‘You are a Shi’a?’ a security guard asked my husband in Karbala, Iraq. ‘I am a Muslim’, he replied. The guard seemed perplexed and did not engage in further conversation. When I related this incident to our host, a highly educated and respected Shi’a public social worker with deep roots within the clerical structure in the city of Karbala, he remarked: ‘aha, that is a new category’. In the contemporary Muslim world, riven with sectarian strife, to be just a Muslim is to be a new and innovative category.

I grew up in Assam, India, where the entire Muslim community is Sunni. I never encountered a Shi’a person when I was growing up. My mother told me that the ummah is one and Muslims believed in one God, and the Prophet Muhammad is the last messenger for humankind. I became aware that Muslims are a divided community for the first time when I joined Aligarh Muslim University. I encountered another reality of being Muslim: there were Muslim people called Shi’a. My Shi’a friends wore black, particularly during Muharram, engaged in public mourning, and talked about Caliph Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, as the ‘chosen one’. They invited me to join the matam (mourning) ceremonies. But I did not understand why mourning was so critical to their identity. Even today, I continue to be perplexed by the divided ummah and the mutual distances and hatred between the Shi’as and Sunnis.

I was in Iraq to attend The Third International Conference on Translation Studies. Organised jointly by The Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Higher-Education and Scientific Research, and the Al-Mamoon publishing house in April 2013, it was meant to be a celebration of Baghdad as ‘the cultural capital of the Arab World’. The organisers hoped that the presence of the invited scholars from a variety of different countries would stand as testimony of the new found peace in Iraq. I was one of the sixty-one international participants in the conference; and I participated not as a Sunni but as a Muslim, without an adjective.

The Shi’a and Sunni divide and the violence between them can unhinge a Muslim from recognising a common identity. Muslim is an elusive and invisible claim in the sectarian landscape. Our host in Karbala found it hard to accept that Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq shared a common Muslim identity. The category called Muslim is deleted from the Iraqi lexicon, so it seemed. Perhaps the division between the Sunnis and Shi’as would be less pronounced if the sectarian divide was not drenched in a memory of violence, which serves as the blood-line separating the two communities. Even fourteen hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the crisis of leadership that ensued in 632, Shi’as and Sunnis cannot forget and forgive each other. Blaming and finger pointing have only exacerbated the violence between them.

My husband and I consciously refused to take sides. The non-hyphenated, non-sectarian label – Muslim – that we claimed for ourselves separated us from everyone we met in Iraq during our trip. We discovered that it was not just the historical and recent events that marked the separation of the Shi’as and Sunnis, but the current political tensions within and outside Iraq aggravated the differences. Events in neighbouring Syria in particular affected interpersonal relationships and accentuated the sense of sectarian identity. The anxiety of the Iraqis, both the Shi’as and the Sunnis (who are subdivided into Arabs and Kurdish), was palpable and the rising incidents of violence in Baghdad in April 2013 added to the feeling of insecurity. The Shi’as were afraid that the fall of the Assad regime in Syria would mean Sunnis engaging in a bloodbath against them. The Kurds watched in anxious anticipation the weakening of the political situation in Syria leading to the exodus of refugees into their towns and nibbling away into their economy. The Sunnis were fearful that escalating violence in Syria would lead the Iraqi government to increase its use of surveillance against them and imprison them in their homes and neighbourhoods. Sunnis were keenly aware that they had no control in the intelligence gathering forces within the current Iraqi state. From casual talk, I learned that the Mosawi clan (who have strong links to Iran) play a critical role in the secret services in Iraq. In this scenario, knowing one’s community and claiming location within it seemed to be critical; one had to know who one could trust. The unforgotten memories of past violence combined with the present experiences of uncertainty to produce an all-encompassing anxiety that distorted Muslim identity. There was no place for recognising the humanity of the other (sectarian) group. Seeing each other through the coloured lens of sects and ethnicities dehumanised the Other and allowed violence to be used as a tool for self-preservation. Hatred empowered each group to believe they were on the right path.

Our hosts were eager to showcase Baghdad as a free and safe place. Several trips were organised outside the Al-Mansur hotel where the conference was held and we were accommodated. These trips were escorted by security guards who carried machine guns that they pointed at the people as we sped through the city in a convoy of SUVs with sirens flashing for everyone to clear out of our way. During these trips to the city, it appears, we were ‘being watched by different militant and violent cells’ but due to the social authority and power of our host, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the Acting Minister of Defence, who came from a very powerful Sunni clan, we were guaranteed safety. Beyond the broad sectarian divide of Shi’a and Sunni, the discourse on clans, tribes and family politics was also quite prominent. Blood lines and memory played their role in dividing and keeping hate alive between warring clans and tribes. It evoked a sense of pre-Islamic tribalism as an operative force in contemporary Iraq.

