CAIRO, Egypt – A popular Sunni Muslim cleric with a television show and a Web site that churns out religious edicts and dieting tips has agitated centuries-old animosities in the Islamic world by recently referring to Shiite Muslims as heretics seeking to invade Sunni societies.
The bitter, often bloody divide between the two main branches of Islam has been an undercurrent since the 7th century, but Youssef Qaradawi’s vitriol comes at a fragile time when Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are wary that the predominate Shiite nations of Iraq and Iran could destabilize the region.
With populist fervor, Qaradawi’s comments intertwined religious mistrust with political suspicion. Iran’s nuclear program and influence with the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the radical group Hezbollah in Lebanon have agitated Sunni capitals. Fighting between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, which left tens of thousands dead since the U.S. invasion of 2003, has calmed, but the Sunni minority worries about its future.
“Shiites are Muslims, but they are heretics, and their danger comes from their attempts to invade Sunni society,” said Qaradawi, who was quoted in the Egyptian independent daily Al Masry al Youm. “They are able to do that because of their billions dollars trained cadres of Shiites proselytizing in Sunni countries. … We should protect Sunni society from the Shiite invasion.”
Those opinions were published first on Sept. 6. Since then, Qaradawi, a man with a polished voice who hosts a show on Islamic law on the Al Jazeera channel, has been chastised by Shiite scholars and writers in what has turned into a war of polemics and personal attacks played out in Web sites and newspapers from Doha, the capital of Qatar, to Cairo.
Qaradawi’s statements are dangerous and could “push the Muslim people in the direction of more division,” Ayatollah Mohammed Taskhiri, vice president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, was quoted as saying in the Iranian media. The Tabnak News Agency, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Council, condemned the comments as a “calculated conspiracy against Iranian Shiites.”