By Ameer Ali
March 20, 2015
SHI’ITES are a bete noire to the Sunni Ulema (religious scholars) and Sunnis are the same for Shia imams. This antipathy between the sects is more than a millennium old but remained dormant until resurfacing after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and more virulently in the aftermath of the US occupation of Iraq.
In this new phase of open sectarianism, Iran, on behalf of Shi’ites, and Saudi Arabia, in favour of Sunnis, are waging proxy wars through their respective foster children. The ongoing tension and tussle for leadership within the world Muslim community between these two protagonists has broader implications not simply for the politics of the Middle East but even for international peace and stability.
The superpower management of this conflict has produced only more chaos and instability in a region notorious for its volatility.
Although religiously speaking Shi’ism is a minority phenomenon, with its adherents accounting for only 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the world’s Muslim population, in relation to the civilisational contribution to Islam the Shia share is more than proportionate to its confessional strength — a fact largely lost in the cacophony of anti-Shi’ite rhetoric.
While Sunni Saudi Arabia may claim the birthright for Islam, its prophet, and sovereignty over the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, in terms of Islamic art, ¬architecture, poetry, music, mysticism, philosophy and metaphysics, historical Arabia is no match for historical Persia of the Shi’ites.
Throughout the history of Islam, except for the Fatimid rule over Egypt (909-1171), and until the Iranian Revolution, Shi’ism remained largely a religion of protest. With the success of the revolution, Shi’ites experienced a revival and achieved an unprecedented level of recognition as crucial players in regional and international politics.
Apart from the shock waves the revolution generated across the Sunni world, which in Saudi Arabia led to the Mecca uprising of 1979 that called for the removal of the Saudi monarchy, the anti-American stance of the Khomeini regime, culminating in the infamous hostage crisis that lasted for 444 days, compelled the US to redraw its Middle East strategy. That need became imperative when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979.
By strengthening its alliance with the petroleum-rich Saudis and other conservative regimes in the Middle East, the US wished to create a counterweight to beat Iranian-led Islamism on the one hand and check communism on the other.
It was a hastily contrived balancing act that denounced one set of Islamists, those of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iran, as terrorists while ennobling another set of Islamists in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.
The latter included not only the Taliban but also al-Qa’ida, the proud children of puritanical Salafism, aka Wahhabism, the state ideology of Saudi Arabia.
This short-sighted US strategy of appeasing Wahhabism at the expense of Iran helped to win the Cold War, but marked the beginning of a series of US miscalculations that resulted in successive episodes of terrorist attacks, wars and destruction not only in the Middle East and North Africa but also in Western countries.
The rise of Islamic State and the havoc it is causing in Iraq and Syria are the latest manifestation of this misjudgement.
Iran minus its theocratic superstructure is a more advanced and modernised society than Saudi Arabia. Even within its theocratic hierarchy there are several moderating elements competing to take control of the country’s political destiny and make it a trustworthy member of the Westphalian family of nations.
Khomeini’s idea of exporting the revolution has evaporated but Iran feels quite legitimately that it cannot ignore the interests of fellow Shi’ites across the world.
On the contrary, what is being exported now is the Saudi-sanctioned Salafist ideology as expressed in the manifestos of the Taliban, al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State and several other groups. According to a cable released by WikiLeaks in 2009, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton accused Saudi Arabia of financially backing Muslim terrorist groups. Yet that regime remains a staunch ally of the US and the West.
US-Iran relations are marred partly because the US and its Western allies view Iran through the Israeli lens. The Netanyahu government, contrary to its own insider advice, exaggerates the ¬nuclear threat from Iran. Its openly aggressive stance was arguably a tactic on the part of the Israeli Prime Minister to help him win re-election this week.
The simple fact is the Iranian nuclear program is a response to more than 30 years of US brinkmanship and sanctions. As noted earlier, Shi’ism is a religion of protest; the more it is oppressed, the firmer its resolve to rebel.
After more than 30 years it is gratifying to note a softening of the US’s anti-Iranian stand, as demonstrated by the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Pragmatic diplomacy rather than swashbuckling threats is the best way to convince Iran to contribute positively to arrest the deteriorating situation in the Middle East.
It is also imperative the US and its Western allies go back to the drawing board to seriously reconsider their uncritical relationship with the Saudi kingdom and its allies in the Gulf. These petro-kingdoms lack popular legitimacy and export their puritanical ideology to destabilise the Westphalian world order. Islamic State and the Islamic world order it aspires to create is a dangerous concoction inspired by a gross misreading of the history of Islam and reckless misunderstanding of the hermeneutics of that religion.
For more than 30 years, to borrow an analogy from the game of bridge, the US and its Western allies have misplayed their hands, misused the trumps, taken the wrong finesses and lost too many tricks. It is time to reshuffle the cards and start a new game.
Ameer Ali is a lecturer in Murdoch University’s school of management and governance.