There have been a lot of articles and amazingly fascinating fact boxes on the split between Shia and Sunni Muslims, written, I’m guessing, by people who don’t know their Karbala from their Kelloggs, in an attempt to explain the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Normally, when I read an article that says something along the lines of “the people hate each other because of something that happened in 632 AD”, I confess that far from experiencing a moment of revelation, “you what?” is actually a more accurate reaction.
But, having started to see so many articles like that I now feel the need to at least attempt to break it down, especially for journalists who may just want to finish yet another shoddy piece explaining those irrational Muslims and their wars so they can get to the pub on time. And for presidents who blame their failure on so-called millennial battles. Ahem.
The thing is, Middle Eastern politics is just that: politics. Saudi-Iran isn’t really about religion (although I’ll get back to that) – it’s about politics. No more and no less.
On one side you have a coalition of conservative monarchies, who are Sunni (and yet of course not every Sunni-majority Arab state is a monarchy). They’re led by Saudi Arabia – those petrodollars go far.
On the other side you have an admittedly religious Shia ideology, but this is the important bit; it’s “revolutionary”. It has a missionary-like zeal and seeks to export its revolution throughout the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. This side is led by Iran, and is backed by groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Keep in mind that many leading Shia scholars, especially prior to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, don’t actually agree with the political ideology espoused by the Ayatollahs in Tehran (the rule of the jurist – i.e. a religious scholar who has to be of a certain lineage, belief etc).
In all honesty, both sides are pretty regressive.
So we have “Conservative” politics vs “revolutionary” politics. That’s bound to cause tensions. And guess what – it has.
The Saudi Royal family have one preoccupation – their security. There’s not much point to a royal family that doesn’t have power. And they’ve gotten used to the palaces.
Therefore, they will do anything to make sure they stay on top (as most other powers would do to be frank) and their major fear is their population rebelling against them.
Now, as lovely as it is to think that people who only vote for X-Factor will suddenly spontaneously turn up on the streets and demand their rights (risking their lives) when things go bad, it most often doesn’t happen unless they have some sort of ideology pinning them together, something to fight for, unite them, and perhaps even die for.
That’s what the Saudis fear. They used a conservative religious ideology to initially get into power, and so they know how powerful ideologies are.
So what do you do to any potential strong ideology that could threaten Al-Saud within its borders or nearby? You destroy it. Or at least try to. Below is a list of the ideologies that have challenged the Saudi status quo:
– Arab Nationalism (1960s) Communism (70s and 80s) and now Political Shia Islam (2000s): all Yemen (just our luck being next door)
– Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni just in case you hadn’t realised) – all those billions sent to Egypt post-coup wasn’t because they took a sudden liking to the Pyramids
– Political Shia Islam / Liberal Democratic Movement (Bahrain)
– Political Shia Islam / Al Qaeda and friends / Muslim Brotherhood (all within Saudi)
Now, as you may have noticed, not all of those are religious ideologies. And, as pointed out, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda etc are Sunni, so no 632 AD tiff can really explain that.
You may often hear that we live in a post-ideological world. That a lot of these ideologies (Arab Nationalism and Communism especially) are dead or dying. That may be true, but one ideology, in its many guises, is particularly powerful in the Middle East today (and I emphasise this has not always been the case so once again no 632) – Political Islam. It is by far the most powerful actor capable of getting people onto the streets (and no, don’t embarrass yourselves with no 33 million on the streets *cough* Egypt *cough*).
Therefore, when people in the Middle East see the oppressive nature of the states they live in, that some struggle to put food on the table, or even that the bloody electricity doesn’t stay on, they look for something that will change it for the better. In the past it may have been Arab Nationalism or Marxism. Many now turn to the current powerful ideology – Political Islam.
So back to Saudi-Iran. In essence what we are seeing is a power struggle, like any other. But thanks to the conditions the Middle East finds itself in, many are particularly attracted to religious ideologies. In essence what we have is a power struggle coated with a veneer of religion.
And so, a regular power struggle common throughout human history turns into “look at those crazy Muslims stuck in their 1400 year old power struggle”.
Now, of course, we can’t ignore the religious and sectarian aspect. Saudi Arabia carrying a particularly anti-Shia sectarian ideology doesn’t help. And Iran being on a mission to sow unrest across the region in a bid to spread its own religious ideology (which again I stress does not necessarily equal Shia Islam) also doesn’t help.
But sectarianism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we go on about it and use it to cover up for the gaps in our cranial capacity, the more it takes roots and sows its seeds.
I haven’t gone into Iran as much, because, in all honesty, I don’t know nearly as much about that country (take note fellow journalists). But what I do know is that criticising and even being particularly anti-Iranian government does not mean you are sectarian. That is equating Shia Islam with Iran’s anti-democratic and oppressive regime and political system (and don’t come at me with the they’ve got a parliament. We all know who makes the decisions and what the criteria is for him to be in that position) in the same way that Judaism is equated with Zionism in Israel. If you point out the apparent links between Saudi and ISIS and ignore the open links between Iran and the mass murderer who calls himself the president of Syria, then you my friend are a hypocrite.
And that’s a wrap. Long story short: Saudi and Iran are not going to go to war because one prays with their hands folded and the other with their hands down.