Historically, Shiite and Sunni Muslims have coexisted and thrived around the world, but recent years have seen a proliferation of sectarian violence. There are significant differences between the sects on certain religious and historical issues, particularly regarding the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But the core tenets and practices of Islam, as well as immense love for the prophet’s family, are common bonds devoutly held within both sects.
Sectarian hate is learned, exacerbated by geopolitical conflicts and fueled by extremist interpretations of Islam. And as a minority among Muslims, Shiites have been subjected to double standards, ignorant fearmongering, suspicion and sometimes violence. Hard-line religious leaders and scholars — in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for instance — have seen marginalizing Shiites as integral to Sunni identity.
This is the Islamic month of Muharram, a time when Shiite mosques and communities around the world are often targets of Sunni Muslim extremists who denigrate Shiites with slurs such as “disbeliever” and “apostate.”
Like many Muslim Americans, I never encountered this kind of bigotry growing up in the suburban streets of Fremont, Calif. My best friend was Shiite, and we spent our summers making homemade action movies together. Our Pakistani American mothers fed us biryani, and we prayed in each other’s homes. During college, I took a course on Shiism to become more knowledgeable and aware, and Shiite friends regularly came over to my apartment, shared with a Sunni roommate, to drink chai and play video games.
Then and now, when I’ve heard anti-Shiite comments, they’ve often been rationalized as harmless jokes, political incorrectness or just expressing an opinion. Maybe, but those unchecked remarks also reflect an anti-Shiite bias that is, troublingly, not uncommon.
It pains me when Muslim Americans, even inadvertently, mimic the oppressive views or behaviors of xenophobes and nativists. We should know better. Particularly since Sept. 11, we’ve been on the receiving end of jokes and slights about terrorism, jihad and Shariah that become talking points for anti-Muslim zealots. Muslim Americans have been asked to prove our loyalty to our country, and our patriotism is routinely questioned.