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Sunni and Shia:

political readings of a religious dichotomy


Sunni and Shia:

political readings of a religious dichotomy


Introduction. 7 Eduardo López Busquets The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview.

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Barah Mikaïl Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power.

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Fatiha Dazi-Héni The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide.

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Khaled Hroub Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar).

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Thierry Coville Mediation in the Face of Sectarianism.

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Oliver McTernan Confessionalism and Modernity: The Origins of the Syrian Paradox. Alejandra Álvarez Suárez

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The present collection of articles is the result of Casa Árabe’s efforts to address the different problems affecting peace and stability in the Middle East, and particularly in the Mashriq. The seminar ‘Sunni and Shia: Political Readings of a Religious Dichotomy’ was held towards the end of 2013 at Casa Mudéjar (Casa Árabe’s headquarters, in Córdoba), with various experts coming together for the discussion. The aim of the meeting was to analyse the causes and consequences of the widening gap between both branches of Islam, and call into question reductionist arguments which prevail in today’s narrative: is this situation caused by the exacerbation of the religious schism or is it the result of geopolitical determinants? This publication offers various approaches to the challenges facing the region, in light of growing sectarian conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen. From a geostrategic perspective, the authors concur that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the main centres of influence. Nevertheless, the new sectarianism comes in different shapes and sizes. Small groups that represent a large threat to regional stability are not uncommon. Moreover, within both Shiism and Sunnism there are differences and conflicts that are difficult to simplify— these two branches are not monolithic blocks that obey one sole authority. The media, in both traditional and 2.0 formats, intensify the manipulation of public opinion and have the ability to light a fuse in a matter of seconds. It is imperative, too, to have a better understanding of youth, given their undeniable role in recent popular Arab uprisings. Where do ‘cult mentalities’ and victimhood come from and in turn, how is the notion of citizenship distorted? Casa Árabe is in a privileged position to address complex issues such as sectarianism in the 21st century. Never has the antagonism between each branch of Islam had such an impact on the public political sphere and global awareness as it does nowadays. The articles in this publication call for reflection and dialogue—both key instruments, whether it is for coexistence, reconciliation, convergence or dealing with disagreement. Eduardo López Busquets General Director of Casa Árabe


THE GEOPOLITICS OF DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN SUNNIS AND SHIAS: A GLOBAL OVERVIEW Barah Mikaïl

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ith the ‘Arab Spring’, the general misunderstanding that prevails between Sunnis and Shias seems to have gained momentum. While the ‘Sunni–Shia issue’ is by no means limited to the Arab world, it is this region that witnesses the most obvious examples of sectarian unrest. The roots of the global disagreement between Sunnis and Shias go back 14 centuries, but this rivalry also has to do with political matters. It is important, therefore, not to exaggerate the role of sectarianism in contemporary issues. Today, there is obvious social unrest that is linked to religious matters, but it has to do first with state rivalries. The intertwining of political and religious matters is in itself part of the history of Islam. Nevertheless, what can we expect from the rise of sectarianism that we are witnessing in the region? Will it remain mainly political and limited to relations between regimes and governments? Or will it extend more and more to the lives of citizens, transforming progressively the divergences between Sunnis and Shias into a global and violent fight? To answer these questions, we must first remember the main facts that contributed to the split of Islam into various branches, starting with Sunnism and Shiism. Then we will explore concrete examples of the contemporary Sunni–Shia disagreement and how it translates into violent representations. Finally, we will formulate some suggestions relating to the future of Sunni–Shia relations and how disagreements can be overcome in the future.


