World Shia Forum

Identity, Equality, Unity

The Doha Debates: The Sunni-Shia conflict is damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace

This House believes the Sunni-Shia conflict is damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace

MOTION REJECTED by 39% to 61%

Participants at the latest Doha Debate have strongly defended Islam’s image after repeated accusations that it had been damaged by the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq.

In a series of robust exchanges, there was strong disagreement about the effects of violence between Islam’s two largest denominations.

Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, said recent polls showed that Americans believed Islam contained more violent extremists than other religions and sectarian fighting must have contributed to that impression. “People in the United States are beginning to see Muslims as inherently violent,”; he said.

This perception, he argues, enabled the major powers to exploit Islam’s splits and embark on “a policy of divide and rule”;.

Seconding the motion, General Ali Shukri, an advisor to the late King Hussein of Jordan, insisted clerics were not doing enough to counter extremist Muslim beliefs.

He warned that the civil war in Iraq was threatening to spill over into neighbouring countries, adding that it was “a very bad image as far as Islam is concerned”;.

Opposing the motion, Imam Sayid Hassan Al Qazwini, leader of North America’s largest Islamic centre in Detroit, said there was “no conflict between Sunnis and Shias”;. He added that any dispute was between minorities on each side and “the majority get along and are peaceful”;.

Supporting him, Dr. Hesham Hellyer, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and Director of the Visionary Consultancy Group, rejected the notion that conflicts between Sunnis and Shias had done any damage to the reputation of Islam. “The West has been critical of Islam for a thousand years and portrayed it as violent – and that has nothing to do with the Sunni-Shia divide.”;

He also criticized the Western media for exaggerating religious divisions, a view endorsed by most contributions from the floor.

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Tuesday April 29 2008
MOTION REJECTED by 39% to 61%
Transcript

Order of speeches

Introduction
Juan Cole
Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini
Ali Shukri
Hisham A. Hellyer
Audience questions
Vote result

Introduction

TIM SEBASTIAN
Ladies and gentlemen, a very good evening to you and welcome to the latest in our series of Doha Debates from the Gulf State of Qatar and sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. In Iraq, in Pakistan, in Lebanon, the high levels of violence have told the story of sectarian warfare. The two largest denominations in Islam – Sunni and Shia – killing each other and even destroying their places of worship. Most Muslims have looked on in horror, many believing their religion was being hijacked by extremists. But in the West, the sight of violence by Muslims against Muslims has caused significant alarm and fear, hence our motion tonight; ‘This House believes that the Sunni-Shia conflict is damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace.’ Well, our speakers as ever bring very different views to the table. Speaking for the motion, Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of one of the most influential blogs on the Middle East, Informed Comment. He is also author of the book Sacred Space and Holy War, the Politics Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam. And with him, General Ali Shukri, former military and intelligence advisor to the late King Hussein of Jordan. He’s had a wide range of contacts in Iraq over many years and was an Associate Member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Against the motion, Imam Sayid Hassan Al Qazwini who leads the largest mosque in the US, which is also the oldest Shia mosque in the country, Detroit’s Islamic Center of America. Born in Karbala, Iraq, he went on to study in Iran. He’s the author of American Crescent, a book about Islam in the US. Also against the motion, Dr. Hisham Hellyer, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Following the July 7th bombings in London, he was nominated Deputy Convenor of the British Home Office Working Group on tackling extremism and radicalisation. Ladies and gentlemen, our panel. And now let me ask Professor Juan Cole to speak for the motion please.

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Juan Cole

Speaking for the motion

JUAN COLE
I support this motion as someone with enormous respect for Islam. It has pained me to see the ways in which its reputation has been deeply damaged by the violence in Iraq, by the Sunni on Shi’ite and Shi’ite on Sunni violence, and I enter into evidence a statement of the former majority leader of the US Senate, Senator Trent Lott, who in 2006 said, “It’s hard for Americans, all of us including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people. Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shi’ites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.'” There’s an element of bewilderment, there’s an element of criticism, there’s an element of the humiliation of Islam in what the Senator said. In 2006 also a major poll found that 58% of Americans agreed with the statement compared to other religions, ‘Do you think there are more violent extremists within Islam?’ And how would people not think that with the daily television images of blown up mosques, of blood in the streets that has been produced by this Sunni-Shi’ite struggle in Baghdad? Moreover, not only has the image of Islam as a religion of peace been sullied by these events, but I think it has caused a policy to be made towards the Muslim world that’s quite unfortunate. The US Senate approved a resolution that encourages a kind of soft partition of Iraq along Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish lines. It’s sort of paternalistic, as though the senators have the Muslims in the back seats of their cars and they’re misbehaving so they have to separate them. You’ve also seen recently an initiative from Secretary of State Condi Rice to encourage the Sunni-Arab allies of the United States to form a block against Iran, and while the Sunni-Shi’ite dimension of that effort is understated, it’s surely there in the background. So not only has the image of Islam as a religion of peace been damaged by this violence, but also I think the great powers are engaging in divide and rule and they are finding ways to use what they perceive as Islam’s inherent divisions and violence as means of dominating the Muslim World.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Professor Cole, thank you very much indeed. I want to draw your attention to the Pew Global Attitudes Report last year which said that majorities in Europe, France, Canada, the US and Russia, as well as Spain and Poland had either a somewhat favourable or very favourable view of Muslims. That doesn’t sound like a religion that’s showing a big dent in its reputation, does it?
JUAN COLE
Well, the problem with citing one poll is that it’s a single data point, and we need to see the change over time. After September 11 …
TIM SEBASTIAN
Are you saying it is wrong?
JUAN COLE
I’m saying that it’s a snapshot. After September 11th, over 60% of Americans said that they had a favourable view of Islam. That’s now down to 42%.
TIM SEBASTIAN
10% of Americans think Barak Obama is a Muslim even though he isn’t. It doesn’t seem to have stopped him getting into the Democrats front runner position for the nomination, does it?
JUAN COLE
The trend line is down. People think worse and worse of Islam over time, and a recent poll showed that 25% of Americans didn’t want to live next to a Muslim.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But have we started to see Muslims shunned in the West? You say 25% don’t want to live next door but we’ve seen, have Muslims been excluded from places where they were welcomed? In a sense they’ve been integrated more because they’ve been asked to get involved more in their communities. They’re not being shunned, are they, so where is the damage to the reputation if they are being embraced more by society rather than being pushed out?
JUAN COLE
Well, they’re not being seen as peaceful people, and they are being excluded. For instance, US immigration policy clearly is attempting to exclude Muslims in a way that was not true in past decades.
TIM SEBASTIAN
I thought they weren’t allowed to any more, racial profiling, I thought that had ended.
JUAN COLE
There are ways.
TIM SEBASTIAN
We’ve just seen 900 hotels across America cancel advertising on a radio channel because this channel was deemed to be hostile to Islam.
JUAN COLE
Well, it’s not allowed in the United States to openly advocate discrimination against people on the basis of religion, it’s even in federal law, and there will be a reaction against that. However, it is very clear that very large numbers of Americans are beginning to see Muslims as inherently violent. In fact we’ve had a rash of preachers, John Hagee, who endorsed Senator McCain for President, came out and said that the Koran instructs Muslims to kill non-Muslims.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But that’s a bandwagon, that’s a political bandwagon just to leap on.
JUAN COLE
Well, it’s a kind of …
TIM SEBASTIAN
It’s the age of the bigot, isn’t it? All religions are under pressure, they’re all feeling the pinch.
JUAN COLE
It’s a kind of new blood libel. You know, that kind of thing is going to end up getting people killed. I mean, some Muslim somewhere is going to be targeted as a potential murderer.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Professor Cole, thank you very much indeed. Imam Hassan Qazwini, could I ask you please to speak against the motion.
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Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini

Speaking against the motion

IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
Well, I always admire Dr. Cole for what he says and for what he writes, but I have to disagree with him tonight. First, I don’t believe that there is a conflict between Shia and Sunnis. It seems that there is a conflict between Shia and Sunnis but indeed the conflict is between a minority of Shia and a minority of Sunnis, the extremists, the fanatics. The majority of Shia and Sunnis get along and they are peaceful, and in regard of the second part of the argument, I would say that Islam still has a great reputation, even in the West. I say to Senator Lott who ask why these people are killing each other, I would ask him why did people in Northern Ireland, the Catholics and the Protestants kill each other, and did that fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants affect the reputation of Christianity? As an Imam of the largest Islamic centre in the United States, I can say that I deal with thousands of non-Muslims on a weekly basis. I receive tens of invitations on a monthly basis where I speak mainly to non-Muslim audience, and according to New York Times, there are one hundred thousand people converting to Islam every year. Now Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world including the West and particularly the United States, therefore I do not see that these acts done by very small minority of people in the Muslim world are affecting the reputation of Islam. Obviously there are some concerns, obviously there are some misconceptions that exist in the mind of some American people about Islam, I do not deny that, but that does not mean that the reputation of Islam is at stake.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Imam Qazwini, thank you very much indeed. You talk about the violence as if it’s just a little local excess, when in one week, in March 2006, 500 people were killed in sectarian violence in Iraq, and you dismiss this as just a small bunch of extremists, nothing to get too worried about, doesn’t dent your religion at all. It’s hardly a recommendation for it, is it?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
The number of casualties of the violent acts in Iraq or elsewhere, does not mean that the number of extremists and the fanatics is so huge in the Muslim world. We have 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. What does the number of the extremists form next to such a huge number? We know that the …
TIM SEBASTIAN
Because it captures the headlines and it captures the public’s imagination and the public’s fear in the West, and you think people have just looked at these headlines indifferently?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
No. I believe that the media also in the West helps promote negative images about Islam, there is no doubt about that.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Imam Qazwini, it’s not just the media. In 2006 we saw some of the worst sectarian violence, your own Council on American-Islamic Relations reported a massive 25% increase in cases of anti-Muslim violence. That’s hardly a coincidence, is it? People have been watching the violence on television night after night.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
Hate crimes are not confined against Muslims only.
TIM SEBASTIAN
I know that, but look at the increase that year.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
The Jews, the blacks, the Latinos, they all have their own problems with the big society in the United States, and Muslims are no exception.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Imam Qazwini, 25% increase in one year. Last year the Chicago branch of the same council cited a whopping 391 new civil rights complaints by Muslims that year. It’s going up dramatically and you want this audience to believe that the reputation of Islam as a religion of peace has not at all been damaged by what people have been seeing.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
Absolutely, absolutely. We should differentiate between what people say and what the media are trying to promote.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But these are facts, these are released by your council, Council on American-Islamic Relations.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
These are facts, but these numbers do not say that these statistics are a result of the Shia-Sunni conflict.
TIM SEBASTIAN
And you don’t think that’s a contributing factor? Not in the slightest?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
Not truly.
TIM SEBASTIAN
You can guarantee that to this audience?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
We live now in the United States in post-9/11 era, it feeds the minds of many American people with negative images about Islam and probably that’s part of it. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the Shia-Sunni conflict.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Imam Qazwini, thank you very much indeed. Now let me please ask General Ali Shukri to speak for the motion.

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Ali Shukri

Speaking for the motion

ALI SHUKRI
Thank you. I’m speaking for the motion because of what is happening in the region, what the spill-over effect of what’s happening in Iraq. At the moment we have seen for the first time in Iraq continuous conflicts and violence between the greatest sections of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shias. What is happening is a continuous escalation, an escalation that is threatening to spill over within the neighbouring countries. People are looking from within the region and from outside the region. Is this good for the region, is this good for the majority of the Muslims in the world? I look at it as it is definitely a very bad image that we are projecting as far as Islam is concerned. There is no clause in the history of Islam where a Muslim is allowed to kill a Muslim. This is not good. People are looking at us from the outside. The extremists of the Western world are looking at us and are happy to see this happening. In fact some of these extremists in the West are encouraging the continuous violence that is happening between Sunnis and Shias. At the end of the day, the sooner this is put to an end, the sooner that we can tell the world that Islam is a religion of peace, a religion of accepting the other, a religion that is called Islam, Islam is from peace. We have to prove to the world that this is how we are, otherwise the onslaught on Islam, specially after what happened in 9/11, will only be exasperated and with the extreme societies, with the extreme organisation in the rest of the world or in the Western world who are hoping that this will continue and this will get worse so that at the end of the day there are two losers, the Sunnis and the Shias.
TIM SEBASTIAN
General Shukri, thank you very much indeed. If as you say Islam has projected such a bad image, to take up the point that Imam Qazwini made, why is it still the fastest-growing religion in the world, and why are there reports in countries like Syria, in Turkey, in Egypt, that the societies are becoming more religious and turning more to Islam? They’re not turning away from it. If the reputation is so bad, why is that happening?
ALI SHUKRI
Well, we have to look at the main problem in Islam. The main problem now is a continuous fighting, continuous violence between the two Muslim quarters.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But why is that happening, why is it the fastest-growing religion? If it’s turning people off, if its reputation is so bad, why is it growing?
ALI SHUKRI
Well, people are looking at it as a religion that is preaching peace. They’re looking to see what is the difference.
TIM SEBASTIAN
So the reputation isn’t damaged as a religion of peace? If people are turning to it, it’s not damaged, is it?
ALI SHUKRI
I wouldn’t say it is not damaged. It is the concept, the outlook on Islam itself is being affected. We are being targeted. The Islamic countries are being targeted by the Western world, by the extremist organisations within the Western world.
TIM SEBASTIAN
And yet Muslims in most Muslim countries see themselves as Muslims first and citizens of their country second. They’re proud of their religion, they’re not turning away from it, they don’t believe it’s been dented. In fact they’re turning in greater numbers towards it to fill a political vacuum, aren’t they, in these countries?
ALI SHUKRI
Well, Islam started in the Arab World and then it got spread all over the world as we all know. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, but it is the most important thing is the attitude of the rest of the world towards Islam today. What we are seeing is an onslaught, an onslaught on Islam, especially after 9/11. This is very important, we’ve got to remember that. Now, immediately after 9/11 we get into the problems of Iraq and Pakistan and the Lebanon.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But where is this onslaught, what onslaught are we seeing?
ALI SHUKRI
Well, it’s a psychological and media onslaught on Islam.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Imam Qazwini doesn’t see any onslaught at all. He says he’s not seen any difference at all. Congregations are still holding up. He’s been invited here, there and everywhere.
ALI SHUKRI
I beg to differ with Imam Qazwini, but when you see the realities of things, when you look at the attitudes of people, it is really dangerous, it’s worrying.
TIM SEBASTIAN
General Shukri, thank you very much indeed.
ALI SHUKRI
Thank you.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Could I ask please Hisham Hellyer to speak against the motion.

