Winds of Regional Schism
In mapping the Sunni-Shiite conflict we should differentiate between the Sunni-Shiite intra-state and inter-state conflicts. The first is focused in the Fertile Crescent even though it has repercussions in the entire Muslim majority world and beyond. The bloodiest conflict is in Iraq where the Arab Sunnis who lost their hundreds of years of hegemony are doing their utmost to prevent the Shiites from consolidating power. The fact that Sunni extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda are based there has turned the past decade into one of the deadliest in Sunni-Shiite annals, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.
The Shiites in Bahrain, who represent a majority, have been in a state of turmoil even before the so-called Arab spring. The Shiites in Lebanon, who represent the biggest community in that country, are trying to translate this demographic fact into a political asset.
In Syria the Alawites are conducting a determinant war of life and death. While some of this minority are have been dragged into a war they had never imagined, the idea of preserving power in order to survive remains prevailing.
All in all, today two Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq, are struggling to regain power, and another one in Bahrain is attempting to hold power. On the interstate level the Sunni- Shiite strife caused deep changes in the geo-strategic map: Saudi Arabia and some other Sunni countries did not grant legitimacy to the Shiite government in Iraq and are in fact supporting radical Sunni groups against it. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aligned against Syria, conducting a proxy war against the Assad regime with the help of Sunni opposition as well as terrorist organizations. Turkey, which was Iraq’s main ally until the 2003 war, turned against Iraq by supporting different Sunni personalities and opposition groups.
For their part Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah have formed an alliance, which could not be imagined only a decade earlier. Thus, Arab and Muslim majority countries in the Middle East have become divided more along religious denominations than national lines. One illustration of the dramatic change is that while in the past Iraq looked at Arab Sunni countries as its strategic depth, now it looks at Shiite Iran. The same goes for Syria.
Waning OIC’s Role
The epidemic of sectarianism is poisoning the core of Islamic concept of Ummah (nation) imbued in the OIC’s charter. This observation can be evident of the recently held OIC summit in Istanbul, Turkey. The 13th Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit closed with traditional optimism with no plan of action how to meet these expectations of unity and solidarity.
Among the — most expected — absentees was Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, whose relations with Turkey have not seen much improvement despite Saudi’s long-time mediation ahead of the OIC summit to hand over OIC presidency to Turkey. In reality, the summit featured an extremely oxymoronic slogan for a gathering of this sort: “Unity and Solidarity for Justice and Peace”. In reality, we can talk about rare – often, à la carte – “sectarian” unity and solidarity, selective justice, and almost no peace.
In his speech of transfer of presidency, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shokry spoke about everything except about the actual issue at hand. Shokry even left the stage without waiting for a handshake with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while approaching the dais to take over the presidency. The divide was so clearly visible in a summit called to address the theme of “Unity and Solidarity”.
The condemnation of the lack of unity and solidarity by 50 Muslim majority countries was loud and clear. But condemnation also came with some degree of hypocrisy, as the head of the pack of this anti-Iran initiative – Saudi Arabia – is not squeaky-clean either.
There is no good guy here as most countries and governments have blood on their hands. All exert significant efforts to further their own agenda and regional influence, especially by supporting one side over another in what has become a series of proxy wars in the Middle East.
Specifically, Muslim leaders have accused Iran of supporting terrorism and interfering in the affairs of regional countries, including Syria and Yemen.
“The conference deplores Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of states in the region and other member states, including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, and its continued support for terrorism,” the OIC said in its final summit communiqué.
Only months before the Syrian crisis, the annual reports of the OIC had generously appreciated Iran’s improving research and development sector — something most Sunni states have failed to do better. Iranian universities stand among the top universities among those in all OIC countries. At some point, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among the most popular Muslim leaders in the Arab streets, thanks to his anti Israel rhetoric. Iran stood second after Turkey in research and development spending according to an OIC 2012 report.
Muslims Relations with India & Israel
One of the most important factors that play a significant role regarding the interstate relations in international politics is the diplomatic status of relationship between Muslim majority countries and India and Israel. Given this touchstone, Pakistan does not feel comfortable once it comes to note that Tehran, Riyad and UAE form good diplomatic relations with India. Likewise, Iran does not feel comfortable to note that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other GCC states form candid relations with Israel. The present posting of Saudi’s first diplomatic envoy to Tel Aviv seems to have upped the ante. Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal was welcomed warmly by Israeli officials as he signed memorandum of understanding to become first Saudi ambassador to Israel.
Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely said:
“We are so delighted today to see that Arab mentality changes and the Arab states do not consider Israel as their enemy anymore.”
Arab League’s Role
Founded in March 1945, the League of Arab States (or Arab League) is a loose confederation of twenty-two Arab nations, including Palestine, whose broad mission is to improve coordination among its members on matters of common interest.
The Arab League has no mechanism to compel members with its resolutions, a void that has led critics like NYU Associate Professor Mohamad Bazzi to describe the organization as a “glorified debating society”. The LAS charter states that decisions reached by a majority “shall bind only those [states] that accept them,” which places a premium on national sovereignty and limits the League’s ability to take collective action. While some actions are taken under the aegis of the Arab League, they are only executed by a small faction. Bazzi says:
“During the Lebanese civil war, the Arab League had limited success trying to help negotiate a peace, but in the end it was the individual powers, in this case Syria and Saudi Arabia, that helped end the conflict by convening the Taif Agreement. Technically it was under League auspices, but it was really Saudi Arabia and Syria as the driving force.”
After WWII, the pan-Arab project gained its most charismatic champion in Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, but several critical international developments over the following decades exposed the limits of the solidarity league. The decline of British and French colonial empires and the emergence of a bipolar Cold War altered the architecture of power in the region. Inter-Arab antagonisms, the strategic implications of Mideast oil, and a US policy of Soviet containment provided ample seeds of conflict for the newly formed League.
Despite their geographic proximity and cultural affinity, the relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (with the exception of Oman) remains fraught, and threatens to further undermine regional and international stability. The on-going ideological and sectarian divergence between the northern and southern shores of the Persian Gulf is one of the main causes of the humanitarian catastrophe that has engulfed Syria and Iraq, and threatens to spread beyond these countries’ former borders. The rise of ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and other extremist groups across the region can only be brought under control if Iran and Saudi Arabia (leader of the GCC block) come to see their economic and security well being as intertwined.
The following confidence-building measures may be helpful in bridging the gap between the two sides:
- Establishing an annual Gulf Security Forum, which includes the GCC, as well as Iran and Iraq to explore common approaches and cooperation in combating extremism.
- Through the authority of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), establishing an on-going Islamic Dialogue Forum, focused on highlighting the extensive commonalities between Sunni and Shiite Islam and the vast contributions of Iranian scholars to Islamic civilization.
- Establishing a broad Gulf Energy Forum, which moves beyond hydrocarbons to include nuclear and solar energy. Given the UAE’s planned acquisition of nuclear energy production capacity (with help from South Korea) by 2017, and given the country’s advancement in energy efficiency technologies, it may well be an ideal host for the above-noted forum.
- Expanding people-to-people, academic, and cultural exchanges between Iran and GCC countries that may provide strength to the notion of having cross-fertilization of ideas.
- Establishing a joint Emergency Preparedness Protocol between Iran and GCC countries, intended to address the challenges posed by earthquakes, oil spills, nuclear accidents, and other non-traditional security threats. This is especially important given the location of Iran’s nuclear reactor in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr, in close proximity to GCC countries.
Globalisation/ Secularization versus Religious Fundamentalism
The rise of scientific rationalism and the emergence of the modern technological age have in turn instigated a process that sociologists call secularization, which is totally defied by the rising tides of religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism has a total denial that there is anything amiss with existing assumptions and long held articles of faith. It is reaffirmation of traditional dogma and an unwillingness to question existing tenets as a resistance to the progression of modernity and the steady advancement of human understanding.
Thus, without interfering with efforts of organisations like Arab League, RCD & GCC, to become more effective, Muslim majority countries may start looking for broader, non-denominational forums for mutual progress and promotion of amity among them and with their neighbours. They may, for instance, revive the idea of an Asian Union, on the pattern of the European Union.
Muslim majority countries in Asia, nearly half of the total, will not be at a disadvantage in an Asian union, which will include besides the SAARC countries (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), the Central Asian republics, China, and Japan. Closer economic relations among the members of the Asian fraternity could help Muslim majority countries to overcome their sectarian differences or legacies of colonial period disputes. Perhaps the first and foremost thing Muslim leaders should understand if they really want to resolve their problems without intervention from the “others” is that they must abandon – totally abandon – their various flavours of Islamist polity and their supremacist adherence to their own sects, religion, and ethnicities.
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