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IRAQ - The Sunni-Shi'ite Rivalry.

The New York Times on Aug. 3 quoted a "Damascus University professor" as saying he worried that any Hizbullah success will represent not an Arab victory over Israel, but a further triumph for Shi'ite Islam. The US paper said the Syrian professor was "a member of the majority Sunni branch of Islam who asked not to be named since discussing sectarian rivalry is taboo in Syria". It then quoted him as saying: "Since the Americans invaded Iraq we have all become aware of the danger from the Shi'ites. Ordinary people only think of Hizbullah as fighting against Israeli aggression. But the educated classes think that if Hizbullah controls the region, then the Sunnis will be abused".

Intensifying Sunni-Shi'ite violence in Iraq over the past couple years has already raised sectarian awareness across the Middle East in ways not experienced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, when Shi'ites organised and overthrew the secular Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, an American pawn. Now, the sudden prominence of Hizbullah and its leader Nasrallah is further raising the possibility that Iran and Shi'ite Islam are challenging traditional Sunni dominance. Even Nasrallah's title of "Sayyid" is a Shi'ite signal, indicating a person who traces his lineage to the enlightened descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

The initial burst of public debate on that subject quieted as broad approval grew of Hizbullah's fierceness in facing off with Israel, fed by smoldering anger over hundreds of civilian deaths and widespread destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure. But the questions persist - on Websites, in government corridors and in mosques - with the word Shi'ite taking on different shadings. Governments use it as a synonym for Iran's waxing regional influence, while the religious tend to focus on doctrinal differences.

Some postings on Saudi/Wahhabi religious chat rooms have been particularly vocal, warning against the disasters wrought by the Shi'ite theocracy which was established in Iran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. One Wahhabi participant wrote: "Do you remember how many preachers and students jumped with happiness for this [Iranian] revolution, saying this is the Islamic revolution and these are the Islamic countries that will conquer Jerusalem? Then what? Khomeini became the first enemy of the Sunnis".

Immediately after Hizbullah's July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan condemned the group, at least in part because they saw its boldness as a signal of the growing regional threat from a possibly nuclear-capable Iran. That position, untenable amid public outrage, echoed suspicions voiced for years about a "Shi'ite crescent" emerging from Iran and running through the Persian Gulf to Iraq and then on through Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

The Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry dates back to the early years of Islam. Some 1,400 years after the Prophet Muhammad died, the group which became the Shi'ites backed his son-in-law Ali (Shi'ite means partisan, as in partisans of Ali) as his rightful heir. Ali and his sons died in battles lost to the Sunni caliph in Damascus.

The Shi'ites make up about 10% of the world's 1.4 bn Muslims. There is little difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites when it comes to basic rituals like prayer and fasting. But fundamentalist Sunnis, like the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia, label Shi'ite practices such as treating dead religious figures like saints as blasphemous.

The NYT noted that Zabadani, a Syrian resort in mountains facing Lebanon, filled with Gulf Arabs each summer. The NYT added: "Many interviewed in the main street [of Zabadani] said they supported Hizbullah in its fight with Israel, but several made their distaste for Shi'ites clear". It quoted "a high school math teacher from Riyadh, who declined to give his name due to the topic's sensitivity", as saying of the Shi'ites: "They think they will be the leaders of all Muslims and I don't want that. Hizbullah is Iranian, everyone knows that". Of the rituals Shi'ites perform, including beating and cutting themselves during 'Ashoura, to commemorate the battlefield martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the prophet's grandson, the Saudi person said: "This is wrong. I don't want to see all this blood".

The NYT noted: "Puritanical Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia lace their writings with suggestions that being a Christian or a Jew is far preferable to being a Shi'ite, and they often disparage the Shi'ite practice of takiya, or sanctioned lying about their true faith, an insurance policy developed during repeated Sunni inquisitions".

A prominent Saudi religious scholar of the Wahhabi order, Abdullah ibn Jibreen, recently reissued a fatwa (religious decree) noting that Shi'ite groups like Hizbullah had a long history of betraying Sunnis. Among other things, the fatwa read: "It is not appropriate to support this rejectionist [Hizbullah] party and to fall under its authority, and it is not appropriate to pray for their victory and control".

Raging arguments erupted on Internet chat rooms, including rare public criticism of senior religious scholars for being too aloof from the Arab struggle against Israel. Mohsen al-Awaji, a well-known Saudi Wahhabi activist calling for moderation, said such fatwas seem like they "came from another planet".

In his televised speech on July 29, Nasrallah tried to assuage fears about Shi'ite dominance, evoking the name Jesus Christ, who Muslims consider one prophet among many. He stated: "I say to the Lebanese that none of you should be afraid of the victory of the resistance, but you should be afraid of its defeat. It will be a victory for every Arab, Muslim, Christian and honourable person in the world who stood against the aggression and defended Lebanon". He referred to the sectarian tension, thanking all the muftis and leaders of Islamic movements "who confront attempts to sow sedition and tear apart the ranks of Muslims".

Iraq regularly produces gruesome examples of sectarian strife. Iraq's late Qaeda leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, issued anti-Shi'ite screed using a derogatory term for them - rafideen (rejectionists), as in those who reject true Islam. He basically labelled the Shi'ites heretics deserving of death for collaborating with the Americans. Extremist Sunnis like al-Qaeda have tried to portray their struggle as parallel with Hizbullah's. But underneath the flood of support some Sunnis worry that their supremacy is threatened for the first time since a Shi'ite dynasty ruled a large swath of the region between the 10th and 12th centuries, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Saladin, the Kurdish/Sunni commander who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, overthrew the Shi'ite dynasty. Hence Shi'ites revile him and avoid comparing Nasrallah to him.

Modern Egypt, lacking any significant Shi'ite population, tends to be rather tolerant. Egypt's mufti, the highest religious authority, issued a statement supporting Hizbullah. Shaikh Youssef Qaradawi, whose talk show on al-Jazeera TV makes him one of the Arab world's most influential among Sunni religious scholars, called supporting Hizbullah a "religious duty", with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) having been outspoken. Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, a member of MB's Guidance Bureau, said Washington invaded Iraq in order to divide Muslims, stressing that it was far better to support a Hizbullah-Iranian agenda than an "American-Zionist" one. "Which one is more dangerous to the Muslim world?" he asked, attacking "[Arab] regimes who tremble before Iran. They are weak and tattered regimes who don't acknowledge the will of their people".

When pressed, though, a vague ambivalence emerges, suggesting that supporting Hizbullah is something of a "marriage of convenience while confronting Israel". He said: "Iran would be at the end of our list of enemies, even though it's not an enemy. Let's combat the American danger on the region before we 'compete' with Iran".

In Lebanon, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is among the few who dare voice the frustration among some Lebanese that Hizbullah needlessly brought destruction raining down by pursuing its Shi'ite jihadi agenda. The NYT quoted Jumblatt as saying Nasrallah represented the same ideology that Khomeini and Iran's current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei espoused - awaiting the return of the Mahdi (the missing 12th Imam in Ja'fari Shi'ism) at the end of the world. He said of the Mahdi: "He's part of the Shi'ite Armageddon". He called Iran's current regional efforts "Persian imperialism".

Syria has long adhered to Ba'thism - a secular, pan-Arabist ideology - and has refused to acknowledge differences among Muslims. This is inspired not least by the fact that a tiny minority of Allawites - a Shi'ite offshoot - control Syria through the Assad clan.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Date:Aug 7, 2006
Previous Article:IRAQ - Iran/Syrian Role In Hizbullah-Israel War In Lebanon.
Next Article:IRAQ - Iraqi Shi'ite Unrest.

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