Barah Mikaïl

Between politics and religion: the reasons for a determinant disagreement The roots of the disagreement between Sunnis and Shias seem to be mainly theological. But on looking closer, it is easy to notice that they also have to do with politics and rivalry over power. Indeed, the seeds for this major inter-Muslim conflict were sown as soon as Muhammad—the Prophet of Islam—died in 632, leaving no successor. With his death, his companions (people who had converted to Islam and adhered to his thoughts and teachings) convened in al-Saqifa, a roofed place located in the town of al-Madina. They designated Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s followers and companions, as the first caliph of Islam (632–634). He was followed by Omar (634–644), Othman (644–656) and Ali (656–661). The serious problems occurred when Moawiya, the military governor of Damascus, rejected the legitimacy of Ali.1 This attempt by Moawiya to delegitimise Ali’s earning of the title Caliphate of Islam has to be understood first and foremost in its political dimension.2 From a religious point of view, Ali’s skills and legitimacy were at least as high as those of the caliphs who preceded him. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. He also had a special position having lived for many years in the house of the Prophet, becoming almost an adoptive son to him. But perhaps most important is the fact that Ali was the first Muslim man to have converted to Islam, while it had taken Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman more time to adhere to Muhammad’s calls to embrace Islam. Why then was Ali not chosen as the first successor to Muhammad? History has it that while Ali was washing Muhammad’s body ahead of burying him, the other companions of the Prophet were meeting in al-Saqifa, designating Muhammad’s successor. Ali’s absence weakened his position, and this is why he had to wait more than 20 years before being designated a caliph. But Moawiya’s challenge to Ali’s authority in Islam did not provoke serious religious argument. And since caliphs hold both spiritual and temporal powers in their hands, the governor of Damascus had to refer to politics to reach his objectives.3 Moawiya argued that Ali was responsible for the killing of his predecessor, Othman. Ali rejected the accusation but Moawiya’s position allowed him to build on his military capacities. He proposed to Ali that both their troops engage in a fight, in order for people to see which of them had the greater strength and therefore the greater legitimacy over Islam. But while Moawiya and Ali’s troops were standing face to face, ready for combat, 1 2

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Maxime Rodinson (2013). Mahomet. Paris: Editions du Seuil. For insightful details about the points that follow and the political dimension of the Sunni–Shia conflict vs religious aspects, some of the recommended books are: Roy P. Mottahedeh (2008). The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. Oxford: Oneworld; Mohammad Ali Amir Moezzi and Christian Jambet (2004). Qu’est-ce que le Shi‘isme? Paris: Fayard; and Hichem Djaït (2008). La grande discorde: Religion et politique dans l’islam des origins. Paris: Gallimard. Most of the points that follow are based on the facts and explanations that can be found in these books. There are several ways to understand Moawiya’s strategy: one is comprehensive, generally defended by Sunnis; the other is critical and mostly defended by Shias. To understand the Shia narrative of these events, see Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Institute of Ismaili Studies (2011). The Spirituality of Shi’i Islam: Beliefs and Practices. London: I.B. Tauris. Also useful is Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub (2005). The Crisis of Muslim History: Religion and Politics in Early Islam. Oxford: Oneworld.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

Ali suddenly renounced the fight. His act was quickly recuperated by Moawiya, who saw Ali’s decision as an act of cowardice that confirmed his lack of legitimacy. Islam’s main rift, between Sunnis and Shias, began here. Summarising perspectives, we can say that those who supported Moawiya in his action are the Sunnis; and Ali’s supporters are the Shias. Both have gone their own way ever since, and the incident has led to a violent coexistence for the two schools in one and the same region. Moawiya had shown himself capable of exploiting his military strength and using it for the benefit of his political ambitions. The empires that were to follow the reign of the Umayyad (Abbasid, Ottoman etc.) all pretended to political and religious ‘legitimacies’ following their combats and conquests.4 Shias do not recognise Islam’s three first caliphs. They consider Ali to be the first caliph of Islam and the only legitimate successor to Muhammad. Sunnis do recognise Ali’s legitimacy but criticise the Shia rejection of his three predecessors. This disagreement persists today. It is so deeply rooted in each of these religious inter-Islam trends that nothing indicates relations between the two communities could embark on a positive track anytime soon. Islam is complex and its realities and disagreements go far beyond the Sunni–Shia issue. The many communities that are part of Islam all have their own appreciations and beliefs, and this situation only adds to the religion’s fragmentation. Nevertheless, the Sunni–Shia polarisation is without a doubt Islam’s main and most threatening rift. Today, the attempts of Sunnis and Shias to pretend to both political and religious legitimacy may reflect less on people’s feelings and claims, depending on the country or region we are talking about. But governments that allow the Sunni–Shia rift to be one of the main drivers for their policies are far more obvious. Events that go back more than 1,400 years old find an echo in contemporary geopolitical issues, adding more complexity to the challenges of a region that is already under heavy pressure. The Middle East is the object of rivalries and a quest for leadership. The main players in the region are Saudi Arabia and Iran. Though they have to include other players and strategies in their calculations, both countries are concentrating a significant part of their prospects in the region. This is not to say that the Saudi–Iranian quest of influence in the MENA region is necessarily the leading issue. With the Arab Spring in particular, events have demonstrated the individuality possessed by each of the countries in the Arab world. Each uprising evolved in its own way, though they sometimes happened to share commonalities too, as highlighted by the revolts that led to the falls of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Nevertheless, none of the states in the region can pretend to be fully hermetic to external influence. This is where Saudi Arabia and Iran’s respective attempts to place their pawns in the Arab world and gather the maximum number of actors to defend their policies and points of view reveal how much each of them is constantly trying to gain momentum.

