Gulf Shi'ites fear blame for Syrian conflict

Researcher: Hate language is on the rise, in the press, on social media and even at lectures in mosques.

By REUTERS
June 12, 2013 09:16
Soldiers loyal to the Syrian gather in Qusair, after Syrian army took control of the city, June 5.

Assad's Soldiers, Qusair, Flag 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

DUBAI - Shi'ite Muslims in the Gulf, alarmed by the shrill sectarian rhetoric of some Sunni clerics after Lebanon's Hezbollah militia entered

Videos posted on the Internet from the battlefront in Syria have served to polarize Gulf Arabs, whose Shi'ite communities increasingly complain they are seen as Iranian agents.

Shi'ites point to the recent digging up by rebels near Damascus of the grave of a seventh-century figure revered by Shi'ites, and the filmed cutting out of the heart of a Syrian government soldier by a rebel fighter as examples of what could happen to them if hardline Islamists take charge.

For their part, Sunnis say Assad's forces have committed countless massacres in their struggle to shield the president from being overthrown.

"What is dangerous about this issue is that while the media may target Hezbollah, all the Shi'ites are implicated in this," Sulais said. "Everybody is regarded as a Hezbollah supporter."

IRANIAN FACTOR

Although Syria is ruled by the secular pan-Arab Baath party, many Gulf Arabs fear a victory by the Iranian-backed Assad could extend Tehran's influence across what Jordan's King Abdullah once called a Shi'ite crescent stretching from Tehran to Beirut.

Sunni-led Gulf Arab states accuse Iran of being behind an uprising by Bahrain's majority Shi'ites in 2011 that threatened the Sunni monarchy, and blame them for occasional protests by minority Shi'ites in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Saudi forces intervened to help Bahrain's ruler crush the revolt.

Riyadh has also blamed Iran for an alleged plot to kill its ambassador in Washington, and has also rounded up a number of people accused of espionage for Tehran.

When Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters retook Qusair town last week, some Saudis saw that as an Iranian win.

"If Bashar al-Assad's regime survives, Iran and Hezbollah will also be victorious. Thus, it is not an exaggeration to say that this is a decisive battle for the Gulf states, Jordan and Lebanon, and before them all Syria," Rashed said.

GOVERNMENT ROLE

Although some conservative clerics who have blasted Shi'ites are close to Gulf Sunni governments, the increasingly sectarian language does not necessarily have official backing.

In 2003, Saudi Arabia set up the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue as a venue to promote understanding. Last year King Abdullah said a centre to study Muslim sects was being set up, a statement seen as sending a message to Sunni clerics that they should regard Shi'ites as proper Muslims.

Now, however, Sulais said he feared years of efforts by Gulf governments to improve relations between Sunnis and Shi'ites "are being wasted".

Despite the high tensions, there has been virtually no incident of friction in countries with mixed populations, thanks to strong government policies that do not tolerate to strife. So harsh words have yet to turn into deeds.

Government-approved sermons preached in Saudi Arabia last Friday mostly focused on social issues such as behavior in the summer holidays and combating drug abuse.

Shi'ite clerics across the Gulf also sought to calm tempers, appealing to followers to avoid inflaming passions.

"Today, more than ever, we need to shy away from aggravating the sectarian spasm and confessional tensions, and to work to create a positive climate and prepare the ground to contain all forms of partisanship and agitation," Sheikh Nasser al-Asfour, a Bahraini cleric, said according to al-Wasat daily on Sunday.

Sheikh Abdullah Ahmed al-Youssef, in a Friday sermon in the mostly Shi'ite Saudi city of Qatif, expressed sorrow at what he called "the dangerous division" that Muslims are living through. He noted that more Muslims have died at the hands of fellow Muslims than at the hands of Israel.


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