No, Sunni and Shia Muslims Have Not Been Fighting Forever

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Several days ago, before the Saudi government’s execution of prominent Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr took tensions between Riyadh and Teheran to a new high, a reader emailed me a deceptively ordinary question. It’s worth a second look, not only because it helps us get past the simple headlines—check out the front page of the New York Times today, suggesting the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is embedded in and involves all Sunni and Shia—but because this reader’s question inadvertently helps us understand why so many in the West and the Muslim world keep talking past each other.

Here’s the reader’s question:

Can you give me any insight into the apparently undying hatred of Sunni Muslims (e.g., the Saudi aristocracy) for Shia believers? I believe it goes right back to the seventh century and the prophet’s own immediate family. In Christianity we have the Catholic-Protestant divide, but that only starts in the sixteenth century and pretty much wore itself out in the Thirty Years War.

My first instinct was to point out the obvious: there’s been Sunni-Shia conflict for longer than Protestant-Catholic conflict for the entirely unremarkable reason that there has been a Sunni and Shia divide far longer than there’s been a Protestant and Catholic divide. The Sunni-Shia split began, one could argue, in the 630’s; Martin Luther doesn’t enter the scene until the 16th century, which gives Muslim sectarians a thousand-year head start.

“Charge into a government building with guns, and scream ‘Allahu Akbar,’ and you’d be a terrorist. Charge into a government building with guns, and call for constitutional redress, and suddenly you’re a militia.”

I might also add that by the time Western Christendom split on sectarian lines, it had already evolved so many common institutions and traditions that this dispute did not sever the idea of a Western world altogether. Unlike Sunni and Shia identities, which emerged early in Islamic history and were carried very quickly across the world, Protestant and Catholic division took place in a relatively small corner of the world. Bloody, yes, but still Western European.

But take another look. I don’t think the question is just asking me why Sunni and Shia are fighting, but whether they’ve been fighting since, well, forever—isn’t that the function of the “apparently undying hatred” Sunnis have for Shia believers, or his conflation of the Saudi aristocracy with all Sunni Muslims? Something else is up with this question. A kind of, “What is wrong with Muslims?” Why have we Christians gotten over this—and you Muslims haven’t?

Which means the reader’s question is actually packing a lot of punch, and can be fruitfully turned around on him. On all of us. When is fighting okay? What kind of fighting okay? What kinds of justifications for the use of force are acceptable? Is violence more acceptable if it’s framed in secular terms, and more reprehensible if it’s prosecuted religiously? Why should the reasons for violence change the quality of that violence? We do this all the time, of course.

Charge into a government building with guns, and scream “Allahu Akbar,” and you’d be a terrorist. Charge into a government building with guns, and call for constitutional redress, and suddenly you’re a militia.

Time For A Time-Out

Before we go any further, I have to say I find Sunni-Shia infighting to be frequently absurd, often offensive, and endlessly frustrating. Don’t even get me started on the juvenile spat between a violent, authoritarian Islamist monarchy, i.e., Saudi Arabia, and a violent, authoritarian Islamist republic, Iran; if only, I often wish, there was some global agency with the moral clout to call for a time-out, and to see it through. To insulate the Muslim world from both these regimes.

Their rhetoric infects the wider region; the cover of the New York Times suggests as much: now, whether they like it or not, all Sunni and Shia have to take sides. Or have sides taken for them. Rather than confront each other directly, the two governments fight it out in secondary theaters, like Syria, or Yemen. Thousands of people in the region have died because the Ayatollah and the King cannot get along.

Thanks to recent events, probably thousands more will.

But in drawing attention to the consequences of Saudi-Iranian rivalry for the region, we shouldn’t assume there has been, by any means, an unbroken stretch of Sunni and Shia infighting since the 7th century, or even in the 20th century. Drawing a simple line over fourteen centuries always struck me as odd. We don’t seek to explain the KKK by going back to early Christian history, nor should we. The same goes for what has been happening in the last few years.RDinboxIn the early 20th century, many Muslims across the Indian Subcontinent began a movement in solidarity with the Ottoman Caliphate. It was called, reasonably enough, the Khilafat (Caliphate) Movement. Though Ottoman and South Asian Muslims lived in distinct territories, and the Ottomans never ruled over greater India, a Muslim minority in India, under British rule, resented and feared British colonial aggression against an important symbol of their faith.

