Grim memories: Sunnis calling Shias kafir in the ’80’s

Sister F. and I were chatting one day. I think that it was at some Islamic event-or-other, and her husband was the main speaker. Sister F. had converted at about the same time as I did. Her husband, also a convert, was in the process of making something of a name for himself as a da’i.

Sister F. was usually fairly quiet, and as far as I knew, got along with everybody. She was the peace-making, let’s-all-just-get-along type of woman. So, it really shocked me when I mentioned something-or-other about something that had happened recently in Iran, and she responded that “the Shias are kafir.”

I was too taken aback to respond for a minute. And then I said that this isn’t true.

“Well, it is true if what we’ve been told is true,” she answered.

I didn’t have to ask what she meant. I knew. I knew about those conservative, immigrant, often Salafi men who hung around the Friday Prayers that I attended, pulling young men aside and engaging them in intense discussions after the prayer. Some of these men carried brief-cases full of anti-Shia booklets with titles like “Do You Know the True Islam?” Those booklets made claims about “what the Shias believe” that were intended to horrify Sunnis, and lead Sunnis to see Shias as a fifth column, an internal enemy bent on subverting Islam and Muslim communities from within.

Coincidentally enough, Saudi-funded Muslim groups and pro-Saudi individuals were distributing such booklets at the very same time that the newly established Iranian “Islamic” government were engaged in their own efforts to spread the message of “Islamic revolution” world-wide… and the Iraq-Iran war was in full swing. Iraq, then ruled by an autocratic, emphatically secular Arab nationalist dictator with a horrifying track-record of torturing Islamists of whatever stripe, had attacked Iran. The Saudis and their North American Islamist supporters wanted to see an Iraqi victory, and therefore wanted to undercut any possible sympathy for Iran among Sunni Muslims anywhere.

The Shias that I know don’t believe those things that the booklets said they did, I said to Sister F. She wasn’t convinced. Those bearded Sunni men who rarely smiled and who spoke Arabic as their first language had told her husband what Shias “really” believe, and that was enough for her.

Not too long after that, a Big Name immigrant Muslim speaker from a “mainstream” Sunni North American org came and gave a talk about “Islam the misunderstood religion,” sponsored by the MSA. He went through the usual stuff that such talks used to cover, all the way from assuring the (mostly Muslim) audience that Muslims don’t worship Muhammad through defending the justice of amputating the hands of thieves and on to asserting that Islam treats women equitably. In those days, questions at such events were usually posed by people writing them on pieces of paper. Someone sent up a question asking “if the Shias are Muslim.”

Since this question had nothing whatsoever to do with the talk, it is odd that the speaker didn’t simply ignore it… but it may well have been a set-up. Because the speaker then launched into what appeared to be a well-rehearsed (and quite theatrical) diatribe in which he listed off most of the anti-Shia accusations made in the booklets and said that anyone who believes such things is not Muslim. But when a member of the audience asked if he is in fact saying that the Shias are kafirs, he raised his hands to heaven and theatrically exclaimed that “Allah is his witness” that he never said such a thing… but that anyone who believes in (and then he gave a recap of the booklet accusations again) is not a Muslim.

I was absolutely disgusted. By the speaker’s obvious dishonesty. By the way that the audience ate it up. By the fact that almost no one was willing to stand up and object to what was going on. By the obvious political motivations of the speaker and his henchmen. They were willing to be tools in the hands of the Saudis, to support a violently oppressive (and definitely anti-Islamist) Iraqi government—while at the same time they preached against secular governments and nationalism as “unIslamic”. They did their best to tear apart North American Muslim communities in order to serve geo-political interests on the other side of the world. And they did it all in the name of God, mouthing pious platitudes about “brotherhood” and “Muslim unity” and “building community” and whathaveyou.

This wasn’t the end, of course—this was only the beginning. Next thing we knew, there was some kind of violent incident in the mosque. Or there supposedly was. Anyway, the police were called in order to remove a halaqa led by a Shia brother from the mosque, because allegedly, some Shia brother who was involved in some way or another with that halaqa had pulled a knife on someone. Some high-ups on the mosque administration then distributed an alarmist notice about the incident, imploring the community to “wake up before it is too late to prevent any more violence” and implying that Shias and Shiism in general (as opposed to one hot-tempered brother who needed to develop his anger-management skills) were a threat to the mosque’s future. There were no more Shia halaqas allowed in the mosque.  Shias were made to feel increasingly unwelcome in mosques, Muslim organizations and even student groups in the area. Sunnis who persisted in associating with Shias—or those converts who refused to identify as “Sunni” or “Shia” but just wanted to be “Muslim”—had their faith called into question.

