According to reports published in several Muslim countries in recent weeks, Shi’is are currently active in spreading their faith through converting Sunnis. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction, but those rumors provide more evidence of a deep mistrust between these groups, which may also be exploited by various groups for their own ends. In January, Algerian newspapers have reported that local converts to Shia Islam in the Mascara province (Western Algeria) had become active in proselytizing and distributing Iranian propaganda (El Khabar, January 6).
Young people are said to be targeted in such campaigns and several teachers are apparently Shi’i activists. In the city of Chariaa (Tabsa province), parents have complained about the threat of Shi’i expansion in some educational institutions and have warned about the risk of sectarian conflicts if such developments continue (Echourouk, January 22) It is not only Algeria where such developments have been observed, but also in other places far from traditional Shi’i territories. In West Africa, Shi’i groups appeared after the Iranian Revolution in several countries. They have contributed to a wider atmosphere of Islamic revivalism. Over the past few years, there have been several instances of Sunni-Shiite clashes in Northern Nigeria.
This adds new dimensions to the current context of Shi’i assertion in Iraq and fears in the Middle East about a “Shi’i crescent.” In recent interviews, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia has stated that he is “aware of the Shi’i proselytism and what point it has reached,” while claiming to be confident that the vast majority of Muslims won’t change allegiance. On January 22, Jordanian daily Ad Dustour claimed that the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) had disclosed a Shi’i plan for propagating Shi’ism among Sunnis.
The plan is said to include paramilitary efforts, the promotion of Iranian interests, the elimination of Sunni personalities, and suggests a high level of organization. The tensions in the area make a fertile ground for generating conspiracy theories. Even if there was a Shi’i plan, it is unlikely that an alleged “secret and urgent statement” would have gone into such detail.
In a speech on January 29, the day before the major Shi’i festival of Ashura, Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah himself felt the need to address the issue, in an attempt both to mock the claims (“What will the purpose of turning 50, 100, or 200 young Sunis into Shi’is be?”) and to warn that it would primarily distract people from real threats as well as plant sedition among Muslims, in the best interest of their enemies.
There have been efforts of Islamic ecumenism for decades. Partly for political purposes, the Iranian Revolution also encouraged Sunii-Shi’i dialogue. A “Unity Conference” gathered four times and was succeeded in 1990 by the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought (Taghrib). It will be a difficult task for Iran to reinvigorate dialogue at a time not only when some Islamic groups vigorously denounce Shi’is as arch-heretics, but governments also are afraid of a “Shi’i threat.”–By Jean-Francois Mayer