A popular Sunni Muslim cleric with a television show and a website that churns out religious edicts and dieting tips agitated centuries-old animosities in the Islamic world recently by referring to Shiite Muslims as heretics seeking to invade Sunni societies. The bitter, often bloody, divide between the two main branches of Islam has been an undercurrent since the 7th century, but Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi’s vitriol comes at a fragile time, when Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are wary that the predominantly Shiite nations of Iraq and Iran could destabilize the region. With populist fervor, Qaradawi’s comments intertwined religious mistrust with political suspicion. Iran’s nuclear program and influence with the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the radical group Hezbollah in Lebanon have agitated Sunni governments. Fighting between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, which left tens of thousands dead since the U.S. invasion of 2003, has calmed, but the Sunni Arab minority worries about its future. “Shiites are Muslims but they are heretics and their danger comes from their attempts to invade Sunni society,” said Qaradawi, who was quoted in the Egyptian independent daily Al Masry al Youm. “They are able to do that because their billions of dollars trained cadres of Shiites proselytizing in Sunni countries. . . . We should protect Sunni society from the Shiite invasion.” Those opinions were first published Sept. 6. Since then, Qaradawi, a man with a polished voice and a gray beard who hosts a show on Islamic law on TV channel Al Jazeera, has been chastised by Shiite scholars and writers in what has turned into a war of polemics and personal attacks played out on websites and in newspapers from Doha to Cairo.On September 29, Qaradawi gave an expanded interview on the subject to the Saudi-owned English daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
The semi-official Egyptian paper Al-Ahram reported on the passionate reaction of the Shiite community:
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.More Shiite commentary was cited by the L.A. Times:
Qaradawi’s statements are dangerous and may “push the Muslim people in the direction of more division,” Ayatollah Mohammed Taskhiri, vice president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, was quoted as saying in the Iranian press. The Tabnak News Agency, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Council, condemned the comments as a “calculated conspiracy against Iranian Shiites.” Another leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon, said Qaradawi was instigating fitna, or civil strifeEven more interesting is the reaction of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. On September 25, an Egyptian paper reported on a relatively mild rebuke by the Deputy leader of the Egyptian Brotherhood:
While Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, agrees with Al-Qaradawi that there is an increase in the Shia presence in countries like Iran, he believes that both sects should join forces and stand united against the West. “What I really fear the most is the American plan that is supported by Israel to reshape the Middle East and get rid of the region’s main features, religions and ideologies,” Habib told Daily News Egypt.“It is very important that both sects come together. This responsibility lies with Muslim scholars, Muslim governments and NGOs who have to take serious and practical steps to build bridges between both ideologies and narrow the gap between them,” Habib added.He nonetheless believes that the Sunnis should resist any attempts by the Shia to dominate them.Habib concluded that “the media is not the forum where these types of issues should be debated.”However, another Egyptian paper reported two days later that the Egyptian Brotherhood Supreme Guide rejected Qaradawi’s comments:
Iran celebrated strong remarks made by Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef considered a victory in the ongoing confrontation between the Dr. Qaradawi President of the World Federation of Muslim Scholars and Shiite authorities, backed by Iran. The news agency highlighted the what Akef told the Iranian newspaper “Constitution” and said that the “Brotherhood” Supreme Guide rejected Qaradawi’s comments. (machine translated)Yet another Egyptian paper confirmed Akef’s remarks and added additional information:
Sources in the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt report that the Muslim Brotherhood General Guide’s office has decided to renounce Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, known to be a spiritual leader of the movement. The move came because of Al-Qaradhawi’s criticism of Iran and the Shi’a …and because he revealed information about the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization.Also surprising is that the members of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), founded and headed by Qaradawi, were also critical of his remarks. On September 25, Al-Ahram reported:
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.However, three weeks later Reuters reported that other IUMS scholars appeared to be rallying around Qaradawi:
