CAIRO, Egypt — One of Saudi Arabia's leading Wahhabi sheiks, Abdullah bin Jabreen has issued a strongly worded religious edict, or fatwa, declaring it unlawful to support, join or pray for Hezbollah, the Shiite militias lobbing missiles into northern Israel.
The day after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers on July 12, Sheik Hamid al-Ali issued an informal statement titled "The Sharia position on what is going on." In it, the Kuwaiti based cleric condemned the imperial ambitions of Iran regarding Hezbollah's cross border raid.
The surprising move demonstrates that Sunni Muslim fundamentalists in the Middle East are deeply divided over whether Moslems should support Hezbollah, Iran's Shiite proxies in the war raging in Lebanon.
While the Gulf's ascetic Wahhabi sects, who are closer to the ethnic fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, have opposed Hezbollah in its stand against Israel's forces, other Sunni fundamentalist groups, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, have pledged their solidarity. On Friday, the brothers will host a rally in support of Hezbollah at Cairo's most influential mosque, Al-Azhar.
The profound division between the most violent Muslim enemies of America and Israel may be one reason Arab capitals have not yet exploded in rage about Israel's bombardment of Lebanon. The White House has already pointed to Jordanian, Egyptian, and Saudi government condemnation of Hezbollah.
The latest Arab Israeli war presents a conundrum for many Sunni Jihadists. On the one hand, a chance to join in the resistance against the Jewish state presents a rare opportunity for zealots who revere the Palestinian Arab martyrs that have sacrificed their lives to kill Jewish civilians. But the main group doing the fighting, and instigating the war this time in Lebanon, are supported by the same Shiite state that supplies and funds the militias killing Sunni civilians in Iraq.
"I think that fatwas like Jebreen's are significant, because the division between Sunnis and Shia is more apparent than in the past," the director of the SITE Institute, a group that tracks the online Jihad community, Rita Katz, said yesterday. Mr. Jebreen retired two years ago from Saudi Arabia's government committee approving fatwas. Ms. Katz says he is considered one of the most respected and more mainstream Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia.
The division between Sunnis and Shiites goes back to the Koran. Mohammed's son in law, Ali, claimed that he had been chosen as his successor, and to this day Shiites believe that Ali held the true claim to the Caliphate. Sunnis believe the prophet made no such choice and recognize the line of Caliphs that began with Abu Bakr, the choice of the prophet's companions after his death.
One can pick up some of this history in Mr. Jebreen's fatwa. In it he refers to Shiite Hezbollah as "rafidhis," meaning rejecters. In his religious edict, Mr. Jebreen writes, "Our advice to the Sunnis is to denounce them and shun those who join them to show their hostility to Islam and to the Muslims."
"Three years ago, I have not been seeing chatter along such lines.This became more prevalent following [the dead Al Qaeda leader in Iraq] Zarqawi's declarations against Shia. Iraq has a lot to do with this," Ms. Katz said yesterday. A week before Zarqawi was killed in June, he gave a four hour sermon entitled, "Did you get the message of the Shiites," where Ms. Katz says he portrayed the Shiites as the enemies of Sunni Muslims.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, however, has not rejected Hezbollah. In the last three days the organization has sent condemning the shelling of Lebanon in Egypt's parliament and pledged solidarity. One member who deals with the press yesterday said, "Of course we are supporting the resistance. We have no choice."
Ms. Katz says the support of the brothers is to be expected. "The Muslim Brothers, as expressed by their ideological leaders Hassan al-Banna and Sayed Qutub, believe that support should be given to those who fight a joint enemy. Moreover, unlike the Wahhabis, the Brothers do not consider Shia as Sunnis' enemies," she said yesterday.
For Egypt's secular opposition the effect of the Lebanon war has been most dramatic. Two weeks ago members of the group Kafaya, a small coalition of leftists that broke major taboos in Egypt in 2004 by holding open protests against President Mubarak, were agitating for greater press freedoms. Yesterday, the group organized a small rally in front of the Lebanese embassy where most of the demonstrators held up photocopied photographs of Hezbollah spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah. A few waved Hezbollah flags.
"People of different backgrounds and agendas will come together on this issue in a crisis," one of the organizers, Ahmad Salah, said. The rally, while small, showed that secular liberals had migrated to the Islamist agenda, just as months earlier the Islamists in Cairo had migrated to theirs.