How many Sunni mosques in Tehran Iran - Dialogue with the Islamic World

For Al-Qaeda, the "Islamic State" and other radical Sunni groups, Shiites are not simply members of a deviant current of Islam, but rather infidels who must be killed. For these Salafist-Wahhabi-influenced groups, Shiites are even more dangerous than Christians or Jews because they pretend to be brothers in the faith but pursue their own subversive goals. Al-Qaeda and its consorts see the Shiites as a threat to the Islamic community that must be eliminated - with violence if necessary.

In Iraq, Shiite quarters, markets, mosques and shrines have therefore been the target of bloody attacks for years. Attempts have recently increased in Yemen, Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia. The tensions are fueled by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the eyes of al-Qaeda and similar extremist groups, the Shiites are more committed to Iran than to their own country. For them, the Shiites are the fifth column of Tehran and its willing helpers in the struggle for regional supremacy.

Terrifying vision of the "Shiite crescent"

Although Saudi Arabia distances itself from groups like Al-Qaida, the government shares the terrorist organization's distrust of the Shiites. For the kingdom, with Iran's growing influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the terrible vision of a “Shiite crescent” threatens to become a reality, against which Jordan's King Abdullah once warned. Many Wahhabi clergymen also reject the Shiites on theological grounds. They accuse them of worshiping Imam Ali as a god, putting their imams on an equal footing with the prophet and falsifying the Koran.

The tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, Riyadh and Tehran are stronger than they have been in a long time. Iran does not see itself as a Shiite, but as an Islamic state. Since it was founded in 1979, the Islamic Republic has seen itself as the champion of a new order for all Muslims. Even if the zeal for the armed export of the revolution has long since given way to a pragmatic, nationalist policy, Iran still sees itself as the defender of Muslims against imperialism - of all Muslims, mind you, not just Shiites.

Commitment to theological and political rapprochement

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has been campaigning for theological and political rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini forbade denigrating the Sunnis in speeches and sermons and instructed the Iranian pilgrims to pray together with the Sunnis during the Hajj in Mecca. In 1982 an annual “Unity Week” was introduced to promote dialogue between denominations through conferences and public rallies.

Khomeini's successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then went one step further and founded the World Association for the Approach of Islamic Schools of Law (Majma‘-e jahani taqrib-e madhab-e eslami) in 1991. The organization, based in Tehran, is now headed by Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, a clergyman who was born in Najaf, Iraq in 1955. In addition to the “Unity Week”, she organizes conferences, publishes magazines and is also in the process of establishing a university of Islamic law schools.

Discrimination against religious minorities

According to their own account, thousands of scholars from around the world took part in their events. In fact, according to Western experts such as Wilfried Buchta, the external impact of the Majma‘-e taqrib is limited. Prominent Arab Sunnis come to their conferences from time to time, but most of the participants do not come from the Arab world. Many Sunnis suspect the organization, despite their assertions to the contrary, of wanting to prove the superiority of Shiism or even to try to convert Sunnis.

It is not without good reason that many Sunnis see Iran's advocacy of Islamic ecumenism as a showcase policy that is limited to public declarations of intent. Accordingly, it primarily serves to break Iran's isolation. The commitment to ecumenism sounds hollow to many Sunnis because the 1979 constitution established Islam as the state religion for the Shiite-Jafarite school of law. Accordingly, the Sunni minority in Iran is hardly represented in politics and is also systematically discriminated against in the religious sphere.

Reservations about Sunnis

In addition, the commitment to ecumenism is official policy in Iran, but is by no means supported by all Shiite clergy. Even if no Shiite would ever declare Sunnis to be infidels, there are great reservations among the Orthodox clergy in the Qom about rapprochement with the Sunnis. While the Sunni Sheikh al-Azhar Mahmud Shaltut recognized the Jafarite school of law as equal to the four Sunni schools of law in a pioneering step in 1959, a corresponding fatwa by Shiite clergy has not yet been issued.

Another problem with Iran's ecumenical policy is that it specifically excludes Wahhabis. The Majma‘-e taqrib is not only critical of the prevailing Islamic trend in Saudi Arabia, it is also hostile. Wahhabis are seen by many Iranians as sectarians who saw controversy among Muslims, and as uncultivated desert dwellers who fell back into the time of pre-Islamic ignorance. They are also accused of having allied themselves with the imperialists and surrendering Palestine to the Zionists.

The main problem with ecumenical politics on the Shiite and Sunni sides is that it misses the core of the conflict. Theological issues in Iraq, Syria or Yemen certainly play an important role in highlighting and justifying differences between the denominational groups. It is certainly important to maintain a dialogue and to recognize one another as Muslims. But in essence the conflicts are of a political nature. Without a political solution, there will probably be no theological rapprochement.

Ulrich von Schwerin

© 2015