Sensitizing Sectarianism

Posted in Dialogue, Islam, Sectarianism at 9:32 am by Haider

The Ministry of Information in Kuwait has, in recent years, increased its efforts to clamp down on any publication that is seen to incite sectarian conflict. This is a position that many members of parliament support, and has the backing of a large portion of the population, who would like to see the end of sectarian tension. The worry is that the sectarian conflicts that are raging in Iraq will spill over to Kuwait, threatening the security of the country and the well-being it enjoys.

While it’s extremely important to address the issue of sectarianism and to acknowledge the growing dangers it poses, the approach that’s being taken in Kuwait is fostering greater sectarianism, and is preventing the spread of the only possible solution to the problems sectarianism can pose.

What are Sects?

Every religion is open to a wide range of possible interpretations, and the adherents of religions rarely agree on what interpretation to accept. This leads the adherents to pursue the interpretation they believe (or want to believe) is the correct interpretation of the religion. Sects form when the adherents of a religion are divided over its interpretation, and they distinguish themselves based on their differences, even if they share a lot of common ground. The differences are usually over major issues that the adherents believe are of great importance that they must express these differences by parting ways or using additional labels to distinguish themselves from one another.

Sects can form out of a disagreement regarding the attributes of God (e.g. whether He has a body or not) or other doctrinal issues, the appointment of a leader to lead the adherents (e.g. whether a leader was appointed by the founder of the religion, or if the decision was left to the adherents, who the leader should be, what are the means to determine the next leader, etc) or can be about the ethical code or  the mandatory duties of the adherents (e.g. whether the end justifies the means or not). Sects rarely form out of disputes on what colour the curtains should be in their place of worship.

Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that these differences are considered important by the sects, and they cannot be dismissed or ignored. Otherwise, the very existence of these sects would not be warranted by their adherents. For this reason, the government cannot make a demand that sects set aside their differences, because this infringes on the freedom of religion (i.e. the right to choose which religion – or sect – one wishes to follow). Such a demand would naturally infringe on the freedom of expression, since any statement deemed sectarian will be punishable by law, and it will, therefore, infringe on the freedom of thought, since the citizens of that country will be limited by the ideas they can be exposed to, or the conclusions they are allowed to reach.

We’ll revisit these issues in a later section, where we will point out why the Ministry of Information’s approach to the problem of sectarianism is harmful to the adherents of these sects, and to any country as a whole. But first, we must point out some of the positive aspects of sectarianism, and then to identify where the problem with sectarianism lies.

Good Sectarianism

The existence of sects is extremely natural and far more healthier than if a single body appoints itself – or is appointed by the government – as the sole source of acceptable interpretations, and bans any interpretation that is in conflict with its own teachings. Bodies established to filter interpretations are hardly infallible, and they usually promote more dangerous interpretations than the ones they are banning. The attitude itself is destructive, in that it dismisses the importance of an individual’s ability to reason and evaluate ideas for him or herself, and to reach one’s own conclusions. By taking over this role, the “thought police” are only encouraging ignorance and misunderstandings between sects, or between individuals with differing beliefs and convictions.

Sectarianism – in itself – is the freedom to disagree with others, and the freedom to follow one’s own convictions. If one is born into a sect that he later disagrees with, he has (or should have) the freedom to join another sect, where he will find others that will share his outlook. For this to occur, one must be exposed to the interpretations other sects espouse, without any attempt to misrepresent these beliefs, or limit their exposure. By granting – and demanding – that other sects enjoy this freedom, people morally assert their own right to such freedom. Any sect that claims to have the sole right to express its views and to embrace adherents from other sects is guilty of hypocrisy and, therefore, forfeits – by the standard it places on others – its own right to its freedom of expression and association.

Sectarianism as a result of intellectual freedom is extremely positive, and is a great asset to the community, the country and the religion itself.

Benefits to the Community:

The community (i.e. members of a particular sect) benefit because they are able to associate with individuals that share their beliefs, and be able to live by and express the convictions they uphold, without being forced into accepting beliefs that one disagrees with. For example, the Muslim community is divided over its understanding of the concept of free will, according to Islam. Some say that there is no such thing as free will, since it means that God’s authority is limited, whereas other Muslims believe that we do have free will, since God would not judge us for actions we had no choice in committing. The issue is extremely important, because it forms a basis for one’s understanding of God (i.e. it will influence one’s spiritual connection with God), and one’s understanding of himself and the world (how will a person behave if he thinks he has no free will?).

