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Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Growing Sunni-Shiite Conflict

By Victor Comras

My colleague Olivier Guitta has just posted an excellent piece on the growing Sunni Shiite conflict. The heightened tensions between these two principal confessions of Islam is already putting great pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood. There has long been a significant movement within the Muslim Brotherhood supporting a closer alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah in their war against western influence in the Middle East and against Israel. Muslim brotherhood members in Egypt and around the Middle East rallied behind Hezbollah and it leader, Hassan Nasrallah during last years Israel-Hezbollah conflict and the early stages of Nasrallah's challenge to the current Lebanese government. But this could all well backfire against the Muslim Brotherhood. They have already lost some key Saudi financial and other support, and are witnessing a growing backlash, in Eygpt, against their identification with on-going Shiite proselyzing activities in Eygpt. This provided a convenient moment for the Egyptian government to crack down on Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers.

Interestingly, against this background, the Muslim Brotherhood still went ahead last week – along with Al Jazeera Television -- to bring together, on the same TV platform, Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qarawdawi (Sunni) and Iran ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (Shiite). The gathering was termed as “the first high-profile meeting between top Sunni and Shiite Scholars.”

Rafsanjani and Al Qarawdawi both tried to use the meeting to express a common bond against Israel and Western influences in the region. Rafsanjani used the session to garner greater support for Iran’s nuclear program. He blamed “"ignorant" Sunnis and Shiites” for stroking tensions and playing into the hands of Zionism and “Satan” America. These enemies, he said, were trying to pit Muslims against one another and to throw a spanner in the good work of Sunni and Shiite scholars to cement unity. "The acts of extremists from both sides should not be allowed to disunite Sunnis and Shiites,” he said, “Zionism and Israel are the main danger." "The Muslim nation with up to one billion Muslims and some 60 Muslim heavyweight countries with energy sources and great potentials must join forces to defend the unity of Muslims."

Al Qarawdawi also expressed a warm desire for greater Sunni-Shiite unity, but criticized Iran and Shiite leaders for their proselytizing activities. Such proselytizing, he said, had to stop in Sunni dominated countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia. He warned that Shiite leaders must also put an immediate stop (and should issue a Fatwa banning) those in the Shiite community from continuing to “insult the companions,” referring specifically to Ali Ibn Abi Taleb (the 4th Caliph) who is revered by Sunni muslims. For him, this was the only real stumbling block for greater Sunni-Shiite unity -- rather than the ongoing Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq and Lebanon. While he called on Iran's leader's to help stop the violence in Iraq, that appeared throughout his presentation as a secondary issue. When it came to the West, and to Israel, Qaradawi and Rafsanjani sang the same song. Qaradawi made it clear that differences with Shiites should not be used as a pretext by any Sunnis for not supporting Tehran in its confrontation with the United States. "If Iran was attacked by the United States, we would rally behind it, no doubt about that," he said. "We cannot tolerate an aggression on any Muslim country…I said it before for many times that we will support Iran definitely," he said. He also added his personal support for Iran's "right to have a peaceful nuclear technology."

I doubt this joint presentation with Rafsanjani will help improve Saudi - Muslim Brotherhood relations. This is an issue that bears close watching.
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