The international Muslim community is diverse, comprising many sects and outlooks. The increasing diversity sometimes leads to isolation; thus, there is a strong desire for unity in the ummah. Such a desire is rooted in faith; multiple Qur’anic verses are used to justify this notion (3:103; 6:159, 30:31-32). However, some have (mis)understood this concept of unity to mean sameness, and show no tolerance for the rich diversity in the ways Islam manifests in different contexts. Some believe only one form of Islam is ‘correct’, and all other forms are in error, dismissing them as cultural or ritualistic. This extends also to sectarian social politics, as many Sunni Muslims continue to exclude Shia Muslims from the folds of Islam. And even when Shia Muslims are accepted, it is done so as long as Sunni normativity is not interrupted.
It is impossible to hail unity driven by sameness given the globalisation of Islam. If we are to respond to the Qur’anic call for a united ummah, we need to build not only tolerance for, but also acceptance of, our differences. This also means becoming aware of how certain privileges make it easier for some Muslims, while disadvantages and exclusions can make it harder for other Muslims, to comfortably fit within the ummah.
The attitude of some Sunni Muslims towards the Shia can be described as Shiaphobia, which mirrors Islamophobia as the systematic and everyday exclusion of, or hostility towards, Shia Muslim minorities. In the same way that Muslims are made to feel othered by Islamophobia, Shias are made to feel othered by Shiaphobia. This happens sometimes intentionally, and sometimes innocently, through the centring of Sunni experiences, practices, beliefs, and worldviews as the norm.
Shiaphobia can be witnessed in Muslim-majority settings, in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where the Shia are systematically oppressed through political, economic, and social injustices that lead to disadvantaged life circumstances and even death. While some of these incidents receive public attention, like the widely criticised Saudi torture and execution of the late Ayatollah Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, many murdered Shias die anonymously, with Sunni Muslims unaware of such violence happening around them. This is especially egregious when deaths result from targeted killing, like mosque bombings or assassinations. The silence of this violence in effect normalises it, and Sunnis take for granted that violence against Muslim minorities is just the expected reality, albeit an unpleasant reality best left ignored. Shias in immigrant settings, including the US, Canada, and Europe, experience the echoes of this violence – sometimes more directly when victims are family or when the violence takes place in one’s hometown. As Shereen Yousuf has identified, the silencing and erasing of these violent realities create harmful experiences for Shias in immigrant settings. But experiences of Shiaphobia also go beyond the wilful ignorance of the Sunni majority of global anti-Shia violence.