From 1985 to 2005 I was involved in Muslim organisational politics in Sydney, for half that period as a participant and then as a lawyer. The vast majority of these organisations were from the majority Sunni sect, and many actively excluded representatives of the minority Shia sect.
Explaining the theological, legal and political differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims requires a few volumes, and I won’t even try here beyond saying their similarities far outweigh their differences. Historically, Shia Muslims have been persecuted in various Muslim empires, such as the Ottoman Empire. In the 20th century, the Saudi monarchy saw itself as the champion of Muslim orthodoxy. The Saudi monarch was the “custodian of the two Holy Sites” in Mecca and Medina and managed the annual Haj pilgrimage. At the same time, the official religion of Saudi Arabia was the fiercely anti-Shia Wahhabi sect.
Wahhabi Islam was exported to Western Muslim communities, including Australia. Saudi oil money bankrolled mosques and schools. The Saudis had a strong alliance with Western conservatives during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and no Australian government seemed to mind when both Afghan factions had representatives actively promoting Afghan jihad in mosques (and no doubt Liberal Party branch meetings) in Australia.
One Saudi religious financier was very close to the Howard government, and Saudi interests have often been involved in distributing anti-Shia literature and insisting their recipients in Muslim communities maintain a strict anti-Shia line. No doubt this has been for both theological and political reasons — Saudi Arabia and Iran have been rivals in the Middle East since Iran’s theocratic revolution in 1979.
The result has been that established Muslim umbrella organisations have little, if any, Shia representation. For decades, what often passed as the “official” Muslim position on issues from foreign policy (on the rare occasion when Muslim opinions are even considered by Australian governments) and national security was the position of organisations managed by remnants of a pro-Saudi Sunni cabal.
Shia Muslims in Australia include more established communities, such as Indian, Pakistani, Iranian and Lebanese. But they are also more recent arrivals, including “boat people” from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are victims of Sunni extremism, such as the Hazara in Pakistan.
Shia Muslims have tended to form their own religious and cultural organisations. Many aren’t terribly fond of the political or theocratic Islam, and hence their politics on these issues may be seen as more aligned to the West. Many of my Hazara friends were quite happy to see Australia participate in the 2001 war in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime that had persecuted Hazara Muslims so viciously. And almost certainly the vast majority of Iraqis celebrating in Western Sydney over the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006 were Iraqi Shia.
It remains to be seen how Iraqi Shia Muslims in Australia would view any Australian involvement in an anti-Islamic State push. Or indeed how Iraqi Australians in general would react. Some Muslim organisations will no doubt oppose Australia’s involvement, but whether they can claim to do so on behalf of a large proportion of the 400,000 Australians who tick the “Muslim” box on their census forms remains to be seen.
No suggestion should be made that Shia Muslims are necessarily a monolith. Sunni and Shia Muslims have varying degrees of religiosity. The marginalisation of Shia views in many Sunni-dominated religious bodies is generally not replicated in cultural, artistic, media and other community-based initiatives. Sunni and Shia Muslims interact and intermarry, just as they did in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries.
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Muslim religious bodies in Australia have every right to express their views and their dissent to government policy. But until they become more ecumenical, even many Sunnis (like myself) will take what they say with a grain of salt.