Shi’a Muslims: halal meat?

Recently, those who have been following the news may have noticed an increase of terrorist attacks and the general persecution of Shi’a Muslims, particularly within Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and recently Palestine together with less reported, but still significant, events in Indonesia and Malaysia, among other Sunni majority countries. In the case of Pakistan, 3,700 civilians, mostly Shi’as, have been killed and another 7,700 wounded in sectarian violence since 1989. In Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Iraq, several thousand Shi’as have been ruthlessly murdered in sectarian violence (see South Asia Terrorism Portal). There is no doubt that, in the last decade alone, Shi’a civilians have been massacred within Sunni majority countries. Hence it is legitimate to ask whether Shi’a Muslims may have become, in a sense, ‘halal meat’.The historical reasons for the split between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and their differences are well known. Surely many scholars have highlighted that the reasons for Muslim sectarian conflicts should be understood in terms of regional social political realities, so it would be simplistic to suggest that the massacre of Shi’a Muslims in Pakistan can be directly related to the killing in Iraq. Yet we have also to acknowledge that the ‘halal meat’ status of Shi’a Muslims increased after 2001 due to the war on terror and the destabilization of relevant regions such as Iraq.

Although we can easily provide a social political analysis of the main factors for which Sunni countries discriminate against Shi’a minorities (in the case of Iraq, former subordinated majority), we have also to acknowledge the existence of a certain ideology, widely spread among Sunni Muslims, which dehumanizes Shi’a Muslims. In the best of cases, Shi’a Muslims are tolerated and in the worst they are threatened and killed. This does not mean that there is noShi’a terrorist movement. Yet none reaches the level of aggression towards civilians seen in the case of the Sunni.

The death toll and the atrocity of the actions against Shi’a Muslims (often pilgrims and devotees visiting holy places) is shocking and difficult to make sense of. Yet even that level of violence does not shock me as much as the majority of Muslims’ silence, which I can only precisely label through a particular, politically charged, Italian word: “menefreghismo” (which, although not perfectly, translates as “an uncaring or couldn’t-care-less attitude” or even better, “I don’t care-ism”).

If a considerable number of Sunni Muslims are conducting jihad (all rather violent) against Shi’a Muslims, by the tongue, by the hand, and in particular, as the numbers show above, by the sword, the great majority of Muslims in the world are conducting another jihad, one that is not mentioned in any Islamic tradition or scholarly interpretation, but still one of the most used: the menefregista jihad, expressed by not expressing. It is characterized by a vile silence of unprecedented proportions.

You need only to compare this to the worldwide reactions of millions, both in real lives and in virtual ones, to cases such as the Sudanese teddy bear blasphemy case, the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy  or the Minaret controversy in Switzerland. All these events cost lives or created disruption. Yet today the fact that Shi’a Muslims are turned into ‘halal meat’ apparently does not deserve burned flags, screams and passionate protests. If they are lucky, the Shi’a have among Sunni Muslims few and, inevitably, feeble voices of support.

Although there are several political and historical reasons for the carnage, we cannot avoid noting the target of shrines, places of worship, mosques and so forth. The target has a clear symbolic value (and indeed even al-Qaeda attacked the Twin Towers, not the Vatican). There is one element that many scholars discussing the sectarian violence affecting Shi’a Muslims tend to underestimate and avoid discussing: tolerance.

We can clearly state that within Muslim communities in various places, a particular process is taking place. This process is vocally opposed by a certain number of Muslims, but not by a comparable number that, for instance, opposed the above mentioned controversies. This process is what I call a globalization of intolerance;  something which is surely new in the history of Muslim communities around the world.

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