Amidst the climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and the cacophony of noise decrying the evils of Islamophobia and the Islamophobes, confronting Muslim sectarianism is not a palpable topic for front line attention. Why should American Muslims even stop to think or care about sectarianism within our own ranks- when everyone is worried about Islamophobia?
Why consecrate cerebral real estate to thinking about deep-rooted division within the Muslim body when Muslims are being harassed, harangued, mowed down and killed in the streets? That’s a good question. After all, as American Muslims, there are more immediate things to contend with; our honor, our reputation, our dignity and our lives that are at stake. Islamophobia is an assault on all of that. However, what many of us fail to realize is; so is sectarianism. It’s easy to look at islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment and think that is was formed in a vacuum and simply came out of nowhere, or that is fueled by pure ignorance, and good old fashioned American bigotry, without there being any underlying factors that contribute to anti-Islamic sentiment.
Such an assessment is flawed and underscores just how much more Muslims need to understand the American people and how we form our ideas and biases. What many people fail to understand is that there is a direct link between Muslim Sectarianism and Islamophobia; they are connected in more ways than we are willing to concede.
Sectarianism, extremism and racism are the trifecta of pathology in moral dysfunction that plague Muslims world-wide. If you look at the fighting in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, the bombings of mosques, and the war lording factions in the Muslim world, you will see the eventualities of Muslim sectarianism. Despite the blame we can attribute to Western powers and their meddling in the Muslim world, there is still at the core a basic concept of Muslim on Muslim killing. These killings are legitimized through ethnicity, sect, and sub Islamic ideology, especially between Shiite and Sunni, and through racial differences. But what does one have to do with the other, and what does any of them have to do with Islamophobia?
Muslim sectarianism is not an imaginary monster, it is not a fairy-tale or a Hollywood horror movie. Muslim sectarianism is real, it is pervasive, and it is consequential. Obviously, we can see its results in the Muslim world but we can also see it’s consequences in various and sundry ways in our own American Muslim sectarianized communities. These are not imagined problems; these are real shortcomings that affect Muslims and non-Muslims alike. When Muslims emigrate to the United States from the places where sectarian strife is ingrained in the society, it is only reasonable that some people will be concerned that some of this sectarian modality that we’ve become famous for, will germinate here in the United States. You can call such a person an Islamophobe, but others would say that such a person is a pragmatist. I’m not justifying bigotry, or generalization, nor am I implying that this is always the case, but what I am saying is that it is grossly unintelligent to suggest that it is never the case. Furthermore, by our own admission, we are a sectarianized community on many levels, and if such be true, then know that it is a contributing factor to anti-Islamic sentiment.
Amongst the thousands of Muslims to whom I have spoken, interviewed, taught or lectured during the last twenty years, there is an almost unanimous consensus that Muslim sectarianism is a ubiquitous cancer affecting our communities here in the United States, it is problematic, and it affects our lives and the lives of our children. If it is here, and if it affects our masjid, our interaction with each other and contributes to our division, then it goes without saying that these eventualities influence the way that people look at Muslims, and contributes to anti-Islamic sentiment, or what people call Islamophobia.
Therefore, American Muslims cannot adequately address Islamophobia until we address the irrefutable dynamics that help define the narrative of our civilizational personality of which sectarianism is at the top of the list. The Muslim Ummah in many ways is against itself and against each other according to race, nationality, ethnicity and sub-religious doctrine. We ourselves cannot deny that. We ourselves complain about it, talk about it and write about it. It is flippant to think that the world has not taken notice of that. It is intellectually disingenuous to think for moment that the way we are as a Muslim people, does not influence the way that people look at us. More importantly, it is close to heresy to believe that the way we are in reality does not determine how our Lord looks at us.
Anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States is directed at immigrant Muslim and immigrant Muslim communities in a much higher proportion that it is directed at African American or white American Muslims who were born and raised here. In the black community, people decry Muslims in the inner city not because they are Muslim but because of their association with immigrant Muslim who are viewed as racist and some of whom capitalize on drug, alcohol and gambling addiction, by selling crack pipes, meth pipes, liquor, lottery tickets, blunts and pornography in inner city neighborhoods and then shutting down for two hours on Friday and heading off to the local mosque. People see that. People are aware of that and it contributes to anti-Muslim sentiment and there is nothing irrational about that.
Here’s why. Muslim violent and non-violent extremists invariably always operate under one sectarian banner, or group or ideology or another. There is something about their group, about their politics, about their sub-ideology that tell them that they are on the right, and that their violent tirades against others is a legitimate cause. This is the hall mark of Muslim extremists. This is true especially that under the current rules of Muslim terror, innocent people, non-combatants, and collateral damage is an acceptable part of their operational profile. This would not be possible unless there was ideological justification for the killing of innocent people. This is why a Sunni bombing a Shiite masjid is justified, a Shiite bombing a Sunni mosque is justified, or a Salafist bombing a celebration of the Prophet’s birthday by a Sufi group is justified in the mind of a Muslim violent extremist. This is because the violent extremist is sectarian by nature.
