Seeing The Arab Spring Through the Spectacles of Sectarianism

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The highly respected and influential Sunni cleric Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently attacked the Syrian regime and called on Muslims to join the military resistance in that country. He also declared that he had been wrong in defending the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah in the past in front of clerics of Saudi Arabia. He said those clerics showed more maturity and knowledge than him. This declaration earned Qaradawi a phone call from the Saudi king to thank him and the praise of Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Asheikh.

People who value democracy and human rights would fully understand Qaradawi’s criticism of the Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The latter, who succeeded his brutal father Hafiz, continued his style of dictatorship that has relentlessly suppressed human rights. But Qaradawi went further to label the struggle in Syria as being between Sunnis and Shiites. He said, for instance, that “the leader of the party of the Satan comes to fight the Sunnis… Now we know what the Iranians want… They want continued massacres to kill Sunnis.” Qaradawi’s turning against Hezbollah, which he now calls “the party of Satan,” and the praise of the Saudi clerics that followed have been welcomed by groups that oppose Shiism.

There is no question that the intervention of Hezbollah in Syria has a sectarian element to it. But Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime is also driven by the fact that they share the same aggressive enemy in Israel. Israel’s brutal history, past and present, in the region has often united very different groups and dictators. Indeed, Qaradawi’s own support for Hezbollah, that he now regrets, stems from its resistance to Israel.

Assad comes from the Alawite Shiite minority in Syria that represents 12% of the population, with Sunnis representing 70%. But Assad is a dictator first and foremost, and dictators have one main labeling system of people: supporter or enemy. Other identities of people are of little significance. Saddam Hussein is often described as someone who brutally suppressed the Shiites, projecting him as a sectarian dictator. What is less known or mentioned is that he equally brutalized Sunnis who stood up to him. The Sunni city of Fallujah that has witnessed after the fall of Saddam massacres by the Americans and later Shiite Iraqi forces and militias was the subject of similar brutality during his reign as he moved quickly to uproot any opposition.

Qaradawi’ has also supported the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. But when it came to the bloody suppression of the popular demonstrations in Bahrain, he attacked the demonstrators as being sectarian. The Saudi king who thanked Qaradawi for his position on Syria is the same absolute monarch who sent his forces to Bahrain to help the absolute king of that much smaller kingdom to suppress its people, just like Hezbollah came from a neighboring country to support the Assad regime. Saudi scholars, whose maturity and wisdom on the question of Hezbollah Qaradawi generously praised, either kept silent or often publicly supported the actions of their king.

It may be true that most or all of those who wanted change in Bahrain are Shiites, who make around 65% of the population, but this does not change the fact they have the right to ask for the removal of the dictatorship that rules over them and replacing it with democracy. What Qaradawi and those who took the same position about Bahrain did is to deny people a right in fear of that right being abused. This kind of abuse has indeed happened in Iraq. After the removal of Saddam, the Shiite majority came to power as a result of the election, but the elected government has been acting more like a Shiite militia than a democratic government. But this abuse and distortion of democracy does not mean that the population should have been denied democracy.

Qaradawi defended his position on Bahrain by claiming that only the Shiite population took part in the uprising in that country, labeling it as sectarian. Let’s presume that this is true and that those demonstrators wanted Shiites to govern the country. Given that they are the majority and that there is nothing intrinsically harmful in this call, isn’t this what democracy is about anyway?

Also, the abuse of power is not something that only Shiites can do or are particularly good at. The suppression of human and religious rights in Saudi Arabia, for instance, is unparalleled. This is a country that has always been ruled by a Sunni majority. This does not mean that Sunnis should not be allowed to rule. If Saudi Arabia would have a democratic election, which one may be excused for seeing as sheer fantasy right now, Sunnis would win the election, and there is every possibility that minorities will continue to be denied their rights. This does not mean that one should declare that the people of that country should not be allowed to have a democratic election and be given a fair opportunity to win it!

Also, it is no secret that the extremist groups have been growing among the Syrian Sunni opposition. This does not mean that one has to say that Sunnism is to blame for that or that this opposition movement should be opposed.

The practice of the majority in all of these cases suffers from one and the same problem: they demand rights that they deny others. The Sunni and Shiite religious doctrines are not to blame for this discriminatory behavior. Discrimination can be seen in the behavior of people in various walks of life. This is not to deny that extremism can make certain groups and individuals particularly oppressive, but extremist groups must never been be confused with others even if they develop from them. Denying people a right because they might abuse it is no good solution and is a form or abuse and oppression anyway. What is needed, however, is to recognize that there should be safeguards ensuing that the majority does not abuse its rights and deny minorities the same rights.

Qaradawi says he is not sectarian and would like to unite Muslims, but his opposition to the Bahrain uprising and support for its oppression is a blatant form of sectarianism. This is confirmed by his other statements, including his condemnation of Iran as “having nothing to do with Islam,” as if the likes of Saudi Arabia and its intolerant version of Islam represents true Islam. I am no fan or Iran, its theocracy, its clerics and their religious views, or its policies. But singling out Iran and talking about Shiite plots to kill or convert Sunnis is a totally biased, sectarian view.

Qaradawi’s inconsistent position on the Arab uprisings and dictatorships in Muslim countries reveals a serious problem that many Sunnis and Shiites have. They make defending and promoting their form of Islam involve an element of denying or demonizing those who have a different understanding the same right. This is something that I have dealt with in more detail in my article “Bringing Religious Intolerance Down to Earth: The Case of the Sunni-Shia Schism.”

Copyright © 2013 Louay Fatoohi
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1 Comment on "Seeing The Arab Spring Through the Spectacles of Sectarianism"

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Tariq Chaudhry
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Qaradawi is a hardcore Sunni believer and sometimes he gets confused. His view to unite Muslims can only be under the banner of Sunnism. Sectarianism in Islam has very deep historic roots, we cannot simply ignore this fact. So to unite all Muslims we must find common grounds. As humans we are creatures of various opinions that should not be the cause of violence. Coming back to the question of Syria, it is the Asad regime and its Supporters that are committing acts of evil against their fellow countrymen. This has nothing to do with Shi’ism. Just in the same… Read more »
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