Shiaphobic Hate Crime: an invisible yet growing form of sectarian hate

by Michael Dhanoya and Dr Chris Allen, University of Leicester

In recent months, a number of events have catalysed a rise in Shiaphobia.  Unlike Islamophobia which typically refers to religiously-motivated hate perpetrated by non-Muslims against Muslims, Shiaphobia may be loosely defined as religiously-motivated hate perpetrated by Sunni Muslims against Shi’a Muslims. Here in the UK, this began with the protests that led to the subsequent cancellation of screenings of the film, “The Lady of Heaven: The Untold Story”. A film that infers a resonance between the violence of ISIS today with historical events surrounding the Sunni-Shi’a schism, manifestations and expressions of Shipahobia ensued in both the online and offline spaces. A similar pattern has also been evident in the wake of the worldwide festival of Ashura – a festival marked by all Muslims but which is a major religious commemoration for Shi’a Muslims – and the shooting of Shi’a Muslims by a Sunni Muslim in Albuquerque in the US.

Similar to protests seen following the 1989 publication of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” – more later – and the 2012 screenings of the film “The Innocence of Muslims”, protestors have accused the film of being ‘blasphemous’. While the protests have either been dismissed as irrelevant or used to fuel the so-called ‘culture war’, both responses are as misleading as they are misunderstood. That is because they deflect attention away from the growing issue of sectarian hate within Britain’s Muslim communities that has to date, remained almost entirely invisible.

The Sectarian Divide

The Sunni-Shi’a schism can be traced back to the time of the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. Simply put, it was about who should succeed the Prophet as ruler of the Arabian Peninsula, much of which was under Muslim control at the time. Some believe that prior to his death, the Prophet appointed Ali ibn Abi Talib; a man who was both his cousin and (having married Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima) his son-in-law. Others believe Muhammad merely asked his companions (as-sahaba) to pay reverence and honour to Ali. For them, the newly established Muslim community should decide the successor. This latter group emerged victorious. Muhammad was succeeded in political leadership by Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭab and Uthman ibn Affan in turn, before Ali finally took his place as ruler. The Muslims who accepted the leadership of all four men after Muhammad emerged into the Islamic sect known as the “the people of the Sunnah (the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muḥammad) and the community”, commonly referred to as the Sunni Muslims. The Muslims that believed in the legitimacy of Ali’s leadership alone became known as the “partisans of Ali”, commonly referred to as the Shi’a Muslims.

Written by Yasser Al-Habib – a Kuwaiti Shi’a cleric living in the UK – the film centres on Laith, a young boy who lost his mother amid the invasion of Iraq by ISIS (represented as a Sunni militant group). Inspired by the life of “the Lady of Heaven” Fatima, the film alternates between the contemporary and the historical. The latter focusing on the leadership conflict following the Prophet’s death, the film shows the aforementioned Umar (who like Ali and Abu Bakr was a companion of Muhammad) burning and breaking into Fatimah and Ali’s house, before physically assaulting her. Known as the ‘Attack on the house of Fatimah’, these scenes are interspersed with those depicting ISIS persecuting Shi’a Muslims. Accordingly, the film positions Fatimah as the first victim of Sunni-inspired terrorism. Further, along with visually depicting the Prophet Muhammad (a prohibited act in Islam) so too does the film use black actors to depict personalities revered in Sunni Islam. A long established tradition in Arab cinema (The outrageous racism that ‘graced’ Arab TV screens in Ramadan | Racism | Al Jazeera), the use of black actors for certain roles is used to enable the audience to conclude who in the context of the film at least the ‘bad guys’ are.

Sunni Muslims mark the day of Ashura by fasting in gratitude for God’s act of parting the Red Sea, thereby delivering Moses (the founder of Judaism and a prophet in Islam) and the Israelites from Pharaonic persecution. Conversely, Shi’a Muslims view Ashura as the day on which Husayn (Ali’s son) was martyred in Karbala in 680 A.D. Upon Ali’s assassination, the leadership passed to his long-term political rival, Muawiya. Before his death, Muawiya appointed his son Yazid as his successor, causing Husayn to begin travelling to Kufa to lead a revolt against Yazid’s rule. However, Husayn’s caravan was intercepted by Yazid’s army in Karbala and along with many of his relatives, Husayn was killed. Before this incident, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims merely differed on the issue of leadership. However, Husayn’s death stimulated the Shi’a to develop into an Islamic sect with a distinct theology and set of religious practices.

