By Chandra Muzaffar
Any human being who abhors violence and bloodshed would be shocked by remarks made by a leading religious personality, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, on June 1.
At a rally in Doha, he urged Sunni Muslims in the region to go to Syria and fight the Bashar al-Assad government and its supporters, the Hezbollah and Iran.
He regarded it as a “jihad.” He claimed that Iran and the Hezbollah want to exterminate, to “devour” the Sunnis. Between Sunnis and Shias, he insisted, there was no common ground.
Qaradawi’s remarks came in the midst of the ongoing critical battle between Syrian government forces and rebels for control of the key border town of Qasair. The Lebanese based Hezbollah is helping government forces. A large number of foreign militants are fighting on the side of the rebels.
Inciting Sunnis to fight Shias will only escalate a bloody conflict that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Religious leaders in particular should lend their moral weight to efforts to achieve a political solution. They should be imploring all sides to cease fighting immediately.
Besides, Qaradawi should know that the conflict in Syria is not a simple Sunni-Shia clash. It is rooted in the larger politics of hegemony, Israel and the tussle for power among regional actors.
It began as a peaceful protest against Assad’s authoritarian rule in March 2011. Assad reacted with harsh reprisals.
Within a couple of weeks, groups and individuals from some neighbouring countries started to supply arms to a segment of the protesters perhaps at the behest of the centres of power in the West and Israel who have always sought to eliminate the Assad government which in the context of its close ties with both Hezbollah and Iran is seen as a challenge to their control and dominance of the region.
Indeed, Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad government constitute the only organised, sustained resistance to the US-British-French and Israeli attempt to perpetuate their hegemonic hold over West Asia and North Africa (WANA).
It was Hezbollah, it will be recalled, that drove Israel out of Lebanon from 2000 onwards, and in 2006, thwarted its diabolical design to gain control over Lebanon. It is this party, Hezbollah( the party of God) that Qaradawi in his Doha speech described as “the party of shaitan ( satan).”
Because these forces of resistance happen to be Shia, close allies of the Western powers in WANA who happen to be Sunni, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are trying very hard to project the resistance as a Shia attempt to dominate the region.
As a result, the more significant issues of Western hegemony, resistance within WANA and the role of Israel which continues to occupy the Golan Heights in Syria, are all submerged in a cleverly contrived Sunni-Shia narrative.
Of course, Sunni-Shia differences have existed for a long while and have on occasions coloured politics in the region in the past. But it was only after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which represented a major challenge to Western hegemony and Israeli interests that these differences have been accentuated and manipulated mainly by US ally, Saudi Arabia, to divide Sunnis from Shias.
It is against this backdrop that we should view Qaradawi’s remarks.
There was a time when he had a positive attitude towards Sunni-Shia rapprochement.
But when some Western states began to re-assert their power in WANA in the midst of the Arab uprisings, Qaradawi appeared to legitimise their role.
He was among the earliest public figures to endorse NATO’s air strikes over Libya. In the middle of last year he even opined that if the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) came back today, he would support NATO. This earned him the derisive moniker ‘NATO Mufti’ among some Arab commentators.
It is Qaradawi’s legitimisation of Western hegemony by invoking religious authority that makes his role so perfidious. What is worse, he has been appealing to sectarian religious sentiments which pit Muslim against Muslim, which have led to murders and massacres on a massive scale, in order to perpetuate the interests of both regional actors and global powers. It is a glaring example of the crude abuse of religion by someone who dons the garb of religion.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) based in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia