Saudi, Iran and ISIS are competing for global Muslim leadership. We mustn’t let any of them win

Condeming ISIS is easy. We need to tackle the ideology common to Saudi and Iran.

Photo: Saudi King Salman and Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini

After Saudi Arabia executed 47 ‘terrorism’ convicts on Saturday, the observation that the kingdom is just gold-plated ISIS surfaced in various quarters, especially among progressive Muslims. For those who needed a pictorial clarification, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, released a cartoon asking viewers to ‘spot the difference’ between the two.

That it was Iran condemning the act as a ‘violation of human rights and Islamic values’, as president Hassan Rouhani put it, was brutally ironic considering that Iran has outdone Saudi Arabia in terms of executions in each of the past nine years, often by 300 per cent if not more.

What triggered Iran’s fury, and the ongoing Shia-Sunni diplomatic brawl, was the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a popular Saudi cleric among the Shia youth. Al-Nimr had been under arrest since 2012 over charges of ‘instigating unrest’ and was sentenced to death in October 2014.

Al-Nimr’s call for accountability over suppression of Saudi’s Shia and his movement for democracy in Saudi Arabia made him dangerous for the kingdom. However, his execution was necessitated by glaring shortcomings in Saudi domestic and foreign policies.

In addition to growing debt, the rise in domestic jihadism has meant that Saudis needed a distraction to shroud their recent failures. Killing four Shia with 43 ‘al-Qaeda affiliated’ jihadists on Saturday was apparently the kingdom’s message to the Sunni majority that it doesn’t ‘discriminate’ between ‘political terrorists’ and radical jihadists.

More critically though, it’s a string of overseas setbacks that has pushed Saudis towards succumbing to paranoia, and jumping the gun. With ISIS penetrating Saudi borders, at least in terms of orchestrating bombings, the al-Saud family faces animosity from both parties in the Syrian conflict, a battlefield it has heavily invested in over the past five years.

Saudi failures in Yemen – where Riyadh is vying to reestablish its puppet government under Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who has returned to Aden after being overthrown by Houthi rebels – are increasingly creating a vacuum that al-Qaeda and ISIS will continue to fill. The extension of the same vacuum will be created by the ongoing Shia-Sunni confrontation in the region, where sectarian fault-lines are ubiquitously spread out like minefields.

What retriggered Riyadh’s Shiaphobia was the Iran nuclear deal, which not only threatens to bring Tehran close to the West, but also gives geostrategic prominence to Iran as a viable alternative to Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, with sanctions against Iran set to be lifted, Tehran plans to increase oil production by as much as 1.5 million barrels a day this year, which would further aggravate Riyadh’s struggle to maintain its market share, considering the oil price plunge recently, and the rising Saudi debt.

This clearly adds to Saudi insecurity vis-à-vis a potential Iranian protectorate in the south, with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Shia-majority Iraq up north.

Furthermore, the kingdom’s Shia majority province Ash-Sharqiyyah (or Eastern Province) is also its biggest petroleum source. The fact that the Eastern Province borders Shia-majority Bahrain could threaten to complete the ‘Shia encirclement’ of Saudi Arabia, transforming the much touted ‘Shia Crescent’ into a full moon, linking Iran to Yemen via Ash-Sharqiyyah.

Bahrain could very well be the trigger point for the next sectarian confrontation considering that the Sunni-ruled kingdom has long stifled its Shia-majority population. Saudi Arabia recently forming the 34-state ‘counter-terrorism coalition’’ to fight ISIS could very well be a declaration of war against Shias in the region.

Even so, replacing Saudi Arabia with Iran at the helm of regional affairs in the Middle East would hardly be progress for the West, or all forward-looking Muslims around the globe. Iran’s appalling human rights record isn’t much better than Saudi Arabia’s, with similar punishments for ‘crimes’ not recognised by the civilised world. The Saudi public beheadings are replaced by public hangings in Iran for ‘crimes’ like blasphemy, apostasy, adultery and homosexuality. Incidentally, ISIS’s ‘Islamic state’ also proposes death for these ‘crimes’.

There are two crucial angles from which to look at the Saudi-Iran rivalry that has reached boiling point: geopolitically and ideologically. ISIS is an important feature in both, considering that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate-lusting jihad-machine is presenting itself as a challenger to the decades-long duopoly over fight for Muslim leadership.

