Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 September - 5 October 2008
Issue No. 916
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The politics of sects

When leading Sunni scholar Youssef El-Qaradawi critiqued Islam's Shia sect all hell broke loose. Amira Howeidy traces the continuing reverberations

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Was it waiting to happen?

Youssef El-Qaradawi, one of the most respected of Sunni Islam's scholars, had only to make two statements in a newspaper interview and the reverberations extended across the entire region.

On 10 September, speaking to Al-Masry Al-Yom, the venerable 82- year-old used words such as " mubtadi'oun " (heretics) to describe the Shia. He went on to argue that "attempts to invade the Sunni community with their money and cadres trained to do missionary work in the Sunni world" constituted a "danger". The Shia, said El-Qaradawi, are "invading" Egypt, which is predominantly Sunni, as well as Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Nigeria, Malaysia and Indonesia. "They practise the tradition of takia [concealing their intentions] and do not reveal what they believe in."

His comments triggered counter-attacks by Shia religious leaders. Lebanon's Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah described El-Qaradawi's discourse as one of "incitement" and challenged him to speak out against Christian missionary activity in Muslim countries. The Iranian news agency designated him a spokesman for "international Freemasonry and Jewish rabbis" while Shia activists in Qatar filed a lawsuit against the Egyptian scholar on Monday -- he has a Qatari passport -- in an attempt to strip him of Qatari nationality and deport him from Doha where he is based.

The Shia believe that Prophet Mohamed's family, the Ahl Al-Bayt (People of the House) exercise special spiritual and political rule over the community. Unlike Sunni Muslims they believe that Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Prophet Mohamed's cousin, was his true successor and reject the legitimacy of the first three Rashidun caliphs.

For centuries the Shia-Sunni conflict took the form of wars and invasions between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Safawi state. Today it continues to be perceived as a mainly political issue, manifested in Iranian political stands in the region and the Lebanese resistance movement Hizbullah's defiance of Israel.

Shia Muslims constitute the majority of the populations of Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Iraq, as well as a plurality in Lebanon. There are also considerable Shia minorities in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen, Afghanistan and Turkey.

Shia-Sunni sectarianism became a ticking time-bomb following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the Bush administration allied with the Shia and compartmentalised Iraqis in sectarian terms. Sunnis were referred to as "Arab Sunnis" while the Shia -- who are also Arab -- were simply "Shia" and the Turkomens and Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni, were described ethnically.

"Even though the Americans didn't create the current civil war in Iraq, they caused it. And now we have an explosive sectarian situation that resonates beyond Iraq's borders," Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher on political Islam in Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Iran is accused of meddling in Iraq by arming and supporting Shia groups there.

Israel's defeat at the hands of Hizbullah in its war on Lebanon in 2006 was never assessed in solely political terms. As early as 2004 Jordan's King Abdullah had already begun to warn of Iran's "attempt to create a Shia crescent that extends from Iran to Iraq and Lebanon". Two years later President Hosni Mubarak said in a televised interview that the region's Shia were loyal only to Iran.

"This is a charged sectarian and political climate," says Rashwan. "The problem now lies in the fact that it is someone with the weight and credibility of El-Qaradawi who is attacking the Shia. This lends anti-Iran and anti-Shia rhetoric a dangerous legitimacy."

The Saudi-owned London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, known for its anti-Iran line, was quick to jump on the bandwagon in support of El-Qaradawi. In an article published in Saturday's edition editor Tarek El-Hemeid argued that "we are facing a ball of fire that is both sectarian and political and which is flying back and forth between El-Qaradawi and the Iranians."

But are the reactions to El-Qaradawi's statements politically or religiously motivated?

"It's political, but if both sides continue the bashing and counter-bashing it could become a sectarian conflict," says Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, secretary-general of the International Union of Islamic Scholars (IUIS) which is headed by El-Qaradawi. "We already have two volatile spots in Iraq and Lebanon."

El-Awwa, like other prominent Sunni figures, has been embarrassed by El-Qaradawi's anti-Shia statements. Columnist Fahmy Howeidy, a member of the IUIS board of trustees, published an article in Al-Dostour daily newspaper on Sunday criticising El-Qaradawi for making statements that "divide" Muslims rather than unite them.

"His statements are an invitation to mobilise against the Shia and undermine Hizbullah's achievements," said Howeidy.

The negative political impact of El-Qaradawi's views, says El-Awwa, is evident in the fact that they agree with statements attacking Shia Islam made by Al-Qaeda's number two, Ayman El-Zawahri. "Worse", he adds, "is that, without meaning to, El-Qaradawi has supported the Bush administration's claims about the Iranian 'threat'."

El-Qaradawi, who was been vociferous in his support of resistance movements --including Hizbullah- is staunchly anti-US. He was banned from entering the US since 1999. More recently the United Kingdom denied him an entry visa.

Outraged Shia members of the IUIS were rumoured to have threatened to resign en masse from the organisation. El-Awwa insists the union will meet next November to discuss the issue.

"El-Qaradawi's statements clearly express his personal views and not those of the union," he said.

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