We need more sushi Muslims
I saw it in my inbox yesterday morning. It was a photo of a Muslim family from Iraq: A father, a mother and a sweet young girl. The father carried a sign reading, “I am Shia.” The mother, in her traditional hijab (headscarf), carried another sign reading, “I am Sunni.” The little girl, sitting between the two parents, presented the synthesis: Her sign read “I am Sushi.”
Later, I learned that this photo had been altered. The girl’s sign actually read, “We are Muslims,” but somebody with fun and creative intentions replaced that digitally with “I am Sushi.” I don’t see a big problem in that, because the messages, “We are Muslims” and “I am sushi,” have the same intention: Standing up against the bigoted and disastrous sectarian strife that is haunting the Muslim world and especially the Middle East.
The sects in question, of course, are Sunni and Shia. In both communities, there are fanatics who don’t see the other side as “real Muslims.” The Salafis, the hardcore end of the Sunni spectrum, often condemn the Shia as outright “apostates.” (ISIL, at the hardcore end of the Salafi spectrum, kills any Shiites and Alevis it can find with religious fervor.) Meanwhile Shia hardliners identify Sunnis with “Yazeed,” the psychopathic despot who tortured and killed Imam Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in the tragic Karbala incident in the late 7th century.
What has recently made this historical schism much worse is modern Middle Eastern politics. Salafi Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are in a bitter power struggle, which escalated over the past week with the unacceptable execution of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia and the unacceptable storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Worse, the civil wars in Syria, which arose less from theology and more from politics, have taken the form of a Sunni vs. Shia (or Alevi) confrontation.
Looking from the outside, one may be surprised how few differences Sunnis and Shiites actually have. First of all, they all agree on the primacy and inerrancy of the Quran, on which there is no dispute. (There is no “Sunni Quran” versus “Shia Quran” - there is only one Quran.) Second, both sects fully agree in their allegiance and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad.
The differences between the two sects arise when you ask them what happened after the completion of the revelation of the Quran and the passing of the Prophet. Sunnis say the legitimate “successors” of Muhammad were Abu Baqir, Omar, Othman, and Ali — the first four “rightly guided caliphs.” Shiites say the only legitimate heir of the Prophet was Ali and his descendants, and others were usurpers of Ali’s authority. In other words, the main rift between Sunni and Shia is their different interpretations of the early history of Islam. A history that none of us has witnessed, and so none of us can be absolutely sure about.
That is why Sunnis and Shiites could in fact easily agree to disagree on that history and move on to work together on the universal problems of Muslims, such as underdevelopment of all sorts. For that, they need to emphasize their umbrella “Muslim” identity, and not the narrow sectarian categories that they were merely born into.
In the same line, we Muslims also need to rediscover our umbrella “human” identity, in order to be able to reach out to other religions, worldviews and civilizations as well. For now, let’s at least take one step at a time, and stop demonizing each other merely over sects.