Home>Posts>Politics, Religion & Culture>How Sectarianism Operates – By Ali Abbas Taj

How Sectarianism Operates – By Ali Abbas Taj


How sectarianism operates in the Middle East: as the Syrian conflict nears its end, the methodologies of AQ apologists in the Muslim community and the mainstream media are becoming clear: Here’s how to call out the bias and fight back.

Every Shia who is active on social media, or indeed in political conversation in the real world knows the feeling. You come across a post or you hear a comment. Your hackles rise, you know that there is a hidden anti-Shia animus but when asked to explain why, you can’t quite get your point across. Instead, you rage, incredulous that the self-evident bias is being denied. You end up losing your temper and often the argument. Worst of all the person you’re arguing with walks away dismissing you as just another Shia fanatic.

The reason for this is that many of those who attack or denigrate Shias use forms of argument that even they themselves don’t realise are predicated on Sunni superiority. And when it comes to the Western media, whose sources are often secular Sunnis, those biases are replicated and incorporated into the wider neo-colonial mindset. When all these forces combine, sectarian bias can be so strong that even the sectarian slaughter of hundreds of innocents by groups like Al-Qaeda can be written out of history.

Below are some examples of how sectarian biases operate. They are intended to help the readers of WSF to identify and call out the mechanics of a deeply ingrained and often unconscious bigotry. There will be some overlap, of course, because the arguments are closely related, but this article is intended to help our readers to be better advocates for the cause of arresting the Shia genocide by helping them to better understand how the arguments work and what can be done to counter them:

  1. Treating Sunni Islam as Normative

The word ‘normative’ means designating or deriving from what is considered normal. In the case of Sunni/Shia relations, it is the assumption that the four Madhabs of Sunnism are, because their adherents form the majority of Muslims, the ‘normal’ forms of Islam. Anything that falls outside Ahl-e-Sunnah is therefore abnormal, deviant or strange and must explain itself.

Despite the fact that Shi’ism (unlike the Sunni Madhabs) has an unbroken line of intellectual and spiritual heritage going back to the Prophet himself, it is treated like a strange deviation.

Perhaps the most blatant example of Sunni normativity is in the case of Mut’a or temporary marriage. Neo-traditionalist groups like Wahabis, Salafis and Deobabdis love to use Mut’a as anti-Shia propaganda, claiming that it is simply legalised prostitution. This is despite the fact that they have their own version of temporary marriage called “zawaj al-misyar” which is almost the same as the Shia version of the marriage.

Their reasoning creates an absurd spectacle: Muslims who claim to want to return Islam to the way it was practiced in the time of the Prophet are condemning a custom that was allowed by the Prophet himself but outlawed by one of their own ‘rightly-guided’ sectarian figures in order to appeal to the patriarchal conservatism that many Muslims exhibit when it comes to matters of sex and marriage and use it to stir anti-Shia sentiment. Ironically, the current moral disdain towards temporary marriage as a form of promiscuity is recent in Sunni history going back to Victorian-era sexual norms that was inherited by the Muslim (Sunni) world via British colonialism.

So vehement are they in attempting to assert the normative nature of Sunnism that they do not even follow their own logic through to its conclusion: If Mut’a is a form of prostitution then that begs the question, what does that say about our Prophet?

  1. Treating takfiri ideology as a legitimate expression of Islam

‘Biddah’ or ‘innovation’ is the insult of choice flung be neo-traditionalist groups at anyone who they feel is deviating from true Islam. Anyone who is deemed guilty of biddah is immediately declared a kafir, and as someone who is outside the fold of Islam, fair game to be killed or enslaved.

Yet the Deobandi, Salafi and Wahabi (DSW) movements are very recent innovations in themselves and ones with a very dubious genealogy. Wahabism arose in the deserts of Arabia in the 18th Century but came to real prominence only because the British promoted it as a useful tool against the Ottoman empire.

Deobandism is an anti-modern movement, but one that also has close ties to the Raj. But even as they embraced colonial power politics these sects harked back to a mythical past that appears more rooted in the pre-Islamic Jahiliyyah than in the time of the Prophet. Indeed, as we have seen above, they are perfectly happy to even ignore or overrule the universally accepted deeds and saying of the Prophet himself when it suits them.

