The good news is that the vast majority of Sunni and Shia Muslims do not see themselves as soldiers of a sectarian war. The bad news is that historical grievances and theological differences are manipulated to raise tensions. Neo-sectarianism is thoroughly political and driven by a mixture of what Ibn Khaldun called ‘asabiyyah, which means group solidarity, identity politics and power struggle. When misused, ‘asabiyyah can lead to division and fighting rather than unity and creativity as Ibn Khaldun hoped the Muslim communities of his time would do.
Today, group identities are much more complex and sophisticated, intertwined with a wide range of social, economic and political factors, which shape identities across the Muslim world. Recognizing this complexity is vital for managing and overcoming sectarian tensions. Pitting Sunni ‘asabiyyah against Shia ‘asabiyyah does not solve the problem.
Attempts at Sunni-Shiite rapprochement in the modern period have not been in vain. In 1959, Mahmud Shaltut, the Shaykh of al-Azhar University, issued a fatwa authorizing the teaching of Shia jurisprudence as part of al-Azhar’s curriculum. This was reciprocated by Ayatullah Burujardi, one of the most influential Shia scholars of his time. Shaltut and Burujardi opened the door for a serious dialogue between Sunnis and Shias.
Ayatollah Khumeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution in Iran, was an advocate of Sunni-Shia reconciliation and played a key role in opening new lines of communication. In February 2007, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Sunni scholar, came together on Al Jazeera and called for ending hostilities and fighting between Sunnis and Shias. This was followed by another milestone event on March 3, 2007: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged to work for intra-Muslim unity in view of the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, the Gulf and elsewhere. More could have been built on these initiatives.
The Arab Spring changed much of this at the political level. The Syrian crisis put major players at odds against each other, leading to imaginary maps of Shia alliances against Sunni blocks. The Syrian regime’s Alawite identity matters but does not define the conflict in Syria. The power struggle between the Syrian regime, Iran, Russia and Hizbullah on the one hand, and the opponents of the regime in Damascus can take on sectarian colors but cannot be defined as a Sunni-Shia armageddon. The alleged convergence of sectarian identities and policy choices is not backed by the facts on the ground. Here are few examples: From a religious and doctrinal point of view, the Alawite Baath regime in Syria has very little to do with Twelver Shias. The nationalist and secular Baath regime has no ideological affiliation with either Iran or Hezbullah in Lebanon. Hezbullah is an Islamist movement, fighting against Israeli occupation and expansionism. Its political alliance with Damascus is a matter of political convenience, not religious doctrine or sectarian solidarity.
Hamas is closely related to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a typically Sunni, Arab, Islamist movement. The Hamas political bureau came to Damascus and developed good relations with the Syrian regime until the Syrian uprising in early 2011. Its alliance with Syria was a matter of political convenience because most Arab states, under pressure from the US and Israel, refused to host it. Now Hamas has left Damascus.
Turkey developed good relations with the Syrian regime, fully knowing its Alawite base but cut relations when Damascus began to kill people en masse. Turkey’s policy of engagement was not sectarian. Nor was its decision to distance itself from the regime’s brutal war on all Syrians.
Turkey supported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, in his first term and signed over 40 agreements between the two countries. When Maliki tried one-man politics in a country like Iraq, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan distanced himself. Sectarian considerations played practically no role.
Turkey supports Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, values its bi-lateral relations but opposes Iran’s policy on Syria. Turkey’s being Sunni or and Iran’s being Shia does not explain these policy choices.
The new power struggle concentrating on the Syrian crisis in the Middle East is an attempt to create an “intra-Muslim cold war” through sectarian tensions and identity politics. Political and religious leaders and others must stand against this extremely dangerous game.