In the beginning of the 9th century Charles I King of the Francs was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III. This challenged Empress Irene who ruled the Byzantium Empire from its capital Constantinople (modern Istanbul). This had a long lasting consequence on the relationships between Asia Minor and Europe which were already bad. Today we can see the effect of that event on the relations between modern Turkey and Europe and on the European hesitation to allow Turkey in the EU. It is because of that conflict between Charles and Irene in the 9th century.
I need not say that this is nonsense. But it is such nonsensical analysis which more than often guides the view towards the Middle East and Muslim communities at large. Whenever a writer explains contemporary politics by reference to the civil wars between Muslims in the 8th century he/she is doing exactly the same thing. The tectonic shift from those times to now makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to even contemplate on those events 1400 years ago as a prelude to understanding today. A shift that is not less in any way than that which happened from the time of Charles I, Pope Leo III, and Irene. But while everyone can see the shift in this latter case it seems much harder in the former one.
Why is that? Maybe we got used to the former. We grew up talking about Sunnis and Shiites fighting each other. We read all the time that Sunnis did this to Shiites and Shiites did that to Sunnis. Of course this does not excuse the critical mind, even the noncritical mind. If we spent thirty or forty years talking about conflict between Europeans and Asian Minors does that justify seeing that nonsense in a different light?
Historical cultural shifts
Be that as it may, it seems that there is another more subtle reason for overlooking the shifts that happened since the 8th century. It is as if there is an implicit assumption of a static culture that has not fundamentally changed. Roots of this assumption are to be found in Western and Arabic discourse (I use ‘Western’ here with hesitation). Maybe it made more pragmatic sense for both discourses to freeze time when it comes to understanding this part of the world or the communities with Muslim populations. Such freezing makes observation easier. Imagine having to describe a dynamic society, it is like aiming at a fast moving target. Of course freezing does not make good understanding, but when one is powerful and mighty (Colonialism) or when one has an ideological agenda of renaissance (Arabism/Islamism) then one thinks in terms of ‘re-constructing’ and ‘organizing’ the other less than thinking in terms of ‘understanding’. Moreover observing a frozen reality can provide enough information as a starting point for both reconstruction and organization. A stark example of freezing Arabs in time is the book ‘Critique of the Arab Mind’ by the most prominent philosopher among Arabic speaking people, the Moroccan Muhammad Abid al-Jabiry. His method was to go back 1000 years and study the Muslim scholars of that far and distant period so that he can understand the so called ‘Arab’ Mind of today.
A third related reason is the continuity of the words Shiite/Sunni. For some it makes absolute sense to go to history books written a thousand years ago, speaking about events that happened 1400 years ago, to get a better idea of what they mean today. The fact that words continue while their meanings change does not matter. ‘Silly’ used to mean happy. With social and political names the matter is not as straightforward but the logic is pretty much the same. 2100 years ago Britannia was the name of today’s Britain. But it would be nonsensical to read anything about Britain’s modern social and political life by going back to Britannia’s social and political life. Can one understand modern Europe by reading the history of the regions called Europa 2000 years ago? Britain and Europe are words, and as words their meanings changes with time. The same applies to Sunnism and Shiitism. They are words and any thought of continuity of their meanings is a figment of imagination; albeit a useful one for time squeezed journalists and lazy policy makers.
Food for thought
So what do those words mean today? And more importantly are they useful to explain events in the Middle East? I cannot answer that here, but I will share six rules of thumb as food for thought to writing about them.
First: avoid those words as much as you can. The mistakes that you may make by not using them will always be much less than the mistakes you make when using them mistakenly.
Second: Whatever you do, never ever explain Sunni-Shiite dynamics by referring to the civil wars of the 8th century. And if ever you get the urge to, or you see everyone doing it, just think of Charles I and Irene.
Third: if you must use Sunni/Shiite always localize them. That is do not assume that there is a Sunni bloc that stretches from the Western coasts of North Africa to the Eastern coasts of Indonesia. Nor that there is a ‘Shiite Crescent’ surrounded by an ocean of Sunnis. Nor is there a Sunni/Shiite war. All of this is a myth. A Lebanese Shiite or Sunni is Lebanese first and foremost. His/her interests are primarily constructed by the structure of Lebanese socio-politics and Lebanese economy; and thus his/her social/political/economic decisions primarily stem from that local Lebanese structure. This is not to deny regional and international influence on the Lebanese structure, but not directly on the individual. When one analyzes the relationship between Lebanon’s Prime Minister and the Saudis it should not be framed in Sunni-Sunni relationships. But on the other hand when talking about the that PM’s relationship with other Lebanese then one may use a Sunni-‘Other’ frame because the political structure in Lebanon is based on such fault lines. Sectarianism must always be localized and never used in regional analysis.
