This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals
The deepening sectarian rift in the Middle East following the shift of power from Sunnis to Shiʻis in Iraq in 2003 and the emergence of radical Salafi-jihadi organizations, most notably the Islamic State (ISIL), threaten Iran's aspirations to establish itself as a regional leader. As part of the effort to stave off the Salafi challenge the Iranian religious establishment has adopted a two prong strategy on the religious-ideological front. The first is an effort to reach-out to mainstream Sunnis in order to create a common front against the Salafi-Jihadists. A major step in this regard was the religious rulings by leading clerics headed by Supreme Leader Khamenei banning the centuries-old Shiʻi practice of disassociation from (tabarra’iyan) and cursing of the first three Sunni caliphs and the Companions of the Prophet, who are revered by the Sunnis. Another step was the official ban in 2007 on the popular celebrations of the murder of the second Caliph Umar b. al-Khattab popularly known as Umarkeshun. The government also shut down the reputed grave of Umar's assassin in Kashan, which had been a popular site of visitations.
The strategic threat posed by ISIL and the need for all-out mobilization against it, produced a second strategy of declaring the Salafi-Jihadi organizations as apostates, which elevated the fight against them into a defensive jihad. Such declarations stand in sharp contrast to past practices, as Shiʻis had traditionally viewed their opponents as misguided believers or sinners, but not as apostates who deserved death.
The aim of this paper is to analyze the discourse within the Iranian religious milieu on the Salafi-Jihadi challenge, and to assess whether this changing discourse reflects a fundamental ideological and revision regarding the historical and theological divide between Shiʻa and Sunna or it is mainly a political measure designed to advance Iran's regional policy. Close attention will be given to the diversity of opinions on these issues among senior and low-ranking clerics as well as between Iranian and Arab clerics in Iraq and Lebanon in order to assess degrees of pluralism and conformity in present-day Shiʻi discourse. The paper will also seek to examine the effect of the changing discourse on the Sunni Caliphs and Sahaba on popular Iranian religious practices and attitudes and its impact on the broader issue of official and popular religion in Iran.