Istafa Naqvi of Dix Hills was stunned to see the small knot of angry young men waving placards as he and several thousand fellow Shia Muslims walked along Park Avenue in midtown last month in their annual religious procession.
“Enemies of Islam!” one man shouted at the group. “Kaffir,” yelled another, using the Arabic word for infidel.
Many of the Shia flinched as they got close enough to read the signs carried by members of a fringe Sunni group called The Islamic Thinkers Society. “Shia are NOT Muslims!” said one. “Shia is made of superstitious elements of Judaism,” declared another. Police moved in to break up a shoving match.
“We never thought it could happen in New York,” said Naqvi, president of a Shah E Najaf Islamic Center in Brentwood. “In other countries, yes. But not here. We’ve had this procession for 20 years without any problems. It is very worrying.”
For Naqvi, as for many in New York’s estimated 35,000- member Shia community, the Feb. 5 incident began a month of frightening jolts. Many saw the confrontation as a potentially ominous harbinger — a signal that the hatred stoking Shia-Sunni fratricide in Iraq and Pakistan could spread to America. Two weeks later, the golden-domed al-Askari Mosque in Iraq, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, was bombed in an act of terrorism that stunned the worldwide Shia community and that threatens to push Iraq into civil war.
“Sectarian tension is on the rise everywhere — even here in America, because groups like these are supported by some very wealthy benefactors,” said Syed Meesam Razvi of Richmond Hill, Queens, who said he cried when he told his family about the mosque bombing. “This was a marginal group [at the Feb. 5 procession], but my concern is that it might become larger. Because I’ve seen how they grew in Pakistan.”
What is different in this country, however, is the growing determination by mainstream Shia and Sunni groups to make common cause in the fight against extremism. Razvi of the Al Khoie Foundation in Jamaica, the largest Shia organization in the world, said his group has conveyed its concerns not only to law enforcement officials, but to its counterparts in the Sunni community in New York.
“We’re very sensitive about Shia concerns at this point,” said Wissam Nasr, executive director of the New York office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Sunni-dominated Muslim civil rights group. “We do see the strife that is taking place abroad, and we’re dead set against having that happen here.”
The schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims began almost 1,400 years ago in a bitter dispute over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. Although the sects share the same basic articles of Islamic faith, their differences have been fanned by political and economic feuds as much as by theology.
As a result, the tension between members of the two sects, even here in the U.S., is sometimes palpable, say many members of the Shia community. As a minority within a minority with a long history of oppression, many see their targeting, even by a fringe group, as frightening — specially against the backdrop of growing sectarian hatreds overseas.
“If you want to know where the Muslim community is headed, the Shias are the canary in the coal mine,” said Nazish Agha, a young Manhattan lawyer who helped found a national Shia group. “Just assume that if these groups hate Shias, then they’re also anti-Christian, anti-Semite and anti-Hindu as well.”
While many Shia and Sunnis interact socially, they often worship in separate mosques. By and large, the national Muslim organizations are dominated by Sunnis with scant Shia representation. And while dialogue between the two sects has grown significantly since the Sept. 11 attacks, it is still informal.
“At least the Islamic Thinkers Society are out in the open about their views,” said Shaukat Jafri of Westchester, a public health administrator who is a leading Shia organizer. “That’s a blessing to the Shia because you want to know your enemy. Shia are very aware of the hidden enemy — and it’s called the Wahhabi and Salafi. To say there’s no problem and no issue, we’d be living in fool’s paradise.”
But not everyone in the Shia community agrees about the extent of such divisions. “The majority of American Muslims are immigrants,” said one Shia lawyer in Manhattan who asked not to be named. “Many are part of a professional class. It’s not that prejudice doesn’t exist. But the reality of making a life and trying to be part of the American democracy are the issues.”
For their part, some Sunnis acknowledge privately that the Shia have been demonized by the Wahhabis, an austere sect that originated in Saudi Arabia, and which has spread its ideas as a result of Saudi funding of mosques and madrassas. But leaders of mainstream American Sunni organizations flatly deny any discrimination.
“The views expressed by the Islamic Thinkers Society don’t enjoy the support of the mainstream Sunni Muslim community, and especially not in New York,” said Nasr, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I would be surprised if they have more than a few dozen members.”
Acknowledging Shias’ complaint that they have scant representation in major groups, he noted that the council recently extended its first invitation to a Shia to join its advisory board.
His group also co-sponsored a rally with Shia groups after the attack on the al-Asksari Mosque.
Many members of both sects say they see hope for the future.
“My experience is that we are a little more of a melting pot in America,” said Imam Feisal Rauf, a Sunni whose TriBeCa mosque attracts many Shias. “The younger generation feels the divide much less than their parents do. So while there is a carry-through from the old country, the relationships are softening. I myself have conducted weddings between Shias and Sunnis.”
Shiva and Tarek were one of those “mixed” weddings. She is an American-born Shia Muslim of Iranian heritage. He is an American-born Sunni Muslim of Palestinian heritage.
“Our story is one which emphasizes not the difference between our religious sects, but the commonality we have — both in our Muslim faith and in the very similar experiences we had growing up, as children of first-generation Muslim immigrants,” said Tarek, who along with his wife, asked to be identified by his first name only.
Still, many believe that prejudice persists. Novelist and organizer Samina Ali said she took an informal poll last year among an elite group of young, mostly Sunni Muslims, many of whom had graduated from the best universities in America.
What, she asked them, was the first word they thought of when she said “Shia.”
“Extremist,” answered one. “Barbaric,” said another. “Uncivilized,” said a third.
Ali called them on what she deemed unconscious stereotyping.
“Here we are, a group of young Muslim progressives complaining about how the larger American community views us as Muslims,” she said. “Yet we used those same exact terms against a minority within the Muslim community.”