Saudi Arabia on Monday severed diplomatic relations with Iran after tensions between the arch rivals in the Muslim world escalated sharply in the aftermath of the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr by the Saudis. Nimr had become the face of popular protests against the regime in its restive eastern province, which has a substantial Shia population who are marginalised and oppressed by Riyadh. A Saudi court sentenced him to death for “seeking foreign meddling, disobeying its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces”. Sheikh Nimr had, however, consistently sought peaceful protests, elections and an end to the marginalisation of Shias.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the Sheikh a “martyr” and warned Saudi of “divine revenge”. “This oppressed scholar had neither invited people to armed movement, nor was he involved in covert plots,” Khamenei said. “The only act of Sheikh Nimr was outspoken criticism.”
After protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties, accusing Iran of interfering in its internal matters. Bahrain and Sudan followed, and UAE recalled its envoy to Tehran.
Saudi has been jostling with Shia Iran for influence across the Muslim world and especially in the Middle East. The countries are literally at war in Yemen, where Iran is backing the Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels who have been targeted by Saudi-led airstrikes. They are also at each other in Syria, where an unofficial coalition of Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are fighting Saudi and western attempts to remove the Alawite Shia minority from power. The situation is complicated by the Daesh — while the Saudis and their Gulf partners are against the IS, evidence of links between them too has been surfacing regularly.
The Saudis have been especially nervous since relations between Tehran and Washington took a positive turn recently. While Iran, the leader of Shias across the world, hopes to take over the leadership of the entire Muslim world, Saudi would like to sharpen the historical Shia-Sunni divide so that the focus remains on the sectarian differences — and allows the perpetuation of the control of the ruling Saudi family over the country that houses Islam’s holiest shrines.
It isn’t new, but the current violent manifestation of the centuries old divide is dangerous in the context of the situation in the Middle East. The fall of Saddam Hussein coincided with an effort by al-Qaeda to push Iraq — whose majority Shias were oppressed by the Baathist dictatorship — into civil war. In a 2006 article in Foreign Affairs, Middle East scholar and author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape The Future, Vali Nasr wrote that “by liberating and empowering Iraq’s Shiite majority, the Bush administration helped launch a broad Shiite revival that will upset the sectarian balance in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come”. Nasr pointed to the “sheer size of (the Shia) population”, accounting for “about 90 per cent of Iranians, some 70 per cent of the people living in the Persian Gulf region, and approximately 50 per cent of those in the arc from Lebanon to Pakistan — some 140 million people in all”, many of whom were “clamouring for greater rights and more political influence”.
In December 2004, Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke of the possible emergence of a “Shia crescent” as the direct manifestation of the democratisation of the Middle East. He was referring to the possibility of an alliance between Iran, Shia-controlled Iraq, Alawite-ruled Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
While the idea of the ascent of Shias as the leaders of the Muslim world may be an exaggeration and strategic fearmongering, there is no doubt that the Arab Spring substantially changed the dynamics of power across the Middle East, and witnessed unprecedented Shia political empowerment.
Middle East expert and author of The Failure of Political Islam Oliver Roy believes that the defining geopolitical and religious schism in the Middle East pits Saudi Arabia against Iran. “The main fracture running through the Arab world — east of the River Jordan, at least — is the opposition between an Arab, Sunni bloc dominated by Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and Iran on the other. For the past 30 years, the Saudis have viewed Iran as the main threat in the region and have tried, with varying degrees of success, to mobilise Arab nationalism as well as all forms of Sunni militancy to disrupt Iranian attempts to become the main regional power,” Roy wrote in the article The Long War Between Sunni and Shia published in The New Statesman last year.
Despite the Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi showing some intentions of foraying into Kashmir, the Valley has been largely insulated from sectarian strife. The Jhangvi has not formally entered Kashmir, and there is nothing on the ground to point towards the presence of militants with an extreme sectarian agenda. There has never been a terror attack aimed at the minority Shias in the history of Kashmir’s militancy.
Why? While the sectarian relationship in Kashmir has had its ups and downs, the chasm has never crossed the threshold. Shia clergy have been part of the separatist camp, and Shia leader Abbas Hussain Ansari has led the Hurriyat Conference. Though levels of Shia participation in Kashmir’s militancy have been modest, an exclusively Shia outfit called Hizbul Momineen was formed in the early 1990s as a gesture of Shia involvement.
The other practical reason is that the Jamaat-e-Islami and the militant Hizbul Mujahideen, despite being Sunni outfits, are against sectarian divisions. The Hizb, the dominant militant outfit in the 1990s, did not allow ripple effects from Pakistan to reach the Valley. The Salafi Lashkar-e-Toiba is ideologically anti-Shia but has never been involved in attacks aimed at Shias. Then Jaish-e-Mohammad’s presence in Kashmir has declined substantially since the 2001 Assembly attack. Interestingly, within Pakistan, the Jaish acted with Jhangvi in the bid on Pervez Musharraf’s life and the March 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.
‘United in India’
Shia-Sunni relations have never been influenced by the deadly sectarian violence in Pakistan; in fact the Pakistani situation has generally been viewed with contempt and disapproval in India. But the Saudi-Iran schism carries dangerous potential because both countries have strong ties within the country.
Shia leader Maulana Kalbe Jawwad Naqvi told The Indian Express that “Indian Muslims, irrespective of sectarian allegiances, are angry about the beheading of such a noted religious scholar (Nimr) only because he was peacefully fighting for human rights”. He said, “Apart from a small minority of Wahhabis and those who are funded by Saudis, Shias and Sunnis are united in India.”
Differences between Shias and Sunnis have never resulted in organised attacks in India. Indian Muslims across the sectarian divide have focused on the politics of shared identity. Muslims are in a minority, and Shias are a small group. The vast majority of Indian Muslims follow Sunni schools of thought that aren’t antagonistic towards Shias. When Shia groups held large protest demonstrations against the Daesh in Delhi’s Jorbagh, they invited Sunni leaders too. The Indian government, which has good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran, has not allowed any Shia-Sunni divide to surface.