While ISIS’s Salafism might overlap with Saudi Arabia, the ‘Islamic State’ is using Saudi alliance with the West as propaganda to lure Muslims into openly waging war against the kingdom. ISIS’s dutiful adherence to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s genocidal Shiaphobia means that its antagonism towards the Shias belittles al-Saud’s animosity towards Shia states. This, in turn, has created a three way geopolitical tussle, resulting in the perplexing prospect of both Saudi Arabia and Iran on paper fighting together against ISIS in Syria, while Saudi-ISIS interests align in suppressing the Shia in Yemen.

Even so, it’s the ideological realm where this three-way war is going to be decided, especially considering the pounding that ISIS is getting from the global coalition, shrinking its ‘caliphate’ as Iraqi forces take back Ramadi.

While ISIS might eventually be beaten on the battlefield, it’s the present geostrategic scene in the Middle East that is crying out for a screenshot. For, it allows us to juxtapose ISIS with Iran and Saudi Arabia, laying bare their glaring commonalities, from using oil to fund statehood to violence against ‘deviants’ and from savage disregard for human rights to perpetuating ideological warfare.

As Saudi, Iran and ISIS compete for global Muslim leadership, we mustn’t let any of them win. While it’s easy for us Muslims to condemn ISIS, it’s the ideological intolerance, common to regimes as antagonistic as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which we need to challenge.

The Middle East has been a perpetual battlefield in the name of us Muslims, and the desire to represent Islam at the global stage. If we honestly believe that ISIS doesn’t represent Muslims, we need to vociferously ensure that Iran and Saudi don’t get to do so either.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Friday Times journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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20 Responses to “Saudi, Iran and ISIS are competing for global Muslim leadership. We mustn’t let any of them win”

  1. Steve Lawless

    A repressive ideology indeed but who are the “we” that “mustn’t let them win”? As war,bombing and invasions by the west have destabilised and set back enlightenment values by 100 years the important question is how do “we” stop them? Considerations should be opposing our western warmongers and reducing our dependency on oil. Not more profits for the arms industry.

  2. Selohesra

    Heaven help us if the Shia & Sunni put aside their differences allowing them to concentrate their hatred against the West

  3. Thanks Tank

    Both Saudi Arabia and Iran follow a radical and imperial belief system.

    It is called Islam, they disagree on who should lead it but 95% of the differences are cosmetic or structural.

    When a violent and supremacist belief system dominates a State and culture then trouble is inevitable.

  4. SonOfTheIsles

    Their list of enemies are;

    1) Each other
    2) Jews
    3) The rest of us

  5. Brad JJ

    Iran is harsh and cruel but also civilised and highly intellectual in its approach to many internal problems. There is a measure of democracy and profound public debate on many issues. Iran is in a state of high tension stability with premoderns and moderns holding each other in check.

    Saudi Arabia is harsh, cruel, tyrannical and oligarchic. It promotes Wahhabist exclusivism and hate through its funding of Mosques and associated schools. Saudi Arabia is in a state of ever-deepening crisis because the moderns cannot be given the concessions they require to create a new balance acceptable to them. This is because the Wahhabi and the plutocratic oligarchy are in an unholy alliance to maintain their hold on the money and state power. But the money is running out and the moderns are sick of the repression. And many religious premoderns are having Islamic republican dreams.

    Our great ally. Saudi Arabia is doomed. Iran is growing in strength and sophistication every day. Iran does not seek to lead the Islamic world. It does support equal civil rights for Shia minorities in the Mid-East. And quite right they are.

    Saudi Arabian conduct towards the Shia in Qatif has been absolutely hellish. I used to drive to Qatif where I could feel relaxed away from the Wahhabi BS. Good place Qatif, fine people and great ice cream..

  6. David Lindsay

    We either pull out of Syria, in which we are barely engaged as it is, or we buckle up for a full-blown war on land, sea and air, for and alongside Assad and all his allies: Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Hezbollah’s Christian and other allies in Lebanon, everyone. I am not advocating either of those options. But they are only two available. There is no Third Way. That has been proved. We have tried to find and follow such a Way, and we have failed, with only three strikes since the Commons vote.

    Diane Abbott spelled this out when she was last on Question Time, as Ken Livingstone had done the previous week, that being the context of his perfectly sensible remark about what had caused the 7/7 bombings. George Galloway has also repeatedly made this point on RT, and expressions of it by Neil Clark, John Wight and others, have appeared in opinion pieces there and elsewhere, such as the Morning Star and CounterPunch.

