Sectarian tension: from extremists to moderates

Sectarian tension: from extremists to moderates



Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a key Sunni thinker and religious commentator, has accused Iran of being behind a new wave of Shi’i ‘expansion’ that threatens the existence of Sunni Islam in Egypt and other Muslim countries1. His comments aroused wide controversy for their similarity to those posted on extreme Salafist websites, and has provoked sharp responses from both Sunnis and Shi’i in respect both of its content – and the motive for the change in tone. Qaradawi, until now has been known for espousing the points of commonality, rather than differences, between Sunnis and Shi’i.


In the interview, al-Qaradawi affirmed that they [the Shi’i] are true Muslims; but noted however that they had also embedded new ideas into Islam (an accusation usually associated with heresy). He warned that the Shi’i were infiltrating Sunni society; adding the Shi’i posses both the financial and human resources with which to proselytize in Sunni countries.


The reactions have been extensive – filling the press for two weeks – and equally varied: Some commentators approved, whereas others criticized and rejected his conclusions. Many however have opted to stay silent.


Dr. Radwan Al-Sayyed2, one of the main critics of Iran, in an interview on al-Arabia, described Qaradawi’s views as the realistic expression of real concerns and fears held by Sunnis. He said that the Iranian threat existed at three planes:


Support for armed and unarmed Shi’i groups – by seeking to capture their loyalties – at the expense of their allegiance to the states in which they live.

Support for nationalist and Islamic Sunni groups: Iran, he argued, views such movements as natural allies in her project of confrontation with the United States and the Zionists.

The spread Shi’ism within Sunni communities.

Al-Sayyed concluded that the problem lies not with Shi’i doctrine; but rather with Iranian policy. One aspect was proselytisation; but another was the attempt to direct the allegiance of the Shi’i towards Iran – brought about by insistence on the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih (rule by a supreme jurist) – thus implicitly suggesting that all Shi’i should acquiesce to his guidance in place of that of their national leaders. This criticism was echoed by other commentators – such as Salman Al-Odah (Saudi Arabia) and Rashid Al-Ghannouchi (Tunisia).


The influential writer Fahmi Howaydi offered a different view: He criticized Qaradawi in an article3 highlighting the possibly dangerous repercussions of Qaradawi’s comments on the situation in Iraq, and for their possible adverse effects on relations between Sunni Muslims and Hesballah and Iran. Howaydi suggested that “this would be an invitation to conflict with the Shi’i, and a call to mobilise against Iran”. He pointed out that “this line of thinking would amount to a retreat from seeing the struggle against Israel as the main priority, and would give a ‘green light’ for the U.S. to attack Iran”. Howaydi concluded: “were Qaradawi to balance between the damage caused by his comments, and any threat from the Shi’i – he will realise that the former is greater than the latter”. The danger of arousing sectarian sentiments was also taken up by Dr. Muhammad Salim Al-Awa4 and Tariq al- Homayed5 who both warned of the dangers of sectarian war.


More notable however was the reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood General Guide, Muhammad Mahdi Akef, who refused to comment on the statements of Qaradawi – in spite of the latter being viewed as a spiritual guide and authority for the MB: Akef said in regard to the Shi’i, “they are Muslims, albeit from their own sect. They worship the same God, and follow the Prophet; they pray in the direction of the Ka’aba and follow the teachings of the Qur’an”. He added that “what is happening between Sunni and the Shi’i, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, is due to political disputes that have nothing to do with Islam or the sects within it” He stated that the Muslim Brotherhood aimed at bringing the sects closer together and that Qaradawi agreed with the MB leadership on this issue. COMMENT: Although carefully stated, this was seen as repudiation of the Qaradawi line.


Shi’i reaction was similarly divided between some sharp and hostile responses and the mainly emollient tone adopted by some Shi’i commentators. Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah, a highly respected Lebanese leader, accused Qaradawi of inciting sectarian strife, and challenged him to criticise Christian missionary work in Muslim in the same way. Fadlallah said that he had not heard from him similar complaints about Christian proselytism, which, he said, was a major problem now in Algeria. He also queried Qaradawi’s stance in respect to Sunnis publishing books attacking Shiites and labelling them as Kuffar and pointed out that some Sunnis in Lebanon were trying to persuade Shi’i to convert: can we then say that there is a Sunni ‘invasion’ of the Shi’i community too?


Ayatollah Mohammed Taskhiri suggested Qaradawi had reacted to pressures from Salafis, whilst Abul-Fazel Amoee, an Iranian political scientist, suggested that Qaradawi was subject to Saudi pressures. The most violent reaction came from Mehr news agency of Iran, which accused him of being the spokesman of Freemasonry and of the Jewish rabbis.


Generally, the uproar caused by Qaradawi’s comments reflects the surprise occasioned by the divergence between these latest remarks and with his earlier views – as expressed, for example, in his earlier tract on ‘Principles of Dialogue and Convergence between Different Sects’, in which he defended the Shi’i as true Muslims. This contrast prompted many to speculate whether his latest comments reflect pressures exerted on him, rather than his true convictions. Some sympathetic commentators have tried to imply that Qaradawi was really making a coded call for reconciliation; but if that was his purpose, his efforts have proved spectacularly counter-productive. He is widely regarded as having brought comfort to so-called ‘moderate’ Arab leaders, such King Abdallah of Jordan who has warned in the past of the ‘threat’ from the Shi’i ‘arc’ stretching from Iran to South Lebanon and to have served the US agenda; but informed commentators are more inclined to believe that he was under pressure from Egyptian – and perhaps some Saudi leaders too – to take a stance against Shi’i expansionism. Whatever the intention, his comments succeeded only in inflaming sectarian tensions across the region.