Muslim sectarianism easily escalates or devolves to Muslim extremism. Historically, Muslim extremists are always part of a sect or have subscribes to a sectarian ideology within Islam which permits them to kill other Muslims. If killing other Muslims is justifiable to them then killing a non-Muslim is even more justifiable. This is why the Prophet ? prohibited all three; sectarianism, extremism and racism. Not only that,
It goes without saying that as Muslims, we should of course be concerned about Islamophobia or anti-Muslim rhetoric’s and we should do whatever we can to curb it. However, recent history has shown that in spite of all the resources that Muslim American organizations have put into combatting Islamophobia, the incidents of anti-Muslim rhetoric, hate, violence and vandalism is as high as it has been during the last 16 years. in the end and according to our faith, we cannot fully control how other people view Islam, and we cannot control how the media portrays Muslims, especially since 9/11.
That does not mean that we should not try to present a positive image of Islam and Muslims but it’s increasingly difficult when people are acutely aware of the factionalism that we practice is our faith. Placing responsibility for Islam’s image on other than ourselves is a flawed and unstable paradigm that siphons away valuable time, energy and spiritual as well as temporal benefit. It distracts us from individual and collective responsibility and sets in motion as’baab (causative factors) that could deprive us, at this critical juncture in our history, of what we need most: divine intervention and support. This can only come from Allah.
One of our problems is that Muslims only discuss what they perceive to be external threats whereas the Prophet ? in addition to addressing external threats to Islam and Muslims, spent a great deal of time addressing internal threats to our religion and to our moral well-being. All these issues have been bottled up, but at this point is history, there’s no place left to bottle them up any more. Islamophobia is just another type of sectarianism; it’s non-Muslim against the Muslim. From a non-Muslim perspective, why should people be hands off about Muslims when Muslims aren’t hands off about Muslims?
Division within the Muslim body only emboldens anti-Muslim antagonists.
One sure way that the American Muslim Community will have a positive effect on the Greater Community is to address racism and sectarianism within our own communities. Racism is the major unresolved issue in the united states, if Muslims send a message that they not only cannot deal with the racial issue; they will not deal with it or face it, it says that we have not matured as a socially conscious community. It says that there is a flaw in our moral foundation. It also says that we’re hypocrites. I’m not calling anyone a hypocrite, but that is certainly the visual takeaway.
Sectarianism is the most widely used and most successful weapon against the Muslims. The first racist was Iblis. “I am better than him; you created me from fire and you created him from must”. Ever since then, Iblis has used racism and sectarianism to diminish the message of Islam and to enable us in writing our own self-destructive narrative. This is why we started mosque without borders and this is why we need your help.
In not addressing the racial divide in Muslim America, we are, instead of solving sectarianism, cultivating new strains of it. All of this is happening at a time where our country has made fighting violent Muslim extremism a priority, and while Muslim communities have made fighting Islamophobia a priority. Violent extremism is fueled by sectarianism, and sectarianism is a subtler form of racism, and all three; extremism, sectarianism, and racism are inextricably connected and Muslims are dead in the middle of it all. So where do we go from here?
American Muslim communities (where applicable) should embrace this conversation, and work more to open their masjid to more indigenous and convert Muslims (of all races). Because this would produces a diversity of thought, a diversity of policy, and thought out approaches to other broader issues affecting our Muslim communities. Muslim communities need to address these things not just on the surface, and not just with pats on the head and the Bilal story, or the Suhail ar-Rumi story, but on their boards, in their leadership, in their decision making, in their community strategy, as well as in their core ranks. And I’m not just talking about superficial talking points; we’ve already been through that. African American Muslims especially have dealt with bigotry in this country for a very long time and we shouldn’t dismiss their experiences like they’re new to this, or insult each other’s intelligence. Both communities could learn from each other.
The more people outside of Islam view our communities as foreign, and behind the times on the issue of race, the more likely people will express and act on their bigotry and dislike for Islam and Muslims. Of course when we seriously start to address racism, we would have to deal with other big ticket issues like sectarianism. If we unpack sectarianism, we will find extremism and if we unpack extremism we will invariably find racism again. Racism is itself an extreme ideology that presupposes that Allah is not a just Lord, and that He sanctions the subjugation, disparagement, and marginalization of one race of people over another simply on the basis of skin color. Islamophobia, the Muslim American Godzilla, is simply another form of racism; it’s just that the shoe is now on the other foot. At some point, we’re going to have to resolve this issue of racial, ethnic, and religious discord within the ummah. It is inevitable. Our future as well as so many aspects of our religious society, is connected to it.