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Shiite Leaders in Iraq, Iran React to Egypt Killings

The killing of Egyptian Shiite preacher Hassan Shehata has led many Shiite leaders in Iraq and Iran to call for adherents to tone down sectarian rhetoric.
Kasbana Hassan gestures inside her burnt out house, where four Egyptian Shi'ites were killed, in the suburb of Zawiyat Abu Musallem, on the outskirts of Cairo, June 24, 2013. Egypt's government promised "exemplary punishment" on Monday after the mob killing of four Shi'ite Muslims near Cairo raised fears of wider sectarian bloodshed at a time of grave national crisis. In Sunday's violence in the suburb of Zawiyat Abu Musallem, in sight of the Giza pyramids, a crowd ransacked and torched the house of a famil

While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was very eagerly interpreting Sayyid Qutb’s radical and fundamentalist ideas and dreaming of building his Islamic regime on the basis of these ideas, he could not have imagined that these same ideas would lead to a bloody sectarian conflict in which Shiites were massacred, as happened to Hassan Shehata in Egypt.

When fundamentalist Shiite parties, such as the Islamic Dawa party, based their ideas on the ideology of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, they never imagined that they would stir up the anger of Egyptian Salafists to the point where the latter would go so far as to call them pigs.

When the Egyptian intellectual Hassan Hanafi was drafting the introduction and preparing the translation of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s book Velayat-e faqih (Governance of the jurist) he did not imagine that the revolutionary theology to which he aspired would result in opposing and fighting parties accusing each other of apostasy.

The killing of the Egyptian Shiite preacher Shehata incited the ire of large swaths of the Middle East: Shiites, moderate Sunnis, liberals and other Egyptian religious minorities such as the Coptic Christians.

Moreover, Al-Azhar University officially condemned the incident. At the same time, the positions of the Shiite seminaries in Najaf and Qom regarding this incident are of great importance, as they rationally and prudently condemned the mentioned incident.

With respect to the hawzas of Najaf, the religious authority Mohammad Said Hakim condemned what he described as a terrorist attack on innocent civilians, calling on the government and the Egyptian judiciary to assume their responsibilities regarding takfiri fatwas and provocative attitudes.

Moreover, gatherings for mourning and demonstrations were organized in Najaf by the figures and institutions loyal to the Velayat-e faqih regime and supported by Iran.

Ali al-Sistani the highest Shiite authority, remained silent regarding this incident, which raised questions about why. A confidant of Sistani answered this question to Al-Monitor, saying that Sistani does not interfere in small matters, especially if they have the potential to stir up sedition and animosities. The confidant added that in addition to Sistani’s strong condemnation of all kinds of terrorist acts and crimes against humanity, he also rejects all forms of abuse and insults to the religious beliefs of others, referring to the insults and curses by the late Shehata against Sunni symbols.

Shehata was affiliated with the Islamist movement of Mohammad al-Husayni Shirazi, who was critical of the traditional authority of the Shiite seminary and the government of Iran. Sheikh Yasser Habib is among the most famous symbols of this movement and is famous for having cursed and insulted some of the companions and wives of the Prophet Muhammad.

Regarding Najaf’s traditional positions toward such incidents, Jawad al-Khoei, one of the professors in the hawzas and the director of the Imam al-Khoei Foundation in Najaf, told  Al-Monitor that Najaf continues to call for peaceful coexistence and respect for others and that it rejects all kinds of physical and symbolic attacks in all their forms.

He added that the hawzas of Najaf do not consider these crimes from a sectarian perspective, rather rejecting and condemning them as crimes against humanity, violating the essence of all religions, ethics and customary laws.

Khoei asserted that Iraq would not have been able to end the sectarian strife in recent years if it weren’t for Sistani’s wise policy, which significantly contributed to the reduction of sectarian incitement. Furthermore, Sistani always stressed that the Sunnis are the same as Shiites, not only their brothers, and that there is no difference between humans in terms of the sanctity of life.