There are exceptions to this. When one is writing about Shiite or Sunni religious practice, then some regional comparisons may work. But this calls for reservations as there is a massive difference between Sunnis and Shiites belonging to different parts of the world. Another exception is when writing about individual emotions towards different religious denominations. It is not uncommon for Sunnis and Shiites to ridicule each other’s systems of belief, or even to have mutual ‘sacred hatred’. Writing about that can also be regional, with reservation also for the massive differences between peoples and their cultures of hate and ridicule.
A third and more serious exception is when writing about ‘zealots’. Now most ordinary religious persons are driven by secular motivations even when they use a moral or religious language to justify or hide those motivations. Zealots are different. In their case religious justification can more than often reflect religious motivation. And since religious motivations transcend localization thus when writing about them one will need to have a regional even a global outlook. But zealots are exceptional and few, and they too have secular motivations. So understanding them is sometimes tricky. More importantly they act individually or in micro groups. The reason is that pragmatism is an inherent component of any group beyond a certain number of people, and pragmatism is antithetical to zealotry thinking. Shiite/Sunni zealots exist, but they should be singled out as a unique phenomenon with diverse roles and effects.
Fourth: when you hear people in Muslim communities or in the Middle East speaking in Sunni-Shiite terms, or analyzing events with reference to an age old civil war, or fearing a Shiite alliance from Iran through Iraq to Syria then Lebanon, or calling for a Sunni stance; when you hear that do not take that as statements about the actual facts out there rather ask yourself why do people insist on looking at events in such an archaic way? It is well known that all peoples place their political conflicts within a bigger narrative; and the question should be: Why do many Muslims insist on this narrative? When did it start to become a widely used one? How did the Islamic Revolution of Iran influence that? Most importantly what other narratives exist out there? We hear all the time of people saying its not a Sunni-Shiite thing… but for some reason those calls are not taken to be narratives about what is going on. Many observers prefer to consider them attempts to make things different.
Fifth: ask counter questions and remember counterfactuals. When people say Iran is helping Hezbollah because it is Shiitte one should ask: would Iran still help Hezbollah if they were Sunnis allied with her such as Hamas? Would Iran try to eradicate Hezbollah if it challenged her authority? We all remember what Iran’s position from the Shiite party of Amal in the 1980s. When someone says that the current conflict in Syria is sectarian one should ask: How would the war change if sects changed? If Bashar al-Assad were a Sunni would that have made Hezbollah less keen to support his regime? Would it have made the Saudis less keen to have him toppled? When someone speaks of entrenched Shiite-Sunni sectarianism in Iraq one should remember the Iraqi Shiites who were ardently opposed to Iran. One can also remember the many alliances cross all sectarian divisions. When one says Iran is a Shiite state one should remember that Iran supported the Christian Armenia in its war against the predominantly Shiite Azerbaijan. When one says Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabi state it may help to remember that the Saudis supported the ‘Shiite’ Royalists in Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war against the ‘Sunni’ Egyptian intervention. Iran is an Iranian state and Saudi Arabia is a Saudi state. That is when it comes to state interests the denomination of its rulers does not matter.
Actually the list of counterfactuals is endless to the point that one is surprised on the persistence of the Shiite/Sunni frame.
Sixth: always differentiate between motivations and justifications. How people decide to justify their behavior does not always reflect the motivations behind those behaviors. Those writing on international politics and foreign policy know that too well. Rarely has any state intervened in any country without saying that it was for the greater good. This also applies to Muslims – and believers from other religions - who revert to religious language to justify secular and material interests.
To conclude, sectarian rhetoric says little about the foundations of conflicts and a lot about the way people decide to speak of those conflicts. Sectarian conflicts are an expression of the breakdown of the social contract in a given locality as Ronnie Lipschutz and Beverly Crawford have suggested. Taking Lipschutz and Crawford as a starting point anyone writing should draw a clear separation between that breakdown and some of the narratives about it. The dynamics of alliances and animosities resulting from the breakdown of a social contract are complicated; and one of those dynamics may be the similarity or difference in religious denomination. But one should take much care in writing as if that denomination is the only or primary dynamic. Also one should drop denominational factors when discussing regional alliances and animosities. One should stop using stories of denominational origin for any social or political analysis. Finally one should look for other narratives that have been made invisible due to the predominance of the Shiite-Sunni one.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1