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Dialogue without the taint of politics

Scholars from different sects of Islam should seek common ground to prevent the masses from being manipulated by politicians to fulfil their goals

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

In the last week of Ramadan, the Saudi government convened a summit of Muslim leaders. Around 54 heads of state and government attended the meeting in Makkah, but both the venue and the timing were unusual. The meeting took place at a time of growing anxiety of the political rift within Muslim nations.

The most urgent issue was trying to find a solution to events in Syria, after the killings and massacres that claimed thousands of innocent lives. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz came up with a bold suggestion at the beginning of the proceedings. He proposed establishing a research centre to facilitate better understanding between the different Muslim sects — a surprising, but well-received move.

The different historic stories between the various sects of Islam, especially Shiite and Sunni, have been used as a political tool to further the agendas of certain countries. To be clear here, the differences we are talking about are not ethnic, but the intentional use of them indeed matters.

The unspoken matter is the way such differences in beliefs and practices between the two main sects of Islam are used to fish for political supremacy. In recent years, this trend is in place Lebanon, Iraq and certain Gulf states.

These differences are not new, they are historical, and they were only used in certain times to achieve political goals. But most Muslims, Sunni and Shiite, have lived together in harmony, with no major conflicts.

The peaceful co-existence between the two groups is apparent throughout history, not like what happened in Europe during the 17th-18th centuries, where there were bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants that cost hundreds and thousands of lives. In the end, all that bloodshed had no meaning. What happened was the insane action of extremists.

Political strife

Within the Muslim community, there were no such wars known of such intensity, but there was a difference of interpretation of certain events in Muslim history which when touched by politics could be ignited into a political strife.

What made the issue rise up again within the Muslim world in recent years — to many observers — was the Iranian Revolution. Although it was welcomed by many Sunnis at the beginning as a “revolution” leading to the end of dictatorship, it soon turned around and the ambushers of Iran nationalism altered the goal of all Muslims hoping for freedom and economic development.

The Iranian government appeared to be pursuing the expansion of its own line of Islam allying with radical political groups within Muslim countries who happened to be Shiite and gaining strong support within the minority Shiite in Lebanon and the majority Shiite in Iraq, as well as a number of other Shiite groups who were willing.

All this was looked upon by the Sunni majority in the region as an unwelcome interference with the home front, and provoked a reaction by extremist Sunnis who in turn used historical events to aggravate the rift between the two sects.

Those activities by Iran, supplemented by a movement of a war of ideas, were conducted in places iwhere there was a Sunni majority, like Egypt, Syria and elsewhere within the Muslim world.

In recent years, we have seen a great deal of mixing politics with religion, which has alarmed wise and thoughtful Muslims.

King Abdullah’s proposal to establish a research centre to have real and constructive dialogue between scholars from different sects of Islam will in time seek the common ground to avoid the exploitation of minor differences, especially in the minds of the masses, by politicians to fulfil their goals.

Mahmoud Shaltoot, grand Shaikh of Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, a respectable scholar of the 1960s, has a widely acknowledged book to bridge the gap between the Shiites and Sunnis. A number of Shiite scholars have also done so in recent years. Again, the differences are historical interpretations of certain events rather than fundamental differences, and could be easily understood and tolerated, on one condition — that we leave politics behind when we enter into real dialogue.

King Abdullah’s proposal is of great importance, particularly now that Muslims living in all countries are facing difficult times.

Mohammad Alrumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University.