Hassan Mneimneh

Let us attempt first of all to make a distinction between factionalism and sectarianism, since a certain amount of ambiguity afflicts these two terms. Both of them indicate partisanship focused basically upon a religious denomination,

except that it is more accurate to confine the use of factionalism to partisanship as regards a community, without any other considerations, while sectarianism is a partisanship of creed. Factional partisanship arises solely from affiliation to a sect, while sectarianism is the declaration of conviction on the rightness of the creed associated with the sect, and conversely the corruption of the others’ creed. In other words, factionalism is a form of identity whereas sectarianism is a commitment.

The importance of this distinction lies at the heart of any observation of the alternating partisanships in the Arab East – in particular in the Sunni- Shī’a theme – and the factors operative in transferring them from a factional framework (the intensity and consequences of which vary according to circumstances) to a sectarian framework, which is a new phenomenon at the Arab societal level as a whole.

The TV series Hasan and Husayn: bringing societal defects out into the open

The reality of Arab societies (if we may permit ourselves some generalisation) is that a factional consciousness has become a constant state, even if this sensibility vacillates from a mere sense of factional identity, to a prioritisation of it, through to an outright caricaturing and rejection of the outsider. This sensibility, however, is not generally related to a doctrinal end, but rather is something closer to dynasticism, clanism or tribalism. Similarly, it is not necessarily the decisive sensibility with respect to identity, since other considerations (regional, national, linguistic, class, authoritative, cultural and so on) may play a role in its formation. Nevertheless, sectarian partisanships in their various denominations have in the short term monopolised minorities that rely on a disputatious orientation to ring-fence their religious creed. This orientation must needs intensify, but not exclusively as a reflection of religious commitment or of religiosity. Rather, the religiosity is a feature independent, in its own respect, of both factionalism and sectarianism.

A factional consciousness has become a constant state in Arab societies

So the Muslim can be religious and committed to his faith according to one of the sects of the [Sunni] Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamā‘a, or the Shi’a (‘party’) of the Ahl al-Bayt, without his commitment being accompanied by factionalism or sectarianism. He could be sectarian in his religious commitment, or he could equally be factional, making distinctions between the Sunni and the Shi’ite in the way he views them and treats them, yet all the while without being committed to his faith at all. To a certain extent religiosity is a pre-condition for sectarianism (even if, of course, it does not require it) but it is not a pre-condition for factionalism.

What is regrettable today, to anyone following the cultural developments and transformations in the Arab region, is that factionalism which is so often decried as a bane to be surpassed, is not on its way out but rather increasingly establishing itself. Most worryingly, sectarianism in its turn, after being relegated to the margins of intellectual life, is gaining momentum and feeding parasitically off the general cultural flux and is almost consolidating. Despite the fact that Arab societies are witnessing in some of its centres a rise in religiosity, sectarian exacerbation is dependent above all on political factors, especially problems associated with the Iranian interaction with the Arab region.

A sensibility that is closer to to dynasticism, clanism or tribalism, whether in the Shi'a ...

The TV serial Hasan and Husayn which is being broadcast by a host of Arab channels is a conspicuous demonstration of the worrying transformation represented by the rise of sectarianism. This serial is the first to be produced by a group famous for its Sunni affiliation, and in which the Companions and the Ahl al-Bayt make an appearance on screen. Previously, such an appearance was implicitly or indeed openly prohibited in Arab production of the arts. The programme was preceded by an extended run of Iranian produced programmes dubbed into Arabic featuring religious figures. The accusation voiced by Sunni sectarians is that there is a Shi’ite campaign to distort the religious and historical heritage by flooding the entertainment media with serials brimming with events that have been distorted to serve their sectarian interests.

The Hasan and Husayn serial is consequently seen as a corrective step to present the alternative Sunni view. Despite the sharp tone with which it is delivered, critical evaluation of the Iranian artistic production cannot be written off entirely as propaganda, since these productions are not free of deeds and declarations that bear a sectarian stamp even if they mostly strove not to bring the differences out into the open. The Hasan and Husayn serial, however, does not baulk at bringing the differences to the fore.