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Hisham A. Hellyer

Speaking against the motion

HISHAM HELLYER
Thank you, Tim. It’s an honour to be here. Ladies and gentlemen, I reject this motion for two reasons. It has occurred to me as an academic that while Sunnis and Shias have their differences, for over a thousand years they accepted each other as Muslims. They renewed this with the Imam Declaration in 2005 which I hold here, with hundreds of scholars signing up to it from around the Muslim world, but barely anyone in the media seemed to pay attention. I worked for years as a professional policy adviser, meeting thousands of people around the world, advising communities and governments on Muslim world affairs. Believe me, if this were causing damage to the image of Islam, I would have come across it by now. I would see it. On the contrary, I see Sunni-Shi’ite dialogue increasing across the Muslim world, and Muslim-West dialogue increasing across the world. If anything, everyone now realises that the good relations that they have had should never be taken for granted, and they are increasing their efforts for joint Sunni-Shi’ite declarations of unity around the world, even within Iraq itself. Is the image of Islam damaged by that, or is it improved? It’s improved, surely, yet because a few extremist American writers or even politicians for their own reason say there’s a Sunni-Shia conflict that is in America’s best interest and a few extremists in the Muslim world call for a war between Sunni and Shia, we ask is the reputation of Islam damaged? Should we not focus on the image held by the overwhelming majority of Muslims everywhere about the reality of Sunni-Shia relations? Ladies and gentlemen, no-one here disagrees that the media represents Islam poorly, but is the media image of Islam actually the image of Islam, or is it exaggerated, and even that media image, even if it is true, is that due to the Sunni-Shia conflict, or is that due to other factors? No-one’s been able to show that. People have been able to show that there’s a wider perception that Islam is violent, but nobody has been able to show at any point in any poll that this is due to Sunni-Shia violence. This is about violence in general, 9/11, 7/7, the Madrid bombings. The West for hundreds of years has been critical of Islam in books, in their media. That had nothing to do with the Sunni-Shia divide. Ladies and gentlemen, send a message to extremists everywhere tonight: ‘We’re not stupid, we will not be fooled, we will not be used. The image of extremists is damaged, not the image of Islam.’ Thank you.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Dr. Hisham Hellyer, thank you very much indeed. You say that the press pays no attention to the fact that Sunni and Shia have been having good relations for 1400 years, that they are talking and jointly condemning violence. Why do you think the public is paying no attention to the issue? You’re in danger of proving the point that you’re trying to reject here.
HISHAM HELLYER
Not at all.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Which is that the reputation has been so damaged that people are not even paying attention to the good news.
HISHAM HELLYER
Not at all, Tim. What I’m trying to point out is that there are so many things happening on the ground that the image among the people on the ground is actually very good, and that the media often forgets about that …
TIM SEBASTIAN
But not in Iraq.
HISHAM HELLYER
… and focuses on, even in Iraq, Tim, even in Iraq, you still haves declarations and demonstrations every day.
TIM SEBASTIAN
And you have congregations being blown up in mosques, don’t you?
HISHAM HELLYER
You have congregations being blown up in mosques, and because of that taking place, because of the violence that is taking place, overwhelming majorities around the world, including within Iraq, are still saying, ‘We will not accept this, this is not happening in our name, we will never allow it to speak for us, nor our religion nor our relations with the other side.’
TIM SEBASTIAN
Some people are saying that, and other people are looking and are worried.
HISHAM HELLYER
I’m sure some people are saying that.
TIM SEBASTIAN
And they’re looking at the headlines and they’re seeing that the image, how can this be a peaceful religion when people are blowing each other up in their own places of worship. You’re not even prepared to admit that this is a contributory factor to a dent in the reputation of Islam?
HISHAM HELLYER
No. Not one bit.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Not one bit? You can’t be certain of that?
HISHAM HELLYER
I’m absolutely certain. I’ll tell you why I’m certain, because for over a thousand years the West has been portraying Islam in a variety of ways, and I’ll tell you one of the ways that it’s been portraying it is as a religion of violence. Before they even heard of Sunni or Shia, they were always talking about Islam as a religion of violence. That had nothing to do with whether or not Sunni or Shia were killing each other. It’s because the West chose to believe that Islam was a religion of violence.
TIM SEBASTIAN
You say that but you have no evidence.
HISHAM HELLYER
I have no evidence? I have journals, I have books, I have libraries of this stuff.
TIM SEBASTIAN
We’re talking about Western attitudes, you’re attributing these things to Western attitudes but you don’t know why the West thinks the way they do.
HISHAM HELLYER
I don’t know why the West thinks the way they do? You’re talking to me about Western images of Islam, the image of Islam in the West.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Absolutely, absolutely.
HISHAM HELLYER
The fact that they hold these images to be true has nothing to do with the fact that this has anything to do with Sunni or Shia conflict. This is simply about perception in the West that Islam is a religion of violence. That’s got nothing to do with Sunnism or Shiasm or the conflict between the two. It has simply to do with the fact that they believe that it’s a religion of violence. Now, that is not a perception that the whole of the West holds, ever held or will hold in the future.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Dr. Hellyer, thank you very much. We’re going to throw it now open to the audience to take your questions, the motion being ‘This House believes that the Sunni-Shia conflict has damaged Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace.’ There’s a gentleman right at the top up there. Yes, you sir.

