Michael Kennedy: The Exploitation of Sectarianism in the Middle Eastern Cold War

Wahhabi and Shi’i relations have been confrontational on the international level, chiefly due to the politicizing of religion by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran. While the religious sects are different in ideology, they are not as oppositional on an ideological basis as they have been on a historical basis. The governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia have utilized discourses of difference and have funneled money into proxy-wars as part of a Cold War for dominance in the Middle East. It is important to recognize that these tensions stem from the conflict between the states and their geo-political intentions, not so much their religious differences.

While Shi’ism is a broad sect of Islam, recognizing Ali as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad, Wahhabism is a unique Sunni ideology that arguably isn’t Sunni in practice. It’s emergence as an ideology and the way it has been spread tie the religion to the Saudi State in particular and to legacies of violence.

The theological foundations of the Wahhabi movement, later encompassing modern Wahhabism, were set by the central Arabian scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792).[i] His beliefs were fundamentalist, condemning Sufis as apostates deserving of death and insistent that true Islam followed the Qur’an and hadith alone, not scholarly interpretation or doctrine. Wahhabism spread through the support of Muhammad ibn Sa’ud, a local chieftain from Najd. To Sa’ud Wahhabism was desirable for its religious justification for jihad “against all who deviated from [Wahhabi’s] understanding of tauhid… The stage was thus set for a campaign of killing and plunder all across Arabia.”[ii]

In the words of Cleveland and Bunton, “Ibn Sa’ud’s warriors and Abd al-Wahhab’s reformist message merged into a powerful politico-religious force that expanded throughout northern Arabia and succeeded in capturing Mecca in 1803.”[iii] Although the modern Saudi Arabia was not unified under Sa’udi rule until 1932, Wahhabism fermented across Arabia and has been heavily enforced through the Sa’udi government.

Hamid Algar, in Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, contextualizes the social and political aspects that transformed Wahhabism from a fringe reformist ideology into the major fundamentalist theology of Arabia. While it is considered a part of the Sunni sect of Islam, he cites little similarity, “That Wahhabis are now counted as Sunni is one indication that the term ‘Sunni’ has come to acquire an extrodinarily loose meaning, not extending much beyond recognition of the legitmacy of the first four caliphs… in fact, it signifies little more than “non-Shi’i.”[iv] Algar concludes the following:

“… in the extremely lengthy and rich history of Islamic thought, Wahhabism does not occupy a particularly important place. Intellectually marginal, the Wahhabi movement had the good fortune to emerge in the Arabian Peninsula (albeit in Najd, a relatively remote part of the peninsula) and thus in the proximity of the Haramayn, a major geographical focus of the Muslim world; and its Saudi patrons had the good fortune, in the twentieth century, to acquire massive oil wealth, a portion of which has been used in attempts to propagate Wahhabism in the Muslim world and beyond. In the absence of these two factors, Wahhabism might well have passed into history as a marginal and short-lived sectarian movement. Those same two factors, reinforced by a partial congruity with other contemporary tendencies in the Islamic world, have endowed Wahhabism with a degree of longevity.”[v]

The spread of Wahhabism is historically tied to the Saudis not just in Arabia, but in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Shi’ism, although often linked to Iran, encompasses a much broader group of Muslims with a broader range of accepted interpretations of Islam. Wahhabism’s rejection of exegesis is, for the most part, incompatible with Shi’a theology that has built off centuries of scholarly understandings of Islam. However, the religious differences between the two are often involved in state rhetoric. Currently, the Twelver Shi’ism predominant in Iran is framed as a threat by the Sa’udi Government. The newly named successor of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has recently used hostile language when questioned about the future of Iran-Saudi relations.

