Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Political Not Sectarian | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Seldom has a political event passed without the involvement by Clergymen, and this is happening once again in the Arab-Iranian differences. A battle is being waged on rostrums and Internet websites. Why? Because this is politics and they are politicians.

In reality, there is no Shia/Sunni problem; there are only differences between governments. And, contrary to widespread rumors, neither the Shia are going to become Sunnis, nor are the Sunnis going to become Shia and neither party is going to change its religion. Nations change their religion on a large scale only when the ruling regime changes its religion, or when a political system falls into the hands of another. In other words, nations change their religion either by force of arms or when their rulers officially change their religion. Iran became Shiite in the 15th century when it was ruled by the Safavids, and the Egyptians changed their sect with the change of the ruling dynasty, from Tolons to Fatimites to Ayubites. The story is similar in other religions. The English abandoned Catholicism and adopted Protestantism when Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, came to the throne in the 16th century. Apart from that it is merely a byzantine debate between the public and men of religion.

Soon after the success of its revolution, Iran discovered that despite its religious success, it has not become a leader in the Islamic world because 80% of Muslims are Sunnis. Iran thought at that time that it was possible to

change the sectarian geography, and thus inaugurated its project by celebrating the conversion of an unknown Sunni who published a book in which he declared his conversion. It financed that book as well as many activities after that; but the Sunnis remained Sunni. The Iranians have confused the popularity of their revolution in the Sunni streets with the popularity of the Shia sect and thought it would translate into a popularity of the Shia sect, where in fact the two were unrelated. For three decades, the revolutionary men of religion in Iran squandered their money on an interested group of Sunnis who did not produce the change they hoped for.

As the political conflict intensified, the conflict between the ulema of both sides increased. Iran has tried to consolidate its political position by attempting to disseminate the Shia sect and the precept of the ‘guardianship of the Ayatollahs’ which means ‘the infallibility and absolute power of the ruler.’ Many of the Shia ulema do not recognize this precept in the first place, and the situation is more difficult to accept in the Sunni tradition. Meanwhile, the Sunni parties tried to make Iran an enemy of the Sunnis in general.

Consequently, in our view, and despite what is said and done, the conflict is basically political not religious. The attempt to disseminate the Shia sect in Lebanon, where each of the two sects comprise almost a third of the population, has reinforced the conspiracy theory, entrenched the parties’ positions, and raised the tone of animosity, especially after Hezbollah invaded Sunni West Beirut. As for the investment in disseminating the Shia sect in Egypt, it only produced political and material loss. It would have been less expensive for Iran to be content with giving financial support to some leftwing opposition parties to annoy the Egyptian regime. However, practically speaking, thirty years of attempts to disseminate the Shia sect in the Sunni world have only increased hatred and opened historical wounds, where sectarian and political co-existence would have sufficed.