If it is fair to say that there is no lost love in between Saudi Arabia and Shia Islam, or rather in between Al Saud and Shia Muslims, it appears that stagnant animosity in between the two could soon come to mighty blow out as the kingdom is ever pushing the sectarian card, bent on using religious prejudices to further its hegemonic ambitions in the region.
While such tactic is seldom new – looking back in history Al Saud has conducted a systematic vilifying campaign against Shia Islam, looking to outlaw and single out its people to better assert Wahhabism; its own perverse interpretation of the Scriptures – recent developments in the Middle East – political instability, civil strife and terror – have meant that the very fabric of the region stands to unravel along sectarian lines, putting world’ stability in jeopardy.
As far as the global community stands – an intra and super connected networks of powers and influences, it would be foolish, and one might say, irresponsible, to believe that events occurring in the Middle East will not carry an impact onto the rest of the world. If anything, the threat which Islamic radicalism poses to the international community today should have taught us this!
With Saudi Arabia very much driving the regional political narrative, the Middle East has been reduced to a religious flashpoint, an incubus for religious fascism, which will ultimately generate yet more bloodshed and instability.
The terror paradigm
Regardless of how many times political analysts and experts have warned against the nefarious influence Saudi Arabia has had on the Middle East and to an extent the Islamic world, through its promotion of discriminatory religious labelling; western powers have nevertheless played to Al Saud’s tune. Even though it was established that ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham – Al Qaeda and the likes have all anchored their ideology on Wahhabi and Salafi Islam, which school of thoughts were born and cultivated in Saudi Arabia, by the very people which claim now to want to destroy it, the international community has chosen still to side with Al Saud absolute theocratic regime.
As noted by Alastair Crooke in his report for the Huffington Post in August 2014, “You Can’t understand ISIS if you don’t know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.” Everything ISIS stands for, campaigns for, believes and implements is no more than the expression of Wahhabism, as promoted by Al Saud royals, only unfiltered. To put in a nutshell, ISIS has done what Al Saud could not and dared not – but not out of an ideological divergence, rather fear of repercussions.
If in doubt, one needs only to look with which ease Saudi Arabia sentenced Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr – prominent Shia cleric – to death by crucifixion this October. In keeping with Al Saud wishes, a Saudi judge thought adequate to condemn Sheikh Al Nimr to death by beheading, and then crucifixion, whereby his mutilated body would be paraded and displayed to the public on account of his denunciation of Al Saud’s brutal regime.
One could dare say that ISIS has drawn its inspiration and penchant for gruesome executions from Saudi Arabia.
And while it would appear logical and only natural for world powers to unite against Wahhabism, an ideology so radical that it has inspired the worst and most dangerous breed of terrorists of modern time, they instead chose to stand by Saudi Arabia and enable its regime.
So what have Al Saud done with such support? Have they endeavoured to destroy ISIS and free the region of such plague? Have they encouraged communities to unite and pull together before the threat of radicalism?
No, and no … instead Al Saud have waged war against Shia Islam, using their pull from within the international community to erode at its house and lay waste its people. Interestingly, ISIS too has declared Shia Islam as its designated arch-enemy. It is uncanny how much ISIS and Saudi Arabia have in common these days.
Al Saud’s crusade
While tensions in between Shia and Sunnis can be traced back to the first Caliphate, when Abu Bakr – Prophet Mohammed’s companion and father –in-law- was appointed leader of the Muslims over Imam Ali – Prophet Mohammed’s most prominent war general, cousin and son-in-law – old rancour and hatred in between the two communities came alive in 2011, on the back of the so-called Arab Spring movement.
Where Muslims had learnt to live side by side for centuries without so much as a hiccup – until recently Yemen knew nothing of sectarianism – communities suddenly found themselves pitted against each other over their respective religious affiliations for no rhyme or reason, all because it served one power – Saudi Arabia – political game play.
In January, Patrick Cockburn wrote for the Independent, “It is a ferocious war waged by assassination, massacre, imprisonment and persecution that has killed tens of thousands of people. But non-Muslims – and many Muslims – scarcely notice this escalating conflict that pits Shia minority against Sunni majority.”
To which he added, “The victims of the war in recent years are mostly Shia.”
And indeed, while the world has remained focus on ISIS’ movements in the Middle East, hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims across the Islamic world, from Bahrain to Lebanon, Pakistan to Yemen and Syria, communities throughout have suffered by the hands of extremists, emboldened by the messages of hatred which have all came out from Riyadh.
Under Saudi Arabia’s influence the Middle East has been radicalized and sectarianized to serve one family’s folly.
In the same manner the Catholic Church used religion to conquer Jerusalem and lay claim to its riches, labelling Muslims infidels for all intents and purposes, Al Saud has sought to criminalize Shia Islam, to deflect attention from the real issue at hand – Saudi Arabia hegemonic ambition.
Just as Israel has worked to dehumanize, vilify and criminalize Palestinians in their resistance efforts, Saudi Arabia has called for sanctions against those powers which have dared challenge its religious and political supremacy – Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthis of Yemen, Al Wefaq in Bahrain … the list goes on.
Only this week the UAE – one of Saudi Arabia’s vassal in the Arabian Peninsula – announced it had decided to list the Houthis of Yemen as a terror organization, arguing that its aim was to combat the spread of terror across the region. The fact that the Houthis have single-handedly held back Al Qaeda advances in Yemen, preventing terror militants from marching against the capital, Sana’a, seems to have been of little consequence in the face of their greater crime – Shiism
Last July, the US passed a bill which aimed to cripple the Lebanese Hezbollah and thus weaken its traction within the region, and more specifically its ability to back Syrian President Bashar Al Assad government.
While this strategy has proven not only detrimental to Lebanon itself as it has put a strain on the country’s banking sector, one of the pillars of its economy, it has also served to embolden ISIS further.
Since Hezbollah has been a main driving force in keeping ISIS militants in check in both Syria and Lebanon, such targeting of its financial infrastructures has played in favour of ISIS and its affiliates, thus working directly against western interests.
Western powers’ insistence to align with Saudi Arabia and play into Saudi Arabia’s political narrative is exactly what has exacerbated instability.
In the span of three short years the Middle East has but completely gone up in smoke, with conflicts raging at all four corners of the region – Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. All have one common denominator – sectarianism.
Saudi Arabia’s blind ambition and its hatred for Shia Islam are what endanger the region.
Unless world powers are willing to look past political prejudices, as Russia and Iran have invited them to, it is likely the only winner of this war of religious will be those powers which have held the world in fear – terrorists.
Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.