We visited some of Baghdad’s ‘safe’ neighbourhoods: Adhamiya, Khadamiya and Jadriyya, on the banks of the river Tigris. Before 2008, all these neighbourhoods comprised of ‘mixed’ populations of Sunni, Shi’a and Christian. Today, they are distinctly sectarian. Adhamiya, once a Sunni neighbourhood but now a Shi’a concentrated area on the northeast banks of the Tigris, was a site of ethnic cleansing in 2006–7. ‘The bridge was a place of slaughter and killing. Shi’as and Sunnis killed each other and threw the dead bodies across the bridge. The Tigris here became red in blood’, one of the translators, a Shi’a woman, told me. To me, as a student of history, the river Tigris and its banks evoked memories of the mighty Mesopotamian civilisation that was built and nurtured here. The rich layers of history are invisible now, but the Tigris continued to flow gently in Adhamiya washing away the bloody stains of sectarian violence and the crimes of humanity.

Khadamiya appeared lively and brisk. Only a few years ago it was the site of repeated violence. In 2006–8 the al-Khadamiya mosque was attacked several times and sectarian killings and suicide bombings claimed many lives. Visibly a Shi’a space, my request to arrange a visit to the mosque was immediately declined by the organisers. A Sunni woman translator asked me, ‘Why do you want to go there? It is a Shi’a place. They won’t let us in there, you will be frightened’. Fear of the sectarian violence is so great that ordinary human interactions in public places, such as a mosque, seemed like an unusual activity in Baghdad. Violence can only be avoided by not daring to engage the other group. In the process, the strangeness of the Other becomes more pronounced and new vilifying discourses are generated.

Every place we visited in Baghdad was scarred and damaged. Even the bright lights of the upscale neighbourhood of Jadriyya could not hide the dark corners of fear and destruction. In Baghdad, there are no big trees or cranes over the city promising revitalisation. Only tall concrete blast barriers and security posts every half kilometre were ubiquitously visible. The divided sectarian populations of Baghdad live and hide behind these barriers in the hope of safety from their enemies. The Sunni past of Baghdad is symbolised by unfinished desolate mosques (started in the Saddam era), which lie abandoned and forlorn in their skeletal remains. As we passed by one of these ‘unfinished’ mosques, the Sunni woman translator bemoaned, ‘They [the Shi’as] want the Sunnis to disappear from Baghdad. They have destroyed history. But no one cares. Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, should belong to everyone, but now it is a Shi’a dominated city, an outcome of the so-called democratic elections. It resulted in dividing and partitioning Iraqis exclusively on sectarian grounds, intensifying the memories of difference. The Shi’as are targeting the Sunnis for elimination. This is the legacy of the post-Saddam era’.

The deep division between the Shi’as and Sunnis became stark as we travelled southward to Najaf and Karbala. Imam Ali’s shrine is in Najaf and Imam Hussein’s shrine is in Karbala. Both Ali and Hussein are iconic Islamic figures, but now they are sectarian possessions. They belong exclusively to the Shi’a. When I asked one of the Sunni Baghdadi translators if she would like to accompany me to Najaf and Karbala, she looked at me suspiciously. ‘Why would I want to go to a Shi’a pilgrimage site? People there are unwelcoming of Sunnis.’ My argument that the Muslims constitute an undivided ummah did not convince her; for her, Najaf and Karbala were exclusively Shi’a spaces. Undeterred by her compartmentalised outlook, my husband and I visited both places and we were received with kindness and warmth by one of the leading Shi’a families of Karbala, the Qazweenis. We visited the shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein. It was a sublime experience and for the brief moment of two days I forgot the labels Sunni and Shi’a in these awe inspiring places. Everyone, however, was obviously Shi’a; we were perhaps the only Sunnis there. No one bothered me for doing my prayers in the Sunni style nor disturbed me as I sat by myself without wearing the long black robe that Shi’a women wore to the shrine. In fact, in Imam Ali’s shrine I had an incredible experience that melted away the boundaries of difference between me – a Sunni – and the Shi’a pilgrims.

Imam Ali’s shrine is an amazingly beautiful place. The large gold dome of the shrine is visible from miles away. Women enter the shrine through a separate entrance way leading directly to the silver encased mausoleum. The silver canopy is draped in beautiful silk green cloth. On approaching the enclosed area of the shrine, I saw women throwing green scarfs toward the top of the canopy and waiting in anticipation for one or two to fall down. They would rush to catch them. It appeared that a scarf was transformed into a sacred object and became imbued with power because it touched the tomb of Ali. As I inched forward toward the tomb, one of the green scarfs drifted directly toward me and a group of women came rushing. They begged me for a piece of the cloth. I gave them the scarf after keeping a small token as a souvenir. I was struck by the passion and emotions of the women who kissed my hands and face for sharing such a treasured object with them. I saw everyone around me recognising each other as fellow humans, there were no Shi’as or Sunnis here. They were people who respected each other’s emotions and spiritual needs and were gathering together in remembrance of Ali.