“Asked if Saudi Arabia was ready to open a direct dialogue with Tehran, Mohammed said it was impossible to talk with a power that was planning for the return of the Imam Mahdi – who Shi‘ites believe was a descendent of the Prophet who went into hiding 1,000 years ago and will return to establish global Islamic rule before the end of the world. ‘How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology … that they must control the land of Muslims and spread their Twelver Jaafari sect in the Muslim world,’ Mohammed said in the interview with MBC television, which was also broadcast on Saudi state television… He said that Iran’s ideology was based on belief that ‘the Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for (his) arrival … and they must control the Muslim world… We know that the aim of the Iranian regime is to reach the focal point of Muslims (Mecca) and we will not wait until the fight is inside Saudi Arabia and we will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.’”[vi]

The Prince’s comments have been under heavy criticism by the international community, and were contextualized along with the interview published by the Guardian, “The crown prince’s comments are the most emphatic he has made during a six-month reform programme that has tabled cultural reforms and economic incentives unimaginable during recent decades, during which the kingdom has been accused of promoting a brand of Islam that underwrote extremism.”[vii] Although the United States is a strong military and economic ally of Saudi Arabia, the international community has condemned Saudi Arabia for fueling violent extremism. Chris Zambelis, a Senior Analyst in Middle Eastern affairs, recognizes Saudi funding of Wahhabi groups as a major international issue. An article summarizes:

“Undoubtedly certain Salafist-Jihadist terror cells have used and perverted Wahhabism to recruit and radicalize Saudis and other Muslims… Saudi Arabia’s ‘support for the militant Salafist and Wahhabist ideologies [have served] as the intellectual and ideological infrastructure of al-Qaeda’s branch of extremism.’ Saudi Arabia’s ‘state-directed promulgation’ and ‘endorsement’ of Wahhabism, according to Zambelis, has ‘helped to incubate a host of violent extremist movements, including groups such as al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as [ISIS]’ which ‘contributes to a climate of heightened sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘ites around the Middle East.’”[viii]

Iran also shares responsibility for the rise to power of Hezbollah, a militant political group in Lebanon. The group was organized by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini and were trained by the Revolutionary Guard of Iran.[ix] However, in the cases of all the militant extremist Islamic groups, religion alone cannot account for their actions. Although Hezbollah was inspired by the Shi’ism of Revolutionary Iran, the anti-imperial and anti-Western stances of Khomeini has driven much of their ideology. Wahhabism cannot account as the primary unifier of Sunni terrorist groups either. Although the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS have all believed in strict Wahhabism and promoted violence, their ideologies and visions for Islamic political unity conflict. Al-Qaeda declared war on ISIS in 2015.[x] Thus, although there are militant groups inspired by Wahhabism and Shi’ism, it is important not to conflate the violent intentions of these groups as essential components of these religions. Nor can we conflate all Wahhabis to be united nor Shi’is.

One factor for state involvement in escalating sectarian conflict is to protect their own political ambitions both domestically and internationally. Too many Middle Eastern government are responsible for inciting and continuing to promote secular inequality conflict within their own countries today. The Middle East, politically speaking, has been fraught with authoritarian government and ill-fated attempts to democratize. A tool continued to be wielded in efforts to consolidate political power is the suppression of ethnic and religious groups in several Middle Eastern countries. Both Shi’is and Sunnis have been targets of state oppression by states controlled by members of the opposite sect. Wahhabis consider themselves from the Sunni branch of Islam, thus they often oppose states that suppress Sunnis and have provided military support for those who suppress Shi’as. Sectarian conflict creates an “us vs. them” mentality amongst the citizenry in efforts to co-opt the creation of a united citizenry in favor of regime change. Sectarianism, though along religious lines, has most often served political means. Thus the sectarian conflicts between modern Wahhabis and Shi’as cannot be fully contextualized without understanding the political ambitions of the actors involved.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have arisen as the major powers in the Middle East; because of Wahhabism’s historical alliance with the dynasty of Muhammad ibn Sa’ud and the modern Iranian state’s structure as an Islamic Republic with a Shi’ite theocracy, the politics of Saudi Arabia and Iran are strongly linked to Wahhabism and Shi’ism respectively. Whether the policies of these states are chiefly guided by religious doctrine is debated. While each State’s form of Shar’ia and the penalties carried strictly follow Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite jurisprudence in Iran, they have invested in international sectarian conflicts as attempts to secure their positions as the dominant power in the region.

