Ethnicity & Sectarianism: The Greatest Threat to Muslim Unity and Solidarity in 21st Century

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The survival of Muslim world, without any doublet depends up the unity and solidarity of the Muslims all over the world and multifaceted comprehensive cooperation amongst them at multidimensional levels in respective regions and of course at the global level.

I am certain that discussions and consultations at this Conference will help the Muslim world by crystallising its recommendations as to how ongoing conflicts in the Muslim world, in general, and in the Middle East can be contained, managed, transformed and eventually resolved through peaceful means.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as we all know, The Muslim world in turmoil for last two centuries or so, since its major portion’s colonization by the Western powers and resultant loot and plunder of its natural resources. However, weakling and eventual dismemberment of Ottoman Empire, which was symbol of global power and international solidarity of the Muslims, the situation has become graver. Though, emergence of many independent states as a result of decolonization and many freedom struggles and movements in the Muslim world, against their erstwhile colonial masters, gave a semblance of freedom and sovereignty. However, the reality was farfetched. The colonial and occupying powers, while leaving their military enforced occupation of Muslim land, fragmented it by drawing unnatural and artificial border in an arbitrary manner without any regard to history foundations, socio-economic considerations and geographic realities. Their decisions were deliberate and were guided by their desire to retain indirect political and economic control of their former colonies or occupied areas, which was managed by them through a questionable mandate granted by League of Nations. In fact, these decisions was aimed at fragmenting the Muslim world into small petty states and fiefdoms, which could remain in state of perpetual confrontation and conflict among themselves and continue to be dependents on their erstwhile master.

This historic development had inbuilt seeds of unending conflicts on various accounts of territorial claims, political legitimacy, economic compaction and above all constant quest for security and survival.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we all understand that the relations among nations are governed by their national interest. These interests are promoted and protected through the foreign policies. Foreign polices, besides being influenced by regional and global considerations are greatly determined by the domestic political and security concerns. Relations among nations across the globe are characterised with constant competition, which results into cooperation or confrontation and conflict. Cooperation is certainly a desire act in international relations; however, conflict is also a reality, which needs to be handled carefully. What is a conflict and how should it be handled has drawn the attention of many scholars and practitioners of foreign policy and international relations. Conflict; in simple terms is an inability of two or more parties to resolve their differences or disputes in a peaceful manner. A conflict, primarily, starts in domain the perception and psycho-emotional world before emerging in its physical manifestation. Present day’s Muslim world in suffering from multiplicity of conflicts in various parts of the world from Morocco to Central Asia and from Syria to Indonesia. However, I shall focus more on the Middle East.

Though there is no unanimous definition of The Middle East, yet it can be said with confidence that Middle East means much more than it was considered by British India Company in Nineteenth Century or as it was defined by Mahan in early Twentieth Century. The geo-political importance of the area already realised and understood, coupled with its geo-economic significance, due to having largest world hydrocarbon energy sources, has multiplies its geo-strategic importance at the global level. Therefore, the ongoing and impending tug of global power politics among the international and regional powers in the region.

Notwithstanding the desire of different individual, families and regimes to retain their political and economic control over respective states and areas, the proxy wars conducted in this process have ignited very dangerous internal wars and intra-state conflicts, which have potential to get out of control and engulf the whole region, besides causing very series threat to many other Muslim countries. In fact, if not handled properly, these crises can endanger the global peace and security due to high stake of the global player involved in this area / region. We are already aware of the of the prolonged involvement of global power in the domestic and regional politics of this area, which till recent times included physical occupation of major part of the Middle East by Extra Regional military forces. On top that continuous presence of such military forces in many of these countries and the Indian Occasion is also known to the whole world.

The most unfortunate aspects of this whole story is alienation and destruction of the common masses of the Middle East as result of perpetual internal wars and repeated foreign military aggression. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in naked brutality, millions have become homeless, who have been forced to take refuge in neighbouring or other countries and many more are internally displaced. The Middle East, which houses more than 350 million people, has its own peculiar commonalities and diversities. Seen from the prism of ethnicity, racial and linguistic, it has three main groups; Arabs, Turks, and Persian. And of course many minorities ethnic groups as well. If we look from the religious stand point, The Middle East is the cradle of all three Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The majority of residents of Middle East are, of course, Muslims. However, there are many other religious beliefs as well in the Middle East. Amongst Muslims, the Sunnis and Shias are two dominant sectarian denominations, though there exist many other minor sects and sub sects as well.

