Toward A Pragmatic Modus Vivendi Between Sunni And Shiite Muslims
08 April 2015
By Khalid Amayreh
The root-cause of the ongoing bloodshed
in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria is the unresolved dichotomy between Shiite and
Sunni Muslims, the two major sects of Islam.
The Sunnis represent a vast majority of the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims
worldwide, around 80-85%. But while Shiites are a numerical minority among
Muslims (10-15%), they have been trying to reassert themselves in many
different ways, especially since the triumph of the Iranian revolution, under
the leadership of the late Ayatullah Khomeini in 1978.
As a result, ancient animosities which many thought had been buried in the
cemetery of history were rekindled. Thus the war between Ali Bin Abi Taleb
and Muawiya ibn Abi Sufian and similar historical events have effectively
become a subject of fierce contention as if they took place yesterday.
In fact, the proper place to raise and discuss these issues would be History
Departments in Universities were it not for the fact that some people, e.g.
the Shiites, continue to inextricably cling to some of these events, despite
the passage of more than a thousand years.
One of Iran's paramount though undeclared strategies has been to the
propagation of the Shiite brand of Islam, not among non-Muslims, but mainly
in majority-Sunni countries.
The often furtive proselytizing was initially tolerated and downplayed in
many Sunni quarters. However, when these efforts became brazen and quite
aggressive, some Sunni governments and popular movements began to sense the
peril and consequently became increasingly uneasy about Iranian intentions.
For example, the governments of Sudan and Malaysia effectively outlawed
Shiism and closed Iranian "cultural centers" within their territories.
Moreover, many Sunni satellite TV stations and other media outlets waged an
incessant propaganda war against the perceived Shiite onslaught, illustrating
the alleged polytheism, paganism, and anthropomorphism of the Shiites,
including the purported worship of saints and imams.
The Syrian quagmire
The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq and especially the internecine war in
Syria galvanized both sides in ways unprecedented since time immemorial.
The Shiites argued that they were defending Shiism and Shiite shrines against
Salafi Sunnis who wanted to create a (Sunni) Islamic state after defeating
and unseating Bashar al Assad. Interestingly, Assad is not really a Shiite or
even Muslim. He is as much Muslim as Adolph Hitler was Christian.
What else can be said of a tyrant who has killed or caused the death of more
than 250,000 Syrians, virtually completely destroyed his country and forced
as many as 13 million Syrians to leave their homes, all in order to extend
the rule of his clan by a few more years?
Predictably, the Iranians are not short of arguments to defend and justify
their destructive involvement in Syria. However, a careful examination of
Iranian arguments in this regard shows the utter disingenuousness of Iranian
claims. Eventually, the true Iranian position can be summarized in one word:
In fact, the undeclared Iranian motto sounds like this: A Shiite Hitler is
preferred over a Sunni saint. Otherwise, what affinity is there between Ithna
Ashari Shiism and atheistic Baath socialism, the official ideology of Assad
and his ruling regime?
I am touching on the sectarian dimension of Shiite-Sunni binary because it is
the crux of the matter. Don't you believe anyone who would tell you
Is there a hope for a peaceful coexistence?
What can be done to alleviate or even stabilize this perpetual showdown
between the two camps?
I know too well that even the best possible answer may not be good enough to
deal with this issue appropriately.
However, I believe certain ideas can be helpful.
It is no secret that the root-cause of animosity and mutual suspicions
between Shiites and Sunnis is the repulsive Shiite habit of maligning the
Prophet, his family and Companions.
Hence, as the first order of mitigating this bloody showdown, the Shiites
must make genuine efforts to stop badmouthing the religious symbols of Sunni
Islam. I am saying this because unless this particular issue is treated
constructively and with good will, there is no practical hope for any
breakthrough between the two communities.
As a Sunni Muslim, I am not asking the Shiites to fall in love with Omar, Abu
Bakr and A'aisha. I am only asking them to stop this hateful incitement and
defamation. The Shiites have been cursing the Sahaba of the Prophets for
centuries. What have they achieved other than fostering ill will, mistrust
and animosity among Muslims.
There is a universal rule upon which peaceful coexistence between peoples and
individuals all over the world is based. It is called "mutual respect."
Unfortunately, apart from some politically-motivated half-hearted statements
by Iranian officials, there has never been a solemn undertaking by the main
Shiite seminaries in Qum and Najaf to outlaw the provocative repulsive
I don't know if the Shiites have demands of their own they wish to make. In
fact, I have never ever come across a Sunni Muslim maligning Shiite symbols
and saints. None the less, Shiites are always welcomed to present their
I know that true brotherhood between Shiites and Sunnis are second to
impossible under the current circumstances.
However, for the sake of peaceful coexistence, the followers of the two camps
must at the very least recognize the common humanity of the other. In short,
we ought to adopt a modicum of civility in viewing and dealing with each
This is not difficult to achieve. People from both camps do perfectly coexist
with people espousing entirely different religious traditions, even people
who believe in no religion and no God.
A final point ... much of the mutual hatred between Sunnis and Shiites is
imputed to ancient books containing all sorts of incitement and name-calling
of the other side. And in numerous cases, scholars from both sides readily
acknowledge the spurious nature of these books.
Hence, it is imperative on both sides to disown these "yellow books" which,
although written a thousand years ago or more, continue to poison our lives.
On this occasion, I would like to thank and salute the Iraqi Shiite Kamal al-Haydari
for his strenuous efforts in this field.
We Muslims are supposed to have a pure and perfect religion, which is the
last testament to mankind. Therefore, it is not Islam that needs to be
reformed; it is rather our often screwed understanding of it and especially
our behaviors that need to be reformed.
Khalid Amayreh is a Palestinian journalist and political commentator
living in Occupied Palestine