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For more on Islam, its history and evolution, see John L. Esposito (ed.) (1999). The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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The contemporary quest for legitimacy Saudi Arabia sees itself as the legitimate protector of Sunni interests. As well as the presence of two of the three sacred Sunni shrines on its soil (Mecca and Medina) and the official ideology of the state (Wahhabism), there’s the country’s active development of a panIslamic, Sunni-based strategy of education (symbolised by the example of Madrasas) and its support of Islamic fighters, which has been ongoing for decades. The case of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia supported the Mudjahideen in their combat against the Soviets, is one of the most telling examples.5 But this does not necessarily mean that Saudis engage in a blind strategy of supporting religious Sunni groups for the sake of their beliefs. Saudi Arabia’s main focus consists of controlling regional shifts and any dramatic trends, in order to ultimately avoid paying a high price. Saudi Arabia has been the diplomatic giant of the Arab world throughout the past four decades at least, and it has been able to fill the gap left by the death of Egyptian president Nasser in 1970 with discretion and success.6 But Saudis fear any change in the regional balance of power could alter their position, and this is why they want to have the upper hand. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was when their first anti-Iranian and anti-Shia fears really developed.7 While Saudi Arabia always took advantage of its alliance with the United States to contain the Shah of Iran’s ambitions to get access to important military means (nuclear being among them), the 1979 revolution got the country obsessed with the idea of Iran being able to take advantage of its Shia dogma to influence Shia communities and spread revolution in the Arab world. Some 25 years later, in 2003, following the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq made Saudis aware how damaging it could be if Shias held power in this neighbouring country. While Saudis felt Iraq had been neutralised since the end of the 1991 Gulf war, Iran’s ability to develop a political influence in this country made them feel there was a direct risk at their door. This only added to their fear of being surrounded by a ‘Shia crescent’.8 Iran, too, is trying to secure influence in the Arab world. The Iran–Iraq war (1980–1988) that followed the Islamic Revolution rather stood in its way. This important regional conflict weakened Iran and forced it to concentrate on the Gulf states-supported war it was facing. Nevertheless, Iran was able to find benefits in the evolution of the region. While Syria’s Hafez al-Assad decided to engage in a strategic alliance with Iran beginning in 1980, Tehran also supported (in 1982) the creation in Lebanon of a militant Shia Islamic group known

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See Barnett R. Rubin (2013). Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press. For more on the history of Saudi Arabia, see Madawi al-Rasheed (2010). A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See James G. Blight, et al. (2012). Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 19791988. Lanham (Md.): Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. The expression ‘Shia crescent’ was first popularised by King Abdallah of Jordan in 2004, followed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

today as Hezbollah.9 For two decades, Iran’s strategy in the Arab world was based on these two pillars. But the aforementioned American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq allowed Tehran to extend its regional means. Iran’s political alliances in Iraq are obvious today, such as the good relations it has with Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister.10 From a commercial point of view, there is also Iran’s importance in the trade and economic balance of both Syria and Iraq, not to mention Tehran’s contribution to both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah’s military capacity. At the same time, many things have been said during this past decade concerning Iran’s ability to influence the Huthi Shia rebel group in northwest Yemen and Shia anti-regime protesters in Bahrain. Countries extending from Morocco to Egypt have officially referred to Iran’s threatening strategy of converting Sunnis to Shiism in order to achieve more regional influence. So far, paradoxically, most of these accusations seem obvious while at the same time difficult to prove. Morocco, Egypt and even Jordan’s denunciation of Iran’s ‘demoniac’ aims in the region seem to be linked primarily to their fears of ending up with popular ‘subversive’ attitudes influenced by Iran’s anti-Western views and policies. This is something these countries, and others in the region, share with Saudi Arabia, which also happens to be an important funder for many Arab states. Saudi Arabia and Iran’s primary aims do not have to be considered through the lens of their respective claims for religious legitimacy. Their rhetoric and the symbols they constantly refer to concern religion. It becomes easy, therefore, to believe that both are guided by a messianic duty that leaves no room for other religions, sects, currents and beliefs. Yet their path is far from being that narrow. History has proven that countries which try to make rigid ideologies or beliefs the main argument for their legitimacy are sentenced to lose power in the long run. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and its impact on the USSR stands as a perfect example. Saudi Arabia and Iran are aware that their power must find various channels of expression. This is why the things that really matter are not official statements but what is happening on the ground. The array of allies that Saudi Arabia and Iran are looking for go far beyond their religious beliefs. If common religious affiliations happen to also allow the building of alliances and strong political links, then neither will disregard them. But the main aim for both remains first and foremost political. The evolution of the Arab world has gained complexity, especially with the Arab Spring. Countries have to take into consideration both state levels and intra-state levels when it comes to defining and maintaining their strategies of influence. If Saudi Arabia and Iran had limited their policies solely to communitarian considerations, they would have ended up isolated and weakened. The degree of animosity that they feel towards each other requires activating policies and behaviours that sound appealing to a majority of players and actors, sometimes regardless of their religious belonging. Understanding the realities of the