Finally, August 2022 saw Sunni Muslim Muhammed Syed arrested for the shooting and murder of four Shi’a Muslim men in Albuquerque (United States), with police currently investigating whether Syed was motivated by the harbouring of sectarian sentiments (Muslim killings in Albuquerque: Why suspect identity caused more pain (usatoday.com)).

A Shiaphobic Backlash

Research highlights that since 9/11, terror attacks perpetrated by Muslims (such as the 2015 Paris attacks) and against Muslims (such as the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings) have acted as ‘trigger events’, that instigate a spike in Islamophobic hate crimes perpetrated against ordinary Muslims. Ongoing research being undertaken by the authors with Britain’s Shi’a communities has shown that the film, the Ashura commemorations and the Albuquerque shootings have all served as ‘trigger events’, albeit instigating a spike in Shiaphobic as opposed to Islamophobic hate. Our research has shown that this has not only occurred across various social media platforms (i.e. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) but so too in the streets, in the workplace, in and around transport hubs and in shopping centres.

From our analyses, the content of the verbal abuse in both spaces is strikingly similar. Along with receiving death threats, victims have been referred to as a ‘Kafir’ (disbeliever), ‘Zindiq’ (heretic) or ‘Murtad’ (apostate). Whilst such slurs apply equally to various religious sectarian cases, victims stress how these insults have been specific to their Shi’a identity. Indeed, many Shiaphobic tweets refer to victims as ‘Rafidah’ (rejectors), on the basis that (as aforementioned) the Shi’a reject the rule of the first three leaders of the Muslim community after Muhammad’s death. Whilst theologically and historically accurate, this term is now colloquially used in a prerogative manner to indirectly refer to the Shi’a as disbelievers. Some have also experienced racism, not least by being called ‘Majus’. A historical term referring to Zoroastrians, since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, it has been used in increasingly insulting ways to refer to Iran’s pre-Islamic history and to implicitly question the sincerity of Iranian citizens in their adherence to Islam. Indeed Saddam Hussein – then President of Iraq – used the term in an official capacity to denigrate Iranians. Today, Majus is a racial insult akin to the ‘N’ or ‘P’ words.

Offline, few of those engaged have reported their experience of hate to the police or other authorities, despite having been targeted for both verbal and physical abuse, the latter including being pushed, spat on, punched, kicked and slapped. Some also claim that Shi’a mosques and community centres in the city of Birmingham have been vandalised. Shi’a women in particular have suffered a surge in physical abuse of a sexual nature. This has included unwanted sexual advances, including touching and groping. Moreover, the verbal abuse experienced by Shi’a women has also been of a sexual nature, with some being called ‘slag’, or ‘c**t’. However, the verbal abuse has predominantly incorporated referenced to ‘nikah al-mut’ah’ (pleasure marriage). This refers to the Twelver Shi’a practice that allows a man and woman to marry for a specified period of time, thereby enabling them to have sexual relations with each other. A practice that is prohibited among other Shi’a sects and Sunni Islam too, it has often been criticised as a form of ‘religious prostitution’. Such references clearly intend to insult Shi’a women.

The Invisibility of Shiaphobia

In light of the recent stabbing of Salman Rushdie and the mainstream media’s reporting of the perpetrator being “sympathetic to Shia extremism”, there is the potential for this too to also catalyse a rise in Shiaphobia. That said, two concerns immediately emerge. The first relates to the invisibility of hate targeting Shi’a Muslims in the public and political spaces. One reason for this invisibility stems from the fact that the vast majority of British Muslims adhere to Sunni Islam. This affords Sunnis hegemonic power over Islamic representation in Britain, enabling them to control the narrative about who British Muslims are and what issues are important to them. Rather than affording Shiaphobia the importance it duly deserves, the issue is dismissed as mere sectarianism of which Sunni and Shi’a Muslims engage in equally. One way forward is for Shi’a Muslims to have their own space to speak for themselves. Doing so would at least ensure Shiaphobia can be spoken about.

The second relates to the invisibility of Shiaphobia in the reporting and recording of hate crimes. This should not be an issue given the Crime Prosecution Service defines a religious hate crime as “any incident/crime which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a person’s religion or perceived religion”. Furthermore, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 defines a religious group as “a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief” with said definition covering adherence to a sect of a particular religion. In spite of this, any incidents of Shiaphobia reported to the police are likely to be recorded as Islamophobia thereby rendering it invisible in official hate crime statistics, which begs the question whether an extra category needs to be added to differentiate sectarian hate crime from religious per se. Without it, Shiaphobia is more likely to remain hidden.

Michael Dhanoya, Doctoral research in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester

Dr Chris Allen, Associate Professor in the School of Criminology, University of Leicester

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