I’ve never felt comfortable in Muslim spaces dominated by those who openly or surreptitiously ascribe to a belief that I, a Shia Muslim, adhere to a religious doctrine that threatens the very heart of Islam — a doctrine they believe endangers the soul of other Muslims to such a degree that it will lead them toward hellfire should they even choose to argue with me. Many have tiptoed around the rampant sectarianism in Muslim communities — or avoided it entirely — for fear of seeing their criticisms weaponized by Islamophobes. This tawdry argument has been used time and time again to avoid having conversations on the violence that sectarianism produces, thereby denying victims both their deserved recompense and solidarity. Keeping in mind what has happened not only to Shia Muslims but other minority sects — from the most recent bombing in Pakistan against a Shia imambargah (congregation hall) to the targeting of Christians in Egypt — it can no longer be enough to characterize these incidents as being entirely unrelated to Muslims.
The problem with mainstream American Muslim discourse when it comes to atheists and minority sects in the Middle East and North Africa — be they Shias, Alawis, Christians or otherwise — is the lack of general acknowledgment of the unique nature of their subjugation. The aforementioned groups have been targeted, killed and have had their homes, schools and houses of worship destroyed entirely due to their religious ideology, agnosticism or atheism. This cannot be disputed.
When it comes to anti-Shia mythology, the most prominent accusation is that Shiism is a Jewish conspiracy that originated with the diabolical intent of subverting the fundamental teachings of Islam; a Persian concoction that mixes Zoroastrianism with Islam. For this reason and others, there have been religious opinions published by scholars, past and present, accusing the Shia of kufr, or “disbelief,” with some calling for marriage between Shias and Sunnis to be forbidden, characterizing their beliefs as contrary to Islam, or being a religion all its own that exists outside of it entirely. Some figures have even demanded that Shia Muslims be killed. This isn’t simply a matter of one holding a difference of opinion. These misconceptions, and the sectarian fatwas that have appeared in their wake, are leading especially vulnerable Muslims into dehumanizing Shias, resulting in attacks against them and their places of worship all over the world.
Violence perpetuated against Shia communities is denied a place in wider discourse against extremism as being unique
While attacks abroad against Shia houses of worship, religious figures and believers sometimes make headlines, there have been a disturbing number of assaults against Shia communities in Europe. Recently in Malmö, Sweden, a man was charged with terror offenses after allegedly attempting to set fire to a Shia community center — charges that he has so far denied. In Sydney, Australia, two men — Omar Al-Kutobi and Mohammad Kiad — were sentenced to 20 years in prison after plotting to bomb a Shia prayer hall and attack members of the public with knives in 2015. The pair later admitted to “acting in preparation for a terrorist act.” A year after this plot, a Shia mosque and community center in Melbourne was firebombed and tagged with graffiti referencing ISIS.
These incidents are not a first for Australia’s Shia community, who have faced sectarian opposition, including targeted shootings. In 2015 in Bradford, a Shia mosque had the words “Shia Kaffir” spray-painted on its walls. UK-based TellMAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) even has a tag devoted to highlighting anti-Shia hate crimes and rhetoric that they believe should be addressed.
Hasan Hafidh, a lecturer and researcher in comparative politics and inter-communal relations in the Middle East, tells The Islamic Monthly that “given the salience of sectarian identities in the Muslim world, one by-product of this phenomenon is the normalization of anti-Shi’ism.” What he finds more alarming is that this anti-Shi’ism hasn’t just manifested in violence via extremism or government policies. Instead, he says pervasive anti-Shi’i sentiment “has permeated what was once considered mainstream Islamic discourse. From social media to platforms on Islamic university societies, we’re witnessing a new era in normalized intra-Islamic bigotry. Takfirism has now almost become a given.”
Hafidh also argues that anti-Shi’ism is accompanied by the erasure of the Shia being “one of the principle communities at the forefront of combating extremism.” Not only this, but violence perpetuated against Shia communities is denied a place in wider discourse against extremism as being unique.
It isn’t enough that Shias have been victims of violent assault. Shia Muslims, who are estimated, at most, to constitute 20% of the world’s Muslim population, continue to face what can only be described as an entire industry devoted to “exposing” them — from anti-Shia treatises written by religious scholars, to scores of websites, YouTube channels and social media pages dedicated to spreading anti-Shia polemics. This hatred of the Shia, and other minority sects, is always coupled with one central refrain: They are companions to the Christians and Jews and are building an alliance against Sunni Muslims, therefore making them enemies of Islam. In January, Saud al-Shuraim, one of the imams of Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, used Twitter to share this very message with his nearly 3 million followers.
Another Saudi cleric who’s joined the social media takfir-soirée is Assim al Hakeem, who has been delivering sermons at a mosque in Jeddah for over 20 years. When asked by a follower whether Shias can be kept as companions, he responded “you must not take them as friends.” Recently, he shared a favorite conspiracy theory peddled by clerics who teach similar religious doctrines, claiming the U.S. has been supporting the Shia “in order to threaten the Gulf countries and intimidate them.” It’s no wonder then that the Shia Crescent myth — the belief in the existence of a hegemonic Shia movement which aims to dominate the Middle East — baptized by King Abdallah of Jordan in 2004, has become popular among Muslims and non-Muslim pundits alike.
This rhetoric is not confined to the online world, as though we can simply switch off and be far removed from the power of these words. People, especially the young, are being influenced, and are having their religion revealed to them through their cell phones and computers. What someone reads, despite how inauthentic it may be, can become hardened belief in mere moments. For example, the idea that praying next to a Shia makes one’s own prayer invalid, as absolutely preposterous as this assertion is, can be found in fatwas delivered by prominent religious resources and figures. This kind of rhetoric communicates to adherents one thing: Dehumanization of the Shia is permissible because it will protect you in the afterlife. This mentality is precisely what has allowed the massacres against the Shia — which happen with such frequency that they’ve nearly become a part of everyday life for some — to continue unchallenged.
There is a problem with a community that refuses to claim Muslims as their own until they’re corpses. There is something troubling when solidarity is only extended during a funeral procession. We cannot let religious scholars, regardless of how many years they’ve committed themselves to religious servitude, continue to find spaces in our communities so they may echo the language of sectarian violence. They must be disinvited and opposed at the very least. Their propaganda has found safety in Muslim houses of worship for too long, and their doctrines have led to unimaginable consequences. You can see the latest in Pakistan, where Shia worshippers were forced to pick up the limbs of their loved ones off the streets. The Shia, who are routinely described as having a “victim complex,” have every right not only to demand their plight be recognized, but that the wider Muslim community do more than offer condolences. The only way we can even begin to remedy these grievances is to go after the teachings of those who make the blood of Shia Muslims permissible to spill.
*Image: A Toronto protest against discrimination toward Shia Muslims in Pakistan. Flickr/Batara.