|John Kerry and King Salman.|
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Sunni-Shia Divide
It is an incontestable fact that the real culprit behind the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism all over the Islamic world has been Saudi Arabia. The Bani Saud (the tribe of Saud) were the most primitive and marauding nomadic tribesmen of Najd who violently defeated the Sharifs of Mecca after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Their title to the leadership of Saudi Arabia is only de facto, not de jure; since they neither have any hereditary claim to the Saudi monarchy, nor do they hold elections to ascertain the will of the Saudi people.
Thus, they are the illegitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia and they feel insecure because of their illegitimacy; a fact which explains their heavy-handed and brutal tactics in dealing with any kind of dissent, or movement for reform in the Gulf States.
The phenomena of religious extremism and jihadism all over the Islamic world is directly linked to the Wahhabi-Salafi madrassahs (religious seminaries) that are generously funded by the Saudi and Gulf’s petro-dollars. These madrassahs attract children from the most impoverished backgrounds in the Third World Islamic countries because they offer the kind of incentives and facilities which even the government-sponsored public schools cannot provide: such as, free boarding and lodging, no tuition fee at all, and free of cost books and stationery; some generously-funded madrassahs even pay monthly stipends to their students.
Apart from madrassahs, another factor that promotes the Wahhabi-Salafi ideology in the Islamic world is the ritual of Hajj and Umrah (the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.) Every year millions of Muslim men and women travel from all over the Islamic world to perform the pilgrimage in order to wash their sins.
When they return home to their native countries after spending a month or two in Saudi Arabia, along with clean hearts and souls, dates and zamzam (purified water), they also bring along the tales of Saudi hospitality and their supposedly “true” and puritanical version of Islam, which some Muslims, especially the backward rural and tribal folk, find attractive and worth-emulating.
Authority plays an important role in any belief system; the educated people accept the authority of the specialists in their respective field of expertise; similarly, the lay folk accept the authority of the theologians and clerics in the interpretation of religion and scriptures. Apart from authority, certain other factors also play a part in the psychology of the believers: like, purity or the concept of sacred, and originality and authenticity, as in the concept of being closely corresponding to an ideal or authentic model.
Yet another factor which contributes to the rise of Wahhabi-Salafi ideology throughout the Islamic world is the immigrants’ factor. Millions of Muslim men, women and families from all over the Third World Islamic countries live and work in the energy-rich Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Oman. Some of them permanently reside there but mostly they work on temporary work permits.
Just like the pilgrims, when they come back home to their native villages and towns, they also bring along the tales of Saudi hospitality and their version of supposedly “authentic Islam.” Spending time in Gulf Arab States entitles one to pass authoritative judgments on religious matters, and having a cursory understanding of Arabic, the language of Quran, makes one equivalent of a Qazi (a learned jurist) among the illiterate rural folk; and they simply reproduce the customs and traditions of the Arabs as an authentic version of Islam to their communities.
The Shi’a Muslims have their Imams and Marjahs (religious authorities) but it is generally assumed about Sunni Islam that it discourages the authority of the clergy. In this sense, Sunni Islam is closer to Protestantism, at least theoretically, because it prefers an individual and personalized interpretation of scriptures and religion. Although this perception might be true for the educated Sunni Muslims, but on the popular level of the masses of the Third World Islamic countries, the House of Saud plays the same role in Sunni Islam that the Pope plays in Catholicism.
By virtue of their physical possession of the holy places of Islam – Mecca and Medina – they are the ex officio Caliphs of Islam. The title of the Saudi King: “Khadim-ul-Haramain-al-Shareefain” (the Servant of the House of God), makes him a vice-regent of God on Earth; and the title of the Caliph of Islam is not limited to a single nation state, he wields enormous influence throughout the Commonwealth of Islam: that is, “the Muslim Ummah.”
Notwithstanding, when we hear slogans like “no democracy, just Islam” on the streets of the Third World Islamic countries, one wonders that what kind of a simpleton would forgo one’s right to choose their government through a democratic and electoral process?
This confusion about democracy is partly due to the fact that the masses often conflate democracy with liberalism without realizing that democracy is only a political process of choosing one’s representatives through an electoral process, while liberalism is a cultural mindset which may or may not be suitable for the backward Third World societies depending on their existing level of cultural advancement.
