Al-Jazeera today broadcast an extremely important direct dialogue between the influential Sunni Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Iranian politico Akbar Hashmi Rafsanjani on the subject of Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions. I had expected to be liveblogging the dialogue, which I had seen advertised as running now, but instead they are running 'Behind the News' with clips of the debate and commentary from Fahmy Howeydi and Anis Niqash. I do still hope to see the whole dialogue.
Qaradawi and Rafsanjani today on al-Jazeera
The debate wasn't face to face, and Rafsanjani spoke through a translator. Still, Qaradawi and Rafsanjani reached some key points of consensus. Both emphasized the danger of the United States exploiting Sunni-Shia differences, and both said that the United States and Israel were the only winners in an Iraqi civil war and the only beneficiaries from sectarian killing. Both supported Iraq's territorial unity, and both called for unity against the American occupation rather than sectarian violence. Both called for more Sunni-Shia dialogue, and for a common front against American plans to divide the Islamic umma. Qaradawi said that whatever Sunni concerns about the Shia, Sunnis (he used "we" here) would stand with Iran if it was attacked and against the aggressors.
Qaradawi sharply distinguished between resistance to the American occupation of Iraq and Sunni-Shia bloodshed. He insisted that Muslims defend the right of resistance to foreign occupation, whether in Iraq or Palestine or Afghanistan or anywhere, and denounced any attempts to delegitimize such resistance. While he defended the Sunnis of Iraq, and called on Iran to use its influence to stop the sectarian killing in Iraq, he clearly and bluntly condemned any Sunnis who were killing Shia. He pointed to last October's Mecca Document as an appropriate basis for Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq.
Qaradawi rejected the "takfiris and extremists on both sides". At the same time, he called for frank and open discussion rather than pleasantries, implicitly defending his controversial remarks at the Doha conference last month. Rafsanjani, for his part, avowed the importance of dialogue with all Muslim ulema and the need for Sunni-Shia rapprochement. He clearly hoped to reassure Sunni Arab audiences about Iranian intentions, and treated this as a public diplomacy mission on behalf of Iran, trying to repair the damage done to Iran's reputation in the Arab world over the last couple of months, doing the sort of thing which I only wish senior American officials were more willing to do.
Fahmy Howeydi and Anis Naqash served as discussants on 'Behind the News'. Howeydi argued that it was important to have direct dialogue between Sunni and Shia at this level, hoping that it would open the door to more untelevised dialogues. Naqash was less impressed, arguing that the current problems were all political, not sectarian. He complained that Sunni-Shia dialogues only legitimized the false idea that sectarian conflict existed and empowered extremists on both sides. Howeydi defended such dialogues as offering an opportunity for moderates and reasonable voices to exchange views and to make progress. Both Howeydi and Naqash noted that Rafsanjani spoke as a statesman and Qaradawi as a daiya (preacher), making actual dialogue a bit difficult.
Overall, this was a fascinating program, and of real importance in the current political climate. The primary takeaway is that, as I've written several times before, that Arab political populists are stepping back from their anti-Shia moves last month because they see the sectarian conflict being exploited by the United States and its regional allies. Iranian pragmatists like Rafsanjani are encouraging this retrenchment, hoping to claw back ground lost over Iraq and Saddam's execution. Like Mohamed Mehdi Akef, Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qaradawi - his finger ever to the political wind - has tacked away from the post-Saddam execution anti-Shia hysteria and back towards a more conventional political line. I'm hoping I get the chance to ask him about all of this in Doha this weekend.