In the heat of the American Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s, one day after the great Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, a primary school teacher by the name of Jane Elliot devised what is now considered a classic experiment in the field of psychology. Wanting to show her 8-year-old pupils the harms of racism, Elliot devised an experiment in which they would be treated differently based on their eye colour. From the beginning of the experiment, blue-eyed children would enjoy a life of privilege; second helpings at lunch, access to more play things, and more playtime. Blue-eyed children were encouraged not to play with their brown-eyed peers and the different groups were encouraged to drink from separate water fountains. While some children resisted these divisions initially, with a little time the experiment began having a significant effect on both groups. Blue-eyed children became increasingly arrogant, bossy and treated their brown-eyed peers as inferiors. Conversely, brown-eyed children became more subservient and timid.
The experiment is a classic in the field of social psychology, serving as a warning about how powerful and toxic group divisions can be. Difference amongst us is a beautiful reality and is not an issue in itself. But once you divide people into groups, and begin talking about them and treating them in different terms, discriminatory thoughts and behaviour quickly take hold.
It is difficult not to watch on with worry as the Muslim world seems to be in the midst of a wave of increasing sectarianism. I began becoming aware of this in 2003 with the outbreak of the Iraq war. It is both funny and sad that prior to this, I used to say with pride that my religion did not have religious divisions in the same way as the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. When asked by Christian friends if we had a similar division within Islam, I would reply that while there were two main branches of Islam, I preferred just being called a Muslim rather than a Sunni. What a difference ten years makes. While the Northern Irish conflict is slowly subsiding, the Sunni-Shia conflict is now threatening to engulf the Muslim world.
Lessons From the Northern Irish Conflict
Having grown up in Northern Ireland, I can attest to the dangers that can come about from divisive leadership such as this; these divisions have a way of trickling down. I witnessed the reality of many leaders enflame divisions to stir up populist support as a way of wielding and increasing their power. Careers are built on ethnic and religious divisions. Aside from being a means to attain power and hold on to support, conflicts like these can be the perfect way to distract citizens from the real “bread and butter” issues facing a country; keeping people busy with the dangers of the “other” keeps them away from demanding improvements on more practical, everyday issues.
While the internal conflicts facing Muslims at the moment are not identical to the Northern Irish conflict, there is one stark lesson that I think can be drawn from it. Leaders seeking to increase their political support, on a matter that is overwhelmingly political, stir up religious divisions amongst people to the point that it might seem to many that the conflicts are religious. Let us not fall into this trap anymore than we already might have.
Entrepreneurs of Sectarianism
Indeed, political analysts such as Marc Lynch talk about the “Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism”. Whether it’s Yemen, Iraq or Syria, using religious identity politics is a powerful means for political players to stir people up in issues that are in fact largely political and not religious. We see it time and again; political conflicts are dressed up as religious in order to dupe citizens to join ranks in the name of their religious way of life, which is under threat by “the other”. Lynch expands this view beyond the Sunni-Shia conflict, using the example of Egypt to highlight the way in which Muslim – Coptic Christian relations have been manipulated by autocrats, determined to control their citizens.
I believe it all begins with our language. Divisions often first become salient when we label them. Be wary of people using language along the lines of “the Shia” are x, or “the Sunnis” are all doing y. Describing whole religious, ethnic or racial groups in monolithic terms, as if “they” all embody the same characteristics or opinions, is lazy at best, but more often than not, is explicitly sectarian or racist.
Yes, there are theological differences between Sunnis and Shias. But we would be lying to ourselves if we said that our conflicts are theological in nature. Yes, there are conversations to be had about some sectarian minded groups who are fighting in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, groups who are undoubtedly motivated in part by the way in which they perceive their religion. But again, we would be lying to ourselves if we said that those conflicts are to correct a theological point of view. In reality, participants have been drawn into the conflict by carefully exploiting their religious identity; they are manipulated to feel that they are performing their religious duty by their leaders who are in fact seeking to achieve political aims.
Siblings in Humanity
In delicate times such as this we need to keep reminding ourselves, and those around us, of the reality: we have lived side-by-side for centuries. Whatever it is that might divide us, we have far more in common that unites us. The lessons learned in Mrs. Elliot’s classroom all those decades ago should serve as a reminder to us of just how quickly we can become divided if we are not mindful of the forces that are trying to seperate us and make us forget our common humanity. If being singularly defined by our eye colour can result in “us” vs. “them” mentality, the mixture of political, religious, historical and current conflicts between Sunni and Shia can be a potentially flammable mix. We are seeing this reality play out today. It all begins with the language we use and the way in which we determine who is with “us” and who is with “them”, falling into the trap of forgetting the fact that we are all siblings in Islam, and to an even broader extent, siblings in humanity. Don’t let someone manipulate your identity to control your behavior, just so that they can reach their own ends.