One feels dumbfounded, however, when even some educated Muslims argue that democracy is somehow un-Islamic and that an ideal Islamic system of governance is caliphate. Such an ideal caliphate could be some Umayyad or Abbasid model that they conjure up in their minds, but in practice the only beneficiaries of such an undemocratic approach are the illegitimate tyrants of the Arab World who claim to be the Caliphs of Islam, albeit indirectly and in a nuanced manner: that is, the Servants of the House of God and the Keepers of the Holy places of Islam.
The illegitimate, and hence insecure, tyrants adopt different strategies to maintain and prolong their hold on power. They readily adopt the pragmatic advice of Machiavelli to his patrons: “Invent enemies and then slay them in order to control your subjects.”
The virulently anti-Shi’a rhetoric of the Gulf-based Wahhabi-Salafi preachers, who are on the payroll of the Gulf’s petro-monarchies, appears to be a cunning divide-and-rule strategy on the lines of Machiavelli’s advice. The illegitimate autocrats of the Gulf States cannot construct a positive narrative that can recount their own achievements, that’s why they espouse a negative narrative in order to vilify their political adversaries for regional dominance in the Middle East.
The Sunni-Shi’a conflict is essentially a political conflict which is presented to the lay Muslims in the veneer of religiosity. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest proven petroleum reserves, 265 billion barrels, and its daily crude oil production is more than 10 million barrels (equivalent to 15% of the global crude oil production.) However, 90 % of the Saudi petroleum reserves and infrastructure are located along the Persian Gulf’s coast, but this region comprises the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia which has a significant and politically active Shi’a minority.
Any separatist tendency in this Achilles’ heel of Saudi Arabia is met with sternest possible reaction. Remember that Saudi Arabia sent thousands of its own troops to help the Bahraini regime quell the Shi’a rebellion in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Shi’a-majority Bahrain, which is also geographically very close to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism is a threat to the Western countries but the Islamic countries are encountering a much bigger threat of sectarian conflict. For centuries the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have coexisted in relative peace throughout the Islamic World but now certain vested interests are deliberately stoking the fire of inter-sectarian strife to distract attention away from the home front: that is, the popular movements for democracy and enfranchisement in the Arab World.
Islam is regarded as the fastest growing religion of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are two factors that are primarily responsible for this atavistic phenomena of Islamic resurgence: firstly, unlike Christianity which is more idealistic, Islam is a more practical religion, it does not demands from its followers to give up worldly pleasures but only aims to regulate them; and secondly, Islam as a religion and political ideology has the world’s richest financiers.
After the 1973 collective Arab oil embargo against the West in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war, the price of oil quadrupled; and the contribution of the Gulf’s petro-sheikhs towards “the spiritual well-being” of the Muslims all over the world magnified proportionally. This is the reason why we are witnessing an exponential growth of Islamic charities and madrassas all over the world and especially in the Islamic World.
Moreover, it’s a misconception that the Arab sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and some emirates of UAE generally sponsor the Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam, because the difference between numerous sects of Sunni Islam is more nominal than substantive. Islamic charities and madrassas belonging to all the Sunni denominations get generous funding from the Gulf Arab states as well as private donors. Consequently, the genie of petro-Islamic extremism cannot be contained unless that financial pipeline is cut off. And to do that we need to promote the moderate and democratic forces in the Arab World even if they are moderately Islamic.
The moderate and democratic Islamism is different from the monarcho-theocratic Islamism of the Gulf variety, because the latter is an illegitimate and hence insecure regime; in order to maintain its hold on power it needs subterfuges and external rivals to keep the oppositional internal threats to its survival in check. Takfirism (labelling others as infidels) and jihadism are a manifestation of this Machiavellian trend.
In the nutshell, Islam is only a religion, just like any other cosmopolitan religion, whether it’s Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism; we don’t have to find any exceptionalist justifications to explain the phenomena of Islamic resurgence; it’s the petro-Islamic extremism and the consequent phenomena of Takfirism and jihadism, which are like the collision of continental tectonic plates that have engulfed the whole of Islamic World from the Middle East and North Africa to the Af-Pak and Southeast Asia regions.