A Lecture by Prof Mohsen Kadivar, Duke University
Venue: Wawasan Open University, Georgetown, Penang
Date: 23 August, 10AM – 12PM
The animosity between Shia and Sunni is not new, however today it displays some characteristics that are different from the historical sectarianism. Today we see the heightened tension between Shia and Sunni primarily due to the Arab Spring that has led to the collapse of authoritarian rule. There is a new struggle for political and economic power and over which interpretation of Islam will influence societies and new leadership.
The Shias have long been a reminder to Sunni Muslims of the unresolved dispute within Islam since the death of the Prophet more than 1400 years ago. The differences have crystallized around the question of the rightful succession to the Prophet as head of the early religious and political community: should the new leader be chosen from among Muhammad’s closest companions or from his direct bloodline?
The Shia telling of this story as encapsulated in the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet by the Umayyads in a battle near Karbala in 680CE has created the narrative most Shias have lived ever since. It is a narrative of defeat, martyrdom and dispossession that is deeply embedded in the core of Shia’s identity.
Lately we have seen the gradual rise in sectarian tension and this had to do more with politics and competition for influence and power, notably between Iran and the Arab countries - Saudi in particular. In addition to the inter-state rivalry, the socially and economically disadvantaged position of Shias in Sunni majority countries has contributed to the sense of alienation and their quest for emancipation and legitimacy.
And on a broader scale, the latest intensification of sectarian tension throughout the Muslim world reflects the Western strategy of instrumentalizing sectarian differences to forge a regional alliance against West greatest foe - Iran.
However it must be stressed that there is nothing inevitable or fated about the Sunni-Shia conflict. Their differences are not any worse than those that had existed within the Christian family which now have all but disappeared as a result of overall prosperity, democracy, and sustained efforts at intra-faith dialogue and reconciliation.