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Divided we stand: Intra-Muslim sectarianism and solidarity in post-Brexit Britain

Article by Dr Emanuelle Degli Esposti

July 19, 2022

Divided we stand: Intra-Muslim sectarianism and solidarity in post-Brexit Britain

On 9th June 2022, an obscure historical epic about the early years of Islam made headlines when leading UK film chain Cineworld made the decision to cancel all screenings in the wake of protests by Muslim groups.[1] The Lady of Heaven purports to tell the “untold story” of Lady Fatima, daughter to the Prophet Muhammed and wife of Ali, the man Shi’a Muslims (not Sunnis) believe was appointed as the first Islamic caliph. Critics say the film, which was written and produced in Britain by controversial Shi’a cleric Sheikh Yasser al-Habib, peddles an “extreme… sectarian narrative” and that it “sets out to damage relations and social cohesion between the various Muslim denominations”.[2] A petition calling for the film to be banned, started by Muslim media platform 5Pillars, had reached over 130,000 signatures as of 14th June.[3] 5Pillars editor, Roshan Muhammed Salih, commented on BBC Newsnight that he was concerned the film “could provoke sectarian violence on the streets of Britain.”[4]


This is not the first time concerns have been expressed over the potential for intra-Muslim sectarianism in Britain. Although historically inter-communal relations between British Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have mostly been immune from sectarian tensions,[5] since at least the early 2000s – and most notably since the 2003 invasion of Iraq – sectarian conflicts elsewhere in the Muslim world have increasingly found expression on British soil.[6] With the fracturing of the 2011 Arab Spring protests along sectarian lines, coupled with the 2014 rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Muslim communities in Britain have been drawn into ongoing geopolitical and identarian debates that have served to reinforce sect-based divisions and stereotypes.[7] Though, as Elvire Corboz cautions in the Introduction to a forthcoming Special Issue on Sunni-Shi’a relations in Europe, “stereotypes do not however translate automatically into antagonistic action by the individuals holding them.”[8] Nevertheless, there is a growing community and academic consensus that intra-Muslim sectarianism does indeed pose a threat in contemporary Britain, and that the entrenchment of communal identity politics along sectarian lines will likely be exacerbated by the domestic context post-Brexit.


In many ways, the furore surrounding The Lady of Heaven offers a microcosm of Sunni-Shi’a relations in contemporary Britain; bitter disagreement and division, as well as the potential for solidarity and mutual understanding. In what follows, I trace a brief outline of some of the contributing factors leading to the sectarianisation of Muslim identity in Britain today, before offering a word of caution, and also – potentially – a ray of hope for the future.


Contextualising Sunni and Shi’a Islam in Britain: Points of convergence, points of difference

Muslims in Britain currently make up around five per cent of the UK population;[9] although there are no data regarding the different denominations within Islam, estimates suggest that Shi’a Muslims comprise between ten and 15 per cent of the overall Muslim population, while other minority denominations represent even smaller numbers.[10] As well as the doctrinal and theological differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the UK (which are not the focus of this report, and about which I have written extensively elsewhere), there are demographic and cultural differences between the two communities, with Sunni Muslims predominately coming from South Asia (most notably Pakistan and Bangladesh), while Shi’a Muslims represent a more diverse community coming from countries including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, South Asia, and East African Indians (known as Khoja).[11] For this reason, there are multiple converging factors that contribute to different community identities for both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Britain, and the potential for sectarian antagonism is not limited to religious disagreement but bound up with a wider array of factors including socioeconomic status, political differences, cultural solidarity, and differing migration histories.[12]


Despite such differences, however, both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Britain share the experience of being part of a minority religious community within the larger British (Christian) majoritarian context in which Islam and Muslims are often cast as other and threatening. Since 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings, the British Government has engaged in a number of counter-terrorism initiatives and policies to combat the perceived threat of home-grown Islamist radicalism that have effectively branded Muslims in Britain as a “suspect community”.[13] These attempts to police the Muslim population through a securitised agenda, coupled with the ethnonormative logic of British multiculturalism, has arguably led to the emergence of a religiously-inflected Muslim political agency in Britain, whereby Muslims identify first and foremost through their religious affiliation.[14] Recent studies of Muslim political identity in the British context have highlighted the trend towards the racialisation of Islam as a primary marker of identity, in which the term “Muslim” has come to function “effectively as an ethno-religious category”.[15] This trend has arguably been exacerbated as a result of the Islamophobic political discourse surrounding Britain’s exit from the EU (‘Brexit’), with cases of hate crime against Muslims noted to have risen in the immediate period following the referendum vote in 2016.[16]