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Audience questions

AUDIENCE Q (M)
Well, this whole issue has been going on for many years now. I mean, we had torture and interrogation of Shias in Saudi Arabia, we had the death and murder of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but why is it being amplified now? Don’t you see a correlation between the play that the West has been having in the Middle East and then the amplification of the Muslim conflict in the Middle East?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Who would you like to answer that?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
I’m throwing it to both teams, opposition and proposition.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Professor Cole, would you like to start?
JUAN COLE
The US invasion of Iraq created a power vacuum. There hadn’t been bad relations between Sunnis and Shi’ites traditionally in Iraq, but in the absence of a powerful state, political entrepreneurs emerged that tried to mobilise people on the basis of ethnic and religious identity. They tried to scare one community about the other. We had groups like that of Abu Musab Zarqawi who targeted Shi’ites deliberately in hopes of provoking a civil war in Iraq to make it too hot for the Americans to stay. They would bomb a wedding at midday and they would know there would be a funeral that night, they would come back and bomb the funeral. So it was deliberate and it ultimately had the effect of provoking very significant sectarian violence, which I believe has killed literally hundreds of thousands of people and has changed the ethnic composition of Baghdad to the point where it’s probably now at least 75% a Shi’ite city.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, let me bring Dr. Hellyer in on this.
HISHAM HELLYER
I think the question that you’re asking is not simply about Sunni-Shia conflict. You’re asking about extremism as a whole, and over the last sort of 15 years we have seen a rise of two things. First, political discontent within the Muslim world vis-à-vis American foreign policy and Western foreign policy in general, and two, and this is very crucial, the growth of a nihilistic, non-Islamic ideology that cloaks itself in the vocabulary of Islam. In academic and policy terms, we now call that takfirism and that’s the ideology behind groups like al Qaeda, groups that were led by Zarqawi, and other such extremist groups. Those are the two factors that I think in the past ten years have changed. We saw that begin many years ago, we are now seeing the fruits of it now with 9/11, with 7/7, with the Madrid bombings, with Bali, with the Amman bombings, in Egypt, all across the world, not just in the Muslim world.
TIM SEBASTIAN
OK. I’m going to take a question from the gentleman in the second row. We’ll get a microphone to you.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My question is for the opposition side. Imam Hassan Qazwini mentioned before that there are some minority groups of Shia and Sunnis, that they are fighting and they are creating conflicts around the world, in different parts of the world. So my question is why, who are they, why they are creating this? Is the kind of damage, it’s of the Islamic religion or not? And how can you bring these people, these groups to the courts of discussion, to a peaceful environment? Thank you.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
I don’t think there is a way for us to bring these people to a civil discourse because in any religion there are certain extremists. We have in America …
TIM SEBASTIAN
It doesn’t mean you accept them, does it?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
That does not mean we accept them, but my point, it would be pointless to pursue them to come and accept civil discourse with the majority of Muslims. That is their nature, extremists are extremists, and unfortunately they operate on provocative style that can create more damage and therefore more amplification of the problem, and I believe that this is not limited to Islam. We have in America people who work, extremists, who work in that style as well. We have in America people like Pat Robertson, Franklin Grant, those people who do not produce a peaceful image about Christianity, and these people are not willing to accept any civil discourse with Muslims for example. They believe that Muslims have to be eliminated from the United States.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Let me hear back from the questioner. What do you think?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
You mentioned that some Shia and Sunni groups are creating problems. Actually we’re not talking about Christians and other people. Can we just come back too the point, who are they and how can we bring these people to the discourse and discussion and to a peaceful environment?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
I believe that these are extremists, these are the takfiris, the fanatics, people who basically disagree, who launch war against anyone disagrees with them, and this is not between Shia and Sunnis only. People who were killed last month in Algeria, they were not Shia, they were Sunnis. People that were killed in Cairo, in Istanbul, in Jakarta, these people were Sunnis. These people were killed simply because they disagreed with these fanatics, and unfortunately these fanatics do not know any language other than the language of violence and this is a problem that we face. We do not deny that there is a problem in the Muslim world, but I’m trying to say that these people do not speak for the majority of Muslims. They speak for themselves.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Lady in the second row, we’ll take your question please.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
The question I wanted to ask is for the proposition. What’s your solution then? Is it the need to boost diligence?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Professor Cole, do you want to answer, or General Shukri, please.
ALI SHUKRI
Now, I do agree with Imam Qazwini, there are extremists on both sides, but it’s unfortunate that the extremists are ruling the day. What is the solution? The solution is for the moderates on both sides to get together and come to an agreement so that they control those extremists, each within his own …
HISHAM HELLYER
They’ve been doing that for the last few years and nobody decided to pay much attention. Your own government actually put this into motion right here.
ALI SHUKRI
Exactly, and what I’m saying is that if you look at what’s happening in Iraq, the leadership, the leadership of the Shias in Iraq are very, very powerful people within the Shia community, and I’m sure there’s a lot they can do to control the extremists. The same with the Sunnis. The Sunnis, the moderates …
TIM SEBASTIAN
They could do a lot more than they’re doing?
ALI SHUKRI
Exactly. At the end of the day, the moderates must do everything they can to stop this massacre.
HISHAM HELLYER
They issued too many fatwas so far.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
The leading cleric in Iraq and the world, the Shia leading cleric, he condemned the violence, he called on the Shia to restrain, not to retaliate. Same thing you find in the Sunni side. There are many distinguished leaders who are opposed …
TIM SEBASTIAN
Let General Shukri say something here.
ALI SHUKRI
Excuse me, they should keep doing it, they shouldn’t give up. Giving up is a message to the extremists like ‘we failed’.
HISHAM HELLYER
But they haven’t been giving up. They’re doing it every day.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Right, there was a gentleman there, you were shaking your head in the audience, you wanted to say something about this.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes, actually my question goes out to the opposition. You’re talking about extremists and fanatics as if they’re useless or they don’t even matter, but don’t you think that they’re the most dangerous? Weren’t people fanatics and extremists that you don’t really consider dangerous like Bin Laden, the ones that provoked the Americans and probably caused the invasion of Afghanistan. Weren’t these the people that were most threatening to Muslims? And I mean, seriously 60 – 70 people die of sectarian violence in Iraq every day. Relative to the States, that’s about 600 – 700 people per day. If that’s not damaging reputation of Islam, then I really don’t know what is.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Dr. Hellyer.
HISHAM HELLYER
You know, I come from a nice little place called the United Kingdom. A few years ago, on July 7th 2005, extremists came to my country trained to blow up a lot of people, a lot of innocent people, in the name of Islam, and I’ve spent every day since trying to counsel governments, communities and grass roots on how to find those extremists, root them out and pull them by their hair. I don’t think that they’re useless, I don’t think that they’re unimportant. I think that they’re actually one of the most dangerous things that faces us today, as a community in the West and in the East. My point is this, that they are not a majority. They stand on the margins of this society, of the world, and of civilisation, and what we have been trying to do for years is to say to them very clearly, ‘You will lose, civilisation will win.’ What we want is for the image of the grass roots that is the majority, that is against the extremists of margin, to be represented by the media.
TIM SEBASTIAN
OK, do you want to come back on that?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes, I know but I mean, if you’ve got these extremists and fanatics, you think they’re dangerous, but if you put guns in their hands and if they’re sponsored …
HISHAM HELLYER
Who said I want to put guns in their hands? I want to lock them up and put them in jail, that’s what I advise people to do all the time.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that they still are making headlines. They’re people which media outlets in the States, for example, live on, because it’s just the way it is. I mean, if you’re not going to strongly consider an issue like this, then I don’t know how you’re going to solve it.
HISHAM HELLYER
You tell me what I should more strongly consider, the maybe 1% of 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide who commit extremist acts and think along extremist lines, or the 99.99% of 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide who condemn them and go about their lives as peaceful, moderate people. You tell me, who should I be more focused on?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Let Professor Cole say something.
JUAN COLE
You really don’t want to say it’s 1%, that would be 15 million people. I don’t think there are more than a few thousand of the really dangerous people.
HISHAM HELLYER
Well then, you just help me with him.
JUAN COLE
I’m just saying, I don’t want you inadvertently to damage the image of Islam.
HISHAM HELLYER
I stand corrected by Professor Cole. It’s less than 1%.
TIM SEBASTIAN
OK, all right.
HISHAM HELLYER
I will focus on the 99.99999%.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Could I take a question from the gentleman, you had your hand up, in the first row, thank you.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes, my question is to Professor Cole. I’m dumbfounded as to how you would think that the onus of the damage of the reputation of Islam is placed on Muslims, when every day Muslims are confronted with terror, not only in the media but in academic discourse, you know, such as the one that you presented, and I also want to know, don’t you think it’s a very interesting coincidence that at a time when American policy in Iraq is failing miserably, that it’s very convenient for them to try to characterise all the deaths that are happening in Iraq as sectarian violence when the overwhelming majority of Iraqis reject the, you know, the fact that schisms that exist in their communities are along sectarian lines?
JUAN COLE
Well, I haven’t placed the onus on Islam. I started by saying that I have enormous respect for Islam and I started by saying that traditionally Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq have not been at each other’s throats, in fact there were relatively good relations between them for most of the 20th century. What I did say was that in the past five years, Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq have been mobilised for political purposes against one another and that they have engaged in the most horrific violence against one another on the TV screens, and that they have ethnically cleansed one another, they have killed one another. Bodies have been found in the streets, 60 and 70 a day in Baghdad last year, with chemical burns, signs of electrocution, bullets behind the ears. There are enormous numbers of Sunni Iraqis now in exile in Syria because they were ethnically cleansed by the Mahdi Army, the enormous numbers of Shi’ites who have been targeted and blown up, and to put the onus on where it belongs is important, which is on the political forces that are misusing Islam for their political goals, and they have damaged Islam’s reputation by doing so.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Let me ask the questioner to come back on that.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
I’m glad that you were so descriptive in the violent acts that take place because I’m sure that many of them are also carried out by invading troops in that country, but again I ask the question, as an academic you see no coincidence whatsoever between the fact that at a time when the American occupation of Iraq hasn’t fulfilled any of its promises, that now the discussion and the discourse is turning towards sectarian violence when the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are telling you and telling people around the world that there are no organic schisms that exist in their community and that there have never been those schisms in their community.
JUAN COLE
Well, I would put a certain amount of blame on the Bush Administration for creating a political vacuum in Iraq. However, as far as I can tell, their goal was to turn the country over to Ahmad Chalabi who they thought was secular and Shi’ite and they hoped that the secular Shi’ites would be the majority in Iraq, so it was not their intention to have religious extremists of either side come to power. They were ignorant, they’ve made a lot of mistakes but I think that the Iraqis who have engaged in this violence themselves for political purposes do have to step up and take some accountability for what they have done to each other, and till they do that, they can’t settle their problems, and I saw this in Lebanon during the civil war there. Until you had a tie-up accord, until people sat together, they couldn’t solve their problems, they couldn’t recognise that they were also causing the problems.
TIM SEBASTIAN
General Shukri, do you want to add something there?
ALI SHUKRI
