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Interference from Iran – Can Dialogue Rise Above the Tension?

April 17, 2011

A story in yesterday’s Gulf Daily News caused me to raise my eyebrows a little.

Entitled Top cleric condemns Iranian interference, the article provides excerpts of an interview that Saudi Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdulaziz Al Ashaikh gave to a local newspaper. 

Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has accused Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of GCC countries and attacked its “hypocrisy and deception”.

“A little is known about the Safavids and their doctrine. They are known for their black history laden with hatred to Islam and Sunnis,” Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdulaziz Al Shaikh told Jeddah-based Okaz newspaper.

“We must guard against their (Iranian) intrigues and we have to be wary of them and be careful of their deceits and not fall for their claims about Islam, which are all hypocrisy and deception,” he said.

He condemned “Iranian interventions” in the GCC and described Iranians as “Zoroastrians” – followers of the pre-Islamic Persian religion.

Gulf countries have accused Iran of interfering in their affairs after Tehran objected to the deployment of GCC Peninsula Shield troops to Bahrain.”

I am at a disadvantage in commenting on the Shaikh’s remarks given that I have not seen the original, which is in Arabic, and I am reliant upon the excerpts provided above.

But if I understand him correctly, he is associating the present Iranian regime with the Persian Safavid dynasty that came to an end in 1736. The Safavids established Shia Islam as the state religion, and forcibly converted all Sunnis within their domain, which perhaps explains the Shaikh’s reference to their “black history”. The use of the word black, which is a colour associated with Shia Islam, is possibly not accidental.

It is not surprising that he condemned what he described as Iranian interventions. By doing this he is adding his voice to those of many leading figures within both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who are deeply concerned at what they see as Iran’s complicity in recent disturbances.

But what did surprise me was his description of Iranians as Zoroastrians. There are undoubtedly some Zoroastrians still in Iran, but the majority of the population is Shia Muslim. How the average Iranian would feel about being described as a follower of Azhura Mazda, I wouldn’t care to speculate.

I wonder how the current animus against Iran is likely to affect the carefully nurtured spirit of inter-faith dialogue so energetically promoted by King Abdullah. His Majesty undoubtedly recognises the difference between the Iranian regime and the ordinary people it governs. Do the remarks of the Shaikh – who is an important participant in the dialogue initiative – signal that inter-faith dialogue takes second place to the political imperatives of the moment?

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