The Sunni revival

Jan 15, 2014

A panorama of current trends in Islam, by Francesca Bruni.


The trend described by Vali Nasr, the well-known Iranian born essayist and scholar of Islamic society, in his book “The Shia Revival” (or the other Islam) released in 2006, increasingly seems to take the opposite path. A trace of this is also found in a recent article in the January 12th edition of the Economist, “The Sword and the Word”, despite the good intentions expressed in consensus meetings between Muslim schools, both in Jordan in 2005 and in Doha in 2007, feuds between Sunnis, “who make up roughly 80% of the world’s Muslims, and the Shia minority (most of the rest), remain savage and are, in some ways, worsening.” The context is complex and contradictory, as was seen in the taking of certain positions by various countries in the Middle East in regards to the Syrian conflict; things are unclear, ambiguous and difficult to define according to the West’s black and white logic.

“In conservative Sunni monarchies (especially those with restless Shia populations) dislike and suspicion of Iran, the Shia bastion, is running higher than ever,” writes the Economist. The theology is no longer distinguishable from the geopolitics. The Sunni agitation (often Saudi-sponsored) “is intensifying against the supposed heresies contained in Shia teaching.”

As in the recent attack on a Shia mosque in Belgium or in attacks between Shiites and Sunnis in Pakistan, the bombs are no longer being used against Westerners, but rather against their religious counterparts. The wars of religion, like those experienced in Europe following the Protestant Reformation, are ripping apart the Arab countries in this profoundly difficult stage of their history. The “enemy” is now inside the Arab world, not outside. The declining role of Western countries in the area has emphasized the internal conflict – also a result typical of the post colonial legacy – in the meantime these same countries have distanced themselves from defining the geopolitics of the region. One also thinks of the situation in Africa.

“European Shia-Sunni acrimony is part of to many-sided contest over the future of the continent’s tens of millions of Muslims,” says Jonathan Laurence, a scholar at Boston College interviewed by the Economist. “The religious authorities inmigrant-sending countries like Turkey and Morocco struggle to keep their people loyal to their own varieties of Sunni practice: they see Shia Islam and hardline Sunni groups like the Salafists as equally dangerous and insidious temptations for their sons and daughters in Europe.”

The conflict between the parties even reaches places like South-East Asia where few Shias live. Malaysia, “that has presented itself to the world as a tolerant Muslim-majority state, in reality bans the preaching of Shia Islam, with particular ferocity since December 2010, when dozens of Shias were arrested.”

Yusufal-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based preacher “often described as the de facto spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood – and who is also the president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, a loose Brotherhood-inspired body designed to pronounce on issues of common concern to Muslims – now attacks Shias for compromising the oneness of God (about the worst thing a Muslim can do) by ascribing semi-divine status to the people they regard as Muhammad’s legitimate successors. Another accusation is that Shias poach souls in Sunni lands,” writes the Economist.

If at one time Mr. Qaradawi was sympathetic to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia militia in Lebanon, as fighters against Israel, recently “he has stressed the gap between Sunni and Shia beliefs and passionately called for regime change in Syria, where, among other things, a Sunni majority is rebelling against a ruling elite whose Alawite belief (see table) is a Shia off shoot.”

It must be said that the West is no longer as involved as it once was with strategies and tactics in the area. In Iraq, up until a few years ago, one could blame the Americans that occupied the country, even for the internal religious tensions, according to the belief in divide et impera.

This is one of the important shifts that has occurred in the area. But perhaps the most important is that the Sunnis “are now winning the global contest.” Up until seven years ago, it seemed that Shia Islam, whether in Iran, Iraq or Lebanon, was winning. The Sunnis also held a broad-based referendum relative to the Shia (to Iran and to Hezbollah) to form a coalition against Israel in the name of Islam. Today they no longer need it. They no longer need to look to other countries for inspiration for their political ideology: the Arab spring has encouraged the emergence of the Sunni version of political Islam, which has drawn strength from inside the country as well as from those in exile (especially in London), with all the contradictions that implies, so much so that in some cases it has proved impossible to apply.

The West’s recent weakening of sanctions on Iran might introduce further changes in future scenarios, but at the moment the revival is Sunni.

However, as the Economist notes, “in campaigns for freedom and justice in the Middle East, Sunni-Shia distinctions can melt away. ‘We are all part of the same struggle,’ says Maryam al-Khawaja, an activist from Bahrain’s aggrieved Shiamajority. She co-starred this week with Sunnis like Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman detained for defying that country’s ban on women driving, at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a lively get-together for foes of state oppression.”

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