When combined with the tendency outlined in point 1, treating these innovations as legitimate results in a double hit. Not only is Sunnism seen as the normative form of Islam from which all others are deviations (despite the historical evidence that indicates many aspects of even traditional Sunnism are younger than their Shia counterparts) but we then see the ‘normativity’ of Sunnism mobilised to defend the intolerant perversions and innovations of DSW ideology: Sunnism is the norm, DSW-ism is a form of Sunnism, therefore DSW is normal in Islam.

It is through this twisted logic, as well as through the support of Gulf and Saudi petrodollars that a creed that would have appalled their grandfathers and grandmothers has become a ‘legitimate’ and ‘mainstream’ approach to Islam for many young Sunnis across the world today.

  1. Obscuring history and essentialising the Sunni Shia divide

This example is one that both many Sunnis and Western journalists and commentators are guilty of. Sectarian differences have existed in Islam from the very moment that the Prophet passed away, but they have only become important when other factors – such as the destabilisation of the Middle East that followed the Iraq invasion – have enabled unscrupulous leaders to use them as a means of mobilising their supporters. Essentialising the Sunni/Shia divide, making it seem like the motivating factor in an ancient struggle takes away responsibility from today’s takfiris and Shia-killers.

This is similar to the ‘ancient hatred between Arabs and Jews’ argument that is used to make the world turn a blind eye to Israeli aggression by making it seem part of an intensely complicated tangle of historical grievance with fault on both sides. In fact, the ‘ancient hatred’ is 70 years old and dates to the formation of Israel as a nation state. Similarly, the virulent sectarianism of the Wahabis is a very new thing in Islam. It has been an influence for 200-300 years but it is only in the last 50 that it has truly shaped the arguments and debates taking place in the Muslim world.


Essentialising the divide also makes it seem as if both sides are engaged in a tit-for-tat, with each being as culpable as the other. The truth, of course, is that Shias have been persecuted for hundreds of years and whilst there have been sporadic instances of reprisal, they cannot compare to the systematic brutalisation we have suffered at the hands of tyrants throughout our history.

  1. False equivalence between Shias and Wahabis (They’re all as bad as each other!)

Having examined how some of the deepest and most insidious forms of anti-Shia sectarian thinking operate, we can now look at the ways in which these deep biases manifest themselves in interactions on the internet, in the media and in real life.

The most obvious example is the false equivalence between Shias and Wahabis that is often trotted out by ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’ Muslims. According to this line of reasoning, merely calling oneself a Shia is an aggressively sectarian act and consequently the Shias who refuse to let their deen be obliterated and the Wahabis who seek to wipe them from the face of the earth are as bad as each other.

According to this argument, the fact that the Shia have a sacred history that denigrates revered figures in Sunnism is provocative and legitimises the violence and persecution we suffer at the hands of violently intolerant extremists. So the problem is not that Abu Bakr did this or that Umar did that – the mainstream history itself is rarely disputed (such as the wars of apostasy, civil wars etc.,)  – but for Shias to cite the historical record is constructed as being just as divisive as Wahabi extremists killing us by the hundreds and thousands.

It should go without saying that citing history (regardless of whether the facts are disputed) and murdering people ex-judice for ‘blasphemy’ are not equally reprehensible.


  1. Claiming that calling out sectarian violence is as bad as sectarian violence (or #AlQaedaLivesMatter)

A variation on the argument that we’re all as bad as each other is the argument that pointing out or asking for condemnation of the persecution of Shias is in itself sectarian.

There is a joke amongst some Iraqis that ‘there was no sectarianism in the Middle East until Shias stopped putting up with it’ and whilst at one level flippant, the statement carries a kernel of truth. The argument is, in fact, very similar to that taking place in the USA over the repeated unlawful killing of black men by white police officers. Just as racism and violence against black Americans did not suddenly start when black people got hold of phones with video cameras, so violence against Shias did not suddenly start when Shias started complaining about it. And in the same way Shias are blamed for causing sectarianism by pointing out that it is happening so the slogan ‘black lives matter’ is characterised as aggressive and supremacist, with those who oppose it claiming that ‘all lives matter.’ But the point of the slogan is not to assert that black lives matter more than anyone else’s, but to assert that they matter at all in the face of systematic dehumanisation and persecution.

