, and trust. It isn’t in anyone’s interest to play Protestant against Catholic in the North of Ireland, or Israeli against Arab (Muslim or Christian), or Sunni against Shia. It is in the world’s interest to cultivate tolerance, and respect, and understanding. We don’t have to agree; we don’t have to pretend that differences aren’t real. We do have to demonstrate that people of different beliefs can get along.