Tuesday, October 24, 2006

COMMENT: Sunni & Shia - Can you tell the difference?

ASIO’s latest Annual Report to Parliament suggests sectarian violence in Iraq could spill over between Middle Eastern Sunni and Shia communities in Australia. It claims tensions are high in Auburn, a suburb having the highest Muslim concentration in Sydney.

I lived in Auburn for a number of years, and also practised law in the suburb and its surrounds. In 2001, I was a candidate for federal election in the area. I don’t have access to ASIO intelligence, but I wonder whether the subtle nuances affecting relations within and between Muslim sects can be reflected in a summarised Report.

The Sunni-Shia divide goes beyond people of the Middle Eastern appearance. Auburn also has substantial Shia communities of South Asian and Afghan origins. Sunni-Shia violence has been endemic in Pakistan for much longer than in Iraq. A few days after the Mumbai train bombings, Pakistan’s most senior Shia religious scholar Allamah Hassan Turabi was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Karachi.

Afghan Shias of the Hazara tribe faced persecution from the staunchly anti-Shia Taliban. Many still face persecution for tribal reasons from the Northern Alliance government, a loose coalition of former Mujahideen fighters dominated by members of the Tajik (ironically mainly Shia) and Uzbek tribes.

Muslims in Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and other countries with substantial Shia communities frequently marry across sects. One of my campaign workers was an Afghan Hazara Shia who was a refugee in Pakistan for a decade before coming to Australia. He was married to a Pakistani Muslim from a Sunni family. He used to perform his prayers regularly at an Auburn mosque jointly managed by Sunni and Shia Afghans.

Perhaps more troublesome than tensions between Sunnis and Shias are tensions within the two congregations. Politics in Iraq is not just based on sect, but is also affected by nationality, tribe and ethnicity.

For instance, within Iraqi Sunni communities we find tensions between different ethnic groups – Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds. Iraq’s Shia Muslims are also not a political monolith, with numerous parties competing for support from Iraq’s largest religious congregation.

That some local security agencies lack sophisticated understanding of the nuances of Sunni-Shia relations shouldn’t surprise anyone. National Security Editor of Congressional Quarterly Jeff Stein recently wrote in the New York Times that he frequently gets blank stares when asking security officials if they can identify Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Words © 2006 Irfan Yusuf

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