Below is a brief Discussion of Dr. Hathout’s piece, An Open Letter by Dr. Maher Hathout on the Danger of Sectarianism in America, thereafter referred to as the Letter. The main idea of the Letter is that there is a growing trend of Sunni-Shia tension triggered by the events in Syria, and that American Muslims should resist becoming absorbed with such a trend that threatens their future in America. This call is timely, and I support its underlying message—inflaming sectarian feelings between Sunni and Shia Muslims is not in the interest of the ummah. I strongly belief that Muslim groups should continue to live in peace despite their disagreements. Dr. Hathout’s call became more important after the ulama’s meeting declaration in Cairo last week. However, I have major reservations on the wording and analysis, which I will briefly outline below.
Not a Civil War
Although the Letter did not use the term “civil war”, the following statement is misleading: “The unfolding events of the last two years in Syria have led to an accelerated spiral down the black hole of fratricide.” Fratricide? (Fratricide means: “one that murders or kills his or her own brother or sister or an individual (as a countryman) having a relationship like that of a brother or sister”; Webster Dictionary)! It begs the question whether bombing cities and towns can be adequately portrayed as a quarrel between siblings? Are the innocent women and children are brothers and sisters of the thugs who slaughtered them? Is the Syrian story not one of a fascist regime killing its own people? No siblings are fighting against each other, although some of them might perish in the process.
The Responsible Voices
There are angry “sunni” voices on Facebook, and that is regrettable. However, the voices of the representatives of the Syrian Revolution are clear in seeking a just order and having social peace. So it is quite puzzling that the Letter stated the following: “The rhetoric of a nihilistic, brutal “Hitler final solution” is both sickening to the mind and gashing to the heart.” Did the Syrian opposition make such rhetoric? Did the major armed opposition groups make such declarations? It is only the regime that is promising to wipe-up the “terrorists,” along with its allies.
The Place of Sectarianism
Point #4 in the Letter needs careful consideration as it states the following: “Bashar does not kill because he is an Alawite but because he is a dictator killing anyone in his way.” But far from personalizing conflict, the issue is about a system of tyranny. And it so happens that the system pivots on the support of the Alawite. Save for the learned people among them, the Alawite now feel that they face annihilation should they not side with the regime. Furthermore, the Alawite are increasingly thinking of themselves as a group with specific ethno-political aspirations, including secession and forming an Alawite enclave. And while the political system is that of dictatorship, it is a special kind of dictatorship that is based on the Alawite clan’s loyalty without which the regime wouldn’t survive. For those who know the history of Syria, the sectarian basis of military and intelligence power was there since 1963, and it later morphed to a dangerous level.
The following sentence in the Letter is puzzling: “Hezbollah is not there to defend the Mazhab but to defend the supply it is getting from Iran.” Hezbollah absolutely thinks that it is bringing back the dominion of the Shia imams. Ideological movements are strong believers in their causes, and they operate beyond sheer utilitarian ends. The Shii thought has an intense millenarian content that cannot be overlooked. Nationalism is relevant too. As we cannot separate, for example, Serbian nationalism from the atrocities that Serbia did, we also cannot separate Iranian religio-nationalism from its behavior in Syria.
Trying to single out utilitarian factors as the sole dynamics in conflict reminds me with an interfaith meeting at the Islamic Center of Southern California. The esteemed Muslim speaker noted that the Crusaders were just using Christianity as a cover-up. Interestingly, it was one of the Christian attendants who objected to such a statement as not true and that it does not fit with the historical record.
Point #4 in the Letter continues in saying: “Iran is there not to support Syria but to preserve its ambitions in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is meddling because they have to pursue their imperialistic plan, and so on and so forth.” There is a misplacement of imperialism here. Yes, Saudi Arabia is interested in shedding off the Iranian influence through an eclectic support to the revolution. But it is Iran that is pursuing an imperialistic goal.
The Palestinian Cause Forgotten!
Point 5 states: “The stand of defending the Palestinian rights against Israeli occupation and hegemony is no longer within our field of vision nor in our collective consciousness.” Well, there is a wide agreement among analysts, including many Palestinian analysts, that eliminating the current Syrian regime would have positive effect on the Palestinian cause.
