How Saudi Arabia and Iran represent a deadly clash of civilisations

How Saudi Arabia and Iran represent a deadly clash of civilisations
Photo Credit: AFP
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Saudi Arabia rang in the new year in vintage style by executing 47 men, among them murderers, terrorists, and the dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The kingdom executed 158 convicts last year and seems in a hurry to break that record in 2016. Iran, which considers itself the protector of Shias everywhere, responded to al-Nimr’s killing in its own characteristic fashion by whipping up emotions and then ordering security forces to stand aside while those whose emotions had been whipped up ransacked the Saudi embassy. The Saudis and their allies then cut off or downgraded relations with Iran, making the mess in Iraq and Syria that much messier, because solving anything there requires Iran and Sunni Arab states to accept a common minimum programme.

Trying to think through the current crisis in the Middle East, a book published 20 years ago comes to mind, Samuel Huntington’s influential The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. Huntington’s thesis, which became central to political debate following the attacks of September 11, 2001, has generally been rejected in India, usually by people who have not read it in its entirety. I found the book insightful, though deeply flawed, and the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran helps highlight both its virtues and drawbacks. Before analysing Huntington’s hits and misses, though, I’d like to bring into the picture a previous mass execution ordered by the House of Saud.

Then and now

While it carried out the recent killings discreetly in prisons, on January 9, 1980, the Saudi regime beheaded 63 men in public squares across eight cities as a show of force and public entertainment in response to a single catastrophic event. Those executed were captured members of a fundamentalist organisation that in November 1979 took over Islam’s holiest site, Mecca’s Masjid a-Haram, and called for the overthrow of the ruling dynasty. The Saudis responded by sending troops into the mosque (which is meant to be completely peaceful spot) after getting a favourable fatwa from a pliant cleric. Having restored order, the regime began projecting a more conservative ideology to head off future attacks on its right flank.

Iran, at the time, had just undergone a revolution that installed Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader in place of the erstwhile Shah. Reacting to the takeover of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Khomeini said nothing against soldiers operating on hallowed ground, but instead picked on a familiar target: “It is not beyond guessing that this is the work of criminal American imperialism and international Zionism.” Over the next 35 years, Iran (and an unfortunately large number of Muslims across the globe) ritually denounced the United States, Israel, and the West for virtually any disaster. While the USA, Israel and NATO countries have frequently played a mendacious role in the region, and the history of imperialism influences current crises, indicting Americans or Israelis for incidents like the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque or the attacks of 9/11 amounts to scapegoating and conspiracy mongering.

What’s different about the reaction to Saudi Arabia’s new year executions is that when Israel and the United States have been mentioned at all it is as tangential figures rather than central players. This is not an accident, but rather a direct result of Barack Obama’s insufficiently appreciated approach to the region’s problems, which involves making allies take responsibility for their own foreign policy, instead of doing the dirty work for them. I wrote about the Obama doctrine in the context of the US-Iran nuclear accord:

“Not only has [Obama] withdrawn troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and negotiated directly with Iran, he has approved new armed interventions in the greater Middle East only after gaining explicit Arab League support and the involvement of Arab combatants. For decades, US allies in West Asia perfected the hypocrisy of backing US military actions financially and logistically, while also professing to be ethically troubled by them. Even as the geopolitical map of the region has grown muddled, Obama’s policy has led to a new clarity of intent among local powers.”

The longest running unresolved conflict

The stark division that now defines the entire region is a sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis. Commentators in the United States and Europe were slow to understand this fact, but have cottoned on to it in the past year or two. One reason for their reluctance to see the obvious may have been their attachment to Samuel Huntington’s scheme which defined the entire region as a unitary civilisation. In setting up a clash between Islam and the West, Huntington ignored the longest running unresolved conflict in the world, the one between Shias and Sunnis which has lasted 1,300 years and counting. The Arab Spring exposed that fault line once more, and the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria is turning the fissure into a chasm. If the Iran-Saudi Arabia rift reveals the limitations of Huntington’s thesis, though, it also reinforces his fundamental insight that conflicts increasingly relate to culture rather than economics or political ideology.

Most on the Left reject that insight, and explain current events in politico-economic terms grounded in the history of European imperialism. Last July, Pankaj Mishra produced amagisterial essay about the Islamic State along these lines. In the course of over 5000 words, Mishra used the words “Shia” and “Sunni” only once each, and used them in the course of a passage blaming the United States for much that had gone wrong in the region over the past decade:

“The dismantling of the Iraqi army, de-Ba’athification and the Anglo-American imprimatur to Shia supremacism provoked the formation in Mesopotamia of al-Qaida, Isis’s precursor. Many local factors converged to make Isis’s emergence possible last year: vengeful Sunnis; reorganised Ba’athists in Iraq; the co-dependence of the west on despotic allies (al-Sisi, al-Maliki) and incoherence over Syria.”

Mishra’s analysis is not mistaken so much as partial. He views West Asia or the Middle East through the prism of 19th century Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Pushkin who first explored ressentiment,

“the peculiar psychology of the ‘superfluous’ man in a semi-westernised society: educated into a sense of hope and entitlement, but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy.

Mishra connects ressentiment to the rise of the ISIS,

“There is nothing remarkable about the fact that the biggest horde of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria originated in Tunisia, the most westernised of Arab countries. Mass education, economic crisis and unfeeling government have long constituted a fertile soil for the cults of authoritarianism and violence.”

Notice that all his terms of analysis are political, rather than cultural or civilisational. Bringing in recent developments, Mishra writes:

“The failure of the Arab Spring has also played a part. Tunisia, its originator, has sent the largest contingent of foreign jihadis to Iraq and Syria.”

This is where his thesis runs aground, in my opinion. The Arab Spring, which may be seen to have failed considered as a whole, was actually a collection of national liberation movements of varying trajectories. The one in Tunisia, as it happens, was astonishingly successful in spurring a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Given that success, neither unfeeling government nor the failure of a democratic movement can be said to have spurred Tunisians to join ISIS in such large numbers. Left without political tools, one has to fall back on a cultural explanation for the phenomenon of Tunisians joining ISIS, and conclude it has less to do with the history of imperialism or western support for dictators than with the upsurge of sectarian ideas, once superseded by nationalist myths but rampant once again in the age of transnational globalisation.

Although the scenario in Iraq and Syria is deeply disturbing, with only bad choices to choose between, I believe there is always virtue in clarity. Without the muddling rhetoric of imperialism and Zionism to complicate the issue, I hope more Muslims will comprehend the pointlessness of endless sectarian conflict and gravitate towards a more accommodating version of their faith.