THE BLOG
07/10/2014 04:24 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

A Way Forward for the Muslim World

Getty

Islam is roughly 1,400 years old, and Christianity about 600 more. About 500 years ago, Christianity begot another sect, Protestantism, which fought a bloody battle with the Catholic mainstream for hundreds of years. Their feud goes on, even if it is no longer bloodstained.

Islam had its rupture right after its founding. The Shia belief system came into being a few decades after Prophet Muhammad's death, but was disdained by the Sunnis. The difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is not much, at least to an outside observer, just as the gap between Shia and Sunni Islam does not appear that wide. But to many within, the gulfs are wide and unbridgeable, oftentimes enough to spark internecine wars.

But while the embers have cooled in Christendom, they have flared up once again in the Islamic world. The Arab Spring engendered hope that democracy will flourish in the Middle East. From Libya and Iraq to Syria and Bahrain, what has been left in its wake though is a series of countries in strife, often fueled by sectarianism.

On the one hand is the Saudi Arabia-led Sunni world that fears the resurgence of Shiite Iran. Iran was quite happy when America invaded Iraq. And why not, for America did what it itself wanted to do, that is replace the Sunni Saddam Hussein with a Shia-led government. Lo and behold, Iran got a hateful neighbor converted into a fervent ally.

The Saudis and their ilk watched the turnaround in Iraq with grave concern. Although there are only four Shia-majority countries in the world (Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain), Shias are roughly 15 percent of the world's overall Muslim population. And they are distributed widely across the Sunni world.

The situation in Syria is especially traumatic, where a small Shia sect rules over a majority of Sunnis. When the Sunnis revolted, the ruler, Bashar al-Assad clamped down ferociously. The Gulf Sunni states, as well as the United States and the Europeans, provided arms and money to the Sunni uprising. Unfortunately, among the Sunnis, there were hardcore Al-Qaeda elements as well as others even more hard-line than them such as the Islamic State.

Emboldened by the outside arms and money, IS has now announced a Sunni Caliphate comprising large tracts of Iraq and Syria. They control the oil-rich northern Iraqi region, and thus have access to enormous funds. And they have been wantonly killing Shias, which has made Iran their firm enemy. Queerly enough, both Iran and the US are on the same side to curb IS.

In many Sunni countries, Shias are persecuted for being a heretical sect. In Iraq though, there is a distinct reversal. Until IS hived off a portion of the country, the Shia regime widely discriminated against the Sunnis. This led to angst, not only within the Iraqi Sunnis, who had ruled the country for more than 50 years, but also among the wider Sunni Gulf community.

Many in the region see America's hand in the current upheaval in the Islamic world. But while the Iraq invasion of 2003 has proven to be the principal catalyst behind the turmoil being seen today, America alone should not be considered a mastermind of today's turmoil. The schism between Sunnis and Shias is simply too vast, too gory, and too inflammable to blame any outsider.

Consider Iran's nuclear ambitions. The fear in Saudi Arabia and its allied states is so great, that they are more than happy for Israel to take out the Iranian facilities. In this case, the Sunnis are willing to align with the hated Zionists against the Shias.

So scared are the Saudis of the prospect of an Iranian atomic bomb that they have already imported missile launch pads from Pakistan, and at a moment's notice will have all the nuclear wherewithal from the same country. For sure other countries like Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait will aspire for the same.

Today seems like an especially troubling moment in the Muslim world. First, they had to see Muslim lands occupied by whom they consider as crusaders, and right now the Middle East and South Asia are mired in sectarian conflict on a scale unknown in living memory. Moreover, the word Islam has become synonymous with terror, whereas the Christian West that has fought them is quick to portray itself as liberators.

Many in the other major world faiths too seem to buy into Western propaganda, and see Islam as some sort of virulent cult. How then can Muslims first stop the sectarian massacres, and then restore their image in the eyes of the world? First, they must realize that the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia dispute is past its sell-by date. It's high time for a truce between Sunnis and Shias. If Christianity could bring its sects in line, so can Islam.

Second, Muslims must realize that we live in an era of democracy. States cannot continue to exist as theocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships. Of course, one can keep postponing the democracy project, but Muslim democracies can integrate into the global village while retaining their culture.

Third, Muslim people should realize how much damage is done to their image by being painted as obscurantists and terrorists. More Muslims have died in the last decade in the wars against the West than Westerners themselves, but it's Muslims that are getting a bad name. Some sort of reformation seems to be in order. This of course could be challenging in a religion like Islam with devolved spiritual authority, but just repeating ad nauseam that Islam is a religion of peace does not seem to be rectifying how they are perceived.

All of us like to be liked, our religions to be admired, and our countries to be applauded. Who doesn't feel a tinge of guilt or a pang of anger when our identities are criticized, especially when we believe the criticism to be unfounded? The Muslim world is in crisis. It has seen crises before, and survived those. It will surely survive the current tempest, but will do so more easily with some of the prescriptions herein.