I witnessed the power of diffused boundaries where sectarianism did not divide the people in a couple of places in Baghdad. The shrine of the great eleventh-century Sufi saint Abdul Qadir Jilani in the Rasafa area on the east banks of the Tigris is one of the most peaceful and calming places in the city. Abdul Qadir Jilani is considered as Muhiyuddin or ‘Reviver of Religion’ and thus a ‘great helper’ or Ghaus-e-Azam of the community. Access to the shrine is extremely difficult due to the tight security in the area. We visited it on a Friday morning. The sparse number of people inside the complex made the vastness of the place even more pronounced. It consists of a mosque, the historic madrasa founded by Abdul Qadir Jilani and his burial tomb. On entering the shrine, I saw there was a sprinkling of women and men sitting in silent prayer. I imagined that each one of them was having a personal conversation with the Sufi master about their sufferings in the hope that he would help them to lessen their misery. In the shrine it was impossible to say who was a Shi’a or an Arab or Kurdish Sunni. The shrine was literally a space for crossing the divided lines of differences and it drew one closer to the lost actuality of peace within the Muslim community of Baghdad.

A thriving book market on Fridays attracts a variety of people to the Muttanabi area. Next door, in the compound of the historic Mustanseriya University, built during the Ottoman rule, musicians and artists congregate together. They bring their paint brushes and canvas, guitars and tambourines, and they paint and sing traditional Iraqi ballads and modern songs. One sang an Elvis song, ‘I am a dirty ole hound dog’ for us. Here everyone was a stranger but each one of them seemed to need the other. They were conscious of the terror around them as well as the necessity to claim their freedom. They defied the fear of living trapped lives in their sectarian neighbourhoods. The intensity of this awareness in the ordinary act of getting together and creating conviviality made it an extraordinary act of reclaiming life in their shared humanity. ‘Hope is everywhere’, a painter told me. His son who had died recently is the source of his hope and inspires him to paint. It is a useful and death defying act. The capacity to renew faith in the human potential and create a new script of life has to be learned over and over again in Baghdad, so it seems to me. The limit of the non-sectarian boundary ended here.

In northern Iraq, in the Kurdish town of Sulaimanyeh (or Suli as it is referred to locally) sectarian and ethnic identities are mixed together to produce a lethal outcome that drives a deep wedge between the Arab and Kurdish Sunnis. This division is memorialised in the Red Security Museum or Amna Suraka, in Suli. The memory of the 1992 massacre of Halabja is considered an immeasurably important knowledge to pass down from one generation to the next. The Hall of Mirrors, consisting of 182,000 shards of mirrors, commemorates the people who were killed by Saddam’s army. Its reflecting brightness is a dazzling memory. The prison cells where the Kurdish political prisoners were tortured document the gruesome past of Saddam Hussein’s administration. Today, Amna Suraka is a site of pilgrimage, a reminder for Kurds to never forget what they had endured, and it maintains the line of division with the Arab Sunnis.

The trauma of Halabja serves as an ‘emblematic icon for use to benefit a few political and commercially powerful groups’, a local Kurdish peace activist told me. The cynical use of trauma by a select group of beneficiaries is a cold reminder that violence is an industry that fetches hefty returns for some people. Ordinary Kurds do not question this because it is a useful memory to construct an identity and claim their difference from other Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shi’as, and isolate themselves.

Suli looks brand-new, the majority of the buildings were constructed within the last decade, and growth is visible everywhere. Commercial investments are pouring in from Iran, Turkey, Israel and many other countries, including America. Multinational companies and an international workforce are creating multiple multicultural spaces. Suli can boast of being the cultural and educational capital of Kurdistan; the town has seven universities, including the American University of Iraq. The economic prosperity of Suli allows the Kurds of Iraq to pretend that violence is not happening in their midst. It is the problem of other people, of the Shi’as and Sunnis in central and southern Iraq. The indifference of the people of Suli towards their Arab neighbours led me to think that it was not within Iraq but a separate country. The sectarian mess in Iraq is not their problem.

Sectarian violence in Iraq is never the problem of ‘my community’. It is always the problem of the other community. But dividing and parcelling violence as the problem of one group of people and making them alone responsible is relinquishing responsibility and denying ourselves justice and reciprocal humanity. You need at least two entrenched communities to create a sectarian divide. And there is no point in blaming acts of violence on religion; it is men who make religion senseless and cruel. Saddam used his Sunni ethnicity against the Shi’as; he used his Iraqi nationality against the Kurdish regional identity; today the Shi’as in Iraq are using their numerical strength and state power to terrorise the Sunnis.

The majority of Muslims – Sunni, Shi’a or any other sect – will agree that the Qur’an is categorical in its injunction to believers to avoid aggressive violence because killing one human being is like killing the entirety of humans (5:32). It is an unembellished command to respect human life and strive for peace between Muslims and others. To say otherwise and accuse (or use) Islam for violence is a terrible accusation against God and humanity. Of course, Islam and Muslims are not a single homogenous entity. But why is this simple fact so difficult to comprehend? Why can’t we transcend the labels of Shi’a and Sunni and see ourselves simply as Muslims?

Communal healing of communities shaken and traumatised by violence is difficult. To organise thoughts and make sense after destruction is to make the abnormal normal, the extraordinary ordinary. Nonetheless, as human beings we need to talk and share, find words and create images to understand our experiences. No amount of writing or speaking can replace the losses people suffer due to the violence of others, but a social language for a new kind of myth-making is important for the human world because it offers hope that can lead to peace. I believe we are capable of celebrating human encounters as Muslims despite the anti-human sectarian violence of our times.

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