If Muslims are unable to follow their own convictions regarding this issue, and are left to accept an opposing belief to their own, they will either feel distant from Islam, or live in constant contradiction, where their convictions are clashing with their religious beliefs. Having the freedom to live by one’s own understanding of Islam removes the inevitability of such a contradiction, and Muslims can have a more rewarding spiritual and religious experience.

The issue of who determines the correct interpretation of Islam, and the extent to which Muslims have the freedom to interpret Islam for themselves is a broad subject that I would need to address separately. We must bear in mind that Islam, as a divine message, should be understood as God had meant it to be, and not how we wish to interpret it. People cannot consider themselves the followers of non-violent Mahatma Gandhi, while they promote violence, or claim that Gandhi would have approved of their violent actions judging from their “unique” circumstances. If they wish to be loyal to Gandhi’s teachings, then they should ask themselves: What would Gandhi do in this situation? Then act according to the answer. But to claim adherence while dismissing the message, or to interpret it according to one’s wishes is a betrayal of the message itself.

The same is true with Islam. Muslims cannot simply interpret Islam the way they want to interpret it, but should be sincere in their belief that their interpretation is the correct reflection (or as close as they can come to the correct reflection) of the message God had intended to convey. To grant people the freedom to interpret Islam does not mean that their interpretations are valid, or that they are free to customise Islam to suit their taste.

Benefits to the Country:

The benefit sectarianism (i.e. the freedom to follow one’s own interpretation of a religion) brings to a country is that it is an expression of the freedom of thought and association. These freedoms allow citizens to think for themselves, which requires that they educate themselves, as well as to develop a confidence in their thinking and their abilities. The result, provided that sectarianism is promoted in its correct sense, will be a confident, intelligent citizenry that respects other people’s opinions and seeks to influence others through dialogue. When the government steps in to teach its citizens which ideas are acceptable and which are unacceptable, the citizens will abandon their personal efforts to evaluate ideas. They will, instead, expect to be spoon-fed their beliefs. The alternatives are, of course, reform or revolution, but the natural consequence of a country stripped of its ability to judge for itself, is that it will default to ignorance. Granting people the freedom to judge ideas for themselves strengthens their commitment to be better educated and to put in the effort to learn for themselves.

Besides, it’s close to impossible for any country to ban ideas. If books and other media outlets are banned, the government can never ban the thinking process that goes on in an individual’s mind. They may cripple his ability to think properly, if he is not exposed to the correct information and a sound education, but he can still develop ideas that the government may not wish him to have. And in all likelihood, if a person is forced into thinking a certain way and behaving in a certain way, then he will develop a negative impression of the ideas and actions that he is being forced to accept, and will usually favour the alternative – any alternative – to these ideas and actions. Therefore, rather than promote the ideas being forced on the citizens, the government would be developing contempt towards itself, and is making opposing ideas more appealing.

Benefits to the Religion:

While division within a religious community is often regarded as a negative phenomenon, it can serve a crucial purpose for the religion.

It must be noted that different interpretations express different messages. If a single statement is interpreted differently, it is as though two different statements were expressed. This is because the actual words used to convey a message are not as important as the meaning they hold. The message is in the meaning, and not in the words. Therefore, the message is in the interpretation, and not in the text, which can be used to convey a set of different messages.

For the message of a religion to be conveyed correctly, it must be interpreted correctly. If the interpretation is incorrect, the message is different to the one that’s intended to be conveyed. In the case of Islam, or any divine religion, if the interpretation of the scripture is incorrect, then the message is no longer divine. It is not the message that God communicated. It is not the meaning that God intended. Therefore, the incorrect interpretation should not be attributed to Him. We would have to say: “Our understanding of Islam is…” but it’s difficult to assert that “Islam is…” especially when we are prone to make mistakes.

But if false interpretations of Islam should not be attributed to the religion, then why is sectarianism a good thing? Should we not limit the possibility of false interpretations of Islam by limiting the freedom to interpret Islam, or to ban the existence of some sects (as in the case with the Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan), or to ban discussion on the issues that divide Muslims (which is the direction Kuwait is taking)?

Looking back at the problem of interpretation: if the interpretation of a message is incorrect, then the meaning of that message is not conveyed. If there is only one interpretation, which is incorrect, then the message is lost. However, if there are a number of interpretations to that message, then the possibility of finding the correct interpretation increases and, therefore, there is a chance of finding the correct meaning being conveyed by the message. Therefore, the existence of sects is an opportunity to find the true message of Islam, rather than have a single body determine what the meaning of Islam is, and burying its true message in the process.