So Shia and Sunni Muslims joined together to support what was traditionally a Sunni institution, the Caliphate. Fast forward a few decades to the Pakistan Movement, which grew out of concerns for the status of Muslim minorities in India after the British left (and the Caliphate Movement): today Pakistan has been scarred by vicious sectarian violence, but the mostly Sunni country was founded by an Ismaili Shia leader.

Two, in fact.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s ‘Great Leader’ and kind of its George Washington, was born into a minority sect within what was already a Shia minority. The Pakistan Movement also received significant funding from the head of the Ismaili Shia community, the Aga Khan. But the intellectual force, and the emotional appeals on which the Movement rested, were provided by a Sunni Muslim, Muhammad Iqbal, who is kind of like Pakistan’s Gandhi, the person who bridged the gap between a secular leader (Nehru, or in this case Jinnah) and the more traditional masses. That history confounds the myth of permanent conflict.

Or even frequent conflict.

Are Muslims More Violent Than Christians?

The next part of the reader’s question asks why there is apparently so much less Christian infighting than Muslim infighting. The reader is right about this, though of course there are exceptions to the rule. Northern Ireland, say. Or the former Yugoslavia, where some Orthodox Serbs went after Catholic Croats, and some Catholic Croats went after Orthodox Serbs.

“‘Radical Islamic terrorism’ sounds horrifying. ‘National security priority’ sounds mundane, even mandatory.”

If Samuel Huntington were still alive, he’d say the deepening rivalry between the United States and Russia has something to do with their different positions on a continuum of Western Christendom. America grows out of a Protestant past, Russia out of a Byzantine Christian one. That divide serves as a faultline, he’d argue. There is some truth to this.

But there still aren’t that many overtly sectarian, intra-Christian conflicts in the world today, and certainly nothing comparable to the Iranian and Saudi rivalry. Though if someone correctly insisted that Christians don’t fight all that much over Christianity, that would ignore the many instances in which Christians do fight. Just not over Christianity.

The reason we in America don’t kill over sectarian or religious identity, or at least not quite so explicitly, is because we simply don’t make sectarian identity and religious identity as important as other peoples might. Our self-conception might include a vague nod to “Judeo-Christian heritage,” but that’s precisely as a heritage. We are a secular nation.

That doesn’t mean Obama or Bush won’t lead us to war.

It’s just that that war is justified on different terms. We believe our justifications are more legitimate than “religious” ones, which is after all why we use them and not religious appeals.

“Radical Islamic terrorism” sounds horrifying. “National security priority” sounds mundane, even mandatory. Unless you’re on the receiving end of that priority.

Huge numbers of Americans kill each other, every year, for all kinds of reasons. We continue to use the power of the state to marginalize, and practically execute, large numbers of unarmed black men, women and even children, and deny even the possibility of legal redress to those left behind. Speaking of undying hatreds, when do you think American racism will end?

We have gone to war with Muslim-majority countries and funded wars that have killed huge numbers of people. Iran’s anti-monarchic revolutionary Shia Islam is embedded in an anti-colonial, anti-American struggle. While we have decided to support Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, we have no idea what is being fought over—or particularly care for the outcome, or particularly notice that we are involved in yet another war. Without bothering to understand the occupation of Palestine, we keep gifting huge sums of weaponry to an ever more right-wing Israeli government, whose policies would be anathema in American civil discourse.

Is dying because America needs to keep its allies happy better than dying because you’re in the wrong religion, or pray in the wrong way? I don’t know, but I don’t imagine it makes all that difference. I imagine it wouldn’t to you, either, if your loved ones were being killed, oppressed, dispossessed and so on and so forth. That our victims are largely Muslim is important, but not central to these conflicts. At least, not to us. And it’s not about religion per se.

We sided with Muslims in Bosnia and Albania. And in Afghanistan and Iraq, we fought against some Muslims even as we empowered other Muslims. But while religion isn’t foremost in many of our analyses and forefront in our motivations, many Muslims do perceive these same conflicts as religious. Because religion is more prominent in their worldviews.