Just as those who accuse black people of ‘divisiveness’ and ‘identity politics’ help to perpetuate a destructive status quo, so those who want the Shia to shut up about the fact they are being persecuted act as instruments of the same mindset sees Shias murdered in droves from Damascus to Baghdad to Karachi.

  1. Selective application of sectarian identity

Every human being has multiple identities. A person may be a Syrian, a Manchester United fan, a daughter, sister, wife and a Shia.

When evacuees from the villages of Fua and Kefreya were murdered by a suicide bomber who lured children with crisps and chocolates, they were not described as Shias, instead they were merely described residents of ‘government-held’ villages. Their identity as Shias was not mentioned, yet this was the reason they died. Because we are Shias, we know the reason the women and children who were being evacuated died. Their deaths had nothing to do with the removal of Bashar al Asad – even the almost non-existent ‘Free Syrian Army’ condemned the massacre – instead they were victims of war of annihilation being waged by Wahabi extremists against every form of Islam that does not conform to their own.

In Pakistan too, we regularly see reporting of bombings and target killings reported as extremists attacking pluralism. Of course, this is one way of looking at it, but a fuller picture is that Deobandi extremists have, for 30 years, been targeting prominent, educated Shias like lawyers and doctors in a deliberate strategy aimed, not just at sowing fear, but at preventing our community from nurturing leaders who can represent us and protect our interests.

But as long as the mainstream press fails to report this, they remain complicit in a Shia genocide that will only escalate so long as they fail to name it and condemn it.

  1. Selective condemnation

America’s largest Muslim organisation, the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) was staunchly against the invasion of Iraq. Yet despite the surface similarities between Assad and Saddam (much of it based on False attribution to the former; and even despite the fact that the Iraq war demonstrated that Liberal Interventionism and nation-building do not work; CAIR has supported intervention and escalation of intervention in Syria. It is very difficult to see this as anything other than a sectarian move from an organisation that receives much of its funding from Saudi Arabia, the Godfather of Wahabism, and which has only token Shia representation on its board.

This is just one example, but if you scour the twitter feeds of many Muslim and Liberal activists, you will see, again and again, that the same occurrences receive very different treatment depending on whether it is Shias or Sunnis who are suffering as a result.

  1. Obscuring ideological difference

This is the simplest and last of our points:

Shias believe mainstream Sunnis to be Muslims who are misguided. Wahabis believe Shias to be non-Muslims who should be wiped off the face of the earth. This is their ideology and ours. One of them is murderous barbarism, the other a civilised difference of opinion between brothers and sisters in Islam. There is no ideological or practical equivalence.

What you can do

This may all seem very dispiriting, but there are practical steps you can take to help challenge and dismantle the suite of ideas that constitutes the anti-Shia discourse:

    1. Whenever you see a news article that fails to mention that the victims of an attack are Shia, point it out. Email the journalist that wrote the article, tweet at the official account of the publication. If it is a state broadcaster like the BBC write a complaint citing the bias. Make sure you are calm, collected and factual when do you this.


    1. Phrases like Rawfidh and Shia Kafir are hate speech. If you see them on social media, report them.


    1. Take time to study the points above, assimilate them and look for your own examples. Wherever you see bias, whether it is deliberate and malicious or unconscious, point out to people what they are doing.


    1. Become active as a Shia in your local community. Engage in activism and voluntary work, but always with the Alam of Abbas high in your heart and visible on your sleeve. Let people see who we really are by our deeds, not just our words.


    1. Do not succumb to the temptation to apologise or hide our sacred history for fear of being labelled sectarian or divisive. The time when we could appease or hide is gone. This is an existential fight and we will lose it if we let ourselves believe that it will all go away if we are quiet and compliant.


  1. Donate your time and skills to more than just the Masjid – If you are a lawyer, take up Shia human rights cases, if you are a film student, make youtube videos that highlight the plight of the Shia. Our mosques and ulema are vital institutions, but in today’s secularised world, they cannot be the only place we engage with our Shia identity.

With Peace

Ali Abbas Taj

Founding Chief Editor of World Shia Forum


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