Whose side are you on?
The Sunni-Shia war of words triggered by Youssef El-Qaradawi shows no signs of abating, reports Amira Howeidy
It is more than a month since Sunni scholar Youssef El-Qaradawi attacked the Shia sect of Islam and accused Iran of invading Sunni countries with missionary activities. What started out as a sectarian issue quickly snowballed and the ensuing political debate that has divided Egyptians and Arabs over Iran continues apace.
On Monday 19 October the opposition Nasserist Party's mouthpiece Al-Arabi ran the following headline: "Criticising Iran is legitimate, antagonising it is a political sin."
"There is confusion when there shouldn't be," the paper's editor Abdallah El-Sennawi argued in an editorial. The debate is not theological, he said, "it's about Iran and its national and strategic project." While the Arabs, and Egypt specifically, have abandoned their regional roles, Iran has expanded its influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine in ways that have not always been harmonious.
"In the case of Lebanon and Palestine, Iran is in tune with Arab causes and the notion of resistance. It enjoyed wide popular Arab support in solidarity in its conflict with the US and Israel," wrote El-Sennawi.
The editorial underlines that the question of whether supporting or attacking Iran has become the moving force behind the debate.
"State-run, and some independent, newspapers towed the government line which was critical of Iran," Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam, told Al-Ahram Weekly, "and thus sided with El-Qaradawi. Pan-Arab, pro-resistance newspapers like Al-Arabi and Al-Karama and even the independent Al-Dostour, on the other hand, published critiques of El-Qaradawi, arguing that his comments were being used to give credit to an American and Israeli discourse that demonises Iran as the real danger in the Middle East."
A series of high-profile Egyptian figures have taken turns in criticising the political impact of El-Qaradawi's anti-Iran and anti-Shia views. On 27 September ex- judge Tarek El-Bishri published a lengthy article in Al-Dostour in which he argued that, "in these historical and political times the criteria for categorisation and assessment of groups, parties, organisations and individuals should be based on [their stands regarding] resisting the enemy and the colonial and Zionist threats and aggressions against our peoples, lands and culture."
Similarly, Kamal Abul-Magd, Muslim scholar and vice-president of the National Council for Human Rights, addressed El-Qaradawi in an open letter published in Al-Dostour on 30 September, requesting that he "closes" the Sunni-Shia file immediately and return to his "moderate" stands. Because Islam is under attack, he said, "this is not the time" to open a theological debate that divides, rather than unites, Muslims.
Such views only provoked El-Qaradawi to reiterate his attack on Shia Islam and Iran's "expansionist" schemes in the Arab world. He attacked his critics "who I thought would be my shield, but became the shield of my enemies". Those who criticised him, he said, are "infatuated with Iran".
The unofficial Al-Azhar Scholars' Front issued a statement supporting El-Qaradawi's description of the Shia as "heretics". The privately owned Al-Masry Al-Yom newspaper -- in which El-Qaradawi first made his anti-Shia statements on 9 September -- then set out to gauge the views of scholars at Al-Azhar institute who supported El-Qaradawi. It also posted a column by the liberal pro-American Maamoun Fendi attacking "the Iranian lobby in Egypt". "It is Iran's money that is moving [El-Qaradawi's critics]," he charged.
While this media war raged on, the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS) -- an independent body formed to unite the various sects in Islam -- held an emergency meeting in Doha on 14 and 15 October to address the issue. Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, secretary-general of the union which is headed by El-Qaradawi, was among the first to criticise the sheikh's statements. Predictably, tensions dominated the two-day meetings where both Sunni and Shia board members critical of El-Qaradawi's anti-Shia stand failed to persuade the sheikh to adopt a less sectarian line.
The division was reflected in the communiqué that was issued by the IUMS last Wednesday. While the first point in the communiqué "asserted" the "unity of the Islamic nation with all its branches", the third point -- underlining El-Qaradawi's Shia concerns -- demanded that missionary work should "stop" in countries where the sect of the Muslim majority is different from the sect that is attempting to expand. It also held Iran responsible for fitna (sectarian strife) because an Iranian news agency reporter attacked El-Qaradawi last month and dubbed him a "spokesman for international Freemasonry and Jewish rabbis". Though the reporter in question was subsequently fired the communiqué demanded Iran issue an official apology to the sheikh.
Iran despatched a delegation of high-profile scholars and clerics to meet with El-Qaradawi in Doha -- where he resides -- to contain the problem but has refrained from making an official apology. The Islamic Republic wasn't involved in the debate to start with, a board member of IUMS told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"The communiqué was modified after it was drafted by the sheikh himself," said a member of the drafting committee who requested anonymity.
There was no consensus over the communiqué that was released to the public, he added. "It does not reflect IUMS's views and in its current form the communiqué is a personalised statement in defence of El-Qaradawi whose anti-Shia views naturally do not represent IUMS, which calls for unity."
According to Rashwan, "the IUMS was created to bring Islamic sects closer."
"The communiqué is an admission of failure to unite these sects. It's a shame that the 82-year-old sheikh marks this stage of his career by destroying IUMS, which remains the most important independent united Islamic body today."