Yes. Just want to take you a little bit back in those five years. When the Americans went into Iraq, their target was to bombard the Sunni areas. There were battles over there. Fallujah was destroyed twice, Ramadi, everywhere. Now all of a sudden we have the Awakening working with the Americans and the Americans are targeting the Shi’ites, OK, so the Americans once attacked the Sunnis, now they’re attacking the Shia, but the Shias and the Sunnis are attacking each other. This should stop.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, I’m going to take a question from the lady in the fourth row there please.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
I’d like to touch base on something the respected Imam mentioned, and that is the media promoting the conflict between the two sects. Is it not apparent that the news helps to exploit this conflict and blows it out of proportion? The media filters some of the elements of Islam in a way to make the religion overall look as if it was unpeaceful and violent, let alone the conflict between the two sects. Do you not believe that the media plays a big role in the escalation of the conflict, and all you hear on the news is, a Sunni man killed in a Shi’ite neighbourhood, or a Shi’ite man killed in a Sunni neighbourhood. It’s always labelling. Why can’t it just be ‘Innocent man was killed.’ Why do you have to label him as a Sunni or a Shi’ite, and a Shi’ite or Sunni neighbourhood.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Are you sure you want to put the question to Imam Qazwini? He’s going to agree with you entirely.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Well, I’d like to address any member of the panel actually. I’m interested in getting both sides.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, Imam Qazwini, start then.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
Well, I agree with you 100%, and I believe that the media in the West, specifically in the United States, is not so passionate about Islam unfortunately. They are looking for anything sensational to focus on. I gave an example a while ago, if a grocer in Karachi stands in the middle of the street and chants and he calls for jihad against American, against the Christians and Jewish, there will be many media outlets interested in covering his voice, but if a group of distinguished leaders who are speaking the voice of sanity and moderation, calling for peace, and calling for reconciliation between Shia and Sunnis, between Muslims and non-Muslims, there aren’t many media outlets that are interested in their voice, so I believe that the media and the West, it is part of the problem as well.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
If you don’t mind me adding, it’s gone so far as the various Iraqi channels, for example, one is labelled as a Shi’ite channel or a channel that’s backed by the Shi’ites and one that’s backed up by the Sunnis. It’s all labelling.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Professor Cole, step in there, will you?
JUAN COLE
Well, I mean, I think that the difference between what we wish were the case and what actually is the case, we would all wish that Muslims would live up to the ideals of their religion which does promote social harmony, but they don’t always, and they do sometimes organise themselves for violence against one another on religious grounds, and if you know that the Western media and a good deal of the Republican Party in the United States, very powerful forces, are gunning for the Muslims, are trying to make them look bad, then why would you give them the opportunity to divide and rule or to use the Muslims against one another by engaging in this divisive behaviour. Why don’t the Sunni and the Shi’ites and the Kurdish Iraqis sit together and come to a solution that’s not violent? Why do they keep invading each other’s territory?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Maybe you’d like to answer a couple of those questions since they were put directly back to you?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Actually may it not be that the violent manner that America came into Iraq, maybe that encouraged violence amongst the Shi’ites and the Sunnis. They only portrayed and demonstrated that manner and in the name of democracy, they believe that what they’re doing is right.
JUAN COLE
Even if I grabbed at your premise, the Muslims still have a responsibility. I mean, it’s just like when you say to a child, ‘If somebody jumped out of a window, would you follow him?’ don’t they have any responsibility for their own behaviour?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
These people have been oppressed for decades.
TIM SEBASTIAN
You’re from Iraq, aren’t you?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Yes.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Yes. OK. Dr. Hellyer.
HISHAM HELLYER
Well, I’d just like to point one thing out. We’re saying why aren’t the Sunnis and the Shias getting together and forming coalitions within Iraq. I’m sorry, maybe I was reading different newspapers. Just this month in at least two cities, they’ve been doing exactly that. They’ve been going on mass protests, mass demonstrations, saying, ‘We are Iraqis, Sunnis and Shias standing together.’ That’s my first point. The second point is, to the young lady who asked the question, for hundreds of years people in the West have been writing in, you know, the equivalent of media a few hundred years ago, but you know, it’s been going on from now since then, about violence and Islam. It had nothing to do with Sunni and Shia conflict. It had to do with the fact that they thought that Islam was a violent religion. They’re wrong, but it had nothing to do with the fact that Sunnis and Shias don’t always get along.
TIM SEBASTIAN
OK. We’re going to move on to a question from the gentleman in the fourth row.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to direct this to the second opposition speaker, Mr. Hellyer. You said that the Westerners thought of Islam as a religion of violence before they knew about the Sunni and Shi’ite dispute. Can you please expand on that?
HISHAM HELLYER
Well, we’re going to turn this into a bit of a history lesson.
TIM SEBASTIAN
If you can keep it from not becoming a history lesson, that would be good.
HISHAM HELLYER
All right. Well, where did the West start? The West starts in Europe. The closest civilisation to Europe in the 8th century was where? It was the Muslim world, there was the Islamic civilisation, and that civilisation was perceived by northern Europe as a threat to Europe. You see Spain and much of Portugal becoming Muslim, and a lot of Europe thinking, ‘Well, you know what, this civilisation is getting closer and closer and closer, hey, it’s already here and it’s taking some of our territory.’ This is the way it was perceived in a lot of European countries at the time. That continues all the way through history, and Professor Cole actually writes a lot of very good work on that.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, thank you.
JUAN COLE
I really have to follow up on this, because it’s not the case that the attitudes towards Islam in the West are static all the way through.
HISHAM HELLYER
Absolutely not. They changed, they evolved and they go through …
JUAN COLE
The attitudes towards Islam in the United States have worsened in the past five years and they are better in France than they are in the United States, so it’s not all the West is looking at it in the same way.
HISHAM HELLYER
Absolutely.
JUAN COLE
And I think seeing the Iraqi struggle on television every night has affected the way Americans view us.
HISHAM HELLYER
I think 7/7, the Madrid bombings and all of the other extremist activity that took place since 9/11 over the past five years did a lot more to affect the way that they think of Islam.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, gentleman in the first row, your question please.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Thank you. First I’d like to say that, yes, it is known that it has influence in the Middle East, so the US is known to support one side of each sect to attain its objectives in the region.
TIM SEBASTIAN
You have a question that’s relevant to the motion?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes, so the question, isn’t the US the one igniting the Shia-Sunni conflict in the region to rebalance the power for its own advantage?
TIM SEBASTIAN
General Shukri.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes, to the Professor and General Shukri please.
ALI SHUKRI
Yes. OK, is the US trying to ignite the problems between the Shias and the Sunnis? Well, why are they being given the chance to ignite it between them? I mean, the Sunnis and the Shias have been in Iraq long before the Americans arrived. They lived together for hundreds of years. If it is only the United States or the American forces in Iraq that triggered this war between the Sunnis and the Shias, then something is totally wrong over there. I don’t believe this is the case.
TIM SEBASTIAN
You want to come back and then…
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes. First of all, to get its objective it doesn’t matter if it’s Shia or Sunni or from Druze or Christians, it would side with any sect to attain its objective in the region, rebalance, shuffle, whatever they need to get through this sect or this religion or this ethnic group, to obtain the resources from the region..
ALI SHUKRI
Let me say this. The Americans’ objective of invading Iraq was to get rid of the old regime. They didn’t care about the day after.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Shia and Sunni are not just Iraqis.
ALI SHUKRI
No, let me give the example of Iraq because Iraq is a burning issue. Thank God we don’t have this very same problem or a similar problem like this in the Lebanon, OK. Now, the burning issue of Iraq is because the Americans went in with no plans for the day after. All they cared for is to get rid of the old regime. It happened that the old regime was being supported by the Sunnis, it badly treated for many years the Shias, so that the Shias gained power again only to be …
AUDIENCE Q (M)
What about the Iran-Iraq war?
ALI SHUKRI
Iran-Iraq war.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
I mean, supporting here over the other side. It wasn’t about Shia or Sunni or any sect at all.
ALI SHUKRI
The Iran-Iraq war, you’ve got to look at the area in total. As it happens, it was the very same year that late Imam Khomeini came to power, when Afghanistan was being invaded by the Soviets, OK, so the issue of the Americans is not strictly Iran-Iraq. It was the other borders of Iran which is the Afghanistan area.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Look, my point of view, agree that they’re igniting the chaos between any ethnic group or religious group like right now.
TIM SEBASTIAN
I think this is a little off the topic which we’re discussing, which is the image of Islam and whether it’s been damaged by the Sunni-Shia conflict. I want to take a question from the gentleman in the fourth row over there please.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
You mentioned the 7/7 bombings and the 9/11 bombings.
TIM SEBASTIAN
This is to Dr. Hellyer, is it?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
No, it’s to those for the motion. You mentioned the terrorism and extremism, you know, came into the issue, so would you say this Sunni-Shia conflict is more damaging to the image of Islam than the issue of terrorism or extremism? If so, why?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Professor Cole.
JUAN COLE
Well, yes, I think the Sunni-Shi’ite struggle in Iraq has been more damaging to the image of Islam, certainly in the United States. It should be remembered that the United States has, as has been pointed out, very large numbers of troops in Iraq, and there are very large numbers of family and friends of those troops and the whole country is following their fortunes, and so Americans’ attention is focused on that Baghdad area where this sectarian political struggle has unfolded, and so they’re seeing this every day on the news and they view it as irrational. People have written about, ‘Well, we can’t understand what would even be the strategy. Why would you blow up a pet market, you know, and kill pythons and things?’ and it brings Islam into actual ridicule and bewilderment as to what the strategy is here, why would people fall on each other this way?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Dr. Hellyer, you wanted to come in.
HISHAM HELLYER
Just a quick comment. I think that nobody here disagrees, again I’ll say it, that the media presents Islam in a particular way. The idea that Islam is a violent religion, is something that a lot in the Western media have, you know, pushed for a very, very long time. They’re continuing to do it, they’ve continued to do it over the last five years. The question for all of you tonight is whether or not viewers are sophisticated enough to distinguish between violence and Sunni-Shia violence, because personally I don’t think they are. I think they see violence on their television screens and to this day I don’t think that the overwhelming majority of Westerners who watch these things on television have a clue what a Sunni is or a Shia is. All they see is Muslims and violence.
TIM SEBASTIAN
You asked the question. Where do you stand on the issue?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
I would agree with Dr. Hellyer in saying that, you know, yes, they focus on the extremism part more than, you know, because everyone’s like, oh, 9/11 happened and 7/7 happened, but you don’t see as much in the news, attention towards Sunni-Shia conflict. I would think that the extremism segment of it had more impact on the world and the image of Islam, so much as the Sunni-Shia conflict does.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, we’re going to take a question from the lady in the fourth row there. You have your hand up.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
This goes to Mr. Hisham. You said earlier that the extremists make up to 0.001 of the Islamic population. However, these people who are getting time on American news channels, what are the moderate Muslims expected to do to get the proper exposure for Islam?
HISHAM HELLYER
You know what, I wish that I had a dollar every time somebody asked me that question, I’d be a very rich man. The reality is that extremists get their attention on Western media by committing acts of violence, and media in general is very sensationalistic. They don’t have to have media training, they don’t have to have public relations training. All they have to do is blow something up and everybody’s going to run to cover it. The media doesn’t cover good things very, very often. Having said that, and that’s just to let you know that the extremists have the upper hand in that sense of the word, having said that, there’s a lot more I think that Sunnis and Shias and Muslims in general can do to promote themselves better. It’s not enough I think any more for people simply to go on the news channels when they’re invited, which happens on a very regular basis, the Imam does this very often. It’s not enough that people do the things on the grass roots. This is very important because that’s actually the real image on the ground. What they also have to do is create ways for them to be pushed on to those channels, to take the attention away from the extremists, because this is what the extremists thrive on. They thrive on being told, ‘We have the power to define the conversation, we have the power to define what Islam is and what Islam isn’t.’ There was a fellow in the United Kingdom who founded a very far right radical Muslim group, called Omar Bakri Mohammed and the media loved him, they absolutely loved him because they would just keep on calling him up whenever something would happen, and he’d always have the best quote that would make all Muslims shudder and tremble because it was always such a horrible thing to say. He represented absolutely nobody except this very small handful of people within the United Kingdom, and yet the media kept on going to him.
