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SOME MISCONCEPTIONS - Sunni/Shia hostility; Sufis; good/bad Muslims

So with a rough overview of British Muslim groups, there are some misconceptions to clear up. The first is the aforementioned Sunni/Shia split. The caricature is that that Sunnis and Shias are at war, and hold irrevocable animosity against each other, especially in the Middle-East. This view however reduces complex geo-political wrangling into a battle over theology. Thankfully, the idea has slowly been abandoned. Both Sunnis and Shias generally recognise each other as part of the Islamic tradition, a significant fact that is all too often overlooked. In some places around the world, Sunnis and Shias co-exist peacefully and without incident. In other places, there may be distance, but a cool one. Of course, in some places the identity markers of Sunni and Shia are loaded with antagonism and political consequence, most clearly seen in current Syria and Iraq. Sunni and Shia relations in the contemporary era, much like the historic, are diverse and not always as troubled as some like to make out.

The second myth is about Sufism. Sufism is sometimes mistakenly described as a separate sect or movement within Islam that has somehow broken away from the mainstream. This isn’t the case. Rather Sufism is usually considered as one of the dimensions of Islam, and thus it is present in some denominations and not in others. Rather than being a separate movement, it is more characteristic of an approach that includes a range of practices, some uniquely Sufi, some practised and maintained by all Muslims. There are Sunni Sufis as well as Shia Sufis. Both Deobandis and Barelwis lay claim to Sufism. Only Salafism considers Sufism as an aberration, but again, there will be shared practices and understanding. Sufism is something that, in most cases, transcends denominations.

The final myth is the good Muslim/bad Muslim stereotype. Some labour under the impression that there are moderate Muslims and extreme Muslims, and that the extreme Muslims come from one particular sect of Islam. This view of Islam is all too common amongst journalists and politicians. It’s a consequence of the way in which violent extremism has been tied to ideology. As Dr Matthew Francis, researcher into radicalisation has said “there are radicals that aren’t terrorists, but you also have terrorists who are not radical”. From what we know of violent extremists in Britain, they are usually not deeply religious, and so don’t identify strongly with any denomination. If you do trace a denomination, you have to work backwards from their parents or their friends – which is often neither helpful nor telling. There are examples of individuals who have been engaged in violent extremism from Salafism as well as Sufism. It’s common for Salafism to be blamed as the “bad Islam”, with its historic links to Saudi Arabia and similarity to the textual insistence of Christian fundamentalists. But while being more religiously conservative, Salafis in Britain have been at the forefront of challenging extremism and radicalisation, working with government bodies and the counter-extremism project PREVENT to do so. Likewise, it’s easy to think of Sufism as the “peaceful”, “liberal” Islam, but this too can be mistaken. A recent assassination in Pakistan of a politician who opposed the blasphemy laws (Salman Taseer) was committed by a Sufi Muslim from the Barelwi tradition. It is simplistic to think of radicalisation and extremism as being tied to a single religious group, and this idea has to be abandoned to successfully understand British Muslims. This misconception sometimes manifests itself as conflating the conservatism of certain groups, such as Deobandis and Salafis, with violent extremism. The profile and background of most violent extremists is a lack of religious knowledge alongside involvement in crime, drugs and the universally accepted Islamic vice, alcohol – violent extremists tend not to be religious conservatives.