I've written a lot lately about the odd idea circulating in the Arab world that large numbers of Sunnis are converting to Shi'ism, and that Iran is encouraging this as part of a general plot to spread its influence. Everyone seems to believe this, even though there is virtually no evidence that it is actually happening anywhere. The meme has gone so far that Hassan Nasrullah felt the need to weigh in on the question. As translated by Mideastwire, via Josh Landis:
"For example, it is said that Iran or the Shi'i Islamic movements throughout the Arab and Islamic world have a plan to turn Sunnis into Shi'is. It is also said that there are plans, studies centres, programmes, and huge sums of money geared towards this end. When you say this to any Sunni leader, Sunni scholar, Sunni movement, or young Sunni man, they will mobilize themselves against it. This is their natural right. This issue is now presented strongly and some news media are working on it. Some Arab leaders and senior men of religion spoke about this issue. Depicting this as a basic and major issue on which others are working will lead the nation to sedition whose end will not be known.
"Let us both Shi'is and Sunnis first make sure of this, cooperate, and investigate this together to know if there is really such a thing and if it exists. Let us find out if it really exists or if it is fabricated, drafted, written, organized, and presented by someone as top secret information to some leaders, men of religion, or quarters. Let us scrutinize things and make sure of this first to know if it exists or not.
Although tonight is a night of grief and consolation, allow me to lighten the atmosphere a bit for you because the worst of calamities forces laughter as the popular saying goes. I said this to those who came to see me about this issue. I told them if Hezbollah wants to convert some Sunni youths in Lebanon into Shi'is, what will it do? You say it will spend huge sums of money rather than use ideology, conviction, evidence, and so forth although we do not use even these for this purpose. This is not our cause. It is well known since 1982 that this has not been our cause. It is not our policy to turn Sunnis into Shi'is or prevent the Shi'is from becoming Sunnis.
What will the purpose of turning 50, 100, or 200 young Sunnis into Shi'is be? Is it increasing the number of Shi'is by 200? First of all, this will cost us huge sums of money. Second, it will cause us a problem whose end will not be known. I told them this does not require us to do much. We in Hezbollah can issue a circular saying we this year want you to produce more. The number of Shi'is will then increase by 50,000 people in only one year. We will thus do it for free. Well, you continue to produce without needing such a recommendation, praise be to God. "What they say is silly and is aimed at incitement. True, a very small number of Sunni youths in Lebanon might have been influenced by the general atmosphere and converted to Shiism. Likewise, and for the same reasons, some Shi'is might have turned into Sunnis. Let us count their number in Lebanon and see if there is a phenomenon to convert to Shiism or Sunnism. There is nothing of the sort.
I heard that some Arab leaders, some Arab news media, and some men of religion gave astronomical figures. In life there are things that can be believed and others that cannot be believed. Some key figures in Lebanon - and they know themselves - said in private meetings that 7 million Sunnis in Syria converted to Shiism. What sort of talk is this? Yes, and they build on this assumption, which leads to other consequences. They say a battle should be waged against converting people to Shiism, but none has plans to spread Shiism.
This "conversion meme" is really toxic, and the fact that it has become serious enough for Nasrallah to spend this much time on it is a phenomenon worth exploring. This could be a great subject for some enterprising researcher to use to analyze how political ideas spread in today's media-saturated Middle East: trace the emergence of the idea that Sunnis are converting to Shi'ism en masse through various media forms (public and private) to trace out the lines of influence and dissemination. It might also help shed light on whether it is primarily being driven from the top down, by governments and their proxies (as I think) or from the bottom up driven by the surfacing of deeply rooted Sunni-Shia animosities (as many others argue). I don't have the time right now to do it myself, but I wish somebody would!