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Judith Palmer Harik (2004). Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism. London: I.B. Tauris. Toby Dodge (2013). Iraq: From War to a new Authoritarianism. London: Routledge, 2013.

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regional geopolitics of disagreement between ‘Sunni Saudis’ and ‘Shia Iranians’ requires understanding that Saudis can decide to adopt a Shia-appealing attitude when needed, just as Iranians may employ a Sunni-appealing attitude when they feel it is justified. The longevity and the resilience of states depend on pragmatism before convictions.

Contemporary representations of the Sunni–Shia disagreement Sunnis and Shias are not the product of the Middle East’s history alone. Both communities live in a region that extends from Morocco to Indonesia. Furthermore, both Sunni and Shia Muslims are a minority in the extended Muslim world. If events had to do with numbers, the challenges in the relations between Sunnis and Shias would lead us to focus more on Asian perspectives. Pakistan stands as a good example for the degree of violence and misunderstanding that prevails between the two communities. Nevertheless, the degree of political tensions and the strategic rivalries that prevail in the MENA region are the main reason so much attention is given to the Arab world’s prospects. By extension, the regions of the world that are from a different religious tradition can seldom pretend to be preserved from intra-MENA tensions. In the European Union, for example, the post-September 11 context revealed the significant number of Sunni communities living on European soil. It was as if everybody was just discovering that religious radicalism also has an existence in the EU. This fact brought about several hypotheses regarding the degree of support Saudi Arabia was giving to these communities, as well as the potential links between Sunni Arabs, non-Arabs and the al-Qaida organisation. The media and several governments contributed to creating a direct link in people’s minds between the fact of being a Sunni Muslim and a natural inclination for supporting religious extremism. Suspicions over who was responsible for the 11 September attacks also reflected negatively on Saudi Arabia and its alleged support of various groups of Sunni Muslim radicals. But, in fact, many of these analogies—though not necessary all of them—were abusive. The same situation prevailed in the case of Shias. Shias in general, and Arab Shias in particular, are not a majority in the US or EU. But they do form a significant section of the Arab Muslims that are settled in some Latin American and African countries, for reasons linked to the history of Arab migrations. Therefore, Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, were suspected of trying to get in touch with their Shia co-religionists around the world to encourage them to organise violent attacks in their respective countries. Examples were found in Argentina,11 even Bulgaria.12 Some Arab states added their voices to the growing concerns around the intentions of Iran and Hezbollah. Morocco expelled Iran’s ambassador to the country in 2009, while Hosni Mubarak often linked cases of conversion to Shiism to Iran’s desire to harm Egyptian interests. Similar accusations can also be found in the cases 11 12

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With the Buenos Aires bombings of 1994, for which Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon are accused by Argentina. In 2012, a bus of Israeli tourists was bombed in Burgas, also inciting suspicions against Hezbollah.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

