Every so often I hear about Hazaras in Afghanistan. I just did last week — it was mostly children who died. I remember how Khaled Hosseini so beautifully and eloquently painted a heartbreaking picture of the recent history of Afghanistan in his novel, “The Kite Runner.” To this, students at my high school analyzed questions such as, “Why did Hassan and Ammar get treated so differently?” and, “What was the basis of discrimination and subjection for Hassan and his family?”
Every so often, I hear about a blast in Pakistan and, every so often, I meet a family friend whose uncle, cousin or sibling was killed in these blasts. Just yesterday, I found out about the Gilgit massacre of Shia Muslims: initiated over a difference in Eid dates. I stared blankly at my laptop screen wide-eyed, shocked at the abhorrent events and appalled that I just now heard of them. When thinking about the intra-religious persecution of Shias, especially in my home country of Pakistan, I think about my privilege to freely practice my Shiism here. But then I wonder: Is it really freedom when yes, I openly use a sajdiga for my daily prayer, but still have to hear the classic “Why do you pray on a rock” joke? Is it really freedom when I have to feign toleration upon hearing Sunni Muslims say, “We’re allowed to marry Jews and Christians, just not Shias”?
Every so often when I hear the news, I turn to the only method of denoting solidarity in this day and age: Instagram social activism. This metric is by no means indicative of genuity, but it is telling enough in the sense that many Muslims will post about all social justice issues — only until it comes to Shias. Ironically, these are the same Muslims who retweet, “When it’s Muslims, the world is silent,” as though oppression is even a competition to begin with. For me as a Shia and my best friend as an Ahmadi, there’s another layer to that silence; when it is us, even fellow Muslims will be silent. The sense of solidarity that every so often arises among Muslims is always amazing to see, but a disquieting part of me feels like an outsider looking in, knowing that this same unity will never be granted to persecuted Muslim minorities.
Although these creeping realities often surface, being in a subgroup affords one the clarity of noting not only hypocrisy, but logical inconsistencies. When you exist at the intersection of multiple identities, it becomes almost a habit to attempt mentally checking off the boxes when evaluating the validity of activism: If advocating for women’s rights, does it only center white women? If uplifting Muslim perspectives, is it complicit in silencing Shia and Ahmadi voices? On the other hand, while minority communities focus on marginalized voices that are buried under these grander narratives, they also dismiss overarching issues such as sexism and racism that still arise within these smaller spaces. Yet at the same time, every so often I’ll hear or read, “YOU CANNOT BE PROGRESSIVE WITHOUT SUPPORTING _____.” The text is right — claiming to be a progressive can’t stop where discomfort begins. It can’t stop at what was preached to you at a Friday night khutba or who your parents told you were kafir. Muslim activism must push itself beyond the bounds of looking outwards. Sooner or later, our “one ummah,” one community, must begin looking inwards, where so frequently, we commit the same acts of abhorrent oppression against each other that we lament are inflicted onto us.
This brings me to the tragedy of Aya Hachem that occurred in the spring of 2020. In what was likely to have been a hate crime, Aya was shot in the chest and died at only 19 years old, only one year into law school. Immediately, graphics were sprawled throughout social media and donation links were shared once news of the event travelled. Then, a halt. In a series of anxiety-riddled tweets, Twitter user @humbleakh1 wrote, “I didn’t know she was a Shia… no way do I want to be in a situation where all this cause could go against me on the Day of Judgement.” The online Muslim community had found out that Aya was not merely Muslim, but Shia Muslim, and that modifier changed everything. Donations were rescinded and fundraisers were frozen — the predominantly Sunni Muslims organizing and donating wanted to rid their hands of connections to the Shia rafidis, “rejectors.” After observing this discourse, I turned to hear the thoughts of my own Sunni friends, expecting a similar sense of the seething anger I had. In response, I got either radio silence or the occasional “Yeah, that really sucks.” It felt like screaming into an abyss that would awkwardly shuffle at my volume, uncomfortable probably more at its own complicity rather than the situation at hand.
It’s an unspoken tenet that since Shias willingly and proudly differentiate themselves from the majority, we may look the part, but — in the eyes of the larger Sunni majority — fall short of the “it” factor that actually brings us into the fold. Thus, grasping for a sense of Muslim community always felt face-value because, at the end of the day, I wondered if my inclusion was despite my Shia identity, rather than regardless of it. I ran for president of the Muslim Student Association in my high school, and was later told underclassmen were discouraged from voting for me because I was Shia — a Shia on MSA board had never happened before. I’ve been given the look of “Why’d you make it awkward” when addressing a “joke” against my sect because “Eliya, it wasn’t that deep.” And I myself have internally debated if I should just turn the other cheek to prevent the discomfort that would occur if I didn’t just laugh and roll my eyes. Interestingly enough, my “otherness” persists one way or the other — in any social context, the minority group is always stigmatized and obfuscated, but the scale is what changes. Within the Muslim community, it’s the Shia identity that sets me apart, and among my peers at this university, the list of differentiators goes on.
I write this now because I feel something is different. Although in Michigan in Color for almost a year, I’ve never written a piece about my identity, or even about myself, for that matter. However, the slight cringe I’ve previously felt when writing about my experiences has been overtaken by being fed up. As I’ve become more inspired every passing day by the Muslim community coming together to advocate for Palestine, I want to take this moment to implore us to keep the same consistency when the oppression comes from within our religion, when we have to point the finger back at ourselves. As small as the scope of brotherhood and sisterhood is within Islam, within its minority sects, it gets even smaller. In reality, the oppression of Muslim minority sects in predominantly Sunni regions is a microcosm of the experience of Muslim oppression in larger contexts, yet this realization has either not dawned on the ummah, or fallen on deaf ears. It’s clear that we have the force and power to spur outward advocacy, but we must bring about introspection on the prejudices and violence committed within our own religion as well. Until then, the foundation of morality and advocacy for many Muslims remains shaky and inconsistent, teetering unsteadily as preconceived notions continue to be propelled at MSAs, and persist to be ignored at iftars.
MiC Columnist Eliya Imtiaz can be contacted at email@example.com