Islam's great divide

The origins of the Shia-Sunni divide are so arcane that, let alone non-Muslims, even many ordinary Muslims will struggle to explain if you asked them.  It’s not surprising, therefore, as John McHugo points out that until not long ago this ancient dispute was “virtually unknown” in the West outside specialist academic circles. Nobody really cared, or attached to it the kind of significance it has come to assume in recent times.  It received “almost no attention” during India’s Partition debate” and was “clearly of little significance”, he writes. 

Today, however, it’s on everyone’s lips as a shorthand for the many crises around the world, not the least the chaos in West Asia.  What started off as a little sectarian difficulty 1,400 years ago (a succession feud after Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632) has come to define Islam for the modern world thanks to the geopolitical dimensions it has taken with Shia-Iran and Sunni-Saudi Arabia competing for the Muslim world’s leadership. 

Both sides have their proxies on the ground in various sectarian hotspots notably Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon. But, more importantly, both also have their respective Big Power patrons—the Saudi-Sunni alliance is backed by America, and Iran by Russia. A rather obscure centuries-old religious rift has become a convenient peg on which to hang “today’s many disasters in the Middle East”, Mr McHugo says, questioning the popular narrative that all the Muslim world’s ills are down to the Shia-Sunni rivalry.

Rather bravely, he accuses important Western figures, including Barack Obama, of fuelling “this kind of simplistic perception” . Because, he argues, it is a “very convenient narrative” and deflects attention from external causes of conflicts in the region. He refers to Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address in which he stated that “the Middle East is going through a transformation...rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. Mr Obama’s assertion, he says, could only be a reference to the Shia-Sunni divide. On other occasions, too, Mr Obama suggested that “ancient sectarian differences” were behind the turmoil in the Arab world.

Mr McHugo warns: “A simplistic narrative is in danger of taking firm hold in the West: that Sunnis and Shi’is have engaged in a perpetual state of religious war and mutual demonisation that has lasted across the centuries; and that is the root cause of all that is wrong in the Middle East today. This is a very convenient narrative.”

The reality, he contends, is that Shia-Sunni tensions are mostly “entwined with political issues”. “The way to stop today’s bloodshed is to sort out those political problems. Unfortunately, that runs up against the vested interests of many players,” he writes, alluding to the role of Western powers and their local proxies.

To illustrate his point, he offers a lengthy analysis of Iraq’s descent into sectarian bloodshed after the 2003 American invasion. The Americans completely failed to understand Iraq’s fragile social and cultural make-up: A patchwork of ethnic tribes or clans held together by a strong/authoritarian central government. 

“Paul Bremer, the man chosen by Washington to govern Iraq for the immediate future (after toppling Saddam Hussein), had no knowledge of the Middle East. Even more crucially, he had no understanding of Arab or Muslim society,” Mr McHugo writes.  Later, we saw a similar lack of American/Western arrogance and cultural insensitivity in Libya in 2011.

All this, of course, is well known and has been widely commented upon. What is new is Mr McHugo’s stress that the Shia-Sunni differences were not the primary cause of the post-invasion mayhem in Iraq that later spread to other parts of the region. It was the invasion that reignited old sectarian resentments. And once they were reignited they were “exploited by those seeking to destabilise the country”.  

His essential argument—and an important one—is that there was nothing inevitable about the sectarian conflicts in the Muslim world, as the popular Western narrative would have you believe. The Shia-Sunni divide was stoked instead by foreign players to suit their own ends. 

Mr McHugo is a liberal British scholar of Islamic studies, currently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University. His well-argued critique of Western attitudes towards the Muslim world and West Asia forms only a small part of the book. Much of the rest of it is a potted history of the Shia-Sunni schism, which has left no Muslim country unscathed. Even Indian Muslims have not been able to escape its toxic influence. Muharram processions taken out by Shias to mark the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of Prophet Mohammed, in Karbala are frequently marred by clashes. Some don’t eat at the other’s place suspecting the food may be contaminated! Incidentally, it’s wrongly presented as a religious dispute. It began as a quarrel over who should succeed the Prophet as he died without naming a successor — and spiralled out of control. This book is a handy guide to an elementary understanding of the “hows” and “whys” of this running sore. 

(The reviewer is a Sunni Muslim)

John McHugo
Speaking Tiger  
147pages, Rs 499

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