Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunni Leader Splits Arab Democracy Movement With Sectarian Sword

A leading Sunni cleric has dismissed Bahraini protesters as sectarian, thus dividing the ranks of Arab democracy advocates into two camps.

Egyptian Sunni cleric Yusuf Al Qaradawi’s blatantly sectarian justification for the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain may be seen as a response to Iraqi Shi’a voicing of support for the Bahraini demonstrators. If Sistani and Moqtada al Sadr hastened to express support for Bahraini democracy advocates because they were Shi’a, al Qaradawi implicitly dismisses the protesters’ grievances because they are Shi’a. The two sides appear to agree that it’s all about sectarianism.

Life is of course not quite that simple, for the shadow of Iran hovers in the background, and al Qaradawi makes it nearly explicit with his reference to “ a sect, assisted by foreign sides” (sic), so the second level of his speech is the Saudi-Iranian competition for regional influence. Al Qaradawi may be giving Tehran credit for more influence than it has, which would just serve to enhance Tehran’s influence still more both by making Tehran seem more important than it really is and by sending the clear message that Bahraini Shi’a have nowhere else to turn. Given the stead growth in Iran’s regional influence over the last decade, this would seem, from the perspective of a Sunni political activist, to be a counter-productive message.

Al Qaradawi’s contempt for democracy protesters who happen to be Shi’a clashes ominously with current trends in Egypt, which he supported. Democracy, it seems, is for Sunnis only. Or, to put it differently, one is tempted to reach the bizarre conclusion that for Sunni Islamists, Saudi victory over Iran is more important than liberty for repressed populations. Let those Arabs desiring modern civil rights beware of the support of religious figures whose long-term goals are not necessarily a match.

From the outside, it is difficult to judge the merits of al Qaradawi’s claims about the goals of the Bahraini protesters, but whatever role Iran or pan-Shiism may be playing, al Qaradawi certainly seems to have raised the likelihood of sectarian conflict and weakened the pan-Arab democracy movement with his remarks, which crack the façade of unity among anti-Mubarak Egyptians and Arab protesters more broadly. Should the Egyptian democratic revolution succeed, it will be interesting to see how al Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood  adjust to Egyptian secular modernization.

It remains to be seen how badly al Qaradawi's siding with the counter-revolutionary Saudis will weaken the Arab democracy movement, whose momentum seems to have slowed significantly over the last two weeks.

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