Saturday, 3 May 2008

Sunnis and Shiites

Participants at the latest Doha Debate on April 29th, 2008 have strongly defended Islam's image after repeated accusations that it had been damaged by the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq. The motion that the Sunni-Shia conflict is damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace was defeated by 61%-39%.

From the Doha Debate webpage:

In a series of robust exchanges, there was strong disagreement about the effects of violence between Islam's two largest denominations.

Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, said recent polls showed that Americans believed Islam contained more violent extremists than other religions and sectarian fighting must have contributed to that impression. “People in the United States are beginning to see Muslims as inherently violent,” he said.

This perception, he argued, enabled the major powers to exploit Islam's splits “and embark on a policy of divide and rule.”

Seconding the motion, General Ali Shukri, an adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan, insisted clerics were not doing enough to counter extremist Muslim beliefs.

He warned that the civil war in Iraq was threatening to spill over into neighboring countries, adding that it was "a very bad image as far as Islam is concerned."
Opposing the motion, Imam Sayid Hassan Al Qazwini, leader of North America's largest Islamic centre in Detroit, said there was "no conflict between Sunnis and Shias." He added that any dispute was between minorities on each side and "the majority get along and are peaceful."

Supporting him, Dr Hisham Hellyer, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, rejected the notion that conflicts between Sunnis and Shias had done any damage to the reputation of Islam. "The West has been critical of Islam for a thousand years and portrayed it as violent - and that has nothing to do with the Sunni-Shia divide."

He also criticized the western media for exaggerating religious divisions, a view endorsed by most contributions from the floor.

The debate will be broadcast on BBC World on today, May 3rd at 1510, 1910 GMT and tomorrow, 4th of May, at 0010, 0710, 1510, 1910 GMT.

Here comes a personal note, before having watched the debate. In my opinion the question does not really address the problem. If Christianity is considered, by definition, the religion of peace, Christian main authorities, conquerors, crusaders, have definitely failed of applying its basic principle during the centuries. But so did their Muslim counterparts as well. Christianity has in fact blamed Islam since medieval times of being violent, not peaceful. Pope Benedict’s foolish remarks made in September 2006 in Regensburg have proved that this controversy is still defining daily relationships between Christians and Muslims. Sectarian wars, that is, civil wars, within the Muslim communities, took place in Islam in its mythical early phases only. Since then, the certainly more than two (Sunni, Shia) branches of Islam (see, for example, Patricia Crone’s God’s Rule, Government and Islam. Columbia University Press, New York 2005) live more or less in peace, side by side.

As a matter of fact, the rise of the Shiite Islamic Republic in Iran, and the two ongoing wars led by the USA in the vicinity of this country (Iraq, Afghanistan), have incited the now deplored considerable violence between the sects which can be seen every day especially in Iraq.

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