Currently, the two states are funding opposing troops in both Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s 2015 intervention in Yemen’s civil war was a direct response to Iranian’s support of Houthi Shi’a rebels. Similarly, military from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were used to thwart Shi’a political protest in Bahrain during the Arab Spring. Ever since Iran attempted to incorporate Bahrain in the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia has played the role of the State’s “protector.”[xi] The implications of these conflicts are horrendous, leading to “numbers of civilian casualties, serious humanitarian problems, and a spreading famine.”[xii]

As Iran became an independent Islamic state and a prominent actor in Middle Eastern affairs and the Saudi State grew in wealth and international support, Shi’ism and Wahhabism became more deeply politicized. Each State accuses the other of spreading their religious ideologies as means of converting political support throughout the Middle East. The States clearly distrust one another and have attempted to fuel the mistrust of Wahhabis/Shi’is among followers of their corresponding religious sect. Sectarian inequalities and conflicts are present and shape the lives of millions of people in the Middle East. These conflicts, for the most part, are fueled by States seeking to maintain or grow their influence through the division of peoples. In addressing the very real secular problems, one must hold Middle Eastern governments accountable for the roles they have played. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s modern Cold War must end for there to be meaningful reconciliation and change in Wahhabi-Shi’i relations.

 

 

[i] William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. Sixth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2016. Pg. 115.

[ii] Hamid Algar. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. New York: Islamic Publications International, 2002. Pgs. 19-20.

[iii] Cleveland and Bunton, 115.

[iv] Algar, Pg. 3.

[v].  Algar, Pg. 2.

[vi]Sami Aboudi and Omar Fahmy. “Powerful Saudi prince sees no chance for dialogue with Iran.” Reuters, May 2, 2017. Web. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-prince-iran/powerful-saudi-prince-sees-no-chance-for-dialogue-with-iran-idUSKBN17Y1FK.

[vii] Simon Tisdall. “Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud: the hothead who would be king.” The Guardian, June 24, 2017. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/25/mohammed-bin-salman-saudi-heir-young-hothead-with-ambitions.

[viii] Joseph Cozza and Giorgio Cafiero. “Is Wahhabism to Blame for al-Qaeda and ISIS?” Lobe Log, September 14, 2016. Web. https://lobelog.com/is-wahhabism-to-blame-for-al-qaeda-and-isis/.

[ix] Adam Shatz. “In Search of Hezbollah”. The New York Review of Books. April 29, 2014.

[x] James Gordon Meek. “Al-Qaeda leader Al-Zawahiri Declares War on ISIS ‘Caliph’ Al-Baghdadi.” ABC News, September 10, 2015. Web. http://abcnews.go.com/International/al-qaeda-leader-al-zawahiri-declares-war-isis/story?id=33656684.

[xi] Cleveland and Bunton, Pg. 420.

[xii] Tisdal, Web.

 

Works Cited

Adam Shatz. “In Search of Hezbollah”. The New York Review of Books. April 29, 2014.

Hamid Algar. Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. New York: Islamic Publications International, 2002.

James Gordon Meek. “Al-Qaeda leader Al-Zawahiri Declares War on ISIS ‘Caliph’ Al-Baghdadi.” ABC News, September 10, 2015. Web.

Joseph Cozza and Giorgio Cafiero. “Is Wahhabism to Blame for al-Qaeda and ISIS?” Lobe Log, September 14, 2016. Web.

Sami Aboudi and Omar Fahmy. “Powerful Saudi prince sees no chance for dialogue with Iran.” Reuters, May 2, 2017. Web.

Simon Tisdall. “Mohammad bin Salman al-Saud: the hothead who would be king.” The Guardian, June 24, 2017. Web.

William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East. Sixth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2016.

 

Image allowed for noncommercial use, an image of a line for food in a camp in Yemen.