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10 Oct 2008

Shia-Sunni rift overstated

Two armed Sunni men on patrol in Iraq

Sunni volunteer watch group members join up with US forces in Al Ja'ara, Iraq.

A prominent Sunni scholar describes Shia as heretics and accuses Iran of imperialist designs, causing a storm of controversy, but the true state of sectarian relations is more complex, Dominic Moran writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN

Comments attributed to a prominent Sunni cleric have fanned the flames of sectarian discord in the Middle East and reflect underlying tensions and prejudices that have taken on greater political import with the destabilization of the regional power structure in recent years.

In a September interview with Egyptian daily Almasry Alyoum Sheikh Yosuf al-Qaradawi labeled Shia mubtadioun ("heretics") and accused Iran of harboring imperialist designs in Sunni predominant states from Africa to Indonesia; designs actuated, he claimed, through an alleged cadre of well-funded missionaries which he said was "invading Egypt."

A tit-for-tat verbal battle developed, with prominent Iranian Shia scholar Ayatollah Mohamed Ali Taskhiri accusing al-Qaradawi of being influenced by "extremist" tendencies.

Also under attack from fellow Sunni clerics, al-Qaradawi denied Tashkiri's allegations. He went on to expand on his earlier statement in an interview with the Gulf Times in which he spoke of "Shia bids to invade the Sunni communities." He went on to criticize the Shia commemoration of the martyrdom of the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, Hussein, and belief in the infallibility of the imams - an article of faith not held by all Shia.

Al-Qaradawi's attack was surprising given that he heads the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS) and has been involved, sporadically, in inter-faith dialogues.

The IUMS was created in 2004 to promote dialogue between Muslim scholars of all stripes and includes prominent Shia figures. Indeed, Taskhiri serves as vice-president of the organization.

Based in Doha, al-Qaradawi hosts a show entitled "Sharia and Life" on Al Jazeera. He has courted controversy before through attributed comments backing militant and suicide attacks. An investigation into the same led to the UK government's refusal to grant him an entry visa earlier this year. For his part, al-Qaradawi claims he has "always been against extremists everywhere."

Al-Qaradawi's comments underscore the politicization of sectarian tensions in recent years. Nevertheless, fears for a potential Iranian-sponsored Shia crescent and of purported Shia proselytizing in Sunni-predominant states are fundamentally groundless. The situation is in fact far more complex and varied, with local, tribal and ethnic divisions deeply informing tensions often subsumed under the umbrella of Shia-Sunni tensions.

This is true in Bahrain where the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty has a clear interest in painting ongoing tensions and sporadic associated violence between the indigenous Shia Bahrani population and government as religiously motivated and posing a threat to western interests.

Domestic rights groups accuse the monarchy of seeking to maintain control through presenting a false image of sectarian tensions and via media and protest restrictions and systematic discrimination against Baharna. The government denies the charges.

In Yemen, the Zaydi Shia al-Houthi rebellion - painted by the government as having strong religious overtones - appears to have more to do with the weak hold of the government in the Sa'ada governate and ongoing tribal tensions. The government has reportedly utilized both rival Zaydi tribesmen and radical Sunni Salafi fighters in combating the rebels.

As in Bahrain, there is no substantive evidence of Iranian complicity in promoting Shia-government discord. President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared the conflict over in July, though mutual recriminations continue.

Iraq has seen the worst Shia-Sunni sectarian communal strife in recent memory, particularly in the wake of the first bombing of the Askariya shrine in February 2006, which precipitated widespread sectarian cleansing that may not yet have run its course completely. Inter-communal expulsion efforts have not been limited to the Shia-Sunni divide.

The sharp diminution of violence in recent months appears to have had as much to do with the playing out of the sectarian conflict and changes within the Sunni and Shia polities as US-led security efforts. Despite this, sectarian fractures are likely to remain an open wound for years to come, with refugees unlikely to return to areas controlled by sectarian rivals.

While Iran plays a significant role in backing Shia movements, the Islamic Republic's influence in Iraq is fragile and is likely to diminish with stabilization. Iraqi allies are already at pains to play down their associations with Qom and Tehran in light of the growing domestic contest for political power.

The utilization of religion as a rallying organizational tool has more to do with the political and security contest for access to and control of resources in what looks set to remain a clientalist political system in years to come.

The sidelining of foreign Sunni fundamentalist tendencies is already well advanced in Anbar and elsewhere with the effective ouster of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia from some areas, ending the fantasy of a reemergence of the caliphate via the anti-occupation struggle.

Long seen as a key focal point for communal and sectarian tensions, Lebanon ironically proves the fallacy of the Shia-Sunni crescent theory.

The military and subsequent political advances of Hizbollah in recent months have actually confirmed the lines separating the country's various sectarian communities, promoting a return to the political paralysis of mutual governance.

The situation remains serious, with further political ructions ahead. The territorial delimitation of Hizbollah power, despite attacks on Druze villages, has been reasserted, alongside the underlining of the Shia movement's effective autonomy in the Beqaa Valley, south and Beirut strongholds.

With the preeminent secular Sunni party, the Future movement, badly damaged by the violence, there are fears that a radicalization of Sunni sentiment could occur promoting fundamentalist tendencies. Here, the interest of Syria in promoting an impression of radicalization likely belies a gradual communal trend towards more moderate Sunni parties rather than their radical opponents, though only times will tell.

Ultimately, recent events have shown that sectarian tensions will wax and wane or play out in keeping with political and associated resource contests.

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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