A “Shi’ite invasion” of Sunni Arab countries? Qaradawi sees one
Egyptian cleric Yusef Al-Qaradawi has provoked a storm of criticism with comments this month attacking Shi’ites for alleged attempts to proselytize in Sunni Arab societies. It’s a debate which has been bubbling since 2003 when the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein — which the Sunni Arab governments didn’t like but know how to live with — was removed by the American-led invasion and ultimately replaced by a Shi’ite government reflecting the demographic superiority of Shi’ites in Iraq today.
Free to contact work with fellow Shi’ites in neighbouring Iran and develop links with the powerful Shi’ites of Lebanon and even with the more precariously-placed Shi’ites in the Gulf Arab coutnries, the rise of the Shi’ites in Iraq has been nothig less than a seismic shift in the region’s potical landscape. Numerous Arab leaders have shown their concern with comments suggesting a crescent of Shi’ite power was developing across the region from Lebanon to Iran (as Jordan’s King Abdullah has said) or that Arab Shi’ites real loyalties are to Iran (according to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).
Qaradawi’s intervention is of equal import. He is one of the most influential of Sunni religious figures, a former Muslim Brotherhood sheikh in Egypt who settled in Qatar where Al-Jazeera television gave him a weekly television show. His opinions generally reflect the mainstream of Islamist thinking, veering neither into the rigid obsessions of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism nor appearing to compromise principles for the sake of a modernity that suits the West.
In an interview with the Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm (in Arabic) on Sept. 9, he was asked which was more worrisome, Wahhabism or Shi’ism. He offered a brief, yet tart, crticism of Saudi Islam, then launched into the “danger of Shi’ism” discourse, which has centred mainly on unsubstantiated claims of Shi’ism’s spread in Syria. “They are Muslims but they have innovated (new ideas into Islam) and their danger is their attempt to invade Sunni society, and they are ready for it since they have billions in wealth and cadres trained to proselytize Shi’ism in Sunni countries,” he said. “Unfortunately, I have recently found Egyptian Shi’ites. Ten years ago they wouldn’t have succeeded in getting one. … Now they are in the newspapers, on television and come out openly with their Shi’ite beliefs. Shi’ites hide their beliefs and that’s what we have to watch out for. We have to protect Sunni societies from the Shi’ite invasion.”
UPDATE: Here’s a Qaradawi interview in English on Shi’ites from Asharq Al-Alawsat.
Governments are worried about Shi’ism for political reasons, because Iran and Hizbollah are championing resistance to Western hegemony, while the Sunni Arab governments have been about accommodating Western power ever since Egypt signed the Camp David accords and since Saudi Arabia came into existence. Shi’ism has a certain revolutionary chic that is attractive to many Arabs today. Shi’ism’s central principle of venerating the family of the Prophet has an innocent-sounding air to most as well, although in points of theology it involves some radical breaks with Sunni thinking.
Saudi Shi’ite clerics were furious about Qaradawi’s comments since they instantly bring alive an argument they have been trying desperately to counter in order to ensure a better place for themselves as a persecuted minority in Saudi Arabia (here’s one cleric responding in Arabic on the Saudi Shi’ite website Rasid.com). Interestingly, though, Saudi media have for once been sympathetic to them, even highlighting Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar’s response on the front page of al-Watan on Saudi National Day, Sept. 23. “Saffar differs with Qaradawi and rejects criticising his status,” the headline read.
The Al-Riyadh newspaper carried a frontpage article apologising to Shi’ites for having publicising Qaradawi’s comments, which fly in the face of King Abdullah’s policy of promoting dialogue among Islamic sects and moderation. “Sectarian Islam, or the Islam of one faith?” al-Riyadh asked in a frontpage editorial on Sept. 24, also marking National Day.
One could not conclude, however, that the Saudi leadership is trying to distance itself from Sunni radicalism while Egypt encourages it. The calculations are too complicated. Saudi Arabia has led the regional mobilisation against Iran and Shi’ism of recent years, taking Egypt along with it. It has also sought to improve its Shi’ite minority’s status. Both are strategies that aim to secure the stability of the country from external enemies, like Iran, or friends, like the United States after 9/11, who occasionally entertain the idea of reordering the polities of the Arabian peninsula.