‘Good’ Muslim, ‘bad’ Muslim: Sectarianism and positive identity formation

Within this context, it is possible to see how historically differences within and between Muslim groups in Britain were less politically and socially salient than the shared experience of being part of a marginalised and “suspect” community in relation to wider British society. However, recent scholarship suggests that some Muslim groups have attempted to distance themselves from negative public perceptions of Islam by constructing an alternative Muslim identity within the British context. In particular, the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” dichotomy that has been so potent in contemporary British public and policy discourses constitutes an additional challenge, and has had particular implications for intra-Muslim relations.[17] The pressure on Muslims in Britain to “speak up” against violent extremism has led them to adopt and even reify the binary portrayal of Islam as good/bad, while also using it to categorise themselves and other co-religionists.[18] For example, some Shi’a groups have made use of this public discourse to make claims regarding the normative nature of Sunni (bad) and Shi’a (good) interpretations of Islam (such as claiming that “Shi’a Muslims are the biggest victims of terrorism” in reference to 2014 ISIS invasion of Iraq).[19] While there is evidence to suggest that attempts to construct a positive and emancipatory British Shi’a identity as qualitatively and normatively distinct from the Sunni mainstream are not ideologically sectarian, there nevertheless remains an extent to which these identity constructions harbour the potential to lead to unconscious forms of sectarian bias that could impact intra-Muslim relations.[20]


The recent controversy surrounding The Lady of Heaven perfectly illustrates how theological, political, and normative claims have become blurred in certain iterations of Shi’a identity in the British context. The film represents a very specific and ideologically-charged version of early Islamic history that pits Sunni and Shi’a interpretations against each other. While the film and its backers certainly do not represent the majority of Shi’a Muslim community in Britain, and indeed have been widely condemned by leading Shi’a clerics and community figures, the film’s discursive juxtapositioning of modern-day atrocities committed by ISIS and the suffering of Shi’a Muslims throughout history is a familiar trope in much contemporary Shi’a identity discourse, albeit in a much more extreme and politically-charged form.[21] Against the backdrop of ongoing sectarian (and especially anti-Shi’a) violence in the Middle East and wider Islamic world, Shi’a Muslims in Britain often feel sidelined or marginalised by the Sunni majority, and more needs to be done to bring these communities together to combat perceived grievances and to promote cross-denominational understanding in Britain.


Beyond sectarianism? Rethinking intra-Muslim solidarity and cohesion in contemporary Britain

Finally, I would argue that the recent protests against The Lady of Heaven, as well as revealing ideological and sectarian fault-lines within the British Muslim community, also represent the potential for greater intra-Muslim cohesion and understanding. The fact that Muslim organisations from both Sunni and Shi’a denominations issued statements unilaterally condemning the film, and that criticism of the film has not devolved into ideological disagreement, suggests that Muslims from both sects are willing to work together against a perceived common enemy (in this case, a radical interpretation of Islam that does a disservice to Sunni and Shi’a traditions alike). Indeed, there are numerous examples of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims working together in this way, and discourses promoting unity and cohesion between sects have a robust historical lineage in both traditions.[22] In contemporary Britain, it is more often than not the wider societal context that determines whether or not such unity discourses come to the fore, or are displaced in favour of sect-based identity building.


In a recent co-authored paper investigating grassroots initiatives by Shi’a-led organisations to promote an inclusive and cross-sectarian vision of British Islam, Elvire Corboz and I concluded that “it is impossible to understand Sunni-Shi‘a relations in Britain without taking into consideration the wider social and political context that informs relations between Muslim and non-Muslim society.”[23] As outlined above, the content and manifestation of sectarian identities in Britain is not merely a product of doctrinal and ideological differences between different confessional denominations, but a result of multiple converging factors including international geopolitics, transnational Islamic networks, and the securitisation and marginalisation of Islam in Britain. In this sense, predictions of sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Britain that overlook the wider societal dynamics contributing to sect-based identity formation will fail to capture the complexities of inter, and intra-communal relations. On the other hand, ongoing public suspicion towards Islam and the entrenchment of Islamophobia in British society has the potential to calcify and incite sectarian differences, rather than placate them. Whether or not fears of sectarian violence on British soil come to fruition thus ultimately depends as much on British society itself as on the diverse Muslim communities who form a part of it.