    The Hard Left is neither pacifist nor isolationist. The clue is in the name. It is Hard. And it is Left.

    Critically, but unsqueamishly, it can lionise even deeply unpleasant figures from the revolutionary or the anti-colonial past, in the way that, critically but unsqueamishly, the Old Right can lionise even deeply unpleasant figures from, for example, the British Empire. The alliance between their respective heroes was, of course, how we won the War. Trotskyists are a partial exception to this. But only a partial one. And they are the worse in a very great many other ways. It is no wonder that neoconservatism emerged among them.

    Moreover, John Mann also cited the absence of the necessary alliance with Russia and Iran as his reason for voting against the Government on Syria. Several other firmly Blairite figures also voted with Jeremy Corbyn, such as Mike Kane, Ivan Lewis, Jonathan Reynolds and Wes Streeting. Lewis is possibly the staunchest and the best-connected Zionist in the House of Commons, so his vote was an interesting insight into Israeli thinking.

  7. Stay Puft

    “Condeming ISIS is easy”

    Seems remarkably difficult for Jihadi Jez, who instead blames the West for ISIS beheading aid workers, throwing gay men off buildings and burying Yazidi children and women alive.

  8. Stay Puft

    Absolutely nothing to do with the koran being a rape and terrorism manual filled with commands to go out and kill non-muslims and keep women as possessions then? It’s all our fault, right? Terrorists have no agency for their actions, they’re all retarded children who react to triggers and blow up people and rape women purely in response to the big bad west.

  9. Steve Lawless

    You have not read what I have said properly. Or answered my questions.

  10. Stay Puft

    Is islam peace?

  11. Stoney Huff

    Putin gadfly Thom Hartmann has yet to mention a single Iranian outrage on air. Russian Iranian RAPE of Syria – not a speck of disagreement on his show.
    To be fair I don’t hear Obama demanding IRAN pay the $BILLIONS it owes for supporting terrorists killing thousands of Americans.
    Remember 9-11?

  12. steroflex

    Kunwar, I have a good friend who married a Muslim. Everything went very well until the children came along.
    Islam is very simple: to marry into it you have to say the Shahadah. Then you have to do the five pillars and be nice to other Muslims who provide your social life. Learning the Koran for toddlers is the norm.
    The problem is this: how do you put the Western point of view? What is it exactly? Which bits do you insist on?
    I am not sure anyone can give a simple answer here. It is all so very vague. Racism, Religion, Class, all have disappeared into criminal offences.
    My friend tells me he is increasingly frustrated.

  13. steroflex

    We cannot stop them. You cannot bomb religions out of existence. When we interfere we end up arming people whom we later fight with our own weapons! Muslims are lousy at producing stuff like arms and trucks and so on. We have armed them all.
    If we just let them get on with it, oil prices would soar and there would be serious disruption of airways over the Middle East. We would also have to protect our ally Israel.
    If we get involved we will end up fighting the very people we armed.

  14. steroflex

    Yes – the word s-l-m means peace.
    And it also means submission.
    Giving in and surrendering to the inevitable is the sort of idea.

  15. Stay Puft

    I don’t fancy submitting to a death cult invented by an illiterate paedophile who had his enemies beheaded and raped a 9 year old when he was in his mid 50s. I guess that makes me islamophobic. Oh dear. Should I hand myself into the nearest police station?

  16. madasafish

    As Saudi, Iran and ISIS compete for global Muslim leadership, we mustn’t let any of them win. While it’s easy for us Muslims to condemn ISIS, it’s the ideological intolerance, common to regimes as antagonistic as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which we need to challenge.

    Bomb them?
    Stop buying Saudi Oil?
    Ask them nicely?

    This article is full of calls of what is wrong and empty of any suggestions of how to meet its aims.

    I have a sensible suggestion: arm them and let them kill each other..

  17. madasafish

    9/11 was the work of Saudi nationals.

  18. jj

    Trouble is, one of them will be the overarching voice in Islam, one already is, Saudi Arabia, very influenza and responsible for much of Islamic bigotry.

  19. jj

    No one has invaded Saudi Arabia, quite the contrary, the world as vied for its approval on the basis of oil. Get with it man! This religion isn’t interested in ‘reforming’, and will only become more extreme. Blame the west all you like, very easily done… instead of the people actually commuting these atrocities in the name of Allah….

  20. Steve Lawless

    And who sells Saudi arms?

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