Last March, three Islamic State-inspired extremists plotted to attack a Shia Muslim mosque in Chicago. I am a Shia Muslim and threats of violence against my religious community have occurred throughout my life. But this particular incident hit close to home because Chicago is where my two sisters live, my brother-in-law, and my one-year-old niece.
For many, I am sure this event must cause a great deal of confusion. Often, when seeing the word Shia or Shia, people ask, “What is that?” or occasionally, “Like Shia LaBeouf?” Few people realize that Shias are a minority within a minority in Islam in the United States. Therefore, when I think back to this attack, a question persists: what does it mean for Muslims to plan an attack on other Muslims? And how many would be surprised by that? This potential violence against my religious community reminded me how Islamic pluralismthe various interpretations within Islam, are discussed – and how much it must be.
So what is Shiism? Shia Muslims constitute the second largest branch of Islam. The Shiites revere Ali ibn Abi Talib as the main chosen successor of the Prophet Muhammad. In Sunnism, the largest branch of Islam, worshipers regard Ali ibn Abi Talib as their fourth caliph, or ruler, in Islamic history. This common explanation of the differences between Shiites and Sunnis, however, fails to mention their major similarities in the way they practice Islam, from prayers to fasts. These definitions also overshadow the multiplicity of perspectives inside and outside each branch, which simplifies the whole religion.
Yet many would argue that there simply aren’t enough Shia Muslims in the United States to warrant calls for teaching Islamic pluralism. Even so, Islamic pluralism remains essential as it extends beyond Shia and encompasses diversity within Sunnism and other understandings of Islam.
Yet Shia make up 10-15% of the world’s Muslim population, according to the Pew Research Center, and based on conservative estimatesno less than 400,000 Shiites live in the United States. In fact, we felt the impact of Shia voices in the last presidential election, with a formidable Shia electoral bloc that helped President Joe Biden win the swing state of Michigan. Other research predicts that the number of Muslims in the United States will double by 2050, making their political and social roles all the more consequential.
Beyond the presence and impact of Shia Muslims, however, the need for education on Islamic pluralism also stems from an urgency not to view Islam as a monolith. After growing islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimesunderstanding our similarities, differences and complexities enables us all, as a country, to fight against these divisive forces.
How can the violence produced by ignorance be prevented other than by education? A recent study from 2019 published by Oxford University Press aims to prove the value of education in the fight against Islamophobia in the United States. Senseless violence stems from gross simplifications of histories and identities. Those who view Islam only as a monolith risk viewing its adherents as the same, whether positively or negatively. A deeper understanding not only of Shia Islam and its branches, but also of the various manifestations of Sunni Islam contributes to a pluralistic understanding of Islam and the world.
Pushing to articulate diversity within Islam means confronting both the Islamophobia of non-Muslims and Shiaphobia inside and outside of Islam. I remember hearing stories of my Shia cousins being bullied by Muslims in their school. I remember rushing out of a mosque and hiding my prayer stone when my family noticed strange looks coming from other Muslims. Shia Muslims are persecuted around the world. Overall, this persecution stems from false opinions about what Shias believe. These three Muslims plotting to attack a Shia mosque were teenagers inspired by the Islamic State without having been exposed to Shia Islam. They didn’t know how much we shared or how to value what we differed on.
I hope these words will help foster a dialogue of tolerance and effort in learning more about Islamic pluralism and Shia Muslims in particular. I hope this latest threat of violence will become one of the last. And the only way to do that is to learn Islamic pluralism. Contact Shia organizations in the Chicago area such as sacred roots dialogue with the Shiites in your community.
This year, when I spoke at the Peshawar Circle of the Columbia University Muslim Student Association in memory of Shia Muslims killed in PakistanI said the only way to see us is to know us.
So come see us. And get to know us.
Mohammad Zaidi is a sociology student at Columbia University in New York.
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