Unified Shias Gaining Ground as Divided Sunnis Continue to Suffer

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ali Mousavi Khalkhali
Member of Iranian Diplomacy Editorial Board

At present, such issue as the existing differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims as well as sectarian conflicts are major concerns for the entire Arab world and even, in more general terms, for the entire Islamic world. A manifestation of this issue is currently being witnessed in bloody advances of the ISIS terrorist group in two neighboring Arab countries of Iraq and Syria. The ISIS is clearly announcing that it will behead Shias wherever it finds them and has made killing Shias a priority. The ISIS has also defined categories for massacring people: first of all Shias will be massacred and after them, anybody, even non-Shia people, who would dare to challenge the ISIS, including Christians, the Izadi community, and Kurds, followed by Sunni Muslims who are considered to be hostile to the ISIS.

The interesting point is that the ISIS does not consider Kurds as friendly. This is exactly similar to the policy and theory that was followed by the country’s now-defunct Baath party whose leaders rejected Kurds, though they were Sunnis, and believed that they should be treated as second-class citizens.

The ISIS has published images and posts on its pages in various social media explicitly announcing that after the massacre of Shias and conquering Muslim lands from the Nile all the way east to the Euphrates, its next goal would be Europe. They have announced the land of Christians, or as they call it “Rome,” as their next target, expressing hope that they would soon hoist the flag of the ISIS over Saint Peter's Basilica Square in the Vatican. This issue has been also explicitly announced in the English language electronic magazine that is being published by this terrorist group. In view of extensive bloodletting and savagery already conducted by the ISIS across the Levant and Iraq, such remarks and statements by the group as well as their threats against the Christians have stirred a great deal of public panic in various European countries. They are well aware that after the Middle East, it would be turn for Europe as the ISIS considers mass killing of Christians as a religious obligation for its members. This is why the entire West is feeling extreme alarm and many analysts have even noted that this is why the Western countries have forged the current international coalition in order to fight against the ISIS.

In the meantime, Sunni Muslims have been generally silent toward the ISIS threat or their positions have been ignorable and this state of affairs has raised many doubts in this regard. Many conservative figures in Europe and the United States have been incriminating Sunni Muslims of lending their indirect or implied support to the ISIS by remaining silent on their barbarity and as such are imparting legitimacy to what this terrorist group is doing. Vali Nasr, a prominent scholar in the United States and a former advisor to the US president, who is himself a Republican, has taken part in an interview with the CNN noting that the Sunni current is officially supporting the advances of the ISIS through its silence. He added that no Sunni leader has so far tried to condemn the ISIS seriously and firmly, or criticize it or even try to keep their distance from the ISIS.

Many people believe that the Sunni front lacks a unified religious leadership. Many others believe that the Egyptian Al-Azhar University is not considered as a religious authority for all Sunni Muslims anymore and there are many Sunni groups and sects in the Arab world, in particular, and in the Islamic world, in general, that do not follow its religious edicts anymore. They believe that as extremist tendencies are on the rise among Sunni Muslims both in Arab and non-Arab countries and since increasing inclination toward Salafist radicalism has undermined the position of Al-Azhar, the center does not sway the influence that it once had over the Arab masses. This viewpoint is quite common among various researchers of the Arab Middle East. They are of the opinion that various Sunni sects are moving in different directions as a result of which they will gradually lose more and more of their solidarity. In the meantime, the number of religious authorities and leaderships is constantly on the rise among them and this issue has further exacerbated the division in the Sunni world. As a result, Sunni Muslim communities have mostly failed to take a single position vis-à-vis developments in the outside world and have not been able to communicate their intensions, theories, ideas and positions to the international community in an unequivocal manner. On the other hand, controlling Sunni societies is becoming increasingly more difficult, because those communities are no more followers of a single theoretical leadership.

In practice, we have seen that some Sunnis are followers of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school while others are followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter groups consider Qatar as the center of religious command and authority because it is where most prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the controversial cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, reside. Some other Sunni groups have chosen Tunisia and its Rashid al-Ghannushi, as their religious authority. There are still others who follow Al-Azhar as the religious authority while people in Morocco and Algeria are followers of other schools of thought. At the same time, even Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the current leader of the ISIS, and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, have been trying to introduce themselves as religious authorities for Sunni Muslims.

On the opposite, there are many experts who believe that the Shia front is very much consolidated because its religious authority is unequivocal and this front is led by prominent figures. Many of these experts maintain that at present, the Shia community will not fire even a single bullet without permission of such prominent religious leaders as Iran's Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, or Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shia source of emulation residing in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq. Therefore, anybody doing anything contrary to the views of these religious authorities, would be rapidly banished by the rest of the Shia community. There are many instances to prove this allegation. In Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and any other place where Shias are present, they are taking orders from Iran's Supreme Leader or Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani. In addition, various viewpoints of these two religious authorities are such that in many cases their opinions overlap and in many other cases their views are exactly the same. For example, when Ayatollah Sistani declared Jihad against the ISIS in Iraq, the Supreme Leader of Iran moved fast to uphold his fatwa (religious edict). The world saw how such unanimity among Shias helped them to achieve their goals in Iraq and how they managed to stand up to and practically defuse the ISIS extremism which was close to damage Shias in various ways.

Many analysts believe that this issue has become a strength for Shias in comparison with Sunnis with regard to interaction with the international community. While Sunnis are forced to give in to the leadership of any extremist group like the ISIS due to their lack of solidarity and are not able to promote their policies due to their internal rifts, Shias, gathering around these two sources of emulation, have been able to correctly regulate their interactions with the international community. As a result, the world has come to the conclusion that in order to know about the viewpoints of Shias, it should go through these two religious authorities. This is why prominent international figures like the Secretary General of the United Nations hold meetings with these sources of emulation, including meetings they have already held with Ayatollah Sistani and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. In the meantime, the stress put by Shia sources of emulation on moderation and rejection of violence has introduced a peaceful and amicable picture of Islam to the world which stands in stark contrast to the violent picture projected by extremist Sunni groups. It is for this reasons that Shias have been scoring increasing achievements as a result of their solidarity. If this situation continues and the solidarity is maintained, Shias will be able to break new grounds and achieve more of their goals in the future while at the same time division and collapse will continue to threaten the Sunni world.

Key Words: Unified Shias, Divided Sunnis, ISIS Terrorist Group, Christians, Izadi Community, Kurds, Al-Azhar University, Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Mousavi Khalkhali

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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*Photo Credit: PBS, The Star

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