Muslim Secularism In the Middle East: A Growing Concern


About 45 Ismaili Shia Muslims were killed on a public bus in Karachi, Pakistan on May 13, 2015. Of these 45 killed, the majority of them comprised of innocent young men and women, travelling to the city center. The Ismaili community is revered as a peaceful and enlightened group that promotes the values of respect, equality and tolerance, which categorizes them as “heretics” to Jihadist groups such as Jundullah. Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack, shortly after it occurred. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili community, has opened many universities, hospitals and programs to eradicate poverty. Radical groups such as the Taliban have claimed that the humanitarian work of the Ismaili community is a tool of power that influences people to abandon Islam and its principles. Hence the resentment from the majority of Sunni Muslims worldwide.

In Saudi Arabia, just this past week, 10 Shia Muslims were killed and over 70 injured in a suicide bomb attack in a mosque, most likely initiated by a Sunni terrorist group. As Saudi Arabia has recently launched air raids against Shia rebels in Yemen, this attack is meant to perpetuate tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities. In a similar attack, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bombing that injured about a dozen people in Yemen last week.

Of all these attacks, it is clear that there are tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. However, the question remains, why is there violent secularism within the Middle East? Why is there so much tension between Shiite and Sunnis? It is obvious that the two groups see themselves as different from one another.  Part of the dispute is due to the differences in principles within the sects and the other part has to do with global perceptions and interference.

The major difference between the two sects is the dispute over the successors of the founder of the religion, Prophet Mohammed. Violence between Sunnis and Shias emerged when the communities killed the leader of the opposing sect. This is essentially where the violence between the sects initiated; however, it does not necessarily explain the violence between them today. A reason for increased secularism in the Muslim world can be attributed to global interference and action, specifically American involvement in the Middle East. Although America approaches situations with good intentions, their methods may in fact be harmful in the long run. The Iraq war of 2003 provides an example of American interference that has damaged the structure of the state. Sadly, Iraq is a failed state and American intervention contributed to the destruction of Iraq. By supporting Saddam Hussein’s pro Sunni government, America unknowingly isolated and created resentment within Iraq’s Shia population. A decade of economic sanctions was enacted in Iraq, which perpetuated Sunni-Shia secularism following the end of the Iraqi-Kuwait war in the early 1980s. Furthermore, George Bush effectively started a war in Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden was suspected to be hiding after the September 11th attack in the United States. Rather than ensuring that Bin Laden was killed, Bush abandoned the mission, leaving Bin Laden free to revive the Taliban, a dire mistake. The United States then initiated the Iraq invasion in 2003, to locate and destroy weapons of mass destruction – of which never existed. In the process, the United States army destroyed the state of Iraq and crippled its army, something that the Unites States has been trying to restore ever since by extending their training mission past the end of the war. The American army also ruined the ruling political party, dividing its supporters into opposing Shia and Sunni camps.

Today, ISIS has gained control of some of the major Iraqi cities and it may not be long before they overtake the state completely. ISIS recently seized of the city Ramadi a few days ago and fears have increased that the capital, Baghdad might be next. Although it can be argued that the United States perpetuated secularism particularly in Iraq, the country has the opportunity to fix its mistake and stop ISIS and other terrorist groups from progressing. It is true that American air raids have contributed a great deal to eradicating ISIS locations and equipment, yet more can be done to stop the threat. A “boots on the ground” is the best approach to ensure the destruction of Middle Eastern terrorism. The American military, undoubtedly the strongest on the globe, is more than capable of destroying ISIS. The United States military has the technology to monitor and negotiate with governments in the Middle East to try and find a solution to combat terrorist groups. Further, countries need to implement policies and regulations that limit terrorist recruitment, especially amongst the youth. States need to educate their populations on the dangers of joining terrorist groups. Educating the population is the key to preventing terrorist networking.

Secularism within the Middle East has always existed, however the severity has increased with global awareness. Almost each week, we hear of devastating attacks against minority populations, usually committed by terrorist groups. Too many lives have been lost due to intolerance and that must change. Although secularism within the Muslim world can be attributed to the divide into the Sunni and Shiite sects, it is also the fault of global interference. The American intervention in Iraq perpetuated tensions between Sunnis and Shias and groups such as ISIS have taken advantage of this to promote their cause of an Islamic state against the west. At the rate ISIS is moving now, it won’t be long before the state of Iraq is under their control. It is up to the Middle East to put issues of secularism aside and combat against the destruction that terrorism values.