The fundamental issue, which needs deep analysis, is: Weather the current crises in the Middle East are essentially due to ethnicity and sectarianism or some other factors are the main causes and ethnicity and sectarianism is just used as a fuel and ignite the ‘Ball of fire’. The answer is quite difficult. It is partly Yes and partly NO. Historically, Muslims, Jews and Christians have fought with each other for centuries, especially during Crusades, Muslims and Christians have fought with each other very ferociously for many long years. Similarly, Jews and Christians have persecuted each other on religious grounds. On the contrary, Muslims, Christians, and Jews and people belonging to many other religious denominations have lived in very harmonious and peaceful coexistence under just, fair and benevolent rule for many centuries. I am certainly referring to Muslim rule in the Middle East and surrounding regions. As regards, various sects within Islam, notwithstanding their difference on jurisprudence and some other similar issues, the sectarian difference were never main political force, barring few isolated incidents in the Muslim history. By no means, I wish to deny the existence of more than political and military contenders having strong sectarian inclination, which is a fact of history. But all these duels were short lived.

On the other hand, the element of ethnicity, particularly, the Arab and non-Arab, and I am not referring to recent phenomenon of last one hindered years, have had an important role to play as divisive or integrating force depending upon how it was used and played by the rulers and other power player.

However, coming back to current situation in the Middle East, I wish to submit that though ethnicity and sectarianism are very deadly threat to Muslim unity and solidarity, these are not the main causes of crises in the region. Of course, these factors are being used as main tools of initiating, promoting, sustaining, escalating and perpetuating the Conflicts in the Middle East. But, in my opinion, the real causes can be summarised as following, just to mention a few:

1. Unnatural and artificial borders drawn in the Middle East by the British and French during or after their mandate of administering the region, after the WW 1.
2. Splintering of Middle East and North Africa in small petty states by erstwhile Colonisers, in order to look after their politico-economic and geo-strategic national interest.
3. Support of Western countries to despotic, autocratic. And non-representative, non-democratic regimes.
4. Political suppression, social alienation, and economic depreciation, through oppressive and exploitative rule of individuals, families and oligarchic groups.
5. State sponsored proxy wars for gaining religious influence and retaining political supremacy in the region, including financial and material support to beneficiaries / belligerent groups in target countries.
6. Poor domestic governance, rampant corruption, nepotism, neglect for human recourse development and resultant lack of employment opportunities, unequal, rather unjust distribution of national wealth / resources and above all marginalisation of minority ethnic and religious/sectarian segments of society.

Having said that, the main Question is what is the remedy. Due to paucity of time, I shall suggest few steps, with giving explanation:
1. Just and fair political dispensation, which allows right to chose and replace rulers, in accordance with local customs and traditions but having due regard for internationally accepted practices.
2. Equitable and fair distribution of resources, with due regards for rights and privileges of ethnic and sectarian minority groups.
3. Respect for international accepted territorial borders. Support and promote bilateral and multilateral cooperation, instead of support centrifugal tendencies, ideas and groups.
4. Follow principle of ‘Non-interference’ in domestic political and regions affairs of each other. Do not support or promote sectarian and ethnic divide in any country.
5. Promote political and diplomatic unity, strategic solidarity, and economic and security cooperation at regional and global level among all Muslim countries.
6. Develop ‘collective security’ and ‘collective defence’ mechanism in the Muslim world.

At the end, let me emphasise that all these six points have been drawn from injections of Quran. Allah says:
1. “And hold fast, all together, to the Rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favour on you; for ye were enemies and he joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the Pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you that ye may be guided.“[1] [Surah Aal-e-Imran (3): A.103]
2. “Ye are the best of people, evolved for mankind. Enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah“[2] [Surah al-e-Imran (3): A. 110].
3. “Help ye one another in righteous and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancour; fear Allah: for Allah is strict in punishment“[3] [Surah
4. “the Believers (Muslims) are but a single brotherhood: so make peace and reconciliation between your two (contending) brothers; and fear Allah, that ye may receive mercy“[4] [Surah al-Hujurat (49): A.10].
At the end, I wish to repeat and emphasise on three words, in which lies the salvation of the Muslim world: Unity, Solidarity and Comprehensive Cooperation.

Dr. Shahid Hashmat,
Principal/Dean NUST Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (NIPCONS),
National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad, Pakistan


[1] . The Qur’an, p. 171. Also see The Message of The Qur’an, p. 82 and The Easy Quran, pp. 87, 88.
[2] . Ibid., p.173. Also see The Message of The Qur’an, p. 83 and The Easy Quran, p. 89.
[3] . Ibid., p.278. Also see The Message of The Qur’an, p. 140 and The Easy Quran, p. 142.
[4] . Ibid., p.1591. Also see The Message of The Qur’an, pp. 793,794 and The Easy Quran, pp. 696,697.
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