Iran leader accuses U.S. of exploiting ancient rift in Islam

From CNS News

By Patrick Goodenough

In a new diatribe against the United States, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday accused it of fomenting rifts between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims as part of an overall “plot” against Islam.

“The day when the terms ‘Shia’ and ‘Sunni’ emerged in the American publications and media, all commentators became worried,” he told a gathering of ambassadors from Muslim countries – Sunnis and Shias – marking the birthday of Islam’s 7th century founder, Mohammed.

With President Hasan Rouhani seated behind him, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on Tuesday.

With President Hasan Rouhani seated behind him, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on Tuesday.

“The British have a record of sowing discord and setting off wars between Shia and Sunnis and they are experts in that,” Khamenei continued. “However, the American plot today is even more dangerous. Supporting one sect against another, they oppose the essence of Islam and their animosity is directed at Islam.”

Khamenei said “the enemy” had unfortunately succeeded to a certain extent in its aim of setting off “an internal war among Muslims.”  He reiterated previous allegations that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) is a creation of the West and its allies.

“Incumbent U.S. officials are opposed to Islam in principle and, despite their remarks, they seek to sow discord among Muslims – an example of which is the creation of terrorist sects like Da’esh [ISIS] and other sects that have been created with money by U.S. affiliates and their political assistance,” he said. “They have given rise to the current catastrophes in the Muslim world.”

“Why should we surrender to this plot and let their goal remain unknown to us?” he asked his Shia and Sunni audience. “With insight, we should resist.”

Khamenei went on to call on the Muslim world to build a “modern Islamic civilization,” one based on Islamic values and potential in contrast to the “gaudy,” “morally corrupt” and “spiritually empty” Western civilization.

“In laying the foundation for a modern Islamic civilization, we should not look to the Westerners and we should not pay attention to their smiles and grimaces, but we should move on the correct path by relying on our own capabilities and potentialities,” he said.

The Sunni-Shi’ite rift dates back to a succession dispute after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century. (Shias believe Mohammed nominated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as successor; Sunnis recognize four caliphs, beginning with Abu Bakr, the rightful successors.)

 Today Shi’ites comprise between 10 and 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The vast majority of Muslim countries are predominantly Sunni, while Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan alone are Shi’ite-majority countries. Sizeable Shia minorities exist in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The Syrian civil war and accompanying rise of ISIS has fanned the flames of sectarianism across the region. Iran and its Shi’ite allies in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Iraq (militias like Khata’ib Hezbollah and Asaib al-Haq) are fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an adherent of the Allawite offshoot of Shia Islam.

Arrayed against them are mostly Sunni foes including Kurds, nationalists, salafists and jihadists including ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra, along with Sunni backers in the Gulf states and Turkey.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greets Shia and Sunni Muslims on the occasion of Mohammed’s birthday. (Photo: Office of the Supreme Leader)

On both sides, radical clerics have poured fuel on the fire with anti-Sunni and anti-Shia rhetoric.

Clerics in the Sunni Gulf states urge “Sunnis” – not Muslims – to wage jihad against Iran (“Safawis”), the Assad regime (“Nusayris”) and Hezbollah (which prominent Sunni scholar and Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf Qaradawi has dubbed the “party of Satan.”)

Shia leaders and clerics label their Sunni foes “takfiris” – an epithet for radical Sunnis who consider those who do not share their religious views as infidels.

Sunnis in Shi’ite Iran

Despite Khamenei’s appeal for Sunnis and Shi’ites to unite against the West, the regime he heads has a long record of discrimination against Sunnis, who comprise about nine percent of Iran’s population and are mostly members of ethnic minorities.

Although Iran’s constitution states that mainstream Sunni schools of Islam must be “accorded full respect,” Sunnis may not build new mosques or schools, Sunni literature is often banned, and only Shias are eligible to become president, according to the U.S. State Department.

The Iran section of the department’s most recent religious freedom report cites arrests and harassment of Sunnis, including Sunni converts from Shia Islam.

“Sunni leaders reported bans on Sunni religious literature and teachings in public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas,” it says. “Security officials continued to raid prayer sites belonging to Sunnis.”

Last year three men identified by human rights groups as active in preaching Sunni Islam were sentenced to death after being convicted of “enmity against God through spreading propaganda against the system.”

Tehran, a city of more than one million Sunnis, reportedly has no Sunni mosque and even informal Sunni prayer spaces have been targeted by the regime.


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