ONLY the Holy Koran joins them. Otherwise Shias and Sunnis, the two sects of Muslims, are poles apart. Their estrangement is entrenched. What is happening in Iraq today is the fallout of an antagonism that stretches back many centuries. Regretfully, there has never been any serious attempt by the leaders of the two sects to sit across the table and sort out their differences.
India, a pluralistic society, could have tried to cite the example of its own tradition of tolerance to bring about reconciliation. But it has preferred to stay distant lest it should be blamed for fanning the flames of enmity. It has witnessed clashes between Shias and Sunnis in Lucknow or elsewhere. Even though the government has been scrupulously neutral, both Shias and Sunnis have tended to blame it for taking sides.
I wish New Delhi had done more in West Asia to bring about conciliation for two reasons -- one, because it has a large Shia community and, two, because hostility between Shia and Sunni has grave repercussions for India. There was a time when New Delhi was a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) due to a large Muslim population in the country. But it apparently withdrew because a secular India did not fit the mould.
Washington could not hide its responsibility of pushing New Delhi out of the OIC. The Americans did not want a parallel organisation to influence events in West Asia in which they did not have a dominant role, albeit behind the scenes. Moscow has been lately taking sides openly and supporting the “progressive territories” it perceives.
What New Delhi does not realise is that if Iraq is not sorted out amicably, it can set into motion an unending battle between Shias and Sunnis at different places. And India will be sucked into a battle of attrition without it even wanting to do so. That necessitates a more active role than the government's stock statement that New Delhi is watching the situation, whether by front door, back door or trap door (secret activity).
Whatever the quantum of democracy, it has been introduced mainly by India not only to give voice to millions of Muslims in the area, but also to rebuff the West's propaganda that Islam and democracy were not compatible. Iraq's Saddam Hussein, even though a dictator, was influenced by New Delhi in giving limited rights to people. But for some reason, President Bush Senior had developed hatred against Saddam. The US was convinced that the Iraqi president was intent on developing nuclear weapons which, when happened, would make Saddam unassailable.
Poor Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Pakistan president who became the country's prime minister, had to pay the price for completing the same ambition of developing the world's first Islamic bomb. Today, the West is trying to placate Islamabad by giving it both military and economic aid. But Islamabad's suspicion that it has some ulterior motive to serve is responsible for anti-US sentiments in the country. Had India and Pakistan been on better terms they could have jointly influenced the events in West Asia and thwarted Washington's ambition to be an arbiter.
In politics or in other fields the vacuum is filled sooner than later. Al-Qaeda guiding the Taliban movement has plugged the gap. The whole region faces the danger of fundamentalism spreading and even influencing the youth as is happening in Pakistan where young boys are growing beards to confirm their Islamic identity.
This poses a threat to India in the sense that 15-16 crore Muslims in the country are beginning to draw their inspiration from what is happening to Afghanistan and northern parts of Pakistan. And since India has taken a turn ideologically to the right, as the parliamentary elections have shown, the distance between democratic India and the al-Qaeda inspired areas to its north will look unbridgeable as the days go by. Not only that, Hindu fundamentalism will become more assertive than it is today.
The idea of India, a democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian society will be endangered. Leaders and governments will mix religion with politics, something which it has successfully resisted all these years since independence, even though Partition was on the basis of religion.
That necessitates greater strengthening of secularism to stall fundamentalism, however limited it may be at this time. New Delhi's lack of initiative in West Asia to ensure better and democratic governance has weakened movements like the Arab Spring, which were against autocratic rule in most West Asian countries.
The call by Anjuman-e-Haideri for volunteers to help defend the centres of Shia Islam in Iraq may invite a similar response among the Sunnis to get together to fight against the Shia consolidation. That may come later, but in the meanwhile the Shias' assertiveness for identity will set into motion a process which may strengthen religious appeals and their leaders.
It is ironical that even the radical Hindus are volunteering themselves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Shias who say they want to form a human chain to protect the holy shrines of Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. The Shias, always feeling as if they were the underdog, should take heart from the example of such Hindus and try to influence New Delhi to take more interest in the problem than it has done so far.
New Delhi's say will help the Indians economically. There are two million of them occupying different jobs in the area. Any tension may jeopardise their future. This had happened before when Israel was resisting pressure of the US and the UK not to settle the Jews at Golden Heights or such other areas. This is the time when India can become proactive and send a special envoy to bring about rapprochement among the different leaders of both Shias and Sunnis. Otherwise, the radicals may win.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.