Planned attack on mosque a case for teaching Islamic pluralism

This past March, three Islamic State-inspired extremists plotted to attack a Shi’a Muslim mosque in Chicago. I’m a Shiite 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 a place where my two sisters, brother-in-law and 1-year-old niece live.

To many, I’m sure this event must spark plenty of confusion. Often, in response to seeing the word Shiite or Shi’a, people ask, “What’s that?” or occasionally, “Like Shia LaBeouf?” Few realize that Shiites are a minority within a minority in Islam in the United States. That’s why, when I think back to this attack, one question lingers — 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 served to remind me how little Islamic pluralism, the diverse interpretations within Islam, is discussed — and how much it needs to be.

So, what is Shiism? Shiite Muslims constitute the second largest branch of Islam. Shiites revere Ali ibn Abi Talib as the primary chosen successor to the Prophet Muhammad. In Sunnism, the largest branch of Islam, worshippers consider Ali ibn Abi Talib to be their fourth caliph, or ruler, in Islamic history. This common explanation of the differences between Shiites and Sunnis, however, fails to mention their vast similarities in how they practice Islam, from prayers to fasts. Those definitions also overshadow the multiplicity of perspectives inside and outside each branch, which simplifies the entire religion.

Still, many would argue that there simply aren’t enough Shiite Muslims in the United States to justify calls for teaching Islamic pluralism. Even so, Islamic pluralism remains critical since it extends beyond Shiites and encompasses diversity within Sunnism and other understandings of Islam.

Yet, Shiites make up 10% to 15% of the global Muslim population, according to the Pew Research Center, and according to conservative estimates, as many as 400,000 Shiites live in the U.S. In fact, we felt the impact of Shiite voices in the last presidential election, with a formidable Shiite voting bloc contributing to President Joe Biden’s victory in the swing state of Michigan. Other research projects the number of Muslims in the U.S. will double by 2050, making their political and social roles all the more consequential.

Beyond the presence and impact of Shiite Muslims, though, the need for education on Islamic pluralism also derives from an urgency to not view Islam as a monolith. In the wake of burgeoning Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes, understanding our similarities, differences and complexities enables us all as a country to fight against these divisive forces.

How can violence produced by ignorance be prevented by anything except education? A recent study from 2019 published by Oxford University Press sets out to prove the value of education in countering Islamophobia in the U.S. Teaching Islamic pluralism is one part of a larger process in which we as Americans do not merely talk over differences but embrace them. Senseless violence stems from crude 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 of not only Shiite Islam and its branches but even of the various manifestations of Sunni Islam contributes toward a pluralistic understanding of Islam and the world.

A push for articulating the diversity within Islam means confronting both Islamophobia from non-Muslims and Shiaphobia inside and outside Islam. I remember hearing stories of my Shiite cousins facing bullying from Muslims in their school. I remember rushing out of a mosque and hiding my prayer stone when my family noticed strange looks coming our way from other Muslims. Shiite Muslims face persecution across the globe. By and large, this persecution stems from false views on what Shiites believe. Those three Muslims plotting to attack a Shiite mosque were Islamic State-inspired teenagers without exposure to Shiite Islam. They didn’t know how much we shared or how to value what we differed on.

I hope that these words help foster a dialogue of tolerance and efforts through learning more about Islamic pluralism and Shiite Muslims in particular. I hope that this latest threat of violence becomes one of the last. And the only way to do that is to learn about Islamic pluralism. Reach out to Chicago-area Shiite organizations such as Sacred Roots to engage with Shiites in your community.

This year, when I spoke at the Columbia University Muslim Students Association’s Peshawar Circle in memoriam for Shiite Muslims killed in Pakistan, I said that the only way to see us is to know us.

So see us. And know us.

Mohammad Zaidi is a student studying sociology at Columbia University in New York.

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