Over the last decade, among the main challenges of the world’s efforts to bridge the gap between the West and the Muslim world has been Islamophobia. In the meantime, the similar challenge to build mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence in the Muslim world has been Sunni-Shia sectarianism.
These two arise because of many factors, the main contributions to which is chaotic conditions in the Middle East as a result of combination of Saudi-Iran geopolitical rivalry, Western policies, ‘radicalized’ Islam, the so-called Arab Spring, and others. This has in turn been shaping the overwhelming political discourse in the respective world: In the West nowadays, one of the hottest debates is on whether or not Islam is religion of peace, while in the Muslim world, especially the Sunni-majority countries, the question is whether or not Shia is deviant or even infidel.
To some degree this xenophobic discourse has been instrumentalized by political powers (far-right parties in West and Islamic ‘conservative’ groups in Indonesia) and even institutionalized. To mention one example in Europe, there has been Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) in Germany, calling for more restrictive immigration rules, particularly for Muslims. In Indonesia, there has been the Anti-Shia National Alliance whose main agenda is to “take any necessary measures to maximize the prevention of the proliferation of heterical teachings by Shia followers.” Worse is that the tension is nowadays increasing, partly because of being fueled by the threat of the Islamic State to the West and the worsening Saudi-Iran relation as a result of the recent Sheikh Nimr execution.
For the sake of the world’s peace, this xenophobia instrumentalizing religion must of course be overcome. One of the ways to do so is to challenge the Islamophobic and sectarian narratives, the first step of which is to identify how each tries to shape the discourse and seek popular supports. By paying close attention to the way Islamophobes in the West and anti-Shia groups in Indonesia build their arguments and frame narrations to attack the respective enemy, I have found several similar patterns, which are sometimes underlied by some problematic assumptions.
First is the tendency toward textualism, i.e. to reduce religion to scripture and/or textual traditions. For Islamophobes in the West, to prove that Islam is a religion of violence and not compatible with Western values is quite simple: by just picking the ‘violent’ verses in Islamic scripture is enough to be evidence that Islam is not peaceful religion. Quite similarly, the anti-Shia groups also pick some teachings in Shia’s textual traditions they consider a form of deviance—usually they take the examples from the Sunni-Shia classical debates such as that Shiites have different Quran, mock the companions of the Prophets, or practice the mut’ah. In this respect, what both raise, for the most part, is not new; they do what their ‘predecessors’ have done in the past; they do it because they found new political context fertile for those old issues to spread.
This tendency is problematic. Religion is not only about scripture; it is also about practices. Religion as in the scripture and religion as it is lived (in religious studies the latter is often called “everyday religion”) are two different, though inseparable, things. Each has equal legitimacy; there is no religion without those practicing it. To reduce religion into merely scripture is tantamount to essentialist fallacy. Besides, even if it is only scripture that is concerned, verses in the scripture or teachings in classical texts can be interpreted in many ways, in addition to the fact that the interpreations may change because of different times and contexts. It is problematic, to some extent, that both Islamophobes and anti-Shia groups can somehow understand the scripture more than their respective practicing ‘enemy’—an assumption that is quite often not confirmed by the “everyday Islam/Shia”.
Second is the tendency to overgeneralization. Islamophobes see what happens in the Arab countries as representative to the Muslim world. This is certainly problematic because only 20% of Muslims are Arabs; half Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia. Quite similarly, anti-Shia sees Syria’s Iran-backed Assad regime as representative to all Shiites, forgetting the fact that Sheikh Nimr, who was a Shia cleric, was against the Assad regime, in addition to the fact that many in Assad regime are Sunnis and even backed by not few Sunni clerics. Besides, those who are anti-Shia also forget what Saudi Arabia has done in Yemen and, ironically, they are not willing to take Saudi as representative to all Sunnis. Overgeneralizing tendency seems to lead to double standard and lack of self-criticism.
Third is the psychology of retaliation. Because several Muslim extremists have bombed European civilians, Islamophobes then want to seek revenge against all Muslims in Europe, despite the fact that most leading Western Muslims condemn such unacceptable act. Quite similarly, because Assad regime has caused thousands dying and fleeing Syria, anti-Shia groups in Indonesia want to do the same to Shiites. It is common to anti-Shia narrative here to utilize the Syrian case, usualy by showing terrifying bloody pictures, to spread Shiaphobia among Indonesians who do actually not know what precisely happens in the country far away. Both Islamophobes and anti-Shia groups capitalize conflicts in the Middle East, playing with the psychology of the masses, by saying that what happens in Syria or Middle East in general is what will happen in the West/Indonesia if Muslims/Shiites are welcomed. This kind of narrative certainly fuels the fire of conflict and the cycle of violence.
Both Islamophobes and anti-Shia groups, seen from the ideological roots, actually hate each other; if they meet, they most likely will fight against each other. Yet, ironicaly, both have something in common; both share the same way of thinking.