Begging for Clarity
Point 6 drives Syrians to despair: “The Islamic values of sacredness of life, justice with the enemy, and mercy for all are trampled and retracted completely.” The reader begs to ask for clarity about who is perpetuating atrocities. And what it is relevant here are atrocities as a purposive policy, not individualistic reactions.
The Four Recommendations
The Letter ends with four recommendations for us, American Muslims. Again, I strongly support Dr. Hathout’s main advice, and warning against sectarian feelings creeping into the American Muslim society is well-taken. Yet, the language that was used in one of the points needs attention: “We should make our unwavering stand with the Syrian people against the dictator and condemn any foreign intervention in Syria.” In diplomatic language condemning “foreign intervention” means withholding help and letting Syrians slowly die at the hands of the beast.
The Limits of Neutrality
It is understandable that a letter that warns against sectarianism cannot be partisan. However, that does not prevent from being forthcoming, and being forthcoming does not mean being divisive. Analysis that shies from confronting reality does not give satisfying answers. Fair analysis cannot gloss on the following undeniable fact: there is a clear aggressor and a clear victim, and there are identifiable political forces that are supporting the evil doing of the Syrian regime. Such efforts are standing against liberating a people from a vicious system, and are blatantly breaching international laws.
A Global Phenomenon
Muslim reality has entered a new phase coming out of the colonial ashes. The Iranian revolution reignited the Shii consciousness, and since then Shia’s social and political forces are trying to actualize such rebirth. Around thirty years later the Sunni had the chance to liberate their consciousness, most visible in the revolution of the Levant. Despite all upheavals, the ummah is reasserting itself.
At the level of politics, we have today two conceptual projects, a Shii clerical one and a Sunni civil one. The clash of these projects is not inevitable. Actually, there was a chance to qualitatively change the trajectory of the ummah’s should Iran and Turkey cooperated. Let each one judge those regional powers according to his or her understanding. For many analysts and for us Syrians, we sadly reason that it was the Shii project that turned belligerent, intoxicated with a self-righteous idea of driving the destiny of the whole Muslim World, or at last a big part of it. It is up to polity to pursue empire-building, but it is up to people to like or loath such a quest.
Analysts agree that Iran being the only cohesive political force among Muslim countries chose an offensive strategy. Moreover, the Iranian strategy is blessed by a grand Shia Marje’, which is bringing the Sunni-Shii disagreements to the fore. In relation to Syria, the strategy became blind to the degree of supporting a brutal secular regime that is notorious in suppressing religion and spreading evil.
It should be crystal clear that the discussion above does not call for sharpening our differences but for facing reality. And I am very aware of a discourse and of politicized fatwas that are at least not constructive if they don’t do a disservice to Muslims. Nevertheless, I hold that it is unrealistic to think that we can resolve the polarization that is taking place through lukewarm statements. Reconciliatory efforts are important, but they will not be listened to when they do not engage reality and pinpoint what is disagreed upon. We live in a globalized world, and the consciousness of people is no longer formed by local matters. That is truer for a community that 75% of its members are new Americans, many of which hold on multilayered hybrid identities, not simply an American identity hyphenated with a Muslim prefix or suffix.
Whether we like or not the Sunni have grown tired of the Shia claims, and they feel that the Shia camp is at a major fault despite Sunni’s many small faults. Many Sunnis ascribe the status of baghi onto the Shii-Persian political project.
On my part, I am ready to embrace the Shia who reject the Iranian aggression, even if they hold on loving or respecting Iran and its affiliate in Lebanon. And I am among writers who still believe that it is the duty of the Sunnis to reincorporate the Shia into a new social contract, specifically the Arab among them.
I have no doubt that we, American Muslims, should focus on the future of Muslims in this country, even if we take a moral stance toward events in the world. The wisdom of Dr. Hathout has served well American Muslims for decades. I hold that for wisdom to reach ears and not become a tired voice, it should not be too diplomatic.