of Senegal and Algeria, though they sound exaggerated. The fears of many of the region’s governments vis-à-vis Iran and its regional allies are the main reason behind their obsession with the threats of Shiism. Iran never denied the existence of such conversions, but this does not mean that Tehran is actively promoting a strategy of converting Sunni and nonSunni Muslims to Shiism. Examples of such conversions exist but the idea that they are taking place on a large scale has yet to be proven. Furthermore, an individual adhering to Shiism does not necessarily have an automatic allegiance to Iran and its policies. Indeed, from a theological point of view, Shias have to follow religious guides or leaders of their choice, who enlighten them on religious attitudes to adopt. These people, called marja’, often put their religious beliefs above patriotic feelings.13 Though there are no statistics made available on the matter, the general belief among Shias is that a majority of them follow Iraqbased Ayatollah Sistani’s teachings and orientations. Sistani’s official stance of non-interference in political affairs has to be put in perspective: the ayatollah is known for giving discrete indications concerning Iraq’s political life, though he never does so publicly. And though a number of Shias may follow Iran’s regional policy because of their intrinsic bias, this doesn’t mean that their attitude can be attributed to a blind allegiance to the orientations of their marja’. Even if this were the case, in the case of Sistani his personal convictions and choices do not demonstrate any inclination to Iran, its official religious dogma or its policies. On the contrary, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei is challenging the school of thought of Sistani. As for Shia Arabs, they tend to focus on their internal (local and national) perspectives, without necessarily knowing much about Iran’s political life. Shias in general may agree with Iran on some important issues, such as opposing the policies of the US and its regional allies, and none could deny they are generally at odds with Sunnis, especially when it comes to dealing with their respective political beliefs. But none of this means that Shias in general could be heading towards a global and inevitable common agreement. The situation in Iraq, where Shias are in total disagreement over a large range of political and strategic issues, speaks for itself. The Iranian clergy’s authority over Shias in general is being challenged, as highlighted by the demonstrations that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, as well as the youth’s growing sense of disconnect with the country’s religious rules.14 There is also less cohesion between Shias of the Arab world than what is generally said and thought. This limits the possibility for a country such as Iran to emerge as a subsequent regional leader. Arab countries that have a majority of Shia nationals, such as Bahrain and Iraq, represent well the large diversity of Shiism. Both countries have something in common: ‘their’ Shias cannot disconnect their religion and beliefs from political considerations. In 13 14

For more on the Marja’iya, its history and contemporary translations, see Barah Mikaïl (2006). La question de la ‘Marja’iya’ chiite, http://www.iris-france.org/docs/consulting/2006_chiite.pdf [Consulted 15 December 2013]. Ahmadinejad does not follow Khamenei from a religious perspective, but he was the Supreme Guide’s protégé for years, before the two leaders exchanged strong disagreements at the end of Ahmadinejad’s second presidential mandate.

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Bahrain, Shias—who represent more than 60% of the population—are homogenously united over one political objective at least: to get the ruling (Sunni) dynasty to change its attitude towards them by recognising their basic rights and putting an end to their social discrimination. But their views are different from the Iraqi Shias, who are split between different trends depending on which political (or more often political and religious) leader they follow.15 In contrast, more cohesion can be found among Sunnis of both countries. Bahraini Sunnis have a majority to defend the ruling dynasty and few seem ready to consider the access of Shia politicians to key positions. In Iraq, a somewhat similar sense of solidarity exists among Sunnis, though it has nuances too. That said, the Sunni minority’s fears of ending up with a pro-Iranian (and, from their point of view, pro-Shia) regime have paved the way for the emergence of a union sacrée in recent years. As for the post-2003 context, it has deepened the rift between these communities—though the seeds were sown long before. The weakening of the feeling of national belonging has a lot to do with that. To a certain extent, similar observations can be formulated in the case of countries where Shias form a minority. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, sectarianism is part of politics. But it generally relates to internal perspectives and state regional policies, whereas in Bahrain and Iraq most of the challenges are national. Fifteen per cent of Saudi Arabia’s nationals are Shias and, like their Bahraini counterparts, they have demands for citizenship rights. Yet while a majority of Saudi Sunnis would consider these complaints about abuses to exaggerated and/or unjustified, the Saudi ruling royal family sees in its Shia nationals a community that could be influenced by Iran. The case is the same in Yemen, where Zaydi rebels complain about poor access to their rights as citizens and the Yemeni government often sees their demands as motivated by an Iranian plot against the country. At the same time, the weapons and military means possessed by Zaydis reflect negatively on their claims of being an independent, transparent movement. In Syria, the current president, who succeeded his father in 2000, is an Alawite. Alawites are a minority in the country,16 and there are various accusations that Syria is favouring the interests of Alawites at the expense of all other communities. In Lebanon, the 18 coexisting communities faced a political struggle between four of the main political representatives for religious communities: Sunnis, Shias, Christian Maronites and Druzes. But the main conflict is the ongoing clash between Shias and Sunnis. While the Lebanese Hezbollah justifies its detaining of weapons by its willingness to defend the country’s interests, the Sunni Future Party and its allies claim that Hezbollah is Iranian-led and holds a sectarian agenda. Ultimately, all of these situations lead to a regionalisation of internal issues. While

