Each time I read Western analysts writing on the Arab world, I see an excessive emphasis on our sectarian identities in the Middle East. When we put our mind to make sense of violent events, such as the genocide in Rwanda (1994) or sectarian clashes of post-war Iraq, we often set off on the wrong foot. We are tempted to come to the conclusions: “one society is more prone to violence,” “problems in Iraq are because of Arab mindset,” “there are violent impulses within the Muslim faith,” “genocide is an African phenomenon.” We often fail to grasp it is only a matter of education. Like Nelson Mandela said in 1993, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
The Turkish government must have pondered on this issue lately, since they launched a campaign to embrace the Alawite population in Turkey and bring Shiite-Sunni societies ever closer. The governing AK Party decided to construct a mosque, a djemevi (Alawite worshipping place) and a food house in the same complex. Turkey is a very rare and important example of how Sunni and Shiite populations can live together in peace. Alawites and Sunnis live in the same apartment blocks, have strong social ties with each other, in most cases, Turkish people don’t even know who is from what sect unless asked since there is zero difference in attire or life style.
Nothing new here
This is not a new phenomenon in Turkey – starting from the Ottoman times, even in that era when tolerance was a luxury, Shiite and Sunni populations in Ottoman lands lived together harmoniously. In the Sunni empire, Shiite generals frequently led the army. Even though under the reign of Sultan Selim III, Sunni Ottomans clashed with an Alawite population inside the borders of the empire in the 16th Century. It wasn’t a sectarian clash, it was a political one. A certain Alawite population decided to join the Persian Safavid Empire, which at the time was determined to divide the Ottoman land. And the offensive was not about oppressing the Alawites in the empire, it was a military campaign against all Safavid supporting protestors within the borders of the empire. This was seen as treachery not sectarian divisions. Other than political clashes, tolerant (given the historical context) Sufi teachings and education kept Sunni and Alawite people close to each other most of the time.
Starting from the Ottoman times, even in that era when tolerance was a luxury, Shiite and Sunni populations in Ottoman lands lived together harmoniously.Ceylan Ozbudak
In today’s Middle East however, we do not see Sunni and Shiite Muslims as tolerant as they should be. The Syrian civil war, which gave birth to another civil war inside the not-so-civil war, very quickly became a sectarian issue. Today’s Iraq looks like a battleground of violent sectarian clashes. Lebanon is also trying not to shift its Shiite majority Muslim population to a Sunni majority one with the never ending refugee influx. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are the two main proxy armies of Sunni-Shiite conflict. But when you look at Turkey, the Sunni majority Asia Minor has risen above these conflicts with its unique approach in its foreign policy. Even though her allies subjected Iran to strict sanctions, Turkey never cut trade or diplomatic ties with the Shiite Iran.
I was in Iran as the American troops were in Baghdad, listening to a Turkish song by Tarkan, a Turkish pop star, in a taxi in Tehran felt very natural to the taxi driver and me at the same time. Until the abduction of two pilots, Turkish relationships with Lebanon were in an ascending line even after Lebanon’s clear assistance to Assad. Often referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East, Turkey has the same approach for Shiite part of Iraq, Sunni part and the Iraqi Kurdistan. This approach often puts Turkey in a special position to be able to broker agreements between hostile regions. Turkey was the broker when Bashar al-Assad government was carrying out talks with Israel back in 2003 with the U.S. also on board behind the scenes.
The world is anticipating a conciliatory speech from Iran’s new president next week at the U.N. This is welcome news for a region mired in sectarianism. As shown above, Turkey illustrates that a nation can be fully dominated by one sect (in our case Sunni Islam) but not be sectarian in its domestic, regional and international relations. Turkey and Iran should continue to work together and lead the way for a Middle East that is not divided by the curse of sectarianism.
Looking at the bigger picture
These being said, we have to look at the bigger picture and see that the problem of hostility and violence is not because of sectarianism. In 1977, when the rivalry between Christian militia leaders Pierre Gemayel and Suleiman Franjieh reached fever pitch, their sons engaged in the bloodiest fighting in Lebanon. Gemayel’s son Bashir ordered a group of gunmen into rival Tony Franjieh’s home to kill the young leader, but only after brutally murdering his wife and baby—the bloodline had to end.
In Iraq, intra-Shiite rivalry has taken its share of lives. Just one day after the U.S. took Baghdad in 2003, Muqtada al-Sadr’s partisans brutally murdered the son of late Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al Khoei. Apparently Muqtada had not forgotten the feud between his uncle and the late Khoei, both of whom were high-ranking clerics.
The root problem is not sectarianism but the perception that violence is “acceptable”. Sectarianism is only a pretext. This can only change through mass re-education. The problem is seeing violence and hostility as a natural phenomenon in life. For example Turkish education has led to even our “Islamists” being pluralists. There are 931 djemevis in Turkey, 837 of which were built in the AK Party government era in the last 11 years.
I look forward to the day when more Sunni Muslims can visit Iran, Iraq without visas and enjoy our collective heritage and Iranian Muslims can work in Gulf States while enjoying full religious freedom. This is only possible by shifting our attitudes towards one another across the region. Education shifts attitudes.
Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak
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