How to resolve Shia-Sunni Schism?

An Islamic-Western alliance against sectarianism in Iraq
Mehlaqa Samdani October 24, 2006

Pittsfield, Massachusetts - At a time when the Muslim and Western worlds seem to be drifting apart, alleviating the sectarian conflict in Iraq presents a unique opportunity for both camps to work together and achieve a common goal. A coordinated effort between Muslim civil society actors and Western groups would not only serve to bridge the sectarian divide in Iraq but could also begin to heal the growing mistrust between the Muslim world and the West.

Last week, the Organization of the Islamic Conference held a meeting of Iraqi Shiite and Sunni ulema who painstakingly produced an eight-point declaration known as the Mecca Document. The document aims to bridge the sectarian divide in Iraq by forbidding Shiites and Sunnis from killing each other. This is the first real initiative undertaken by the Muslim world to stop sectarian violence in Iraq. However, it must not be the last and should be supplemented with civil society initiatives.

The meeting in Mecca should be followed up with the creation of a forum of Iraqi Shiite and Sunni ulema with the primary responsibility of issuing counter-fatwas to the inflammatory rhetoric of Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza Al-Muhajir. Every statement issued by extremists referring to Shias as grandsons of Ibn Al-Alqami (the Shia vizir who was complicit in the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258) and sanctioning violence against them should be discredited by the forum with quotes from the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad that urge unity among the ummah (the Muslim nation).

The ulema, the real “power-brokers” in Iraq, have a vital role to play -- their authority and influence among the populace far exceeds that of the government. Had it not been for the efforts of spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq would have descended into civil war a long time ago. Despite repeated provocations from Sunni militias he has urged restraint among his followers.

The Mecca meeting and the resulting declaration should be widely publicised in Friday sermons, and media outlets in Iraq should use it as an opportunity to initiate nationwide dialogues between moderate Shiite and Sunni ulema.

The OIC should also coordinate with former Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, who heads the International Center for Dialogue based in Geneva. OIC member states and Western donors should provide funding to the Center and sponsor Shia-Sunni peace camps for Iraqi students following the Seeds of Peace model. Conflict resolution practitioners from the United States and Europe should be invited to conduct peace workshops where young Iraqis are taught non-adversarial means to address conflict and given the opportunity to deconstruct the dehumanising stereotypes they have developed for each other.

The Mecca Document should also form the basis of addressing the larger theological divide between the two sects.

Historically, theologians have made attempts at reconciliation. The most prominent initiative took place in Cairo in 1946 with the formation of Jamat al Taqrib (The Group of Rapprochement). The group aimed to unify the various schools of Islamic thought and to legitimize the Shiite legal code as a separate school of jurisprudence. In 1959, Mohammad Shaltut, the head of the renowned Islamic University of Al-Azhar recognised Twelver Shiism as a separate school and passed a fatwa endorsing it. The Jamat al Taqrib, however, eventually came under attack by Sunni extremist groups and ended in 1972. The OIC should attempt to revive the process by establishing a new generation of theologians committed to the same goal in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Development organisations in Iraq can also serve to mitigate sectarian strife. Muslim groups such as Islamic Relief and Muslim Aid should institute joint development programmess for Shiites and Sunnis, disbursing additional funds to communities where the two sects agree to work together. Whether formulating public works programmes or small income generation projects, the underlying principle during implementation should be the inclusion of both sects.

Western involvement with these initiatives must come in the form of security assistance. Coalition forces in Iraq have a critical role in extending protection to the various peace initiatives mentioned above. Development organizations, media outlets and other civil society actors have repeatedly been targeted and need protection to function effectively. Coalition troops should therefore provide additional security to these civil society actors so as to increase the former’s credibility and popularity among the local population.

Western governments should also publicly laud the civil society effort to end sectarian conflict in Iraq and pledge their support through a donor’s conference. Since civil society initiatives cost relatively little, Western governments should have no trouble coming up with the required funds while at the same time greatly improving their image among ordinary Iraqis and the wider Muslim world.

All eyes are on Prime Minister Nour Al Maliki’s peace plan to unite sectarian political parties in his government. In order for the plan to find popular acceptance, it must be supplemented with simultaneous peace initiatives at the grassroots level. An effective strategy consisting of Western groups and Islamic civil society actors could go a long way toward developing the next generation of Iraqis who will be able to resist the incendiary behaviour of extremist political and religious groups.

* Mehlaqa Samdani is a free-lance writer based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

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