Sectarian tensions have increased sharply across the Muslim world following Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and the reaction of Sunni politicians and clerics to it.
On Thursday Sunni scholars from across the Arab world attended an international conference hosted by Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria. More than 70 scholars representing different Sunni organizations across the Middle East and Africa gathered in Cairo.
President Mohamed Morsi said that Iranian-backed Hezbollah have declared an “open war against Islam” by backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Qatari-based Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Saudi Arabia’s Sheikh Muhammad al-Arifi and many other Sunni scholars spoke at the conference against the Damascus government.
Meanwhile, yesterday in Lebanon Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that his group’s intervention was essential to counter a western and Israeli backed war in the region. Hezbollah supporters claim that Arab leaders are increasingly resorting to crude sectarianism because their plans to topple the Syrian regime (aided and abetted by the West) have failed.
The recapturing of the strategic town of Qusair last week by Assad forces assisted by Hezbollah led Sunni religious authorities to increase their rhetoric against the Syrian government and its supporters.
In Cairo President Morsi, Qaradawi and Arifi all urged the conference attendees to support jihad in Syria financially, physically and by sending arms.
A number of prominent representatives at the conference emphasized the concept of Sunni “unity” against Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Assad. Egyptian scholar Mohamed Hasan said: “Jihad is necessary for the victory of our brothers in Syria – jihad with mind, money, weapons; all forms of jihad. Support with whatever will save the Syrian people from the grip of murder and crime by the sectarian regime.
“What is happening to our brothers on Syrian soil, in terms of violence stemming from the Iranian regime, Hezbollah and its sectarian allies, counts as a declaration of war on Islam and the Muslim community in general.”
Another theme which ran through the conference was the urgency for the Suuni rebels to unite and put their internal differences aside for the wider objective of overthrowing Assad. It criticized those governments which have labelled some of the Islamist rebels like Jabhat al-Nusra as “terrorists”. This was indirectly aimed at the US who have used this label to delay their decision to arm the rebels because of a possible Islamist government taking power if Assad was to fall.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah defended his party’s intervention in Syria’s two-year long war, accused Western and Arab governments of hypocrisy for sending arms and fighters to prop up the rebels.
“The problem is not about interference,” he said, charging the US and Israel with supporting Islamist extremists who travel from outside Syria to join the fight. “Imagine [their reactions] if we intervened in Syria in support of the opposition,” Nasrallah added, implying that the West would approve.
“There are Arab countries which don’t have elections or democracy, or [meaningful] constitutions that are sending weapons and fighters,” he said in reference to the US-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Syrian opposition’s main backers. The claim that they want democracy and freedom “is the lie of the armed opposition, which is causing all the bloodshed in Syria.”
The conflict in Syria has not only roped in its regional neighbours, but has been the centre of international dispute between the US, the EU and Russia. With the US, Britain and France now consolidating their decision to arm the rebels, Russia has unreservedly shown its commitment to the Damascus government if western states decide to intervene.
Iran has been a staunch supporter of the Assad administration, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of mainstream Shia Islam. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Egypt have also taken up the rebels’ cause.
It is clear that Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has further polarized an already fragile and divided Lebanon. Syria-related violence has escalated in Lebanon over the past several weeks with frequent rocket attacks from Syria, and deadly clashes between residents in the northern city of Tripoli.
The group’s local critics say interference in Syria’s conflict endangers Lebanon, while Hezbollah supporters say the radical Islamists fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad pose the greatest threat to Lebanon’s security.