Of course, to criticise this Hasan and Husayn serial is not to exonerate other serials. But this serial may be taken as an example, due to its exacerbating frankness that helps us to highlight the features that doctrinal serials resort to. Of these features there are three which are particularly worthy of highlighting: 1) the historical handling of religious personalities; 2) sectarian appeal; 3) the establishment of the essential ‘evilness’ of the Jews.

Either Islam is a laughable religion or the denouncers are utterly wrong

The first feature extracts the figure with a religious status from any historical reality, and indeed from mankind itself, so as to set him up as a being that is immune from error, one of penetrating acumen and exhibiting only the most noble of ethical qualities. If the aim of such a depiction is to pay honour, then the exaltation and polishing at this saturated level cancels out entirely the humanity of the person in question, turning him into an idol to be venerated pure and simple. The dialogue of both Hasan and Husayn in the serial is but a continuous narrative of glorification and counter-glorification. The programme is of no use at all for anyone wishing to understand the motivations of the two antagonistic parties, the hesitations and mistakes which they doubtless demonstrated, since they have both been transformed into infallible idols.

Given that the denial of common physical attributes [ta‘tīl], and the exaltation of these figures [tanzīh] above all earthly comparison, or indeed their idolisation, extends equally to the Umayyad Caliph al-Mu‘āwiya, the dispute between the Hāshimites and the Sufyānids, which exhausted the energies of the rising Islamic state, is reduced to mere accidental differences between superficially drawn figures in harmony with each other.

But the sectarian appeal of this programme is in its insistence on exonerating the Ahl al-Bayt from the beliefs of their followers’ sect, and indeed on depicting the formation of this sect as being the result of a conspiracy aimed at undermining the pillars of the nation and its unity. What is more, instead of recognizing that there are differences over questions of the Caliphate and the State (a difference which has accumulated over the centuries, and which began as a deep rift but not a decisive one among the Companions), the programme oversteps the principle of difference. This principle makes an assumption of correctness yet also holds out the possibility of error on its part, or of error on the part of the other with the possibility of their being correct. Instead, the programme presents the rival creed as not merely an error, but an outright lie stemming from ill-will, machinations and conspiracies.

... or the Sunni communities

The third feature characterising this programme, and indeed a major part of Islamic sectarian discourse today (Sunni or Shi’ite), crowns the so-called crime – the machinations of the Jews. For in common Arab usage one need only drag up the word ‘Jew’ for the accusation of evil, corruption and falsity in all its forms to be made. Neither does the programme stint at resorting to western archetypes in depicting the Jews (archetypes which the West is attempting to shed), drawing selectively and exaggerating negatively from historical periods of Jewish-Muslim ruptures, especially during the time of the Prophet.

We should in fact thank the Hasan and Husayn TV serial for highlighting these three features for us, features which are in reality descents into a sectarian loathing that is seeking to establish itself in Arab culture. At this juncture one ought to confirm that all historical figures – without exception – are human. There is an important difference between on the one hand according respect to them as demanded by their religious status and on the other hand extracting these figures entirely from the human sphere, emptying them of substance and denying that there were disagreements between them.

For these differences are part of our history, and to deny them is to deny oneself. The mindset that renders people infallible and turns some of them into idols, is the same mindset that degrades and vilifies others and turns them into devils. The problem with this mindset is that it is fixed in this mode, and unstable in its targeting. The devils today are the Jews, but they are equally the Shi’ites and the Wahhabis, the secularists and the Christians; that is, they are the ‘other’ whosoever these may be.

In fact, when it comes to the origins of Shi’ism, this sectarian mentality does no great credit for the Muslims or even Islam itself. Is it really so easy, just by bandying about a few words here and there, to vanquish the Islamic nation and shatter it to pieces, as those who make these denunciations imagine? Either Islam, then, is a laughable religion and Muslims are silly simpletons, or the denouncers are wholly and utterly wrong – and that instead there are objective reasons for the differences which provoked the formation of distinct sects, and that the investigation of these reasons should not be a reason for hostility.

The problem, of course, does not lie solely with the Hasan and Husayn TV serial but with the culture that embraces the defects which this programme is bringing out into the open, in the hope that those following the serial will see the call for criticising and counteracting them.