In the absence of an authoritative person or body that knows and understands Islam as it should be known and understood, no individual or institution or government should decide how Islam, or any other religion, should be interpreted, or to place restrictions on what interpretations can be expressed, or what issues can be addressed. Placing such restrictions would distort the message being conveyed by the religion, and any honest Muslim would want to have the freedom to understand Islam as it should be understood, and not to have its meaning filtered through the ignorance and politics of others. Exposure to different interpretations and perspectives can help develop a better understanding of language, interpretation, psychology, philosophy, human understanding and a range of other issues that contribute to a more accurate interpretation of the message. In the absence of  such understanding, people would interpret the message out of some knowledge, and a great deal of ignorance, which is usually the case with those who don’t consider other possible interpretations to the verses they seek to interpret.

Bad Sectarianism

Sectarianism has a bad reputation for a reason. It rarely offers the benefits I highlighted earlier. This isn’t because the existence of sects is intrinsically bad, but because the attitude towards sectarianism often is. Adherents of sects, especially the uneducated masses, do not adhere to their sect after careful reflection and study, but do so out of custom and by default. They defend their sect not because they are certain that it is the true interpretation of their religion, but because it is their sect and their interpretation. The issue, therefore, is not the message of the religion, and the pursuit of the true meaning God intended to convey, but the identity they associate themselves with.

When sectarianism is approached through the lens of identity, and adherents of different sects are not prepared to consider or attempt to understand the different interpretations other sects promote, nor express their own views in a manner to be understood by other sects, then the benefits sectarianism brings will never be realised, and the only consequences will be the problems commonly associated with sectarianism. Nobody benefits from such sectarianism. Neither the community, nor the country, nor the religion.

Problems to the Community:

When a community that adheres to a particular sect does so purely out of tribal affiliation, the adherents will seek to reassure themselves that their version of Islam is correct by misrepresenting other sects and perceiving Islam and the world through its own sectarian lens, which would make perfect sense to the adherents, since the criterion for judging the validity of the sect’s outlook is the sect itself! Such dishonesty is both intellectually and spiritually damaging, and gives the moral justification for the adherents of other sects to adopt the same attitude, and sects will not gain adherents that are drawn towards them through conviction, since each sect clings to its beliefs out of cultish obedience rather than objective conviction.

Intolerance is usually the product of ignorance and emotion. When an individual cannot understand another person’s point of view, he will usually experience frustration and anger whenever he is exposed to other people’s opinions. If objectivity is dismissed, then this is the chronic condition that the community, or the country, will live in. When people adhere to their “subjective truth,” sectarianism becomes the breeding ground for conflict and intolerance. But it’s not the existence of sects that’s to blame, but the intention that people have for adhering to their sects.

Problems to the Country:

One of the greatest problems experienced in a country with a strong religious or sectarian presence (i.e. religious affiliation is a feature used to distinguish between different citizens) is that the adherents of each sect will only seek to benefit those belonging to their sect. This is extremely damaging to any country, because this is where the division within the country will be felt the most. Members of parliament will not be voted for based on their credentials and abilities, but on their religious affiliation and how they can serve their sect. The gain of one sect will necessarily mean a loss for the other. Justice will no longer be used as a criterion, but religious affiliation will. And where justice is abandoned, no country can prosper.

Problems to the Religion:

One of the most prominent themes in the Holy Koran is the detachment from false criteria for determining the truth. These come in many forms, such as loyalty to one’s parents, culture, tradition, or one’s unwillingness to admit being wrong. Islam sought to break these attachments, which prevent a person from seeing the truth for what it is. There’s absolutely no Islamic endorsement for commitment to one’s sect if it’s not for the sake of the truth, and one who clings to his sect out of tribal affiliation is expressing the same vices that Islam came to fight.

Problems with Banning Sectarianism

While I accept that sectarianism can have many potential harms, the proposed solution to fighting sectarianism will only amplify the negatives, and suppress the positives. By limiting one’s right to express his or her beliefs regarding other sects, this will not destroy one’s sentiments, but may even intensify them, as they feel unable to express the strong convictions they hold. Even if these convictions are due to ignorance, you cannot defeat ignorance by banning communication.

The Ministry of Information have gone to the extent of banning books that promote a particular sect (albeit the minority Shia sect), deeming it sectarian. But this is the only resort any sect should have to defend and promote itself. By ignoring the fact that sects do exist, and hoping that by removing sectarian labels from society, sectarianism would disappear, isn’t realistic and, therefore, isn’t beneficial.

Solution to Sectarianism

Banning publications that promote (or condemn) Islamic sects will not help promote understanding. Those who condemn other sects are demonstrating their own attitude, and expressing their own opinions. Refusing to listen to what they have to say won’t make them or their ideas go away. You cannot promote knowledge by sensitizing the issue of sectarianism, and making people feel threatened by the law if they are to discuss a dangerous subject won’t encourage calm and thoughtful dialogue.

