By K.N. Pandita
Clash of oil interests, retrograde Gulf monarchies, politicization of religion and the resultant dangerously deepening Shia-Sunni sectarian divide are at the root of armed conflicts and social-political unrest in contemporary Middle East.
To this explosive situation, Iran-US nuclear deal has served a match stick to the powder keg. Saudi monarch took it direct affront to his country’s pre-eminence as the leader of Islamic world, a privilege stubbornly contested by Iran under the clerical rule. Taking the deal a precursor to fundamental change in regional strategy, Riyadh decided realignment of perceptions in the region, a compulsion she attributed to Iran-US détente.
Saudi Arabia’s first public display of Chinese missile capable of hitting Teheran and UAE’s announcement of military conscription, both are reflective of changing strategy in the Gulf region.
In World War I, Great Britain, supported by France, Italy and Russia dissolved the Ottoman Empire and arbitrarily cartographed borders that brought into existence present states of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait.
In the process of dismantling the Ottoman Empire for political and oil reasons, the British had funded Ibn Saud, leader of the tribe of Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia, who ousted Prince Hijaz, and by 1932, succeeded in establishing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Declaring his allegiance to Abd al Wahhab and his ideology of conservative Islam, the Saudi monarchy used the massive influx of petro-dollar booty to proselytize and export the ideology of Abd al Wahhab.
By 2013, the Western world recognized Wahhabism as primary source of Islamic terrorism. Ayatollah Khumeini’s rabid antagonism towards Muslim monarchies, and his unabashed threatening of exporting Islamic Revolution of Iran to the Muslim world and the regions with substantial Muslim population —- to be undertaken by Iran’s ecclesiastical brigade— stimulated Saudi monarchy’s reaction to Iran’s ambition of wresting from Saudi’s the leader of the Muslim world. It countered the non-Semitic Khumeinism with ruthless Wahhabi ideology of Sunni belief attracting extensively positive support from the Sunni Muslims.
Unable to make much headway in destabilizing Bashar al Assad of Syria, various anti-Bashar Sunni radical groups, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, welcomed the rise of armed Sunni group in Iraq that had split from Iraqi Al Qaeda and decided to act independently.
Widely publicizing that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki was favourably disposed towards Shia predominance in Baghdad’s power structure, Sunni radical militants announced on the first day of the month of Ramadan viz. 29 June 2014, the formation of Islamic Caliphate named Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS (later on to be re-christened as Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) or ISIL with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the Caliph.
This announcement alarmed Teheran no less than President al – Bashar of Syria or premier Maliki of Iraq. But Riyadh looked at it a shift with positive consequences for its regional strategy. It was happy with a new anti-Shia front opening in the restive northern Iraq.
The blitzkrieg of ISIS/ISIL ruthless radicals of an army station in Northern Iraq made them the masters of enormous war material, which the Americans had stored in the days of Iraq war. It contained most modern and sophisticated weaponry of American manufacture like US combat uniforms, AN/PVS-7, night vision goggles with PASGT helmets, M16 rifles, M60 Machine guns, some vehicles like Humvees, several T-55 Tanks and Type 59-1 artillery guns. They also captured UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and cargo planes. These weapons were crucial for them to capture Mosul, the second most populous city in Iraq and then other towns like Tikrit, Fallujah and Nineveh.
Leading anti-Bashar al Assad militant groups in Syria like Jibhatul Nusra lost no time in aligning with the ISIL militants whose ranks quickly swelled as volunteers from different places flocked to it.
In his proclamation of establishing ISIS Caliphate on 29th June, Al-Baghdadi clarified that “it was incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Caliph and support him.” The new Sunni Muslim entity seeks to override prevailing regional political order. Al-Baghdadi pronounced that ISIS/ISIL considers Central and South Asia as the sphere of the Caliphate.
The capture of Mosul by the ISIS gave some indications of how the Caliphate would govern the State (dowla) by releasing a Charter of the City (wathiqat’ul-Madina) to Mosulwis meaning the residents of Mosul city. Governing strategy includes social services like water, power and proselytizing local population (dawa) and functioning bureaucracy which includes Islamic court system.
