Iran Takes on the World
By Jamsheed K. Choksy, Professor of Iranian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
The Islamic Republic of Iran is today challenging the world. The Iranian leadership's appetite for power is growing, for they have become thoroughly convinced that no outside power-the U.S. included-will derail their rise to regional and even global prominence. "Whether you like it or not," the Iranian cleric and politician Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, an influential figure and on-and-off mentor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, publicly boasted to the U.S., "you have to regard Iran as a great power in the political sphere. The people of Iran have realized there is nothing you can do to us now or will be capable of doing [in the future]. So rather than using all your resources in failed attempts to oppose Iran, you should work with us."
Volume 11 of "Current Trends in Islamist Ideology"
Iran shows respect to Sunnis Beliefs
The Islamic Republic's Cross-Sectarian Outreach
April 12, 2011
At a time of unprecedented popular unrest in key Arab states of the Middle East, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in a February 21, 2011 speech that two simple remedies are required to solve the problems that afflict the contemporary Islamic World. According to Khamenei, "unity among Muslim [states]" and "the weakening of America" are the two necessary steps that all Muslims must take to secure a "bright" future for the umma or the worldwide Muslim Nation.
These twin messages-unity of the Muslim Nation and struggle against the United States to repel its influence in Muslim lands-have formed the core of the Islamic Republic's outreach to Muslims globally. This overall message is simple and straightforward, and Iranian officials have continuously repeated it ever since the 1979 revolution.
As the spill-over effect of Arab unrest has gripped new countries from Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain, Tehran has intensified its efforts to "Islamicize" the popular revolts. For example, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, stated that people in the region had woken up to the call of Islam and that "Iran would help any uprising in the region that was anti-Israeli and anti-American." These sentiments were subsequently echoed repeatedly by other senior Iranian figures.
Islamic Republic has also in recent years redoubled its broad-based information campaign aimed at promoting its message of Islamic unity and its purportedly anti-sectarian agenda to Sunni Muslims both at home and abroad.
A recent fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khamenei is commonly enlisted in Iran's Sunni outreach. On October 2, 2010, Khamenei in reply to a questioner ruled that "insulting the symbols of the Sunni brothers, including the Prophet Muhammad's wife [Aisha], is forbidden. This includes the women of all prophets and especially the holy Prophet Muhammad."
The ruling was in reaction to the common Shiite practice of denouncing Sunni Islam's first three Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) and their families, whom the Shiites do not consider the rightful heirs to the Prophet Muhammad. The fatwa was swiftly publicized by Iran's state-controlled and pro-regime media as ground-breaking. It was also praised as a ruling that generated much excitement and appreciation among Sunni scholars worldwide.
The World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought-which was established in the early 1990s on the order of Khamenei as the main agency to promote pan-Islamic reconciliation-was quick to publicize what it claimed to be widespread praise among Sunni Arabs for the supreme leader's fatwa. The forum, which is known in short as the "Taghrib," reported in particular that Shaykh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the head of Cairo's al-Azhar University, welcomed the supreme leader's fatwa as "prudent" and "timely" and hailed it as a decision that "would help ram the door shut to fitna [division among Muslims]." To convey the impression that the fatwa's impact reached well beyond mainstream Sunni religious corners, the case was also made that even vehemently anti-Shia voices had been persuaded to see the light after the supreme leader's ruling. Omar Bakri Muhammad, the renowned Salafist cleric and someone otherwise linked to anti-Shia takfiri ideology, said on Al Jazeera television that his views on the Shia had been transformed because of Khamenei's ruling. In December 2010, Recep Erdogan became the first Turkish prime minister to attend an Ashura ceremony in Istanbul. His address at the ceremony implored "Sunnis and Shia to put aside their differences and unite."
Iran and Arab Revolutions
In propagating its message of Islamic unity and anti-Western struggle, Iran has consistently sought to avoid issuing any statements that might be interpreted as sectarian or construed as favoring the Shia in the Middle East as this could be counterproductive to its larger agenda. However, this policy position has been severely tested since mid-March 2011 when the ruling Sunni Khalifa government of Bahrain, backed by the Saudi Arabian military, began a crackdown against mainly Shia protesters. Iranian discourse began to openly express sympathies along sectarian lines but without taking on a stridently anti-Sunni tone. However, Iran's anti-Saudi and anti-Wahhabi message has remained as strong as ever, and Tehran has accused Riyadh of pursuing a bloody crackdown against the Bahraini Shia. Meanwhile, a top Iranian priority in this information operation has been to assert that the Saudi military's deployment to Bahrain only began after Washington's consent had been secured. This has been meant to underscore Iran's larger claims that a Saudi-American axis operates throughout the region to defend the interests of extra-regional powers and at the expense of repressed local Muslim populations (mustadafin).