The distinction between sunni and shi’a in Islam has both political and doctrinal issues at stake. In a political sense, the original causes are moot. There is no caliphate today, no unbroken record of temporal earthly dominion for successors of Muhammad in the Islamic ummah. In the older sense to identify on a macro-level as sunni or shi’a follows differences in interpretation of the Quran, statements of the Prophet Muhammad, and the continuing role of descendants in the Prophet’s family from ‘Ali. The actual divergences over mostly issues of Islamic law, apart from succession of the Prophet. These are as varied in the sunni schools as they are between sunni and the various shi’a views. Much of the disagreement can be explained on cultural terms as Muslim communities have evolved almost fromt he start outside of the Arabian heartland.

But for anyone interested in disrupting unity or political reconciliation, the embedded historical grievances between sunni and shi’a can be resurrected in a flash. Consider the power-scarred sectarian wedge in the current security chaos of Iraq, where Saddam’s secular Ba’th party had mitigated religious identity politics for several decades. Those in the West who hate Islam, who may even view it as a Satanic plot out to destroy Jews or Christians, must be smiling broadly every time Muslims kill each other, bomb each other’s mosques and treat each other as worse than the “other” infidels. It is even easier to dismiss Muslims when the only options are to fill in the blankety-blank sunni vs. shi’a, a prejudicial plague being placed rhetorically on both their houses.

This battle is not only evident in recent events in Iraq, but has been raging (to the extent rage is an apt description of a cyberspatial hubris) on partisan internet sites. Take, for example, the Islamic Thinkers Society , which describes its main objective as follows:

“Our objective is to resume the Islamic way of life to which will fulfill the purpose of the aim. Our objective is to bring back the apparatus that was destroyed in 1924 i.e. Khilafah. Indeed it was the Khilafah that united the Muslim Ummah under one flag, one land, one border, and one leader. It was the Khilafah which served as the appartus to make sure that Tawheed manifested in all ascpect in the Muslim Ummah’s affairs. Surely, anyone who accepts any other system than Allah’s Shari’ah is worshipping the one who has put his laws in place of the laws of Allah. This is a major form of shirk and anyone who commits a major shirk has left Islam.”

Specifically, the site describes its creators as:

“We are less than a handfull of Muslims from Ahlus Sunnah wal jama’ah who give public da’wah to society, where we invite the society to Islam(Aqeedah+Shahriah), command the good, forbid the evil and expose falsehood from every angle. Our struggle is always intellectual & political non-violent means.“

It is hard to appreciate the “intellectual” aspects of the thinking on the website, given a most-unwanted hit-list of 34 “scholars to be avoided.” The latest on the list is Shamsi Ali, deputy imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and director of the Jamaican Muslim Center in Queens. Here is what the imam had to say about the Islamic Thinkers:

For instance, the Islamic Thinkers Society – a small organization based in Queens – routinely chooses anger over constructive action. It’s thought to be an American offshoot of the London-based Al-Muhajiroun, which is infamous for its conference “The Magnificent 19,” praising those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

In February, the society disrupted a peaceful demonstration I had helped organize to protest the Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammed as a terrorist. They tried to dominate the otherwise peaceful event with their own radical banners and slogans.

Also this year, a local Shi’a rally against terrorism and injustice was violently interrupted by the group. The mischief mongers manhandled a religious scholar, calling him an infidel, and spread materials mocking Islamic jurists they consider too moderate.

Just look at their Web site, islamicthinkers.com, to see some of what’s produced by the group: words and images that feed fanatical anti-American vitriol.

In New York, there may be only very small numbers who sympathize with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist or radical elements. But it takes only small numbers to do terrible things.

Now it is time for leaders in the Muslim community to take five crucial steps:

1. Speak clearly and directly to those who foment hatred or make any excuse whatsoever for those who commit terrorist acts, making clear that we know what they are doing and will not tolerate it.

2. Isolate radical groups from having access to our community centers. And when we confront radicalism on the Internet or in other forms, we must spotlight it.

3. Promote our own moderate and balanced youth activities as constructive alternatives.

4. Organize seminars that tell young people the serious danger of radical Islamist ideology.

5. Since many of the most disaffected youth are not related to any mosque or center, urge parents to talk to their children directly. None of this is to suggest that Muslim Americans must agree with all American policy or support the Bush administration. To the contrary, healthy and vigorous dissent is one of the best ways to channel people’s real anger and frustration.

But unless and until New York City’s Muslim community is willing to reject violence and the ideology that fuels it, there will be a pall of suspicion hanging over our community – and with good reason.

Ali is deputy imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and director of the Jamaican Muslim Center in Queens.

Originally published on September 2, 2006

When someone you disagree with is branded a heretic in a dispute over methods, there is little room for intellectual engagement. Such internal debate, interpreting Islam along blatant political biases, only serves to fuel the stereotypes by those who see “Islam” as uncivilized and unable to function in the modern world. Somewhere Pat Robertson is smiling. But Muslims the world over, and not just in Queens, are the ultimate victims of this absurd in-fighting.

Divide and think you conquer: that kind of thinking is not good for Muslims or anyone else.

Daniel Martin Varisco