In March ISIS, fighters captured the city of Raqqa in Syria which has sizeable Christian population for whom the dhimmi –tude meaning second rate citizenship is imposed by the Caliph.
Al Baghdadi has spoken of global reach of the Caliphate and touched on the issue of “persecution” of Muslims in Myanmar and the Philippines’ as well as of restrictions imposed by the French state on the wearing of veil by Muslim females. He also said that some powers were accusing the ISIS of getting engaged in terrorism (irharb). Creating the Islamic Caliphate for Iraq and the Levant (al Sham) is the immediate objective of the movement. He expected support from marginalized fringe radical groups of Muslims all over the world.
What concerns us is caliphate’s perception of the sub-continent and India. Al Qaeda of Iraq (al-Qaeda I), the earlier avatar of ISIS, drew fighters from al Zarqawi’s networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recruits from Syria and Iraq merged with it later on. Sectarianism in Pakistan and Iran-Saudi power struggle has the potential of drawing indoctrinated youth to the caliphate movement.
Islam, the second largest religion in India, makes up 14.6 per cent of her population with about 177 million adherents 10 per cent of whom are Sunnis. India’s Shia population is world’s third, after Iran and Pakistan. 62 per cent of world Muslim population lives in South and South East Asia. Of these 11 per cent are in Pakistan, 10.9 per cent in India and 9.2 per cent in Bangladesh. These three countries make up 31.1 per cent of Muslim population whereas only 20 per cent Muslims live in Arab countries of which Iraq and Syria make just 3 per cent.
Though ISIS’ initial recruits came from Af-Pak region, yet it is more than confident that recruits from Myanmar and the Philippines will join its ranks. Foreign jihadis have already joined it in Syrian conflict. According to one reliable source its present strength comprises 11,000 fighters spread between Iraq and Syria. Of these 3,000 are foreigners, 500 from Western Europe. Australians are evincing interest in jihad and already 150 to 300 of them have joined radical militant groups in the Middle East.
Importance of Indian Muslims to the caliphate may take cue from homegrown Islamic radical movements under different names and features. Reports of two Chennai college students receiving training with jihadist group in Syria are probed by Indian intelligence personnel. The All India Shia Husaini Fund said in a press note that 4,000 people had volunteered to travel to Iraq for protecting Shia shrines. 30,000 Indian Shia volunteers have applied for visa to travel to Iraq and further 100,000 have pledged support to Shia resistance force in Iraq. India Shia leadership has reportedly rejected the caliphate concept.
Lastly, the crucial factor is oil. Iraq has the plan to triple its oil production capacity by 2020. Collaboration with Iran in oil strategy could be aimed at dealing a blow to the Saudi-controlled OPEC. It would foresee dramatic fall in oil price if Iraq is able to sell more crude in open market.
Saudi Arabia is trying hard to array entire Gulf against Iran. Riyadh has refused to send an ambassador to Tehran and persuaded Gulf Countries Cooperation (GCC) to follow suit. On Saudi’s behest, littoral states, especially Qatar and Kuwait, turned blind eye to their citizen funding terrorist organizations to fight against Al Bashar of Syria.
This is the harsh reality of oil diplomacy though on the surface of it both feign to be engaged in trade talks like the Emir of Kuwait visiting Teheran. But notwithstanding the deepening sectarian divide, an open war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is discounted in political circles.
The interesting facet of Saudi diplomacy is that it is supporting Sunni radicals abroad while containing their activities at home. This is precisely the same policy adopted by Pakistan, another Sunni-dominated country in the South Asian region. While Pakistan is engaged in military action against TTP at home, it has allowed rabid army and intelligence organizations to facilitate terrorist enterprises in Indian part of Kashmir. If an Islamic Caliphate emerges in the Middle East based on deep seated sectarian hatred, it will be a sad day for the humanity.
(The writer is he former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).
Link: Islamic Caliphate Map on Google Images-search.