The only possible solution to bad sectarianism is to encourage the adherents of all sects to be willing to exchange their views without the use of intimidation or any tactic that undermines fruitful dialogue (such as the misrepresentation of other people’s views, name calling, etc). But the important point to note here is that this isn’t the responsibility of the government, but of society, and the leaders and scholars of the sects. Rather than appeal to the government to silence others when their sect is criticized, scholars should present their beliefs to those interested in listening to them, and to promote a suitable atmosphere for dialogue.

People should judge material based on the truthfulness of its content, and the intellectual honesty of its writer. Rather than have the government decide which books are causing sectarianism and which are not, the citizens should be able to judge for themselves, so that they can take responsibility for reaching their own conclusions, and to help them train themselves in the art of dialogue and the science of critical thinking.

The government should step in when people, especially in government roles, discriminate based on sectarian affiliations. If a government official places bureaucratic obstacles in the way of citizens that belong to a particular sect, then the authorities must step in to question the official, and take the necessary actions to guarantee that the citizen’s rights are protected, regardless of his religious convictions.

Promoting understanding between the sects is ultimately the responsibility of the citizens, especially the scholars, who represent their respective sects more than the laymen. And before people look to the government to step in and resolve sectarian problems, they must ask whether they are doing enough to promote dialogue and understanding.


  1. um mohammed said,

    July 6, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    while I agree with most of your thoughts ,I feel that your aim is to create a eutopian society and being the pessimist I am, I don’t see Kuwait becomming one soon!

  2. Haider said,

    July 7, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Salaam um mohammed,

    I don’t think resolving sectarian conflicts is beyond our reach, or should be abandoned because not everyone has the willingness to deal with the issue in a rational way.

    I believe that many, many people can change their understanding and attitude towards sectarianism by having a new approach presented to them.

    My intention isn’t to change the whole of society, and I certainly don’t agree with anyone who seeks to mould the whole of society according to his or her opinions. I can only express the ideas that I believe are beneficial, and it’s up to the readers to live by them or not.

    As long as we can change our own attitudes, and encourage a small circle of people around us to change their attitudes, and for them to affect a small circle around them, we can develop a social trend that affects a large portion of the population.

  3. um mohammed said,

    July 7, 2008 at 11:13 am

    beleive me our opinions are similar in many ways, even when you explained that change starts from us and the poeple around us at first ,I agree with that,
    but the problem in Kuwait is that every group is so closed and limited to themselves that there is alot of ignorance going around ,
    it is almost like so many people were taught that if they discuss their thoughts or ideas on different religions and view points they would get burnt in hell or something .

    in kuwait, ever since I can remember there was always us and them ,it is been going around for years ,and the real attemps to fix this problem have been minor ,
    to me this country is running on the laws of the jungle,
    this country is running on luck more than actual plans !
    in my opinion it is still very tribal
    but that is just me venting ,,
    I noticed that the media plays a role in exaggerating the gap between shia and sunnis in different parts of the world while reality and how poeple in those places actually live their lives is so different,
    for example , certain cities in Iraq are mentioned as sunni states while in reality poeple living there are form manny different sects !

    anyway one can see clearly how the issue of sectarianism is really deeply implemented in kuwait in every election time !


  4. Haider said,

    July 7, 2008 at 11:59 am

    There are many issues related to sectarianism that I couldn’t expand on in this post. But in response to the points you raised:

    – Ignorance can only be fought with knowledge and sound reasoning

    – People are afraid to think because they fear an idea that would compel them to accept a position that conflicts with their long-held beliefs and, therefore, force them to question their belief system

    – People are afraid to question their belief system because they think that they must have certainty, and questioning is the practical equivalent to doubt

    – Those who think that God will punish them for thinking need to re-visit their understanding of God and their religion

    – Those with a tribal attitude need to realise that tribalism has nothing to do with Islam, and they must realise what role tribalism plays in *resisting* Islam from people with tribalistic affiliations to other religions

    – The media *does* play a role in re-enforcing sectarian divides, but the ideas that support a sectarian attitude towards religion exist among the sects. Therefore, while the media is partially to blame, the scholars and activists within the sects are playing a greater role. A visit to a sample of mosques will prove this

    I believe that sectarianism is very irrational, and when people can come to accept an alternative understanding to religion and the role it plays in people’s lives, they will realise how silly sectarianism is.

    Although I’m pointing to a political problem in this post, the solution has to come from society, because the policies the government are acting on have the backing of a sizable portion of society.

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