19 September 2012
By Pinhas Inbari
The bloody riots that targeted American diplomatic missions across the Middle East and culminated with the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi can be understood within the larger framework of inter-Muslim disputes.
The riots were organized by the radical Salafist school, which provides al-Qaeda with its puritan ideology. In the case of Benghazi, the attack on the American embassy was planned in advance by al-Qaeda in order to commemorate 9/11.
The roots of the violence perpetrated by Islamic groups across the Middle East stem from the upheaval caused by the Arab Spring. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has left the door wide open for religious discourse to prevail over liberal and secular discourse, while the inter-Islamic discourse has proven to be violent.
It is widely known that the main conflict within Islam lies along the Shia/Sunna divide. However, a deeper investigation of the Islamic world would show nuanced fractures along complex religious divisions. While the Shia are controlled by the Twelver school that dominates Iran (other Shia schools that have no relevant political meaning also exist), the Sunna contains three basic schools that do not coexist peacefully.
Even between the Shia and Sunna, the gap is only as wide as the Salafist discord with the Shia. The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is ready to reconcile with Iran on a pragmatic basis. Moreover, the Sufi school, that is considered the “sleeping beauty” of the religious stream, is the friendliest Sunna movement toward the Shia. Furthermore, while the Sufis form a majority in Arab Sunni countries, they are not politically active.
Thus, the Salafists and the Sufis are at opposite ends of the Sunna spectrum. The Salafists are puritan in their monotheism and do accept any veneration of holy persons or places, not to mention pilgrimages to holy graves. The Sufis, however, contact God through mediums at the expense of pure monotheism. They are also much quieter in their observances and beliefs, while the Salafists are violent with a penchant to destroy Sufi holy sites. The Muslim Brotherhood find itself somewhere in the middle. While it takes pains not to agonize the Sufis, it also does not subscribe to their jovial interpretation of Islam and prefers serious scholarly work, as seen in their association with the al-Azhar university.
Today, the tension that has resulted from Salafist violent attacks on Sufis, has pushed the latter closer to Iran, with many converting to Shia. They are considered the main hole in Sunna walls against Iran and the Shia. The conversion, however, can actually be seen as a return to their roots, as the Iranian dynasty that established the Shia as state religion in Persia - the Safawite dynasty - began as a Sufi order. Even today, the Sufis in Egypt venerate Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad and the wife of Ali, the only truthful Caliph in the eyes of the Shia.
The dispute between the Salafis and the Sufis weakens the Muslim Brotherhood vis à vis Iran. The Brotherhood believes in the quest for a global Caliphate, which entails eventual reconciliation with Shia Iran. However, while an internal war brews within the Sunna, the Brotherhood cannot approach Iran and the cohesive Shia establishment.
The Salafis also pose an economic threat to the Muslim Brotherhood. While reconciliation with Iran may be far away, Egypt’s relationship with the United States and its financial aid is central to the sustainment of the country. The Salafis, however, view the United States in Satanic terms and violently reject any rapprochement between the two countries. The violence seen in Sinai with the murder of Egyptian soldier, and the recent murder to the American ambassador in Lybia, is the incarnation of the internal tension within political Islam.
We welcome any comments you may have on this article.
Comments are moderated and we reserve the right to edit or remove any which are derogatory or offensive.
The WJC is not responsible for the content of any comments.
There are no comments
Fill up the form above and be the first one
Subscribe to our newsletter.