During the Islamic Summit Conference that was held in Saudi Arabia last week, King Abdullah called for a dialogue between different Islamic sects. The Shiite Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially attended the summit. The Saudi King invited eight sects to the dialogue: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I, Hanbali (i.e. the four Sunni schools) and the Shiite al-Jaafari, al-Zaidi, al-Abazi and al-Zahiri sects, which exist in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Yemen and Iraq. Two years ago, the Saudi King himself called for an interfaith dialogue at a conference, which was held in New York and was attended by Israeli figures.
Although many initiatives were previously launched to hold dialogues and bring together different Islamic sects, a special importance has been attached to the Islamic Conference as it has been sponsored by Saudi Arabia at a time when the practice of Takfir [when a Muslim declares another Muslim a Kafir, or unbeliever] is on the rise. This practice is becoming more common than ever, even within political movements of the same sect. However, the Sunni-Shiite conflict is the main reason behind the rift in the Arab and Islamic world.
It is obvious that this initiative is not likely to bear immediate fruit. It needs an integrated project and mechanisms that would address the key issue, which is religious reform. Nevertheless, the conference holds significant importance at the political level, since it represents a positive step on the part of a hard-line religious Sunni authority towards another hard-line Shiite power, each leading a political camp.
Needless to say, we live in a world that has long overcome the issue of recognition of the other in terms of religion and culture. However, although Muslims have managed to integrate into this world, they have failed to reconcile with themselves, their history and their culture. They continue to dig up stories and dogmas from their religious history to further widen the gap of their conflict. Yet, this summit remains a very modest step in the right direction.
What about the social and political relations existing between these sects?
It is well known that before the Islamic revolution, the Gulf did not see Iran as its foe. Arabs used to deal with Tehran on a political basis. Syria, on the other hand, was also a cooperative country and a partner in the management of the Arab world and its affairs. However, the Shiite sect’s legitimacy was not acknowledged by the Saudi King. Shiites in the Kingdom are deprived of their rights.
Shiites comprise the majority of the Bahraini people, a large proportion of the Iraqi people and one third of Lebanese society. Previously, the Saudi Kingdom did not deal with these people on a sectarian basis, except for its own [Shiite] citizens. However, today, the Kingdom looks at Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria as well as Iran from a sectarian perspective. In order to change this outlook, the Kingdom ought to put the Saudi Shiite groups on equal legal footing with other groups of different sects in the Gulf emirates.
Recent Arab history has not been rife with religious conflicts. Since the first Arab revolution in 1916, the identity of the region’s peoples was characterized by nothing but Arabism. During the time of national renaissance and the struggle against European colonialism, it was difficult to categorize the history of Arab peoples based on their religions and sects.
Arabism, which is an organized intellectual movement, did not only appeal to Sunnis, who represented the broader public of the nationalist movement, but to “minorities” as well. Arabism attracted all of the elites in all Arab countries, including the Arabian Gulf. Sectarian problems must be seen as receptacles for social and political effects caused by regimes that have used religious and cultural arsenal to support and justify religious and sectarian privileges among their peoples. Had Bahrain or Iraq been Shiite states, inter-Arab relations would not have changed to such an extent. Had Iran been a Sunni state for the past 400 years, positions would not have changed towards it, and the Saudi Kingdom would have dealt with the Sunni-based Egyptian government according to its political choices rather than its religious sect. The same is true for Turkey.
However, we do not deny the fact that Iran has stormed the Arab world and sought to export the revolution and thus its influence to Arab countries. Iran has become a partner in the Arab interests and managed to procure for itself geographic, political and sectarian regions. Today, Iran is trying to take advantage of the Arab world crisis and invest in the Shiite environment to serve its interests in Iraq, Yemen, the Gulf, Syria and Lebanon. While it has succeeded in justifying the overthrow of autocracy in Iraq and thus reaping the fruits, Iran cannot justify the killings of the majority of the Syrian people by relentlessly supporting the regime under the pretext of its political resistance. For the regime’s domestic policy is no longer voicing political resistance, which in turn is no longer viable unless Arab solidarity is renewed in order to formulate national, social and integrated policies.
Today, Iran is seen as a force inhibiting the path of change in the Arab world, as this change will be done at the hands of Sunni political Islam.
Here we are in Lebanon facing a contradictory Iranian position. Iran supports our national defense, as in the “resistance” and its arms and all relevant achievements in this regards. On the other hand, it tries to place Lebanon at the forefront of the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab conflict and therefore preventing the country from rising and from regaining its stability and unity.
Today, the Sunni-Shiite conflict is likely to be affiliated with the Saudi-Iranian conflict and the interfaith dialogue has yet to put forth any viable solutions.
Today, Lebanon falls under the responsibility of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The fragmentation witnessed over the past years reflects a joint trusteeship, aiming at exporting regional conflict to Lebanon at the ideological and political levels. It would have been a dignified and viable step, had the Saudi King sought to establish a dialogue with Iran in order to protect Lebanon and distance it from the Syrian crisis. For Lebanon must not be subject to the hegemony of any doctrine or sect, whatever the aspirations of regional states.