As the conflict deepens between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Muslim leaders in Southern California have launched what they hope will be a nationwide movement to promote unity among different branches of the faith in this country and help prevent acts of violence here.
In a ceremony that may be repeated as early as today in Detroit and later in other U.S. cities, a number of leading Southern California Muslims, including prominent Shiite and Sunni clerics, recently signed a "code of honor" that offers strategies for overcoming and avoiding divisions within the community.
Among the code's guidelines are banning the practice of takfir, judging other Muslims as nonbelievers, and forbidding hateful speech about the beliefs and revered figures of other branches of Islam.
"When it comes to interfaith efforts, we are brilliant," said Moustafa Al-Qazwini, an influential Shiite cleric who played host to the March 31 signing ceremony at his Costa Mesa mosque. "But when it comes to intra-Muslim work, we don't do enough."
Sunnis and Shiites vary little in their core beliefs but disagree on the question of the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad.
In many countries, class divisions also arise, with Sunnis often in positions of power and Shiites in the lower economic and social groups.
Sunnis dominated in Iraq for many years, and Southern California leaders say political and historic disagreements may be more to blame for the current violence there than any significant theological distinctions.
Differing prayer practices can also cause tensions. The code of conduct urges Muslims to be tolerant of one another's prayer traditions but also to respect the manner of worship of the majority in a given mosque. Al-Qazwini said that just last year he was asked to leave a Sunni mosque in Seattle, even though the mosque's leader was supportive of him.
The local reconciliation effort, which began with a February meeting at the Muslim Public Affairs Council's office in Los Angeles, was prompted by spiraling violence in Iraq and several incidents of vandalism in Michigan.
In January, soon after the execution of deposed president Saddam Hussein in Iraq, half a dozen Shiite-owned businesses and mosques in greater Detroit were vandalized, with windows broken and, in one case, anti-Muslim graffiti spray-painted on an abandoned mosque. A spokeswoman for the Detroit Police Department said last week that the cases remained under investigation, with no claims of responsibility so far.
But some in Detroit's large Muslim and Arab American community immediately voiced concern that the incidents might have stemmed from local tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, or specifically from Sunni anger over Shiite celebrations in the Detroit area after the news of Hussein's death.
"People were saying, 'Iraq is coming to Detroit,' " said Victor Ghalib Begg, a Detroit-area businessman and chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan.
Although there have been no such incidents in Southern California in recent months, Muslim leaders here decided not to take chances.
"When the situation in Iraq took this very ugly form, we grew very alarmed," said Maher Hathout, a retired physician who is a longtime Muslim leader in L.A.
"But then there was this even more alarming red flag because of the problems in Detroit.... We were very concerned this could happen here too."
Hathout and a handful of others met to discuss their worries. The resulting document spells out for the first time some practical "dos and don'ts" for Muslims in this country.
"There have always been meetings to express good feelings and give flowery talk about unity, but the significant thing this time is that we've moved to practical, behavioral remedies," said Hathout, a senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council. "And we signed it together, in a single ceremony."
The document, little more than a single page of text, states that defining the Iraq conflict in purely sectarian terms may lead to further polarization between Shiites and Sunnis and exacerbate their theological differences, which it argues are limited. It also states that American Muslims are eager to help stop the cycle of violence in the Middle East and to keep the conflict in Iraq from spilling onto American soil.
Among its provisions:
* No group or individual should use, spread or tolerate the rhetoric of takfir regarding anyone who believes in the oneness and supremacy of God, the role of Muhammad as divine messenger and the authenticity of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
* Muslims should respect one another and the people, places and events that any Muslim group or individual reveres, even when they disagree about the relative importance of such people and events.
* Objective, scholarly study groups should be formed to examine Muslim history, creed and law, to further knowledge and aid reconciliation. If problems arise, a joint body of Muslim scholars from both Shiite and Sunni traditions should be consulted.
* Finally, Muslims in the United States should work to emphasize their commonality.
For many years, Salam Al-Marayati has been executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national education and advocacy group that is headquartered in Los Angeles.
Al-Marayati said he hoped the code would provide a framework for increased dialogue among Sunnis and Shiites and also help dispel rumors and myths that some members of each sect continue to spread about the other. Among the most pervasive such myths, he and others said: that Shiites, Islam's largest minority sect, use a different Koran from the majority Sunnis.
"If we want to talk about Sunni and Shia differences, the idea is that we'll be able to discuss them now in a scholarly way and not deal with them on the street," Al-Marayati said.
Al-Qazwini, who heads the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, said he hoped the code would send a message of openness and tolerance to young American Muslims.
Muslim leaders in Detroit, including Al-Qazwini's brother Hassan, who leads one of the country's largest Shiite congregations, are scheduled to meet today to discuss the code and decide whether to adopt it.
A similar meeting is expected in Washington, D.C., in May, Al-Marayati said. Other communities, including Phoenix, have also expressed interest, he said.
A link to the text of the code of honor is at the website of the Muslim Public Affairs Council at www.mpac.org
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Sunni and Shiite
The split in Islam occurred more than 1,000 years ago soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad and centers on the issue of succession to him. Some differences between the two branches:
* Recognize the four caliphs after Muhammad, including Ali, as legitimate successors and do not require blood ties to the prophet as a qualification to be leader
* Reject the Shiite line of imams and hold that Muhammad and the Koran are the only two sources of religion
* Do not believe rulers necessarily have religious authority
* Lack an elaborate clergy and allow any learned person to lead prayers
* Reject the first three successors (caliphs) after Muhammad as usurpers
* Regard Ali, the fourth caliph and also Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, as the first caliph or imam, the term they use for the head of the community
* Hold that imams are sinless and must be obeyed on all matters; each imam appoints his successor, who must be of Muhammad's bloodline
* Believe imams are both religious and political heads
Sources: Congressional Research Service, Center for History and New Media, understanding-islam.com, Times reporting, Wikipedia, CIA World Factbook