By The Economist
12 May, 2012
In conservative Sunni monarchies (especially those with restless Shia populations) dislike and suspicion of Iran, the Shia bastion, is running higher than ever.
In the struggle between the two strands of Islam, the Sunnis are on the rise
IT SEEMED historic. Muslim scholars, 170 in number and representing nine schools of legal thought (including four main Sunni ones and two Shia), gathered in Amman and declared that, whatever their differences, they accepted the others’ authority over their respective flocks. Implicitly, at least, they were renouncing the idea that their counterparts were heretics. Some called that meeting in Jordan in 2005 the biggest convergence since 969, when a Shia dynasty took over Egypt.
Many of the globe-trotting greybeards who met there, and at a similar gathering in Qatar in 2007, remain actively and optimistically engaged. But seen from the outside, feuds between Sunnis, who make up roughly 80% of the world’s Muslims, and the Shia minority (most of the rest), remain savage and are, in some ways, worsening.
In conservative Sunni monarchies (especially those with restless Shia populations) dislike and suspicion of Iran, the Shia bastion, is running higher than ever. Theology intertwines with geopolitics—and an incipient strategic-arms race. Far beyond the Gulf or Middle East, from western Europe to North America, Sunni agitation (often Saudi-sponsored) is intensifying against the supposed heresies contained in Shia teaching.
Belgian police are investigating the firebombing of Belgium’s biggest Shia mosque in March, which killed the imam. The suspect they arrested claims to be a Salafist (hardline Sunni) protesting against Shia backing for the Syrian regime. Grieving worshippers chanted Shia slogans at the scene, eerily echoing far bloodier incidents in places such as Pakistan (recent examples include a murderous grenade assault on a Sunni demonstration in April and an attack on a bus in February that killed 18 Shia passengers).
European Shia-Sunni acrimony is part of a many-sided contest over the future of the continent’s tens of millions of Muslims, says Jonathan Laurence, a scholar at Boston College. The religious authorities in migrant-sending countries like Turkey and Morocco struggle to keep their people loyal to their own varieties of Sunni practice: they see Shia Islam and hardline Sunni groups like the Salafists as equally dangerous and insidious temptations for their sons and daughters in Europe.
Strife even reaches places like South-East Asia where few Shias live. Malaysia has presented itself to the world as a tolerant Muslim-majority state. But it bans the preaching of Shia Islam, with particular ferocity since December 2010, when dozens of Shias were arrested. They say they were merely practising their faith (which is legally allowed), not preaching it.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Qatar-based preacher often described as the de facto spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, has recently kept up a barrage of verbal attacks on the Shias. He is president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, a loose Brotherhood-inspired body designed to pronounce on issues of common concern to Muslims. Founded in the friendlier climate of 2004, its top ranks also include Shia clergy.
One God, many arguments
But Mr Qaradawi now attacks Shias for compromising the oneness of God (about the worst thing a Muslim can do) by ascribing semi-divine status to the people they regard as Muhammad’s legitimate successors. Another accusation is that Shias poach souls in Sunni lands.
Time was when Mr Qaradawi praised the feats of Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Shia militia in Lebanon, as fighters against Israel. But in recent punditry he has stressed the gap between Sunni and Shia beliefs and passionately called for regime change in Syria, where, among other things, a Sunni majority is rebelling against a ruling elite whose Alawite belief (see table) is a Shia offshoot. Senior Shia clergy have deplored his hardening line. Mr Qaradawi, whose utterances command attention from Marseilles to the north Caucasus, also backs Bahrain’s Sunni rulers in their anti-Shia stance.
Paradoxically enough, one reason for the worsening in intra-Muslim relations is the declining role of the West. At the time of the Amman gathering in 2005, Iraq was in the grip both of horrific Sunni-Shia violence and of American occupation. It was possible to convince ordinary Muslims (however unfairly) that America was to blame for stoking this tension; and that, for dignity’s sake, followers of Islam should stand together against the outsiders’ game of divide-and-rule. Now the American occupation of Iraq is over, and hatred between Sunnis and Shias there has a ghastly momentum of its own: the Shia prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has accused a Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, of complicity in terrorism and forced him to flee. On April 30th he was charged with multiple murders.
But perhaps the biggest change is that Sunnis think they are now winning the global contest. Seven years ago it seemed that Shia Islam, whether in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, was on the march. Hot-headed Sunnis who yearned to see a government or movement that would confront Israel in the name of Islam had to find role-models across the sectarian divide, in Iran, or in the mullahs’ Lebanese protégés in Hizbullah.
These days zealous Sunnis need no longer look to swashbuckling Shias for inspiration. The real action is unfolding in their own homelands, at least in north Africa or the Levant. Nor need they look abroad for political ideology: the Arab spring has established the Sunni sort of political Islam as a powerful, domestically based force that has emerged from the underground or from exile. Rachid Ghannouchi, for example, Tunisia’s best-known Islamist, has returned from London to become probably the most powerful figure in the land. Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University in America and a former adviser to the Obama administration, says that—rightly or wrongly—Sunnis believe that Western sanctions are weakening Iran, and that the combined efforts of Sunnis and the West will also topple Iran’s only Arab ally, Syria. From a Sunni perspective, these impending victories outweigh the travails of their co-religionists in majority-Shia Iraq.
Intra-Muslim relations are not universally bleak. An Iraqi adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”, featuring star-crossed love across the Muslim sectarian divide (rather than the clan loyalties of Verona), has won acclaim there, and was performed at the World Shakespeare Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon. Egypt’s handful of Shias, a nervous bunch, have declared support for a Muslim Brotherhood (in other words, Sunni) presidential candidate. In campaigns for freedom and justice in the Middle East, Sunni-Shia distinctions can melt away. “We are all part of the same struggle,” says Maryam al-Khawaja, an activist from Bahrain’s aggrieved Shia majority. She co-starred this week with Sunnis like Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman detained for defying that country’s ban on women driving, at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a lively get-together for foes of state oppression.
Historic compromises between ancient rivals are most likely either when both sides acknowledge a stalemate, or else when some outsider forces them together. State repression may do that sometimes—but it is a sad and slender hope for those who yearn for intra-Muslim accord.