That’s why some people in the Muslim world link the Prophet Muhammad cartoons to a larger, perceived war on Islam. Because these conflicts are seen religiously. We don’t see it that way, and would protest that we are prosecuting a religious war; for us, race, nationalism, and even the fact of democracy function as religion does. They make causes sacred, and justify violence. They are often inviolable, or part and parcel of how we make sense of the world.

The Means or the Ends?

With respect to sectarian divides in the Muslim world, these are undoubtedly amplified by regional rivalries, and have become far more inflamed and far worse than in the past. Saudi Arabia and Iran have prosecuted terrible conflicts, and funded and exported dangerously authoritarian and murderous ideas into neighboring countries, and continue to do so. Personally I believe the regime would be better off if both these regimes changed substantially.

“A survey of what is happening should be the most damning indictment of the idea that religion and politics can be fused.”

But how do we get to that point? We have seen, in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, that Saudi Arabia and Iran are willing to kill large numbers of civilians to defeat democracy. (The very thing, incidentally, Iran complains about—our 1953 role in the return of the monarchy to absolute power—is what Iran has been doing day in and day out in Syria for years now, and at far more brutal cost in lives lost.) But, sadly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are not alone.

I am greatly concerned by the spread of authoritarian and extremist narratives in the name of religion, but I also recognize that it would be hard to have any significant progress in challenging dangerous ideas when there is a shooting war on. Perhaps the greatest challenge in the Middle East today is the lack of off-ramps—of mechanisms to de-escalate conflict. Until and unless we stop the combatants from fighting in Syria, we probably can’t make much progress addressing the ideas that propel extremist groups. That also means we speak in a language that can be understood, appreciated and encouraged by those who we need to get onboard.

Right now, the Middle East is a scene of competing Islamisms, all of which, I would argue, have failed (indeed, perhaps it is in the nature of Islamism to fail). A survey of what is happening should be the most damning indictment of the idea that religion and politics can be fused. This is a war of the Islamists.

Maybe it will be their end. But at how great a cost?

Turkey’s AKP, Egypt’s al-Sisi, GCC governments, Iran’s and Saudi’s regime, ISIS and Hezbollah, Jabhat an-Nusra and Iraqi militia—nearly every combatant isn’t just Muslim, but articulates its identity and ideology religiously, claiming to be part of a common Muslim world, and a shared peoplehood, which is apparently best expressed by suffocating any expression of dissent, going to war with one’s co-religionists, and demonizing opponents.

If not brutally murdering them. If ever there were a need for some kind of secularizing sentiment, it would be here. But let’s also not forget that secularism emerged in religious communities—to prevent them from tearing themselves apart—and as such was as much a product of exhaustion with fighting as a desire to protect religious identity from the catastrophic effect of terminal, irresolvable conflict. We need that now.

If people articulate violence differently, perhaps they articulate peacefulness differently, too. Does it matter? We might do a better job of addressing dangerous conflicts if we focused a little more on common outcomes, and less on the rhetoric—for secular rhetoric can cause as much violence and oppression as religious rhetoric, and therefore religious rhetoric is not the problem per se. Asking better questions is the solution.

What does religious language lead to? What are its intended outcomes? What kind of behavior is acceptable? What kind of rights should be universally acknowledged? What kind of government is best—does it matter if separation of power, or due process, is defended in religious language, or secular language, if minority rights are seen as a religious obligation or a secular obligation? It is very likely things in the Middle East will get worse.

But that’s not surprising. Too many actors have shown that they would rather plunge their countries into conflict, or go to war with their opponents, rather than share power, come to the table, or accept that they have excesses to answer for. There are precious few narratives available in the Muslim world which respect religious identity, and yet accept that religious identity, as it operates today, is causing more harm to Muslims than help. In the name of a common religion, Islam has splintered into a thousand competing sects.

To Muslims around the world, I hope we pause and reflect. Rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly strident and sectarian, and threatens to take us all down in the process. Their feuds can very quickly become our feuds; it is hard for a Shia in Pakistan, or a Sunni in Yemen, to remain unaffected by sectarian rhetoric, given how important religious language is, and how persuasive it is for many in the region. Political Islam has led largely to dead-ends or to new forms of despotism.

The choice is not between imposed religion and enforced secularity, but between the kinds of beliefs that lead to decay and despair, and the kinds that lead to thriving and diverse societies. History suggests it is possible. But just because it happened before doesn’t mean it’ll happen again.