Neo-Sectarianism in the Muslim World

Neo-Sectarianism and an Intra- Muslim Cold War?
Ibrahim Kalin, Today's Zaman, August 8, 2012

The Muslim world has had its share of sectarianism in the past but its modern incarnations pose a different set of challenges. Neo-sectarianism is different from the medley of traditional theological and juridical differences among Muslims. It is primarily an ideological and geo-political phenomenon. Neo-sectarianism among Sunnis and Shias is increasingly becoming part of the new proxy wars in the Middle East, running the risk of an intra-Muslim cold war.
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.

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