"Sectarianism" has fast become the buzz word of the 21st century Middle East politics; rolled out and dusted off every time a journalist or political analyst wants to make a pseudo-intellectual statement about intercommunal violence in the region. Much like Samuel Huntingdon's much-denounced "clash of civilisations" thesis, the use of sectarianism as an explanatory mechanism for politico-religious turmoil in the Arab world and wider Middle East posits some form of deeper, primordial drive that turns communities against each other and former friends and neighbours into enemies.
Now, a new film project produced and directed by British-Iraqi filmmaker Hoda Yahya Elsoudani seeks to unravel some of the myths surrounding sectarianism; and in so doing paint a brighter future for Muslim communities around the world.
"Nobody likes conflict," Elsoudani tells me over a cup of coffee in a north London café, "I think we should all be able to live together in peace despite our differences; we have so much in common."
Entitled Why Can't I Be A Sushi? – a playful mashup of the words Sunni and Shia – the film charts the absurdity and intolerance of sectarianism through the eyes of two young sisters attempting to learn about the history and contemporary reality of Islam. The girls meet with Muslims leaders and community members from a variety of different sects, asking questions and confronting prejudice. In one particularly moving scene, the girls attend Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park to talk to people about sectarianism and communal hatred. By portraying such a sensitive topic through the eyes of children, Elsoudani says, she was able to simplify the issue to a degree that allows it to be accessible to people.
"Children are innocent, people will talk to them," she says. "The word combination of Sunni and Shia put together creatively leads to the word Sushi, which is meant to be a playful word created to show the innocence of the girls as their aim is to try and unite Muslims. So what they are truly trying to say is "Why can't we just be a Muslim?"; to eliminate the existing conflicts by focusing on the similarities between people."
Part of the inspiration for the film was Elsoudani's own growing frustration with the level of intolerance and misunderstanding encountered at the every day level:
"I've been wanting to do this film for a long, long time. Growing up I met a lot of people who had very extremist views and this film is my way of countering that… This film tackles a big contemporary issue, which is: Why can't people just get on?"
Despite the sensitivity of the issue, however, Elsoudani is not afraid of taking a stand, and says that the goal of the film is to break down barriers between people and make them realise that it doesn't have to be one way or the other but that there can be a middle ground.
"I want people to know that I'm not taking sides. My main aim is to be just. I was raised to be neither Sunni nor Shia but just Muslim. I think you can be a Muslim by being a good person and tackling social issues; and that's what I intend to do with this film… My whole motive is to reveal the injustices, correct misconceptions and take people back to their roots. So many people have forgotten what Islam is. Islam is action, not words."
As an independent filmmaker (she also runs her own recently-established production company, Spoken Iris Films), Elsoudani has faced numerous obstacles throughout the planning and filming process, not the least of which being lack of adequate funding. Fortunately, she was able to raise the necessary funds through Kickstarter. With the help of such funding, Elsoudani intends to produce a feature length film that will hopefully be showcased in independent screenings and film awards following its release later this year.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.