CDA Institute Security & Defence Blogger Adnan Qaiser, a political and defence analyst with a distinguished career in the armed forces and international diplomacy, examines sectarianism in Islam and how its internal dissensions and power-wrangling are threatening global security.

Sometimes it is hard to decide whether the world of Islam should fear itself more or its enemies. The 1,400 year old ‘political conflict’ that has haunted the Muslim world in the shape of Shia-Sunni schism has been pronounced in the recent days.

From Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen to salvage President Mansour Hadi’s government from Houthi Shias to forming a 34-nation military coalition against terrorism to supporting the Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Assad and even offering to send its ground forces in Syria, all Saudi actions point towards the Kingdom’s heightened anxieties due to its weakening regional and global influence.

Highlighting the “snatch of ‘true’ Islam [in Iraq] and delivered to ‘heretical’ Shias,” Vali Nasr in his book The Shia Revival recounts that in September 2005 Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faysal chided the Americans, “[W]e fought a war together to keep Iran out of Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait. Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason.”

A Shiite Iran, on the other hand, having been an international pariah in the past over three decades (due to its theocratic and repressive policies) has emerged as a winner. Iran’s diplomatic masterstroke of striking a nuclear deal with the West – while simultaneously winning grudging respect for halting the advance of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq – spurred the Iranian regime to consolidate its hold over the Middle East and boost its struggling economy by signing trade deals worth US$600 billion with China and €7 billion with Italy.

The Iranian military and its ‘Fatemiyon force,’ comprising of some 20,000 fighters from across the world, are already fighting in Syria. Iran has also successfully contained Saudi Arabia through a Shiite crescent that includes Lebanese Hezbollah, Turkic Shias of Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia’s Shaykhis Shias, Iraqi Twelver Shias, Bahrain’s Akhbari Shias and Yemen’s Zaidi Shias. Finally, Iran chinked the Saudi-Pakistan armour; an obligated Pakistan for the first time refused to join the Saudi offensive in Yemen or play an active role in the 34-nation alliance. Neither did the country take the Saudi side in the diplomatic row that took place after the killing of Shia scholar Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr followed by burning of Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad.

The biggest beneficiaries of the Middle East’s discord are the extremist groups. Just imagine the groups allied to Daesh are no less than thirty-four. These Salafist followers of 7th century’s Khwaraji ideology practice Khuruj (revolt) and Takfir (apostatization) under the extreme philosophies of “near enemy” by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and that of “far enemy” by Dr. Aimal al-Zawahiri, meant to either institute puritanical Islam, establish a global Caliphate, obtain political power through terror, or simply to amass money through crime. It is hard to forget that not only Osama bin Laden but 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks under the banner of al-Qaeda were Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia, therefore, is entirely blameworthy. As a longstanding strategic partner of the West, its spread of radical Wahhabism (not to be confused with Salafism) through generous funding of madrassas (religious seminaries) and Islamic universities across the world escaped the global radar. In his book Sectarian War, Khaled Ahmed highlights the role of Saudi charity Rabita al-Alam al-Islami and Medina University in promoting Wahhabism worldwide. Wahhabism not only distorted the largely followed Sunni practices but also led to a wider chasm between its (hard-line) Deobandi and (mystic) Barelvi sub-sects. The bombings of Sufi (saints) shrines are one such manifestation.

After Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, Saudi Arabia not only brought the Gulf countries under its tutelage but also supported the Ba’thist regime of Saddam Hussain in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, thereby diminishing both regional powers. Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini might have had ambitions to export his theocratic Velayat-e-Faqih (Absolute Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists). However, as emerged after the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi Shias under the leadership of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani preferred to choose parliamentary democracy in 2005. Likewise, Shiite communities in the region continued to follow their own practices rather than adopt Iran’s “Twelve Imam” belief.

Being the custodian of Mecca and Medina, the House of Saud shoulders the heavy responsibility of holding the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims together. However, the Kingdom’s leadership has come into the hands of a younger generation more untrained in statecraft and remains unpopular, if not loathed. Its behaviour has done little to change this view, including: aggressively propagating Imam Hanbal’s rigid interpretation of Islam through Wahhabism; the lavish lifestyle of Saudi princes; the shabby treatment of pilgrims and frequent stampedes due to poor Hajj arrangements; discrimination against women; oppression of Shiites in its eastern province; failing to forcefully raise the Palestinian issue on the world-stage: hatching conspiracies against the Muslim Brotherhood; interference in regional countries; and making the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Arab League toothless enterprises, to name but a few.

The biggest disservice to the religion was Saudi Arabia inflaming sectarianism in the Muslim World. The country found an opening in the shape of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union during the 1980s to cover-up its insecurities after the Iranian revolution. It used Pakistan as a proxy battleground for instigating Shia-Sunni feud. Khalid Ahmed records that after having a “bad meeting with Khomeini” in 1984, Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq – carrying the infamy of being the ‘Butcher of Palestinians‘ for his role in ruthlessly crushing an uprising in the 1970 ‘Black September’ in Jordan – created anti-Shia militant outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba in 1985. Mushrooming into a total of eighty-two groups with thirty-eight actively engaged in sectarian war, Shias in Pakistan have since been regularly targeted and killed under the Fatwas (religious edicts) of Deobandi seminaries in 1986 – sanctioning Shias’ Takfir (apostatization) and labeling them rafidah (rejecters of faith). Pakistan is also not alone here. According to a 2012 PEW survey of 39 Muslim countries, “at least 40% of Sunnis do not accept Shias as fellow Muslims.”

Sharing some “uncomfortable truths,” US Senator Chris Murphy in his talk at the Council on Foreign Relations on 29 January 2016 castigated Saudi Arabia for having “funneled over $100 billion into funding schools and mosques all over the world with the mission of spreading puritanical Wahhabism” – “the only sect of Islam that can be perverted into violence.” The Senator also condemned Iran for “destabliz[ing] Lebanon and Iraq … [besides] propping-up a murderous regime in Damascus.”

While the US State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism 2013 had noted, “Terrorist violence in 2013 was fueled by sectarian motivations, marking a worrisome trend,” a June 2013 report by European Parliament’s Directorate General for External Policies had also identified Middle Eastern Wahhabi and Salafi groups “supporting and supplying arms all over the globe.” The report claimed “no country in the Muslim world is safe from their operations … as they always aim to terrorise their opponents and arouse the admiration of their supporters.”

Saudi-Iranian competition to become sole-proprietors of Islam has made the world an unsafe place. While the unnaturally demarcated Sykes-Picot Accord already lay under the rubble, the fragmented world of Islam is at war with itself. The UN Commission on Syria fears “A regional war in the Middle East draws ever closer.” Meanwhile, participating in the 20-nation military exercise Thunder of the North, Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ally Pakistan has already declared that any threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia will evoke its strong response. The Iranian nuclear deal has already made the Kingdom to seriously consider its own nuclear weapons – even reportedly obtaining a few off-the-shelf from Pakistan.

The international community must counsel Saudi Arabia and Iran to step-back from further endangering the world. In their struggle to become the paterfamilias of the religion, both countries have not only inflamed the whole region but also tarnished the image of Islam.

Adnan Qaiser is a political and defence analyst having had a distinguished career in the armed forces as well as in international diplomacy and public and social sector development. He can be reached at: (Image courtesy of Mareeg.)

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