RIYADH (Reuters) – Hardline Sunni Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia are refusing to support Hizbollah’s fight against Israel because of their ancient hatred of Shi’ites and Iran.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to Sunni Islam’s strict “Wahhabi” sect, has already criticized Hizbollah for provoking Israel’s blitz of Lebanon, viewing the group as a tool of Iranian ambitions in the Arab world.
But Israel can also take comfort that Saudi clerics — who often encourage Muslims to support embattled brethren in places such as Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq — also oppose Hizbollah.
“It is not allowed to support this Shi’ite party, to operate under its control or to pray for their victory. Our advice to Sunnis is to have nothing to do with them,” reads a fatwa, or edict, issued by Wahhabi authority Sheikh Abdullah bin Jabreen.
The Web site of popular preacher Nasser al-Omar tells followers that “Hizbollah is not fighting on behalf of Sunni Muslims in Palestine or elsewhere, it is a tool in the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard”.
Televised Friday prayers in Mecca last week made no mention of the Shi’ite guerrillas, but did praise the “proud political and humanitarian positions” of the Saudi government. And the state-appointed Grand Mufti has so far been silent.
Only Salman al-Odeh, one of the more moderate Wahhabis, has gone any way toward backing Hizbollah, saying the historic dispute with Shi’ites should be put on hold for the moment.
“Our bigger enemy is the criminal Jews and Zionists who don’t even distinguish between children and fighters in their aggression,” he said on his MBC channel television show.
The clerics’ position, like their government’s, risks sparking resentment among ordinary Saudis, who like other Arabs see Hizbollah challenging historical foe Israel.
Most Arabs see Israel, which does not want to return all of the Arab territories it seized in a 1967 Middle East war, as more of a threat than Iran.
Sheikh Abdelaziz al-Qassem, a liberal cleric, said the Wahhabi hardliners were out of touch with ordinary people.
“They don’t think of the Islamic world as normal people do, they just think of their Wahhabi world,” he told Reuters. “Any one or any movement that challenges Israel is going to find popular support, whether it’s Saddam Hussein or Hizbollah.”
Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has made a play for public opinion among Arabs and Muslims, telling Al Jazeera last week the group was fighting for the sake of all Muslims.
Saudi preacher Mohsen al-Awajy said there was little chance that angry Saudis would try to back Hizbollah with money or fighting with them, as some Saudis have done with the Sunni Muslim insurgency against Shi’ites and U.S. forces in Iraq.
“I don’t think there is anyone who will do that, except some Shi’ites from the Eastern Province who may think about it,” he said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority who have publicly attacked Arab governments for their “silence”.