Dismantling the culture of Muslim sectarianism
By Imam Luqman Ahmad
In Afghanistan it’s dreadful enough that the U.S. military machine has blown the country to smithereens, now obvious obstacles to rebuilding has been augmented by the violently competitive warlords, fighting each other for power. In Iraq, intermittent violence between Sunnis and Shiites boils like a volcanic crescendo waiting to erupt should the American forces ever decide to leave. In Kurdistan another powder keg is slowly igniting between the Kurds, the Arabs and the Turkmen.
In Tajikistan after the recent fall of the Russian empire, the country capitulated into a vicious civil war. Tens of thousands of Muslims were killed and close to a million were displaced in a conflict that although ostensibly was between fundamentalist Muslims against Marxist Muslims, was really about clan rivalry and ethno-nationalism. Whether it is civil strife in Uzbekistan, sectarian violence in Somalia, Wahhaabi-Shi’ite, or Tuareg darker-skinned Muslim clashes in Mali, or Mosque bombings in Iraq, the tragedy of Muslim on Muslim violence and intolerance in the Muslim world goes unabated.
Such is the culture of sectarianism. While hardly a Muslim innovation, we seem to have perfected it in the modern age. It’s the “my race is better than your race, my nationality is better than your nationality, my politics are better than your politics, my tribe is better than your tribe, my Islam is better than your Islam” mentality. This mindset has led us to either depend on despotic, ruthless rulers to keep us from each other’s throats, or set about trying to kill, control and marginalize each other in the name of Islam, region, political party, tribe or race. If the notion of tribal, ethnic or racial preference taking precedence over Islamic solidarity became outdated with the advent of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, then certainly, now in the 21st century, it should have become an ancient relic of antiquity. By now, we should be laughing at our since discarded ignorance the same way that Umar Ibn Al-Khattaab once laughed at himself for the time when, overcome by hunger, he ate one his idols for lunch.
Alarmingly, this culture of Muslim-sectarianism is gradually finding its way into America. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with a little ethnic, tribal or even racial pride. Unbridled however, it swaggers into racism and very easily graduates into the type of sectarian modality that we are burdened with today. Instead of sheepishly reminiscing how once upon a time in America there were such things as an Afghani Mosque, an Afro-American Mosque, or an Arab Mosque, we find ourselves foolishly trying to relive an undignified and disastrous past of sectarianism, based on tribal, ethnic or racial loyalty. Destined for failure, the sectarian trend of American Muslims communities must be eradicated before it gets out of control. Anecdotally, it should come as no surprise to Muslims in America that we are met with intolerance when we fail at tolerance amongst ourselves. The American civil war, the numerous race riots throughout American history, and the civil rights protests of the sixties, has convinced much of America that racism, segregation and narrow-minded bigotry is counter-productive. Even biracial marriage, once considered intolerable, has become an innocuous, accepted social practice. Ironically, amongst Muslims living in America, inter-racial marriage is still largely taboo. The Prophet, peace be upon him, saw the self-destructive pattern inherent in sectarian proclivities and the potential damage that it posed to the Muslim peoples. This is why he opposed it from the very beginning. After the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet, peace be upon him, commanded Bilal, the freed African slave, to climb atop the Kaaba to make the call to prayer. After Bilal did so, someone remarked, “Muhammad couldn’t find anyone to be a muezzin except this black crow!” Others uttered similar derisive statements about Bilal. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, was informed of these remarks he summoned the men who made them and they admitted their statements. Then the verse was revealed; “Oh you people, surely We have created you from a male and a female. And We have made you into tribes and nations in order to know one another. Surely the most righteous amongst you to Allah is the most pious.” Regrettably, these types of sentiments still prevail amongst us.
During the seventies and eighties, America’s response to racism and bigotry was to embark on an elaborate, slogan-laden campaign of re-education and behavior modification. African American history entered public schools, anti-discrimination and anti-segregation policies were adopted in employment, education, finance, and politics. It took a while for people to catch on and it is still a work in progress but here we are, a generation later, and those efforts have been largely successful. Thirty years ago, sexual harassment in the work place was commonplace. However, through public awareness, extensive re-education, and aggressive prosecution, most Americans now consider sexual harassment unacceptable. There was a time when a husband could brutalize his wife, send her to the grocery store with two black eyes and not receive anything more than a furtive scowl from his neighbor. Now after a generation, a hearty bruise bearing slap in the face will get someone jail time.
In six-century Arabia, idol worship was widely accepted. However after re-education in the form of wahy (divine inspiration), not only was it abolished but never again since that time have statues been worshipped in the Arabian peninsula. Re-education, a successful tool employed by the Prophet, peace be upon him, still has merit. Muslims in America and elsewhere will never achieve the desirable standards of unity and cooperation established by our revealed texts, unless we dispassionately address the underlying causes of our malaise.
In the United States, a domestic culture has emerged that allows us to agree to disagree. We are accustomed to being able to work together, side by side for a common good. From kindergarten we are taught to get along, to work together, to play together and mend our differences. Even in the ruthless world of American politics, opposing forces frequently find common ground and build coalitions. Thus, we need to amplify the message that we neither want nor need the type of sectarianism, intolerance and racism practiced by Muslims in the Muslim world, here in the United States.
Americans as a group increasingly abhor racism. African American Muslims are exceptionally appalled by it and resist it so defiantly because for over four hundred years, they have lived through some of the worst examples of racial bigotry and subjugation in history. Much like the oblivion of many white racists in earlier times to their deranged attitudes about race and ethnicity, many immigrants Muslims fail to perceive the indifference shown to African American Muslims, or Muslims of color. Likewise, many African American Muslims also fail to realize the inherent dangers of Black Nationalism.
In the early 1960s when some of the first modern mass waves of Muslim immigrants came to the United States, an alliance between converts and immigrant Muslims was forged. They needed each other as they do now. It is lamentable that after gaining a secure foothold in American society, many immigrant communities have started to show an unhealthy indifference towards the indigenous African American and to a degree, the white American Muslim population. Obviously that is not the case for all immigrant Muslims. However, this ominous drift is strong enough that there is widespread consensus amongst those affected that it is a growing crisis. We are slowly moving away from unity and moving towards separation and disunity. This is why there is an imminent need for reeducation. Unity, like faith, needs to be taught by imams in their sermons and teachers need to address it in schools. New converts to Islam and newly arriving Muslim immigrants need to be oriented towards it from the very beginning. Although older Muslims tend to be deeply entrenched in sectarian tendencies, much hope prevails for the coming generations. However the time for re-education is now while we as Muslim peoples in America are still in our adolescence. Otherwise we may find ourselves twenty-five years from now in the same pathetically fragmented condition that haunts the Muslim world today.
Sectarianism, the insidious Achilles heel of the Muslims, is arguable one of the primary deterrents to global Muslim unity. Muslims living in the United States are uniquely positioned to counter this disease by creating an ethnically neutral and color blind, Islamic culture. We not only possess the freedom and the infancy to socially and intellectually evolve, we have the world as our captive audience. Allah in His wisdom has assembled Muslims in the United States from all over the world comprising virtually every major ethnic and racial group. Perhaps we are being tested to see if collectively we can create a new Muslim reality where Islam takes precedence over our color, our race our tribe and our ethnicity. It is as if Allah has brought us all together here on the world stage of America to demonstrate the term ibaadah Allahi ikhwaanaa (servants of Allah and brethren). The scholars of Islam unanimously agree that it is fard (incumbent) upon the Muslims to be servants of Allah and brethren. If we fail to rise up to this challenge, I fear that ultimately, the most notable import to the West that the Muslims will be credited with , will be sectarianism. _