At least 53 people were killed in a suicide bombing at an educational institute for girls in Kabul on September 30. In citywide women-led protests following the bombing, demonstrators chanted: “Stop Hazara genocide, it’s not a crime to be a Shia.” Hazara women, who are already braving the Afghan Taliban’s suppression of female education, were the target of the Sunni jihadist attack owing to their Shia Muslim identity.
Jihadist sectarian wars formally exploded in the year 1979, following the Iranian Revolution that brought the Shia clergy to power in Tehran amid the rise of the oil-rich Sunni Arab states towing economically with the West, as Saudi and Iran sought control over the Muslim world. While the sectarian divide and militancy continues to mar the large part of the Muslim world, Shia populations remain vulnerable to Sunni majorities, which make up between 85 to 90% of the global Muslim population.
Sunni jihadist groups are massacring Shia communities from the Middle East to South Asia. The Islamic State’s Khorasan faction (ISK) bombed a Shia mosque in Pakistan’s northwestern town of Peshawar in March, killing over 56 people. Like Afghanistan, the Shia Hazara community in Pakistan has been relentlessly targeted by the ISK and Taliban affiliates given their identifiable physical features rooted in their Uzbek and Turkic ancestry. Since 2001, around 5,000 Shias have been targeted and killed in Pakistan as the state actively pushes Sunni supremacist hysteria.
Even in Shia majority Iraq, radical Sunni jihadist groups from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State have frequently targeted Shia pilgrims. Last year, ISIS targeted a Shia neighborhood market in Baghdad, and Al-Rashad village, with the latter prompting Shia militia attacks in the Sunni majority Al-Imam village.
The Sunni-Shia volatility is rooted in the 1,400-year-old divide over leadership of the Muslim world following the demise of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, as per Islamic tradition. Over the past 14 centuries, Sunnis have pledged allegiance to Muhammad’s close friend Abu Bakr Abdallah ibn Uthman, followed by Umar ibn al-Khataab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abi Ṭalib as the first four caliphs of Sunni Islam. The latter, a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, is venerated as the first Imam of Shia Islam with his predecessors accused by the Shia of robbing Ali of his right to rule.
Muhammad kept his succession vague according to Islamic traditions, which were compiled a couple of centuries after his death, leaving much of Islam up to academic conjecture and its adherence to absolute faith. And over the past 1,400 years, the apostatising adherents of this absolutist faith have relentlessly sought to push its boundaries from staunch disagreement to erasure of the other.
Today, the efforts to erase Shia identity and beliefs are neither limited to jihadist groups nor to the Muslim world. Between November 2021 and August this year four Shia men were shot dead by a Sunni Muslim man in Albuquerque, New Mexico owing to their Shia identity. Initially reported as a spree of “Islamophobic” attacks, the fact that the perpetrator was Muslim brought light to the sectarian violence that is jarring Muslim communities worldwide.
The Albuquerque killings symbolise Muslim communities’ penchant for seeking external enemies while refusing to look within.
The Sunni monopoly over the deceitful “Islamophobia” narrative saw the Shia-produced film ‘The Lady of Heaven’ banned in the UK for depicting a Shia rendition of Islamic history. Not only have global Muslim groups largely remained silent over the courageous Iranian protests, European sites claiming to represent Muslims, such as 5pillars—which has a history of anti-Shia bigotry—are actively condemning the Iranian women for “disrespecting” Islam.
Indeed, there are few manifestations of “Islamophobia” more pronounced than the “phobia” that various Muslim sects demonstrate against the “wrong Islam.” The Ahmadiyya Muslim minority, which has been victimised, by both the Sunni and Shia sects, has been similarly targeted over their divergent beliefs, from East Asia to Europe.
Islamic sectarianism, whether manifesting as violence or suppression of freedoms, is rooted in the continued predominance of Islam over the Muslim world. For, the idea of takfir (excommunication), or conflict over “true Islam,” originates in the need to maintain Islamic hegemony. The failure to challenge the absolutist authority of Islam, regardless of its literalist or pluralist interpretations, will continue to embolden Islamist groups, Islamic theocracies, and jihadist militia.