- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Muslim leaders are trying to strengthen Sunni-Shi’ite ties in the United States, hoping to head off conflicts between the faith’s two major sects and get American Muslims to focus on common problems.

With sectarian divisions fueling violence in Iraq, Sunnis and Shi’ites in the U.S. are increasingly wary of a spillover effect. In one public example, leaders from both traditions have started “Intra-faith Code of Honor” campaigns in several cities.

So far, 20 Sunni and Shi’ite leaders in Southern California have signed the first such code. The document denounces “takfir” — the labeling of another Muslim as a nonbeliever, forbids hateful speech about revered figures and urges debates at the scholarly level, not the street level.

Similar agreements are expected to be completed this month in Detroit and the District.

“As technology has made information from across the globe and information from historical conflicts more available, people have been pondering their self-identity,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, which is helping organize the effort. “That has brought a requirement to appreciate the nuances, but it’s also brought challenges.”

Those include questions about how prayer is conducted, said Maher Hathout, spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, which eschews Sunni or Shiite labels.

Other steps under discussion include gathering national Sunni and Shi’ite leaders, workshops at mosques and political analysis of Middle East trends “so people are not caught off-guard,” Mr. Al-Marayati said.

Although no reliable data exists, it is presumed that America’s estimated 2 million to 6 million Muslims are 85 percent to 90 percent Sunni and 10 percent to 15 percent Shi’ite, reflecting the global breakdown. Conflicts have been few, scholars say, in part because this country’s Muslim population is relatively small. Plus, immigrant U.S. Muslims tend to be prosperous and are melding into society instead of clustering in poorer neighborhoods, which has caused conflict in Europe.

Theological divisions between Sunnis and Shi’ites are less pronounced than, say, those separating Roman Catholics and Protestants, Muslim scholars emphasize. The main dividing line: a disagreement over succession that began after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the Detroit area — home to the nation’s largest concentration of Muslims — Shi’ites blamed Sunnis for vandalism at Shi’ite-affiliated mosques and businesses after the execution of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who repressed the Shi’ite majority in Iraq.

Shi’ite Imam Hassan Qazwini of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich., the largest mosque in North America, said sectarian tensions are not a serious problem, and most Sunnis and Shiites get along.

At the same time, intrafaith efforts can address the graver problem of anti-Muslim sentiment, he said. Bias incidents against Muslims including harassment, violence and discrimination rose nearly one-third last year to a 12-year high, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Shi’ites and Sunnis need to work together so we can face our joint challenges,” Mr. Qazwini said.

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