Competing Politics and Claims of Sunnism

This Hajj season, the modern religious culture wars among Muslims were prominent again, and are set to continue. With the Syrian quagmire deepening, such conflicts have deep consequences; one could imagine a way to traverse through that set of profoundly sectarian questions – but the answers are acutely political. Without that political settlement – which goes far beyond Syria – there is no space in which to have meaningful and genuine conversations.

Early this Hajj season, prominent Iranians Muslims of Islam’s minority sect, Shi’ism, went on the offensive about Saudi Arabia’s control of the Hajj sites; in retaliation, the purist Salafi mufti of Saudi Arabia took it up a notch, and declared that the Iranians weren’t Muslim anyway. But that wasn’t the only episode of regional religious tension expressed in a war of words. Though less noticed in the international media, a conference in Chechnya took place that gathered some of the most pre-eminent Sunni religious authorities of the Arab world, without any prominent Saudi or Salafi representation. With the final declaration from the conference interpreted as marginalizing Salafis, the ire of purist Salafis was avowed on various media outlets.

It is easy to reduce all these episodes to religious quarrels. But the reality is that politics—or the absence of good politics—is deeply relevant. That does not obviate the need to understand religion, nor how it is used or abused – but religion is not the only factor here.

Take the Iranian tension with Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia are at loggerheads politically in the region; they back opposing sides in Syria, in Yemen, in Bahrain, and their religious views of each other aren’t conducive to good relations. Iran’s predominant religious establishment of Shi’ism often lends itself to supranationalist designs in the Muslim world, which is rooted in Khomeini’s approach – which partially explains Iran’s backing and facilitation of Shi’a militias from other parts of the Muslim world into Syria. Sectarianism is clearly at play here as well, which is used against Sunnis for political purposes. At the same time, Shi’ism accepts that Sunni Muslims are Muslims – even if misguided ones.

When it comes to Saudi’s religious establishment, it is even more problematic. Purist Salafism – or Wahhabism – generally views non-Salafi Sunni Muslims, let alone Shi’a Muslims, to be either deviant or engaged in forms of idolatry – a cardinal sin in a religion that upholds monotheism above all else. So, when the Saudi Mufti declares sweepingly the Shi’as of Iran to be outside of the fold of Islam, it is more radical than the standard declaration from purist Salafi religious leaders – but the general discourse of excessive intolerance of Shi’ism is wholly normalized.

The instrumentalization of that kind of religious fanaticism might be used in different political contexts, though – so, even while the religious establishment in Saudi might harbor negative feelings about various types of Muslims, Saudi continues to allow Muslims of all creeds, including Shi’as, to participate in the Hajj. The rising political tension between Saudi and Iran in the region, particularly when it comes to Syria and Yemen, is what allows for that instrumentalization to become political.

But perhaps one of the most crucial examples of how intra-Muslim religious tension is related to political realities is the Chechnya conference. Purist Salafis objected to the content of that declaration, as they felt it marginalized them, by reaffirming historically normative Sunni Islam in theological terms. Purist Salafism objects to that tradition in a number of ways – which is why since the time of Ibn Abdul Wahab (who put into motion the Wahabi or purist Salafi movement) Sunni religious scholars have written treatise upon treatise condemning elements of purist Salafism for excesses against other Muslims. Generally, that discourse doesn’t result in excommunication – nor did the Chechnya conference – but the discourse certainly at least implicitly implies that purist Salafism is better placed in a more ‘heterodox’ category. Ironically, that’s the category most Muslims find themselves in according to the minority following of purist Salafism.

But it wasn’t simply the content that was of consequence – it was the location in Chechnya, under the auspices of the Chechen president. The Chechen president’s rights record in his own state is widely criticized by international and regional human rights organizations, which makes holding the conference with his blessing politically vulnerable. More crucially, his open alignment with Putin’s Syria policy attracted the condemnation of Muslims who oppose Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Damascus. That’s a condemnation that resonates not only with purist Salafis in Saudi – but with substantial proportions of Sunni Muslims the world over.

If Syria was not the political quagmire that it is, or if Assad had facilitated a move to a genuinely pluralistic system of governance in 2011, would this have been the same? Or if the conference had not been in Chechnya, and in a more politically neutral country, might have the response been different? That is quite likely – but while the political realities exacerbate the situation, the theological dimension in this case is critical and key.

The religious resources available to Muslims to deal with their intra-religious differences are plentiful. The Amman Message, for example, signed by hundreds of Sunni and Shi’a religious scholars in 2005, makes for a genuine coexistence pact of respect for pluralism among Muslims. But one cannot say the same for the political resources available to Muslims for political pluralism, at least in the Arab world. After all, political pluralism in much of the Arab world remains a myth – with the inability to establish political spaces that are genuinely pluralistic and open to discussion. On the contrary – actively, different forces in the Arab world are opposed to political and religious pluralism, and work excessively against it, both in their countries and beyond. With that geo-political reality, religious establishments and their members have certain choices to make.

Those religious establishments can choose to keep a distance from the autocrats and the dictators, cognizant that associating with them brings the scholars’ ethical credibility into question for many watching, as well as lending an air of moral legitimacy to the excesses of the rulers. In that regard, such establishments then run the risk of being accused of being compromised in the service of the state, rather than simply their own moral and ethical imperatives, which in turn runs the risk of damaging their credibility to the masses.

Or, those religious establishments can try to engage with that political establishment in more independent fashions– and the way in which they do raises all kinds of ethical and moral quandaries, as it would probably mean a mix of confrontation and constructive engagement. None of that is easy.

The reason being is quite simple: because in the absence of fundamental freedoms being upheld, and pluralism being accepted, the price of speaking an unpopular political opinion of any kind can be steep indeed. And herein lies the essential rub – that we can continue to expect these kinds of internal and intra-Muslim tensions in the Arab world and the wider Middle East, until there is a genuine, rooted sense of political pluralism upheld by the powers that be. Until then, we can only expect things to get worse.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He is also Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

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Image: Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Creative Commons)