TIM SEBASTIAN
They didn’t just go to him, did they? There were plenty of other Muslim leaders who were interviewed, speaking as someone who interviewed them over the period of a number of years.
HISHAM HELLYER
Well, I’m thankful, Tim, that you didn’t host him too many times because after 7/7, we actually refused him access back into the United Kingdom. What did that do to his media profile? You’d think that it would end it but no, it didn’t, because it meant that international satellite channels would actually go to his country of exile, which was Lebanon, and they would ask him questions about what was happening in the United Kingdom, because the media is generally sensationalistic.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Imam Qazwini, do you want to come in on this?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
I think the answer to that is to educate, especially for Muslims who live in the West, I think they need to hold teach-ins, open houses, they need to have outreach programmes in which they can educate American non-Muslims about the religion, they need to run documentaries in the media about Islam. I think the education is a key issue here that many Muslims are missing. I recall former President Clinton when he invited a few religious leaders to the White House in 1999 and I was among them, he said, ‘I myself, I did not know much about Islam, so my daughter Chelsea went to college and she took world class religion and she used to come home and she would teach me and her mother Hillary about Islam. This shows that the average Americans lack basic knowledge about Islam and that’s why these negative images which feed into their mind.
TIM SEBASTIAN
OK. Let me just ask Professor Cole, this avalanche of criticism of the media, is it justified here?
JUAN COLE
Oh, absolutely. The Western media, I don’t know the scene outside the United States so well, but certainly in the United States, the news media made a decision in the early 1980s to go for ‘infotainment’. So there are lots of serious telejournalists but they are constrained, so we turn on to television. I remember recently there was millenarian outbreak of violence in Iraq, there was these people who believed that the promised one, the Mahdi had come, and there was fighting in the streets of Basra and Nazariah. I turned on the US cable news shows, there was nothing about it all day, there was not a mention of it, and what did they have on, you know, some starlet forgot to wear her underwear that day or something. I mean, it is really tragic the degree to which the news media in the United States has declined into mere ‘infotainment’.
TIM SEBASTIAN
So you both blame the media but one thinks it hasn’t damaged Islam’s reputation and you think it has.
JUAN COLE
Well, I think that because the media is sensationalistic, if you can show burning cars and damaged buildings and blood in the street and Sunnis and Shi’ites raising banners against one another, that plays into the ‘infotainment’ and the sensationalism that, you know, if you give them that opportunity, they will cover that kind of thing and they have covered it quite intensively, and then it affects people’s attitudes towards the Muslims.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, this gentleman right at the back, we’ll take your question please.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Good evening everybody. I would just like to ask a question. Don’t you believe that the conflict between Shia and Sunni is purely political, as religiously speaking they have the same beliefs with a few simple differences and practices? These differences have been used by politicians to create conflict so that they can achieve their objective, divide to rule.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Who would like to take that? Imam Qazwini.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
Absolutely, it is political. Ask this simple question: which one of these two sects, Sunnis or Shia, would permit killing innocent people? None. This means that what’s happening in Iraq, killing innocent people, blowing up cars and mosques, this does not belong to neither sect, neither Shia nor Sunnis, because both sects condemn these kinds of acts and therefore I believe the conflict is political, not religious.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Do you share that view, General Shukri?
ALI SHUKRI
Yes, I do, but at the same time I think, I’m addressing now Imam Qazwini, that as the Imam of the greatest and the oldest Shia mosque in the United States, as a graduate of the great schools in Karbala or Najaf and then later on in Iran, I think I look at the Imam to do everything he can to exercise his authority, whatever authority he’s got, to make sure that the moderates are really ruling the day and cutting down the effect of the extremists on their side over there to make sure
TIM SEBASTIAN
Are you saying he’s not doing that?
ALI SHUKRI
Well, I want him to do more, let’s put it this way.
HISHAM HELLYER
What would you have him do?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Incidentally this is the debating forum that voted two months ago that Muslims are not doing enough to combat extremism.
HISHAM HELLYER
You didn’t have me on the show back then.
ALI SHUKRI
This is really a very important and honourable thing that every one of us should be doing, and I look at you also to do that.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
I think many of us did, for our credit I think many religious leaders on both sides, Sunni and Shia, they did, they did condemn violence, but the problem is that these extremists do not listen to me, nor will they listen to any moderate leader.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, we’re going to take a question from the lady in the fifth row there please.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Good evening. My question is directed to any of the speakers of the panel. Would simply the halt of bombings be sufficient in illustrating the peaceful image of Islam to the Western world?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Professor Cole, what do you think?
JUAN COLE
Well, subsiding the violence in Iraq generally speaking would certainly affect the image of Muslims in the United States, because as I said, those incidents of violence are covered especially, and one hears very little other news from Iraq than how many people were killed today in such-and-such bombing, were social peace to return to Iraq over time, I think that people would start thinking differently about Muslims and Islam. Yes, I agree with the proposition.
TIM SEBASTIAN
OK. You wanted to say something, quickly?
HISHAM HELLYER
Yeah, just something simple. Before Al Qaeda, before Bin Laden, before Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, again I have to say there was a large swathe of Western opinion that thought that Islam was a violent religion. It’s very deep-rooted within the way that history has taught about the Muslim world in the West, and this is unfortunate, that’s something that needs to be changed but it has to be done gradually and it has to be done with the highest standards of academic scholarship.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Gentleman in the fourth row there.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
My question is for both teams. I want to ask, are the bombers really Muslims? Are they Sunni and Shias? Several channels showed that most of the people are led and misguided, that bombing a mosque and things like that are jihad and a lot of them…
TIM SEBASTIAN
You asked whether the bombers are really Muslims, was that your first question?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yes.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, Professor Cole, do you want a go at that?
JUAN COLE
Well, of course not. Muslim law is very clear about the rules of jihad. Innocents may not be killed, there may be no sneak attacks. A suicide bombing in a mosque violates every principal of the Koran and of its law, but the fact is that these people proclaim that they’re doing it in the name of Islam and to a Western population that’s ignorant of the religion and does not know what it really stands for, their claim can be persuasive, so we’re talking here about the image. Do these acts produce a negative image of Islam, do they detract from the image of Islam as a peaceful religion, and they certainly so. If you surf the web, if you just look at web logs, there’s ridicule. ‘Today a mosque was blown up by a Muslim, yes, another action by the peaceful religion of Islam.’ I mean, they make fun of this idea.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right. Imam Qazwini. The question was to both sides.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
I think these are minorities that we’re talking about. If we can educate people in America to distinguish between what is false and what’s true, which is something many of us are doing now, people will not blame Islam for these bombings and for these acts. People will be more understanding that there are extremists in this faith who are trying to distort the image of the spirit and people will understand that finally.
TIM SEBASTIAN
We’ll take a question from the third row, the lady there.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Thank you. Actually my question is to Dr. Hisham. You mentioned that extremists are more likely to get their time in media on television. Can you really say that that’s of an impact to people who are watching the news, in a negative way, can you really say there is no negative impact to how people view Islam based on what they see on the news?
HISHAM HELLYER
No, no. I totally agree with what you just said, but that’s not really what I’m debating here tonight. I don’t disagree that extremists on the air waves contributes to a bad image of Islam.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Even if they’re Sunni and Shia extremists?
HISHAM HELLYER
Even if they’re Sunni and Shia extremists, because the Sunni extremists attack the Sunnis just as often, if not more, than the Shia, and the Shia extremists attack the Shia just as often, if not more, than the Sunnis.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
But don’t you feel what’s happening right now with the Sunni and the Shias is perpetuating that negative view on Islam in terms of it not being peaceful?
HISHAM HELLYER
I really don’t think the viewers are sophisticated enough to know as much as you do when they watch the media. When they see an extremist, all they know is that it’s an extremist.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
I disagree with you. I think that’s insulting to people who watch, you know, who are, I just disagree with you.
HISHAM HELLYER
I think that if you look at the polls, people really don’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. All they will see is an extremist.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Whether or not, but that’s all they see so
HISHAM HELLYER
That’s my point, all they see, all they put in terms of a label is a Muslim extremist.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
OK, so does that not have a negative view on how people look at Islam?
HISHAM HELLYER
Certainly it does, but that’s not the question.
TIM SEBASTIAN
The question is, ‘This House believes that the Sunni-Shia conflict has damaged Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace,’ that is the issue.
HISHAM HELLYER
But that’s not the question the lady is asking.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Really that’s what I’m asking, so whether it’s transmitted through media or whatever, that’s what’s currently happening and that’s what the focus is right now in the media, so is that not, whatever way you want to look at it, is it really not creating a negative impact on how people view Islam?
HISHAM HELLYER
No. I think that the extremists that people see on their television screens are definitely not promoting a positive image of Islam for everybody around the world, but that really those extremists focus their anger and target their hatred on everybody. It’s not a Sunni-Shia issue. It’s simply an extremist issue.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
OK. I think we’re going to probably keep battling this so…
TIM SEBASTIAN
You probably would. Gentleman in the third row there.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Thank you very much. My question with the motion. The attacks on Shias and Sunnis in Iraq we have seen has been increased after 9/11, and after especially after the attack by Americans to invade. What I feel and what we are seeing on the media that attacks have been done on the mosques of Shias or Sunnis, but what is the proof that it’s been done by the Shias or Sunnis? I mean, who are the attackers? It could be the Intelligence playing the role.
TIM SEBASTIAN
General Shukri, you had an Intelligence background.
ALI SHUKRI
Thank you. I appreciate that. Well, I think when you look at these mosques, when you look at these very, very important and sacred mosques, none of them are unattended, they are guarded, very well guarded by their own people. They’re not left unattended, so to come in and say somebody unknown came and did something, blew up a mosque and walked away who is not from this other party is far-fetched.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
But how can we blame that it was done by the Shia or the Sunni extremists? I mean, there’s no proof and the war is started between the innocent peoples. I don’t know, is the media playing a role?
ALI SHUKRI
I think the person who would come in and blow up a house that is full of people paying condolences, or blowing up people after Friday prayers, for God’s sake, I don’t think this is somebody who is from abroad or Intelligence.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
No, the point is that it could be Intelligence outsourced.
ALI SHUKRI
No, I don’t think so.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, we’re going to take a question from the gentleman up there, yes, you sir.
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Now we as Muslims know Islam is a religion of peace. Why are we terribly worried at the image of Islam in Western media? Other religions are not terribly worried about their image in our media.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Imam Qazwini.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
I think we need to be worried about the image of Islam, not in the media, I don’t care much about the media, because I know the motives in the media and I know that the media is biased, but I’m worried for example about 300 million Americans who live in the United States who do not know much about Islam. I am worried about them, that I don’t want them to think that Islam is a religion of …

