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 

       Click to view caption 
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 

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 

"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 Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper which adopts an 
anti-Iran line, was quick to jump on the bandwagon in support of El-Qaradawi. 
In an article published Saturday, the paper's editor Tarek El-Hemeid argued 
that, "we're facing a ball of fire that is both sectarian and political and is 
flying back and forth between El-Qaradawi and the Iranians."

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 

"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 

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'." 

Ironically, El-Qaradawi who supports resistance movements -- including 
Hizbullah -- is vocal about his anti-US views. He's been banned from travelling 
to the US since 1999 and recently the United Kingdom denied him an entry visa.

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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