The biggest obstacle to Muslim unity is the festering of political and religious schisms that are often played out through violence, with the protagonists being Muslims, writes Dr Ilyas Mohammed.
As a basis to my argument, I will use the current situation in Egypt and Syria as examples. Both conflicts not only reveal the political and religious strife that is plaguing the Muslim world but also how social media is instrumentalised as a weapon, as well as the far-reaching impact of the conflicts.
Insight into these important, complex, ever changing and often overlapping cleavages cannot be discussed in detail in a short article. However, we can highlight the major lines of friction, such as secular or religious politics and how both generate antipathy of the “other” and sectarianism.
The religious schisms can be traced back to the early part of Muslim history with the Shia and Sunni divide. Since then other ruptures have emerged within both communities, which are often played out ahead of important Islamic festivals. In contrast, the political ruptures that inform the direction of nations and individual politics are more recent and stem from the end of imperialist and colonial rule.
The ousting of Mohammed Morsi from Egypt’s presidential seat a week ago has fostered conditions whereby Muslims have fought running battles with each other. As an observer from the outside, it seems that the two central issues at stake, which need to be decided on, are the role of Islam in politics and whether Egypt will become a secular state, following the Turkish model or develop its own model.
Unsurprisingly the outrage over Morsi’s ousting by the Egyptian military’s “text book coup” has spilled over onto the Internet through social media platforms, as well as into the streets of London as the protests of July 7 and 8 indicate.
However, the more perplexing issue is that there appears to be no end to the spiraling violence and political deadlock. It seems that the quest for power has unleashed the thirst for violence, which has created “blind spots” in the psyche of the protagonists. From watching videos detailing the violence, the first word that comes to mind to describe the relationship between the opposing groups is “antipathy”. It seems that the perpetrators of violence have foreclosed humanity and its precariousness, as well as what unites them and their victims as a “family” based either on “Islamic” or “nationalistic” grounds for a situation that may descend into a civil war.
How antipathy works in the Egyptian case is interesting because it acts as a kernel to forge unity between groups, as well as provide the impetus for fickleness. The groups involved in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance hold a plasticity of ideas and include secularists, Salafis, and pro Mubarak supporters. However, only eighteen months earlier, all the aforementioned groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were fighting running battles with Mubarak’s supporters.
In the near future, antipathy and fickleness are likely to continue, until a stable middle ground could be found that accommodates Islam and the interests of both internal and external parties.
In contrast to Egypt, Syria from the outset was likely, if not contained, to end up being a sectarian conflict because of how the country is religiously and politically organized.
The country is ruled by the Arab nationalist Ba’athist party and allied to the Alawi Shia community, which constitutes a minority compared to the Sunni majority. In Syria, apart from the geopolitical interests of external parties we see that Shia and Sunni Muslims are fighting each other along sectarian lines.
The Shia and Sunni divide is centuries old but the conflict has produced the most horrific violence, with social media being used as a weapon to mobilize support and win the war of hearts and minds. The conflict, like so many others in the Muslim world has found its way onto the streets of London and fueled sectarianism, which has had a foothold in the UK for some time.
Anjem Choudary led a demonstration through Edgware Road which resulted in a physical brawl between Shia and Sunni, and was recorded as the first “internal Muslim” sectarian violence on the streets of Britain.
The threat of sectarian violence has been such that it has led the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to publish a statement on its websites on May affirming its position on religious plurality and the unity of Muslims.
Although the lay-Muslim cannot directly affect the situation in Egypt and Syria, what he or she can do is not engage in the politics of antipathy and sectarianism. Instead they must promote dialogue and understanding for the sake of Muslim unity.
Engagement in such politics may provide instant gratification but the latent effects could result in violence. Perhaps the biggest present that Muslims could give themselves and other Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan and for the festive period of Eid al-Fitr is “peace”.