TIM SEBASTIAN
Who get their news from the media?
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
Well then we can rely on other sources. That’s why I say that Muslims have to find other ways to educate non-Muslims about their faith, not necessarily through the media.
TIM SEBASTIAN
General Shukri, you wanted to come in.
ALI SHUKRI
We should not underestimate the role of the media. It was the media who started a big war next door to us here. Never underestimate the role of the media and its effect on the people who do not know.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Which war did the media start next door?
ALI SHUKRI
Two, three, the Iraq war, that was played through the media all along.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Started by the media? I think the White House had a hand in it, didn’t they?
ALI SHUKRI
Yeah. The White House owned the media, for God’s sake!
TIM SEBASTIAN
I think they might argue with that. (to questioner) You wanted to come back?
AUDIENCE Q (M)
Yeah, just a little bit on the role of the media. I live in the United States and the media cannot be wholly lumped, I watched the BBC for impartiality for example during September 11.
ALI SHUKRI
You’re a good man!
AUDIENCE Q (M)
So we can’t assume all media is really behind all the negativity with regards to Islam.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Dr. Hisham Hellyer.
HISHAM HELLYER
Just speaking as a European, I also am concerned about images, and again I’m not talking about the media, I’m talking about on the ground, because I see on a regular basis problems that happen in communities because of how they try to interact and integrate into their societies. If the images that they are presented with of themselves to, you know, their neighbours, their friends, their colleagues, are negative images, it’s going to be that much more difficult for them to integrate into their societies and become fully participating citizens of those societies.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, we’re going to take a question from the lady at the end of the row there.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Good evening. Listening to the debate this evening, I see a lot of focus on Western media, Western interpretation, and Western perception. Do you think we should be asking more questions about what are the Arabs and the Muslims in general doing to address the reasons behind the friction, the violence, the extremism, the fanaticism, and let’s not forget, violence between Muslims and Muslims has started way back, before Iraq, you know, a lot of it happened in Algeria before America went into Iraq, and in Asia, etc. Should we be looking at tribal mentality maybe, should we be looking at education, should we be looking at political leaders, should we be looking at Arab leaders, should we be looking at Muslim leaders?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Shall we have an answer to that? Thank you very much, before the list gets any longer. Imam Qazwini.
IMAM HASSAN QAZWINI
I admit that Muslims and Arabs take a big responsibility for not working hard for reconciliation. I believe that they need to do more in reining in the extremists. I believe that the Muslim governments are responsible for not taking the right measurements in removing the incentives for the extremists to thrive in the Muslim community, so I believe that we, yes, we take some part of the responsibility.
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Should we also maybe be addressing the educational aspect of Islam and what’s been done to review that?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Dr. Hellyer, do you want to take that?
AUDIENCE Q (F)
Not everybody knows what Islam, the Muslims don’t know what Islam is about. I mean, if you go to the ex-Soviet countries, they haven’t got a clue. They call themselves Muslims but they don’t really know what it’s about.
TIM SEBASTIAN
All right, can we let him answer?
HISHAM HELLYER
I think in terms of education, education is where everything starts, and I think that there’s a lot more to be done within the Arab World, within the broader Muslim world, and we have to remember the Arab World is just 20% of the whole Muslim world. In terms of the other examples that you brought up, actually the violence in Algeria and so on, if the motion were Muslim on Muslim violence, I’d be much more partial to agree with my opponents, but it’s Sunni-Shia violence and that’s why I sit here and I disagree.
TIM SEBASTIAN
General Shukri, very brief comment, very brief.
ALI SHUKRI
I believe that there is a very important issue here that one must pay attention to. The failure of the Arab political system, the Arab parties from Nasser’s days, to the Arab nationalism, to the Ba’athists, to the Arab communists, pushed people towards religion. Now, within these new religious parties, some were extreme, some were ultra-extreme etc. Now, we will need a long time before this is stabilised and gone back to normal. This is why all the Arab countries, all the Muslim countries, the Arab countries in general are all rushing to modify the ‘educational system’.