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On the diversity of Shiism in Iraq, see Faleh A. Jabar (2003). The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq. London: Saqi Books; on Bahrain, see Laurence Louër (2008). Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. New York; Paris: Columbia University Press. But Alawites should be seen as issuing from one of the ramifications of Shiism, not as a ‘Shia orthodox’ community.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

Saudi Arabia involves Yemen in its struggle against Iranian influence in the region, the Syrian regime is leading—in parallel to its internal fight—a regional strategy, hand in hand with Iran and Hezbollah. Lebanon, too, is interacting with its regional environment: with Hezbollah being supported by Iran, and its rivals strongly supported by Saudi Arabia. Countries in which Shias do not represent a significant community are also confronted with this same Sunni–Shia issue. This is particularly the case for Morocco, Egypt and Jordan. In 2004, Jordan was the first country to talk about the emergence of a regional ‘Shia crescent’, in part because of American policies in the region, and its fears were echoed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ten years later, the three countries are still attuned to the same thinking. Morocco also declared similar concerns, with Rabat regularly warning of conversions to Shiism occurring on its territory, and the Iranian ambassador to Morocco was expelled in 2009. Morocco, which has a Sunni majority, may be sincere in expressing concern over religious issues, but the country is also dependent on Gulf-originated funds. By developing accusations against Iran and its presumed regional policies, it opens the door to more support from its Gulf funders. With the Arab Spring, these accusations have flourished. Similar to what we witnessed following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, it looked all of a sudden as if the Sunni states in the region were afraid of Iran’s capacity to exploit uprisings and encourage Arab Shias to take to the streets. Suspicions of a regional Iranian-led plot could not seriously explain the reasons for the ‘Arab uprisings’. Nevertheless, regional security issues became the easy target for pointing out Iran’s supposedly negative role, and the increasing destabilisation of the region was once again blamed on Iran and its quest for regional influence. That said, no new countries joined the initial group of states sceptical about Iran. Saudi Arabia remained the main, fierce critic of ‘foreign-led’ regional actors, whom it considered responsible for the violence. Egypt and Jordan became less vocal on the issue. Only Bahrain, anti-Hezbollah parties in Lebanon and Yemen made their ‘Iranian-Shia’ fears an official concern. As for Iranians, they rejected such accusations or tried to reassure Arab countries that they had no bad intentions towards them— though this does not mean Iranians do not share the same kind of concerns when it comes to fearing an ‘Arab–Sunni’ plot aimed at harming their interests. As an Iranian reformist cleric put it once: from Iran’s point of view, ‘there is no Shia crescent, but there is a Sunni one’.17

Syria: a strong indicator of the weakness of central governments and institutions? Sectarian issues are being used for political purposes. At the same time, and from a broader point of view, behind many of the regional fears lies the crisis of nation states. It is not easy to determine whether the region’s traditional boundaries will really change in the near future or not. But the partition of Sudan, the unrecognised but effective federalisation of Iraq, the fragile situation in Libya, sectarian rivalries in Lebanon and the uncertain

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Interview in Qom, Iran, June 2006.

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future of Syria are strong reasons for alarm. With the exception of Libya, which is mired in tribal and political rivalries for leadership, the aforementioned countries are the subjects of strong sectarian rivalries. These disagreements and/or fights often relate to national territories. In Syria, the fiefs of Alawites, Christians and Kurds are known, and if the country happened to split, it would most certainly do so along these sectarian lines. In Lebanon, the situation is less homogeneous and tensions between communities often translate into conflicts between regions or districts. In Iraq, the same occurs with Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Arab Shias living in three distinct and identified geographical territories. The political tensions that prevail in all of these countries highlight a structural weakness in the central institutions. And if any of these countries had to split, there would be a significant chance it would provoke similar risks in its regional neighbourhood. This has become especially true in the case of Syria, and this possibility makes Gulf states in general and Saudi Arabia in particular feel uncomfortable. Countries of the Arabian peninsula consider their political structures to be strong, compared to most other Arab countries. But they don’t want this ‘stability’ they believe in to be threatened by either the Arab Spring or a foreign-led plot. Fostered sectarianism could indeed reach their territories, where social perspectives are not homogeneous. The ‘Shia factor’ remains a considerable cause for concern from their point of view, not necessarily because of traditional theological disagreements, but more because such a situation would increase the risks of a ‘Sudanisation’ of the region, with communities pushing to declare their socio-political specificity.

