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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