Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed leader of the Muslim World (albeit the Sunni World), is becoming bolder and bolder and now it has come to the stage to say enough is enough – no more shadow boxing, no more covert operation, no more proxy war – it is going to be bare knuckle fight now, frontal head-on collision with its despicable rival, Iran.
What had been brewing up for decades at low levels between the Sunni Saudi Arabia, promoting the virulent Salafi/Wahhabi ideology, and the Shia Iran, following Hazrat Ali as the rightful successor of Prophet Mohammad, has now come to a head. In fact, this schism between the Sunni and Shia sects is almost as ancient as Islam itself. So there is nothing new in it. But what is new now is the speed with which it has blown up after centuries of dormancy. It has all the potential to tear up the very fabric of Islam as we know it today.
To find out the root cause of this extraordinary explosion of animosity, one has to look back simultaneously both to the geopolitical-religious rivalry within the Muslim World of today, particularly in the Middle East and to the palace infighting in Saudi Arabia itself. As these two incongruous conflagrations merge, it creates a situation to sweep away the very semblance of religiosity and descend the whole thing into vicious politico-military clash.
Let us look at the geopolitical-religious situation first. In 1932, a daring and very ambitious, ruthless soldier by the name Abdulaziz ibn-Saud overran the capital city Riyadh militarily and beheaded Ikhwan, the then ruler of Riyadh, and established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after the Saudi dynasty. But to bring the fractious regions of Arab land, he needed religious legitimacy – Allah’s surreptitious blessings – to fulfil his political ambitions. Help was at hand when he revived an alliance drawn between his forefather Mohammad ibn-Saud and the preacher Abd-al Wahhab in 1744 whereby ibn-Saud and his dynasty would protect the Wahhabi dynasty in exchange of owning the proprietary right of Wahhabi ideology.
Wahhabi ideology is the virulent form of Salafism which draws its roots to selective interpretation of Quranic teachings and Prophet Mohammad’s lifetime practices (Hadith). Strict interpretation of Sharia Laws and selective Quranic verses pertaining to infidels, women, war victims, retribution etc. were all at the heart of Wahhabi ideology. The Islamic State (IS) / ISIL follows verbatim the Wahhabi ideology and all those beheadings of innocent civilians, journalists, voluntary workers and so forth are all justified under the Wahhabi ideology and Sharia Law.
Saudi Arabia along with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is the country that sponsored and supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA) right from the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. This FSA was nothing but the Jihadists trying to overthrow the Alawite Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria under the guise of fighters that would to some extent appeal to the West. When the FSA failed to get Western military support for over two years, it shed the veneer of moderate freedom fighters and assumed its true color of vicious Jihadists, called IS/ISIL.
Saudi Arabia with its vast oil wealth spent more than 50 billion dollars over the past 50 or so years propagating and promoting Wahhabism throughout the whole world. At the same time Riyadh spent hundreds of billions of dollars aiding and abetting Jihadi activities of FSA/IS/ISIL, al-Nusra, Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and so forth. All of these terrorist outfits are creating havoc under the encouraging gaze of a Sunni bloc headed by Saudi Arabia. Also Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined in this Sunni fight in order to remove Bashar al-Assad, the Alawite (Shia) president of Syria.
Political ascendency for the Sunni bloc was going well until Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fell victim to Western wrath. The fall of Sunni Iraq and the subsequent rise of a Shia government tilted the power balance in the Middle East in favour of Shia Iran. On top of that, despite four and half years of financial and military support by Saudi Arabia to Jihadists in Syria, Bashar al-Assad is still standing. These are the things Saudi Arabia dreaded most and is unwilling to accept.
Things didn’t look too bright for Saudi Arabia on the home front. When Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud became king at the beginning of last year, eight of the 12 surviving sons of the founding monarch wanted to oust him and replace him with the younger Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, who was the interior minister. Moreover, Prince Ahmed, a relatively moderate person, seems to have the majority support of the Islamic clergy. This all adds up to very bad news for the new king.
In order to counter Prince Ahmed’s threat or perceived threat, King Salman is veering towards extremism in Wahhabi ideology and a hard line towards Iran. The Saudi execution a few days ago of the leading Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is an example of such extremism. Saudi military adventure in Yemen is obviously another example.
When faced with official Iran’s anger and Iranian public protest, including setting fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic ties with Tehran. Other countries such as Bahrain and Kuwait, which have sizeable Shia populations, as well as Sudan are wading into this Shia-Sunni conflict in support of Saudi Arabia. There were demonstrations against Sunnis in Shia-majority countries and vice versa. Extremist Sunni clerics enounce Shias as heretics and demand they should be killed. The Islamic schism is well and truly sweeping across the Muslim world. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are gearing up for a final showdown.
This sectarianism is happening when there is a need for rapprochement between the rival wings of Islam for the sake of peace in Syria, Yemen and other religious flashpoints. The suffering of Syrian people – victims of religious proxy war – are simply indescribable. More than 450,000 people have already died, nearly 900,000 injured, almost four million people became refugees and over a million – men, women and children – risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to come to safety in Europe. These are the sufferings of the real people - the real innocent people - when religious leaders are fighting from their palaces for political and religious supremacy. Human lives to them are cheap products to be sacrificed for their victory. Inhumanity in religion has crossed all boundaries of decency. If this is what religion preaches or tolerates, then one can make one’s own conclusions
Dr. A Rahman is a retired nuclear scientist and columnist.