Fissures within Islam are almost as old as the religion itself and normally don't make news. But last month, prominent Sunni scholar Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi unleashed a public broadside, warning of a "Shiite invasion."
The verbal attack from the well-known television commentator — who has long called for both Muslim unity and interfaith dialogue — came during a conference of Shiite and Sunni scholars held in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, earlier this year.
Qaradawi, an Egyptian who lives in Qatar, told a Cairo newspaper that Shiites are dangerous heretics armed with "millions of dollars and trained cadres of Shiites doing missionary work in Sunni countries."
The alarm was quickly picked up in some Sunni quarters. Karam Gabr, the head of Cairo's pro-government Rose El Youssef magazine, says Qaradawi's warning came not a moment too soon.
"Sheikh Qaradawi was right in everything he said," Gabr said. "The Shiite expansion may be the most serious threat to the region right now."
Tensions Over Iran
As a matter of theology, Qaradawi's comments are hardly new. But they struck a chord among Sunni states that have nervously watched Iran's growing influence in Iraq, its funding of proxy militias in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and its aggressive pursuit of nuclear technology.
Gabr ranks Iran as a paramount threat, even more than the Arabs' traditional nemesis:
"Iran has always had an interest in expansion in the region," Gabr said. "Iran is playing a role that could be more dangerous and more of a threat than the role of Israel."
Qaradawi provoked strong feelings among Shiites as well. In Baghdad, the outspoken Shiite cleric Sheikh Jalal Aldin al-Saghir said outside forces are trying to incite strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The Arabic word for it is fitna.
"There is a plan that has been going on for some time. Obviously we are seeing it here in Iraq, and even the fighting in Lebanon was part of this plan to create fitna between the Shiites and the Sunnis," Saghir said. "When it didn't work, the respected cleric Qaradawi was enlisted to fan the flames."
Saghir also leveled personal attacks against Qaradawi, suggesting that Qaradawi launched his tirade because his oldest son had converted to Shiism. Friends of the younger Qaradawi in Cairo insist that he remains a Sunni.
Some moderate Sunnis worry that Qaradawi's alarmist rhetoric will jeopardize minority Shiite populations, especially the thousands of Iraqi Shiites who have fled the violence at home for neighboring Sunni states.
In Cairo, the pro-government Il Gomhouriya newspaper has already demanded that Egypt deport Iraqi Shiites who have gathered in a suburb of the Egyptian capital.
The Legacy Of The Bush Effort
Such talk dismays moderate Sunnis such as Egyptian writer and analyst Fahmy Howeidi. He says he respects Qaradawi, but says Qaradawi's comments about Shiite proselytizing were mistaken and their timing was quite dangerous.
"We already have the Americans raising the pressure on the Shiites in Iran, the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and elsewhere, and now this," Howeidi said. "We don't need more tension just now."
Since his initial interview, Qaradawi has refined his attack, focusing on Shiite Iran as the most urgent threat to Sunni society. The response from moderates has been relatively quiet.
Egyptian author Tareq al Bishri disagrees with Qaradawi, but points his sharpest criticism elsewhere.
"We worry more about the American occupation of Iraq than we worry about any Iranian influence in Iraq," he says. "Here in Egypt we worry about the American support of Israel, which has its own expansionist ideas. From a religious point of view, whatever disagreements we may have with the Shiites are simply theological debates within a recognized framework."
Several analysts agreed that the muted response from some moderates is the latest sign of how nearly eight years of the Bush administration's foreign policies have tilted the political playing field in the region. Were it not for fear of being seen as siding with the Americans, they say, the reaction to Qaradawi's remarks would be much stronger.