A leading group of Muslim clerics has called on Sunnis and Shi’ites to desist from efforts to win converts from the other, but blamed Shi’ite Iran for stoking sectarian tensions in Arab countries. … The International Union of Muslim Scholars, which met in Qatar this week to discuss the issue, said Iran bore responsibility for “sectarian strife” and urged each sect to respect the other’s dominant position in different regions. “Organised attempts by the minority sect to proselytise in areas where the other is dominant should stop, as part of mutual respect between the sects,” it said. “The Islamic Republic of Iran should bear its responsibility to end sectarian strife.” “His (Qaradawi’s) statements came from his legitimate responsibility to warn the Islamic nation about the efforts to revive sectarian conflict,” the statement published on Qaradawi’s website (www.qaradawi.net) said. It also called for an end to sectarian fighting and for protection of minorities…The scholars who framed the statement included prominent Saudi Sunni Salman al-Awdah and Ali Fadlallah, son of prominent Shi’ite cleric in Lebanese group Hezbollah Hassan Fadlallah. Politically, Sunni governments are concerned that non-Arab Iran and its allies including Hezbollah are gaining respect among ordinary Arabs for championing resistance against Israel and U.S. political and military influence in the region.By October 16, the IUMS appeared to have returned to full backing of Qaradawi, demanding that Iran act to “prevent sectarian strife”:
A body of Muslim scholars led by influential Sunni cleric Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi urged Shiite Iran on Thursday to prevent sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The International Union of Muslim Scholars issued a statement saying it “invites the Islamic republic of Iran to assume its responsibilities to stifle sectarian sedition and extinguish the flames of this sedition.” The union issued the call following a meeting on Wednesday in the Gulf state of Qatar which was attended by the body’s vice-president Iran’s Ayatollah Mohamad Ali Tashkiri. The meeting, which was held behind closed doors, came after controversy triggered last month by the Egyptian-born Qaradawi who described Shiites as “heretics” and accused them of “invading” Sunni societies. Qaradawi said at the time that he was responding to criticism by Tashkiri and another prominent Shiite cleric, Lebanon’s Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, of earlier remarks he had made about a Shiite “invasion.” In its statement the union underscored “the need for mutual respect between” Sunnis and Shiites and said there should be a stop to any attempt to “spread one faith across regions dominated by the other faith.” Sunnis represent the majority of Muslims in the Middle East, but Shiites form the majority in Iran and Iraq and have a substantial presence in Lebanon. Sunni leaders in the region have voiced concern about a Shiite resurgence following sectarian strife between the two communities in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in the US-led invasion of 2003 and its replacement by a Shiite-led government.Other media reported that Qaradawi was supported in the dispute by a movement close to Hamas, by Al-Azhar in Egypt, and by the Saudi-owned London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, known for its anti-Iranian positions.
Throughout the affair, Qaradawi himself has been unrepentant. The LA Times reported on September 28 that:
The protests have not fazed Qaradawi; he has appeared more defiant. “I do not care and I am not shaken by this stir. I made this statement to answer to the dictates of my conscience and religion and responsibility,” he said in a second interview with Al Masry al Youm published Thursday. “I am trying to preempt the threat before it gets worse. If we let Shiites penetrate Sunni societies, the outcome won’t be praiseworthy. The presence of Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon is the best evidence of instability.On September 29, Gulf media cited a longer statement by Qaradawi defending his remarks:
Prominent Islamic Scholar Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi, highly respected by both the Sunnis and Shias, has strongly defended his comment ‘some Shias were leveraging the support Hezbollah enjoys among Muslims following the war with Israel to entice Sunnis to convert’, reportedly published by a Cairo-based newspaper. In a statement posted on IslamOnline, Dr Qaradawi said: “What I said to Al Masri Al Youm newspaper is that what I had asserted firmly at all conferences of rapprochement that I attended in Rabat, Bahrain, Damascus and Doha. I had also expressed my views to Ayaat Allah (plural of Ayatollah) when I visited Iran almost ten years ago. All Shia scholars were in agreement with me over this.” “Al Masri Al Youm had quoted Dr Qaradawi saying Shias are Muslims who have initiated bid’ah (innovation in religion). He said some Shias were trying to leverage the support Hezbollah had come to enjoy among Muslims following the July 2006 war with Israel in order to entice Sunnis to convert,” a prominent English language daily published from Dubai reported. …Dr Qaradawi also reminded his critics that despite his reservations about the Shia position with regard to spreading their doctrine in Sunni communities, he stood strongly beside Iran over its right to possess peaceful nuclear power and vehemently denounced American threats against it. “In this regard, I said: ‘We would stand up to the US if it attacked Iran, as Iran is part of the Muslim land; therefore, it should not be renounced or forsaken. Rather, we are obliged by the Shariah to defend it, if it is invaded or threatened by a foreign power. All media outlets in Iran highlighted my stance, and some Iranian officials called me to offer their thanks and appreciation. It is to be noted here that I did not make this stance as a compliment, but as a duty to say what should be said by a Muslim in support of his fellow Muslims.’On October 15, A Saudi newspaper reported that Qaradawi refused to sign a joint communiqué with an Iranian delegation visiting Qatar that would ended the dispute “as long as the Iranians did not undertake to prevent attempts to spread the Shi’a in the Sunni world .”