In the same context, one of Najaf’s professors told Al-Monitor that what is happening in the region is an Ottoman-Safavid struggle, from a political perspective, completely separate from the religious concerns of the hawzas of Najaf, which do not get involved in such political matters that are influenced by regional and international conflicts.

He added that, accordingly, the Najaf hawzas have refrained from supporting Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, since they have always supported the right of peoples to self-determination, without exception. Moreover, there are presumptions indicating that Najaf objects to the political risks taken by some Shiite parties. Moreover, Sistani's spokesman, Hamed al-Khafaf, in his latest book, The Medical Therapeutic Journey of Sayyed Al-Sistani and the Najaf Crisis in 2004, was quoted as saying that Sistani refused to be received by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at the Beirut airport on his return from his therapy trip to London.

On a different note, in an interview with Al-Monitor, a former Arab minister quoted Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, as saying that he was surprised when Sistani told him in a meeting that Iraq is an Arab country and the league must embrace it so that it returns to the Arab nation. This clearly shows Sistani’s broad thinking horizon and his national, religious and sectarian impartiality.

In regard to the Iranian hawzas of Qom, statements of condemnation and denouncement were issued by certain institutions and religious authorities, just as gatherings for mourning and demonstrations were organized, in the absence of any kind of official reaction by the Iranian government. Moreover, criticism was already expressed by the elite circles of the hawzas against the “unwise” foreign policy of the Iranian regime supporting the extremist radical parties in the Arab region, which will eventually turn against said regime due to doctrinal differences with Iran.

Among the most prominent criticisms was a book written in Farsi by an unknown author entitled "Shiite Political Doctrine and The Extremist Islamist Trend," which was exchanged through emails in private hawza circles.

In the same context, Naamtallah Safri, the director of the Department of History at Al-Mustafa International University affiliated with the Qom hawzas, told Al-Monitor that the higher levels within these hawzas are not informed in a broad and accurate manner about the current situations in the region, which could lead to a lack of appropriate and efficient handling of religious and sectarian crises in the Middle East.

Safri added that the hawzas must take three positions to deal with the persecution of Shiites in the Arab world. The first position is to remedy the internal situation in such a way that controls radical voices insulting Sunni symbols and justifying crimes committed by Sunni radicals, as was the case in the Shehata incident. The second position is that the Qom hawzas must expand their horizons to include the Muslim world and must head toward the formulation of a religious identity separate from the historical conflicts constantly feeding the fighting between the sects. This was the position taken by Ayatollah Hossein Borujerdi, the late leader of the Qom hawzas. The third position is that the hawzas must deal with the Iranian government to push it to retain a political strategy more beneficial to Shiite public affairs.

There are some students and professors in the Qom hawzas who have greater concerns about the sectarian mobilization and ideological fanaticism in the region. These are people who have converted to Shiism from another religion or sect, and are the first target of sectarian violence.

Al-Monitor met with three well-known personalities in the hawzas of Najaf and QomSaleh al-Wardani, an Egyptian who converted to Shiism, expressed his surprise regarding the Shehata incident and described it as completely unexpected by all Muslims in Egypt, since they still celebrate, even more than the Shiites themselves, the birth of Imam Hussein, the Shiites third imam. Egyptians also make religious offerings at the Hussein and Sayyida Zeinab shrines in Cairo.

Saeb Abdul Hamid, director of the Iraqi Scientific Center, said that sectarian bickering, outbidding and offenses are the main reasons for what is happening in the region and that there are parties exploiting religion and provoking the public for obtaining political gains in unethical ways.

Ali Sheikh, the chief editor of Atyaf magazine, said that the culture of violence is completely not in keeping with the spirit of all religions, stressing the need for religions to contribute in promoting a culture of coexistence rather than a culture of terror and killing.

Within the scope of the prevailing atmosphere of sectarianism, the following question arises: Is Iran still proud to name one of the main streets in its capital Tehran after Khaled Islambouli, a member of the radical Islamic Jihad Movement who assassinated Egypt's former President Anwar Sadat?

Ali Mamouri is a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He was a lecturer in Iranian universities and religious seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle East.