Sunday, October 22, 2006

Shia-Sunni accommodation?

One of the historic divisions within Islam is between Shias and Sunnis, who disagreed in the early days about who should hold the position of caliph or successor to the prophet. In any religion, disagreements of this sort concerning who held and may hold religious and political authority is not one that can be easily overcome, and suspicion between people who identify with the rival traditions is one of the drivers of the fighting in Iraq.

Juan Cole in today's Informed Comment has an entry that is worth quoting in full:

The Mecca Declaration, a joint ruling of Shiite and Sunni clerics from Iraq, forbidding a Muslim to shed the blood of another Muslim, is in danger of going unheeded, according to close analysts of the region.

Be that as it may, the declaration is historic. According to al-Sharq al-Awsat [Ar.], it maintains that the differences between Sunnis and Shiites are a matter of personal interpretation (ta'wil), not a difference over basic principles (usul). To have such a declaration sponsored by Saudi Arabia, which adheres to the Wahhabi branch of Islam that was historically negative toward Shiites is a conceptual revolution. The statement has implications for Sunni-Shiite relations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.-- not just in Iraq.

Events in Iraq demonstrated that Western Powers could use the Sunni-Shiite divide to help overthrow governments, dominate major countries in the region, and even break up whole countries. The regional elites are increasingly deciding that Sunni-Shiite ecumenism is necessary to avoid more of these disasters.
Cole, being an expert on Shiism, may be more likely than others to believe a theological ruling will make a difference. But it might, and it's exactly the kind of thing that will get little play in the international media, whether it's effective or not.

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