Dr Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a current Research and Outreach Associate at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, where she specialises in the nexus between minority Islam and European secularism. She holds a PhD and MSc from SOAS, University of London, and a BA from Oxford University. Dr Degli Esposti’s current research examines the public forms of activism undertaken by Shi’a Muslims in Europe, and seeks to illuminate the ongoing encounter between Islam and Europe, as well as the evolving dynamics within and between different Islamic sects. Her work has appeared in journals including Politics, Religion, State & Society, Religions, and Contemporary Islam, and she is currently working on a monograph entitled Not That Kind of Muslim: Sectarian Belongings and the Making of British Shi’ism (forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press).


[1] BBC, Cineworld cancels The Lady of Heaven film screenings after protests, June 2022,

[2] 5 Pillars, Lady of Heaven: pure, unadulterated sectarian filth, December 2021,; Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission, Statement: Divisive film intends to fuel tensions between Muslims, June 2022,

[3], Remove the lady of Heaven from UK cinemas,

[4] 5 Pillars, BBC Newsnight Debate: Roshan Salih vs Malik Shilbak on ‘Lady of Heaven’, June 2022,

[5] Clarkson, Anya. 2013. Addressing Sectarianism and Promoting Cohesion in the British Muslim Community: A Preliminary Report. London: Centre for Academic Shi‘a Studies.

[6] Caroline Wyatt, Fears over Deepening Sunni-Shia Divide in UK, BBC, March 2015,

[7] Degli Esposti, Emanuelle and Scott-Baumann, Alison. Fighting for ‘Justice’, Engaging the Other: Shi’a Muslim Activism on the British University Campus. Religions 10, no. 3, (2019): 1–17,; Ali, Zahra. Being a Young British Iraqi Shii in London: Exploring Diasporic Cultural and Religious Identities between Britain and Iraq. Contemporary Islam, (2019),; Scharbrodt, Oliver, Gholami, Reza and Abid, Sufyan. Shi’i Muslims in Britain: Local and Transnational Dynamics. Contemporary Islam, (2017); Degli Esposti, Emanuelle. Fragmented Realities: The ‘Sectarianisation’ of Space among Iraqi Shias in London. Contemporary Islam 13, no. 3, (2019): 259–85,; Degli Esposti, Emanuelle. 2019. Living Najaf in London: Diaspora, Identity, and the Sectarianisation of the Iraqi-Shi’a Subject, in Shi’a Minorities in the Contemporary World, (ed.) Oliver Scharbrodt and Yafa Shanneik. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press; Yousuf, Shereen. Right to Offense, Right to Shiaphobia: A Rhetorical Analysis of Yasir Qadhi’s Framings of Offense. Journal of Shia Islamic Studies 9, no. 1, (2016): 39–62.

[8] Corboz, Elvire. The Dynamics of Sunni-Shi’a Relations in Europe: Introduction, Journal of Muslims in Europe (forthcoming).

[9] Office for National Statistics, Muslim population in the UK, August 2018,

[10] Pew Research Centre, Estimated Percentage Range of Shia by Country, Mapping the Global Muslim Population, October 2009,; For this reason, this report will focus on inter-communal relations between the two main branches of Islam, Sunnism and Shi’ism, while acknowledging that this doesn’t necessarily capture the full diversity of intra-Muslim relations in Britain.

[11] Degli Esposti, Emanuelle. The Aesthetics of Ritual – Contested Identities and Conflicting Performances in the Iraqi Shi’a Diaspora: Ritual, Performance and Identity Change. Politics 38, no. 1, (2018): 68–83,; Degli Esposti, Emanuelle. Sectarianising the Subject: Discourse, Identity, and the Self in the Transnational ‘Shi’a Rights’ Movement, n.d., 1–52; Degli Esposti and Scott-Baumann, Fighting for ‘Justice’, Engaging the Other: Shi’a Muslim Activism on the British University Campus; Degli Esposti, Emanuelle. Finding a ‘Shi’a Voice’ in Europe: Minority Representation and the Unsettling of Secular Humanitarianism in the Discourse of ‘Shi’a Rights’. Religion, State & Society, n.d.; Degli Esposti, Fragmented Realities: The ‘Sectarianisation’ of Space among Iraqi Shias in London; Degli Esposti, Living Najaf in London: Diaspora, Identity, and the Sectarianisation of the Iraqi-Shi’a Subject.

[12] Degli Esposti and Scott-Baumann, Fighting for ‘Justice’, Engaging the Other: Shi’a Muslim Activism on the British University Campus; Scharbrodt, Gholami, and Abid, Shi’i Muslims in Britain: Local and Transnational Dynamics.