I was reminded of all this a couple of days ago when I saw a link on MMW’s Friday Links to an article about a female student at al-Azhar who has been accused Shi’ism. She is now apparently under investigation. Some of the students living in her dorm say that they want her expelled, because she has been trying to convert others to Shiism.

Reading that article, all of those memories of the ’80’s came rushing back.

Several decades have passed since then, and I have read a lot more about Ithna-Asheri Shiism. I realize now that some of the apparently more outlandish claims made in the anti-Shia booklets I saw in the ’80’s do have a basis in some or even many Shia texts. And that there is a long history of sectarian polemics between Sunnis and Shias. What we experienced in the ’80’s was just the latest installment of a long-running battle.

But still, the hypocrisy of those Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-ish “brothers” who took the lead in the anti-Shia propaganda stuns me. They picked through Twelver Shia texts, looking for shocking quotes and strange-sounding ideas, and quoted them out of context in order to turn Sunnis against the Shias who were living and worshipping side by side with them. But at the same time, they strongly and publicly opposed any non-Muslims (or for that matter, any secular Sunni Muslims) treating Sunni texts in such a way. And they claimed to be speaking for North American Muslims when they condemned the persecution of Muslims in various countries around the world—but remained silent when Muslims being persecuted were Shias suffering under Sunni-dominated Muslim governments.

Thinking about the allegedly Shia student in the dorm at al-Azhar, and remembering the alleged knife-pulling Shia brother in the halaqa at the mosque, it occurred to me that the “problem”—if there is one—is really caused by authoritarian religious attitudes and institutional structures. If the student is in fact harassing other students by trying to convert them to Shiism, then she could simply be told to knock it off, without turning the whole issue into a sectarian one. After all, where would she have gotten the idea that it’s acceptable behavior to give people unsolicited religious advice, even when it has been made clear that it’s unwelcome?… oh, wait.

Somehow, I doubt that her behavior would be seen as such a problem if she were a fervent Sunni inflicting unwanted nasiha on her fellow students. If she were a Sunni dedicated to converting Shias to Sunnism (or Copts to Sunni Islam…), then I doubt that they would have a problem with her either.

If she is a convert to Shiism from Sunnism, then she is in fact doing what converts to Islam are often expected to do—to serve as the representative of her now-chosen community, and to energetically call others to convert too. What, that isn’t pleasant behavior to be on the receiving end of? Who knew?

If the issue at stake is not that she is harassing other students with unwanted attempts at conversion, but the mere fact that she has converted a few to Shiism, then one might wonder why students at a place like al-Azhar wouldn’t have more confidence in their ability to present logical arguments in favor of Sunnism. Could it be that religious “education” that doesn’t teach critical thinking or allow students to think outside the “orthodox” box actually undermines students’ confidence in their own beliefs? Perhaps if they had learned about Shiism in a more empathetic and balanced way, they would not have to feel so deeply threatened by it.  But who knows.

Looking back, I realize that it was then that I began to realize the a number of the “leaders” in my community were not honest men. They had certain beliefs, and they would use dishonest means if they thought it necessary in order to promote and defend them. And, that many average community members would just passively stand by and watch that happen.

But I didn’t connect the dots. For some reason, I didn’t realize that if they’ll do that when it comes to Shias, they’ll do that in other situations too. Such as when it comes to women wanting rights. Because somehow, I wanted to believe the best of them. I wanted to believe that they were just bigoted when it came to the Shia thing, and bamboozled by Saudi money as well, but that at the bottom they were still “good brothers.” Or maybe that certain individuals were not honest, but that the larger structure largely was. I was an idealistic fool. At that time, I didn’t grasp just how ingrained it was (and sometimes still is) in the training of leaders and would-be scholars to be less than honest, forthright or balanced when it came to dealing with either laypersons or issues of “religious truth”—or both.


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  1. #1 by JDay on April 15, 2013 - 2:28 am

    Very similar thing happening now with the Syrian civil war. Assad government supported by Iran, rebels supported by nut job Salafi Saudis. Syrian minorities (Shia, Jew, Christian, Kurds, Armenians, etc) worried about the Sunni “liberators”, seeing as how these whackos are already destroying shrines, graves, and statues. But you won’t here any of this subtlety at the mosque, just a lot of ….weeping. If you want information, you have to go to NPR.

    • #2 by ki sarita on April 21, 2013 - 1:48 am

      side note but there is no longer a syrian jewish minority. they left syria in the nineties.

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