Qaradawi’s motivation and timing for making his statements is not clear but as the LA Time observed this is not the first time that Qaradawi, described by the paper as a “moderate cleric”, has warned about Shiite influence:
Qaradawi is a prominent moderate cleric, but he has grown skeptical of Shiite intentions. Two years, ago he suggested that Shiites were using the mystical Sufi order of Islam as a cover to penetrate Sunni society. His most recent volleys undercut efforts by Islamic leaders to ease religious tensions, and raise questions about his motivations. Much of the funding for Qaradawi’s Qatar-based media enterprises comes from Sunni nations uneasy over Iran’s widening influence in the Persian Gulf….Qaradawi’s attacks on Shiites received both support and derision in cyberspace, where Islam’s internal battles and other dilemmas, such as relations with the West, are increasingly debated. The website for Arabic Radio of Iran was buzzing with posts.Other commentators observed that his comments represented a serious escalation in the Sunni-Shia conflict:
“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.Finally, A Cairo-based journalist speculated that Qaradawi’s comments may have provided needed support for Al Qaeda in its battle for popularity with Hezbollah:
The bigger challenge for al Qa’eda is to stain Hizbollah’s reputation in the eyes of its millions of Sunni supporters throughout the region. Hejazi noted that in the predominately Sunni countries of North Africa and the Levant, respect for militant groups is based on their success against the Israelis. In this Hizbollah has excelled, while al Qa’eda has produced nothing. The leaders of al Qa’eda Central have avoided criticising Shia forces in Iraq, Iran, or in Lebanon on religious terms. Because the “masses” judge Hizbollah by its military prowess and not religious beliefs, al Qa’eda cannot criticise them as Shiites without looking as if they are trying to divide the Umma.But al Qa’eda may have got some help from one of their most fervent opponents, the prominent Islamic scholar Yusuf al Qaradawi. In a September 9 interview with al Masri al Youm, he called the Shia heretics and denounced them for what he alleged was an attempt to penetrate Sunni societies. Qaradawi’s remarks stirred a huge cntroversy, and he was criticised by prominent Iranian and Lebanese Shiite clerics. But many Sunnis, including scholars at al Azhar, defended him, and he did not back down.Given Qaradawi’s enormous influence, his comments are likely to further inflame rising sectarianism in the region – exactly what al Qa’eda needs to cut into Hizbollah’s popular appeal. It is too soon to tell whether Qaradawi has presented al Qa’eda with the “game-changer” it needs to resuscitate its own reputation. But al Qa’eda is running out of places to fight. In the last year the group has been kicked out of Iraq. And recent reports emerging out of Afghanistan suggest that Saudi Arabia is trying to drive a wedge between the Taliban and al Qa’eda, severing its ties in that country. Turning back to that old standby, the fight against Israel, might be al Qa’eda’s best strategy to regain credibility – but it looks increasingly like their only option as well.