Myths and limits of the solutions for this geopolitics of disagreement Talking about fast and efficient solutions to the geopolitics of disagreement between Sunnis and Shias would be neither realistic nor easy to define. The roots for the problems between both communities go far beyond sole issues of perception. The intertwining of too many elements explains the complexity of the issue. Nevertheless, it remains possible to try and determine what steps have proven limited up to now, as well as to try and foresee what possible institutional changes could either defuse regional tensions or give more pragmatic answers to regional challenges in the long run.

Would a Muslim ‘Vatican 2’ solve things? There is a general consensus that the Council of Vatican 2 (1962–1965) changed the Catholic Church. Clearly, the reforms that were adopted at that time contributed to giving Catholicism a new face. Without being altered, the principles of Catholicism sounded more adapted to the world and its realities. But would it be realistic to consider the same move in the case of Islam in general and/or Sunnism and Shiism in particular? Both Sunnis and Shias have the same original common belief: they consider that Muhammad is the Prophet of Islam, and they read and share a common holy book, the Koran. But these elements are not enough to allow them to consider a common reform

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The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

under the banner of their mutual affiliation to Islam. Undoubtedly many of the teachings Muslims refer to, such as food restrictions, way of dressing and compatibility of some of their practices with the needs of contemporary world, would deserve an in-depth discussion before reform could be considered. However, the possibility of a ‘Mecca 2’ supposes that the beliefs of both communities are based on common and shared beliefs. Obviously, this is far from being the case with Sunnism and Shiism. The positions of Sunnis and Shias are not irreconcilable. Trying to globalise perspectives in both communities is a mistake. Both have their own radicals and reformists—and reformists and pragmatics could be the way forward to bridging the gap between Sunnis and Shias. Nevertheless, politics and geopolitics seem to be the major obstacle to their possible positive contribution to the situation. Regional drivers are being determined by the most influential countries of the region, who decide the topic and what should be understood from it—as highlighted by the regional media and the generally held ideas it defends. This is ground where states can play comfortably. Generally speaking, Sunnis and Shias have their own preconceived ideas and tend to rally around and/or believe the media that they feel cares about their interests. When it comes to satellite broadcasting channels, which are among the most influential media, it is easy to notice that the creation of several new channels over the past decade did not really impede the spreading of global, mainstream, preconceived ideas. This has important consequences. Most of the ideas that are developed in the media generally stick to one particular way for interpreting events. It is easy to notice that popular channels and newspapers in the Arab world are generally influenced by a Saudi and Qatari way of seeing and interpreting events. Both countries have developed an influential strategy, based on creating their own resources and funding popular media to get them defending their vision of events. Al-Jazeera is funded by Qatar, while al-Arabiya is co-funded by investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Al-Quda al-Arabi, one of the most popular newspapers in the Middle East, is funded by Qatar while al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, two of its main challengers, are supported by Saudi Arabia. The negative impact on the independence of these publications is evident. It is not rare to read or hear in most of these media ideas that suggest a sectarian interpretation of events. For reformists to follow a positive path there is a need to go beyond the regional sectarian climate and build a dynamic that would engage communities, their leaders and their representatives. While neither Sunnis nor Shias have their respective unique religious authorities, most of the official representatives of Islam have too close relations with governmental actors. Furthermore, the spirit of reformism does not seem to exist at the level of religious authorities or in places such as al-Azhar, Mecca, Qom or even Najaf. This only adds to the difficulty of moving forward, though authorities regularly say they are interested into bridging sectarian gaps.