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Vote result

TIM SEBASTIAN
OK, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve come to the point in the proceedings, we’re going to vote on the motion, that ‘This House believes that the Sunni-Shia conflict has damaged Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace.’ Would you please take your voting machines. If you want to vote for the motion, that is the side represented by Professor Cole and General Shukri, would you press button one, the yellow button. If you want to vote against the motion, that is the side represented by Imam Qazwini and Hisham Hellyer, would you press button two, the red button, and would you please do that now. You only have to press the machine once and because of the sophisticated technology that we employ here, your vote will be sent immediately to the computers and we will have the result in about 45 seconds. So there are the results coming up on the screen. 39% for the motion, 61% against – the motion has been resoundingly rejected. It just remains for me to thank our distinguished speakers for coming here tonight, you’ve come a long way, we’re very grateful for seeing you, and thank you very much to you, the audience as well. The Doha Debates will be back again, God willing, next month, so then from all of us on the team, have a safe journey home, good night. Thank you.

Opinion poll

Nearly two thirds of Arabs believe Sunni-Shia conflict is seriously damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace

Doha, Qatar June 9, 2008: Nearly two thirds of Arabs believe that the Sunni-Shia conflict is seriously damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace, according to a YouGov poll commissioned by The Doha Debates.

The survey results contradict the opinions voiced by the majority-Muslim audience at The Doha Debates, filmed on April 29th, who decided 61 percent to 39 percent that Islam’s image had not been scarred by the discord between its two largest denominations.

The YouGov poll, which was conducted between May 14th and 21st, surveyed the views of 993 people in the Gulf, Levant, North Africa and Iraq.

It revealed that the Sunni-Shia conflict is widely viewed as a product of the Iraq war, with 77 percent blaming America for instigating sectarian tensions. 80 percent accused clerics on both sides of not doing enough to heal the divisions.

Asked about the causes of the Shia revival, 31 percent said it was due to Iran’s growing influence and its support for Shia groups in the Arab world.

Contrary to expectations, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah failed to emerge from the poll as the most popular Arab leader. Respondents from all areas voted for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai as the most popular leader in the Arab world.

Polling dates: 14 – 21 May, 2008

Speakers

Juan Cole

Speaking for the motion

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of one of the most influential blogs on the Middle East called Informed Comment and also writes a regular column for the news website Salon.com.

Professor Cole writes extensively about contemporary Islamic movements as well as issues related to Egypt, Iran, Iraq and South Asia. His articles on contemporary Sunni radicalism include ‘Muslim Religious Extremism in Egypt’ in Middle East Historiographies (2006) and he has authored several journal articles on Shi’ite movements in present-day Iraq.

His books include Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam (2002) and Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (2007).

Professor Cole speaks Arabic, Persian and Urdu and has lived in a number of places in the Muslim world for extended periods of time.

Juan Cole earned his BA in History and Literature of Religions at Northwestern University, his MA in Arabic Studies/History at the American University in Cairo and his PhD in Islamic Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini

Speaking against the motion

Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini leads North America’s largest mosque – Detroit’s Islamic Center of America.

He took up the position in 1997 and a year later founded the Young Muslim Association which is aimed at educating Muslim American youth. It is now one of the largest Muslim youth organisations in North America.

Imam Al-Qazwini was born in Karbala, Iraq, in 1964 to a family of scholars and religious leaders. His father, Ayatollah Sayid Mortadha Al-Qazwini, helped establish several Islamic schools and institutions and served as the principal of Imam Assadiq Islamic School in Karbala. In 1980, Imam Al-Qazwini’s grandfather, Ayatollah Sayid Mohammad Sadiq Al-Qazwini, was arrested and imprisoned by Saddam Hussein.

The Al-Qazwini family fled to Kuwait where Imam Al-Qazwini decided to follow the family tradition and become a scholar of Islam. He moved to Iran with his family and in 1980 joined the Islamic Seminary in Qum. During his studies, he administered an Islamic journal called Annibras, orThe Eternal Light, which addressed social, historical and Islamic issues. He also authored two books: Meditation on Sahihain, a critique of Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, and Prophet Mohammad: The Ethical Prospect. He graduated in 1992 after twelve years of study.

Imam Al-Qazwini and his family immigrated to the United States in 1992 and lived in Los Angeles for four years. There, Imam Al-Qazwini directed the Azzahra Islamic Center, founded by his father.

In 1993, Imam Al-Qazwini was invited by Detroit’s Islamic Center of America, the oldest Shia mosque in the United States, to be their guest speaker during Ramadan. He was invited back the following year and was later invited to head the centre.

Since the September 11 attacks Imam Al-Qazwini has spoken about the teachings of Islam in the media and at churches, colleges and universities. He has met President Clinton and President Bush to discuss issues related to Muslim affairs.

Ali Shukri

Speaking for the motion

General Ali Shukri was an adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan for more than 20 years and is now a private security and business consultant.

Ali Shukri joined King Hussein’s office in late 1976 after starting his career in the military. He was appointed head of the King’s private office and head of communications – positions he held until King Hussein’s death in 1999.

During that time, he rose to the rank of General. His duties included advising on security issues, especially in relation to Jordan’s policies with Iraq and the Palestinians.

When relations between Jordan and Iraq became tense at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, General Shukri established and managed contacts with tribal leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province which borders Jordan. He travelled frequently to Iraq for meetings and maintained a role in Jordanian-Iraqi relations until leaving office.

After retiring from the military in 2003 General Shukri was appointed Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College at Oxford – a position he held for a year.

Hisham A. Hellyer

Speaking against the motion

Dr. Hisham A. Hellyer is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick and Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. As an independent academic, he has regularly advised the British government on Muslim community affairs.

Following the 7th July 2005 bombings in London, Dr. Hellyer was nominated as a Warwick academic to be Deputy Convenor of the British Home Office working group on Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation.

From September 2007 to March 2008 he examined state-Muslim community relations in Europe as an Economic and Social Research Council Placement Fellow, hosted at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Dr. Hellyer is now focusing his academic research on examining religious authority for Muslims in other minority contexts, including Southeast Asia, Europe and North America.

Dr. Hellyer has written for academic journals such as the Journal of Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations and for publications including The Washington Post and Islamica Magazine. His latest book The ‘Other’ European on European Muslims is due to be published this year by Edinburgh University Press.

Dr. Hellyer is a signatory to the Amman Declaration, the British Sunni-Shia Unity Declaration and the ‘Common Word’ between Muslims and Christians worldwide. He is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Affairs in London and founder-director of Visionary Consultants Group, a global policy consultancy.

Source:

http://www.thedohadebates.com/debates/item/?d=2&s=4&mode=transcript

One comment on “The Doha Debates: The Sunni-Shia conflict is damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace

  1. Pingback: The Doha Debates: The Sunni-Shia conflict is damaging Islam’s reputation as a religion of peace – by Abdul Nishapuri « World Shia Forum

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This entry was posted on July 28, 2012 by in WSF and tagged , .
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