[13] Awan, Imran, ‘I Am a Muslim Not an Extremist’: How the Prevent Strategy Has Constructed a ‘Suspect’ Community. Politics and Policy 40, no. 6, (2012): 1158–85,; Yahya Birt, Safeguarding Muslim Children from Daesh and Prevent, The Muslim News, August 2015; Pantazis, Christina and Pemberton, Simon. From the ‘Old’ to the ‘New’ Suspect Community: Examining the Impacts of Recent UK Counter-Terrorist Legislation. The British Journal of Criminology 49, no. 5, (2009): 646–66; Scott-Baumann, Alison. Ideology, Utopia and Islam on Campus: How to Free Speech a Little from Its Own Terrors. Social Justice 12, no. 2, (2017): 159–76,; Thomas, Paul. Failed and Friendless – the UK’s ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ Programme. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations 12, no. 3, (2010): 442–58,

[14] The term ‘ethnonormativity’, a reformulation of the notion of heteronormativity taken from the literature on gender studies and critical feminism (most notably the work of Judith Butler), is used here to refer to “a deeply embedded set of beliefs about essential sameness and difference that naturalise the notion of ‘ethnicity’ and provide it with the status of a proper (ontological) object” (Aly 2015: 199). Meer, Nasar. 2010. Citizenship, Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan; Modood, Tariq. Muslims and the Politics of Difference. Muslims in Britain: Race, Place and Identities, (2009): 193–209; Morris, Carl. Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, Activism and Equality in Britain. Religion, State & Society 47, no. 3, (2019): 360–61,; Al-Azmeh, Aziz and Fokas, Effie. 2007. Islam in Europe: Diversity, Identity and Influence (eds.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,; Morris, Carl. The Rise of a Muslim Middle Class in Britain: Ethnicity, Music and the Performance of Muslimness. Ethnicities 20, no. 3, (2020): 628–48,; Cesari, Jocelyne. Muslim Identities in Europe: The Snare of Exceptionalism. Islam in Europe: Diversity, Identity and Influence, (2007): 49–67.

[15] Bloul, Rachel A. D. Anti-Discrimination Laws, Islamophobia, and Ethnicization of Muslim Identities in Europe and Australia. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 28, no. 1, (2008): 7.

[16] Awan, Imran and Zempi, Irene. ‘You All Look the Same’: Non-Muslim Men Who Suffer Islamophobic Hate Crime in the Post-Brexit Era. European Journal of Criminology 17, no. 5, (2020): 585–602; Miller, Carl et al.. From Brussels to Brexit: Islamophobia, Xenophobia, Racism and Reports of Hateful Incidents on Twitter. Demos, (2016); Bilgrami, Akeel. Reflections on Three Populisms, 44, no. 4, (2018): 453–62,; Jon Burnett, Racial Violence and the Brexit State, Institute of Race Relations, 2016,

[17] Mamdani, Mafmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism. American Anthropologist 105, no. 2, (2003): 475–475,

[18] Aslan Yildiz, Ali and Verkuyten, Maykel. Inclusive Victimhood: Social Identity and the Politicization of Collective Trauma Among Turkey’s Alevis in Western Europe. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 17, no. 3, (2011): 243–69,; Corboz, Elvire. Shi‘i Discourses on Islamic Unity in the UK: Reconfiguring Majority-Minority Relations within Islam,Presentation at the panel ‘Intra- and Inter-Sect Dynamics and the Study of Sunni-Shi‘i Relations’. BRISMES Conference 2018, King’s College London, London UK. June 26 2018.

[19] Degli Esposti and Scott-Baumann, Fighting for ‘Justice’, Engaging the Other: Shi’a Muslim Activism on the British University Campus; Degli Esposti, Finding a ‘Shi’a Voice’ in Europe: Minority Representation and the Unsettling of Secular Humanitarianism in the Discourse of ‘Shi’a Rights.’

[20] Degli Esposti, Emanuelle. Forthcoming. ‘Not That Kind of Muslim’: Sectarian Belongings and the Making of British Shi’ism’. Chicago, US: Chicago University Press.

[21] Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission, Statement: Divisive film intends to fuel tensions between Muslims, June 2022,

[22] Corboz, A Shi‘i Discourse on Islamic Unity in the United Kingdom: Reconfiguring Majority-Minority Relations within Islam.

[23] Degli Esposti, Emanuelle and Corboz, Elvire. ‘From the Margins to the Centre: Shi‘a-led grassroots organisations and inclusive Muslim identity in Britain.’ Journal of Muslims in Europe, (forthcoming).

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