Jihad and the Shia-Sunni Conflict in the Muslim World

Fatima Raza*

Prophet Muhammad in a hadith once said, and is quoted by Hazrat Muslim (R.A) as: “He will not enter paradise whose neighbour is not secure from his wrongful conduct.”  This assertion made by the Holy Prophet, connotes an understanding of the ‘love thy neighbour’ principle, as a significant aspect of Islam. Nonetheless, although peace and acceptance are premised as the core values which Islam preaches; dogmatic thought has perverted certain aspects of Islam, thus creating a rift within the religion itself. The notion of ‘Jihad’ is one of the key concepts of Islam, which has witnessed such perversion and has garnered a status of its own within the discourse of Islamic theology. Thus arguably been misused to a greater extent than the others.

The notion of Jihad, has today gathered quite a negative reputation due to the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York and Washington DC (hereon referred to as 9/11). Therefore, today many within the international environment fear Islam, due to the negative connotation associated with Jihad.  Nonetheless, as many academics and scholars have asserted, the concept of Jihad does not necessarily represent violence and bloodshed.   This is contrary to the dominant public view that many hold about Jihad, that it is only linked with the notion of ‘holy war’. Therefore, although the concept of Jihad has various connotations within Islam, it is obvious that throughout Islamic history and also within the twenty-first century, the concept of Jihad has been manipulated quite extensively so as to connote to it meanings which are not necessarily representative of the original Quranic notion itself.

The conflict between two distinct branches of Islam; the Shia and Sunni sects, can be argued to have inadvertently taken the concept of Jihad and distorted it to suit their own particular agenda, and to spread throughout the world their particular ‘brand’ of Islam. The Shia/Sunni distinction is one that has been at the centre of Muslim conflict since the death of Prophet Muhammad, and has also gained influence within the twenty-first century, due to the impact of 9/11 and ongoing sectarian violence in the Middle East and surrounding regions.

The Shia Sunni conflict has remained at the epicentre of Islam due to the fact that it is not only persistent in ideological differences between Shia and Sunni sects, but also a disagreement about who possesses the rightful claim on political power. Thus, although this conflict has been persistent within Islam for centuries, in twenty-first century politics, rather than to see the conflict subside, the rift between Shia and Sunni factions has only widened over time, creating a power struggle which has become illuminated due to the 9/11 attacks and the emergence of Jihad as the defining aspect Islam.

The 2003 United States occupation of Iraq can be argued to have been the initiator of the rise of ‘jihadist’ movements within Iraq in the twenty-first century. Thomas Reifer asserts that: “the U.S. invasion and occupation has fuelled the growth of Islamic militancy across the world, including in Iraq. Indeed, Iraq is now serving to fuel the global jihad in ways similar to the role of Afghanistan in the 1980s.”   This assertion highlights the fact that the concept of Jihad has been at the fore of Iraqi politics in the twenty-first century. Thus, the reason for the exacerbation of Jihad should not only be pinpointed to the United States invasion, rather one should also analyse this phenomenon in light of the Shia Sunni struggle, as a major instigator for the concept of Jihad to be given such attention in twenty-first century politics.

The current conflict between the Shia and Sunni factions has seen Jihad being used and manipulated by both sides to give a religious legitimation to their ongoing violent acts. Since the attacks of 9/11 as well as many other Middle Eastern regions, Iraq has been at the centre of Shia Sunni conflict. The centrality of Iraq with Islamic history is important to acknowledge as this was the place where Imam Hussain was martyred by one of Yaseed’s soldiers Muawiyyah, in the battle of Karbala.  Therefore, Iraq, can be argued to have been a site of turbulent sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni factions, not only throughout history, but in the twenty-first century as well, which has thus resulted in the use of Jihad as the ‘choice of religious justification’ to be used. The 2006 bombing of the Sammara (Al-Askari) Mosque, is one such incident that has added fuel to the ongoing Shia Sunni tensions within Iraq. Safa Rasul Al Sheikh asserts that:

In the months that followed, there were intense attacks and counter-attacks between Shia militia and Sunni insurgent groups… Sunnis were found with holes drilled through their heads, and Shias with their heads cut off. By the end of 2006 … Baghdad had suffered extensive sectarian cleansing, with the population separated into sectarian enclaves.

Therefore, the use of Jihad has always been present in the sectarian conflict persistent in Iraq, and due to the fact that no one side will cease its claim to power, there is a possibility that ongoing Shia Sunni violence will be prevalent in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Apart from Iraq, the Shia Sunni tension is also prevalent in Pakistan, and in the twenty-first century, it seems Pakistan has become the ‘it’ location for the Shia Sunni struggle. The Abbas Town bombing in Karachi is just one example on a long list of atrocities. The distinction between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan has a turbulent history, which can be traced back to the dictatorial administration of Pakistan’s former military President Zia Ul Haq.  The ‘Islamization’ policies that Zia instigated within Pakistan can be argued to have been the catalyst for jihadi Shia Sunni uprisings. Muhammad Qazim Zaman asserts that: “Islamization, or the introduction of `Islamic’ norms and institutions through government policy or decree, is another factor which has often provoked and defined sectarian controversies in Pakistan.”  Therefore, the tensions that Zia’s policies created saw the exacerbation of the Shia Sunni conflict within Pakistan, a conflict that till date shows no signs of abating.

The Abbas Town Bombings in Karachi on 12th March 2013 was a stark reminder that Pakistan’s internal war between Shia and Sunni factions was still a prominent part of everyday life. An article in Dawn News, asserted that: “A bomb exploded as people were leaving evening prayers… at least 47 people have been killed and 135 others injured as a result…” This eruption of violence signifies the fact that the Shia Sunni conflict remains at the background of Pakistani politics. Rohan Gunaratna and Khurram Iqbal assert that: “sectarian violence further demarcated Karachi into Sunni and Shia areas controlled by Jihadi groups…jihadist ideology has persisted in radicalising both tribal and mainland Pakistani groups.”  Therefore, as long as this tension remains, the notion of Jihad will undoubtedly be used to spread the wrong interpretation of Islam, due to corrupt political agendas.

In conclusion, there seems to be no apparent solution to the problem of the misinterpretation of Jihad, which has locked the Muslim world in a shroud of negativity and sectarian violence in the twenty-first century. The Shia Sunni conflict shows no signs of abating in the near future, as it is rooted in deep seated political differences within the history of Islam itself. Therefore, as long as ‘power’ remains at the centre of the Shia Sunni conflict, the misappropriation of Jihad, will most likely remain a tool for both factions to appropriate religious supremacy. Thus, the only slight optimism in such given circumstances resonates in the words of A G Noorani that: “nothing but daring creativity and a resolute determination to recapture the essence of Islam and relate it to the conditions of today, can lift Muslims from the morass in which the find themselves.”

* Fatima Raza is a Doctoral Researcher at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia, Brisbane. 

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