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The unachieved dialogues of civilisations Many projects aiming at organising dialogues have been set up, particularly since the 11 September attacks. Some of these initiatives refer specifically to religion, while others prefer to use names such as ‘dialogue of civilisations’. Nevertheless, the success of these initiatives has been limited so far. The organising of debates and talks between representatives and members of various communities has garnered a lot of interest. Whether in the case of the UN or with countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has opened an International Centre for Interreligious and Cultural Dialogue in Vienna, many actors try to prove that they are engaged in provoking more rapprochements between communities. But positive and real results have yet to show. Interreligious dialogues may be motivated by good intentions. But they remain insufficient to bring solutions to the current global misunderstanding between some religious communities. Sunnis and Shias are among the most important groups worth consideration in this case. Many violent attacks in the Muslim world have Sunni or Shia targets, as highlighted by the examples of Pakistan and Iraq. Furthermore, the Arab Spring and the situation in Syria have given new life to a lexicon that focuses on the risks that would be represented by either ‘Sunni forces’ or ‘Shia forces’. Once again, political and geopolitical realities prove themselves to be stronger than goodwill and aims to foster dialogue. Furthermore, when such dialogues happen to be promoted by states that are party to conflicts, they automatically arouse suspicion. Public-funded projects are often seen as public-relations operations that have the main objective of defending the image of governments, which happens to be true in most cases. Figures of moderation do exist in the Muslim world, but their audience seems to be too limited. Political unrest and the worry of having to deal with people and communities motivated by a sectarian agenda have heightened fears. The reality of the Muslim world is that a global spirit of religious radicalism is gaining momentum. Communities fear more and more that they could be hijacked by their ‘religious rivals’. The weakening of governmental and political structures does not help them believe in better prospects for the future. National affiliation can stand as an efficient barrier to sectarianism, but the absence of strong national structures can easily result in the feeling that communities would be left to themselves. This is where dialogue between communities seems to be a useless tool that can scarcely give answers to the ongoing challenges. States can hardly pretend to neutrality while they are engaged in geopolitical dynamics, as is the case with radical movements that do not even think about the idea of starting a dialogue, such as al-Qaida. It’s unlikely that the legacy of misunderstanding and mutual mistrust can be reversed, especially in the ongoing context. The main representatives of both states and religious communities hardly give reason to believe in their strong commitment to overcoming their disagreements. At the same time, this does not mean that their stances engage all members of their respective communities. Thanks to the media and a more outward-looking attitude, the youth of the Muslim world are more open to facts and realities than their parents and

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The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

grandparents were before them. This inspires hope that a better state of affairs could exist in the future—though the time of pragmatic and moderate youth determining the nature of global evolutions seems not to have arrived yet.

Is shifting from centralism to federalisation a possible solution? On a broader level, there is a need to think about the pragmatic solutions that could help defuse the ongoing tensions. The current evolutions in some parts of the Muslim world provoke a crucial question: what if the future of some countries had to be considered in terms of concrete alternatives to nation states? As if so, would federalisation bring more positive prospects? The unrest that continues between Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon only heightens non-sectarian situations, such as in Egypt and Libya. In parallel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are also facing social unrest, though to different degrees. Without generalising, it is worth starting to consider whether a rethinking of the efficiency of central institutions could be part of the solution required for the future of some countries. Federalisation remains a taboo in the Arab world, and most people fear its institutionalisation would lead to a sectarian partition similar to that which recently split Sudan. But facts also speak for themselves. Iraq is already split between three communities that are each living in a specific part of the country. The central state is weak and increasingly less able to pretend it can guarantee the interests and preserve the security of its citizens. In Lebanon, sectarian tensions are nothing new. But the geographic concentration of communities in specific parts of the country has added to the tensions between the main political and religious leaders (namely Sunnis, Shias, Maronites and Druzes). This continues to jeopardise the country’s future. In Syria, it is too early to determine whether the country will be preserved from a split or not in the long run, but sectarianism is obviously part of the war logic that prevails in the country. Though Libya is a more homogeneous country from a social point of view, many leaders and citizens of its three main regions (Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica) claim their regional specificities and are increasingly demanding ‘political autonomy’ from the central state. Extending the same theory to the example of countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or even Yemen would be risky: every country has its own specificities, and what could work in one does not necessary apply to all. That said, we are forgetting too easily that national borders are the result of historical facts, and that the countries we are talking about today could have been born in another shape and even under another name. National affiliations have not been truly undermined up to now, and the feeling of belonging to a nation and a country remains a strong part of people’s identities. Besides, history has seen brutal accelerations with unexpected consequences. The Sykes–Picot agreements are less than 100 years behind us, but while they generated a fragile situation they did not undermine the sense of religious belonging. With the Arab world in crisis, it is easy to notice that people who don’t trust their governments seek to

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find consolation in religion and spiritual beliefs. Efforts should always be made to create dialogue between communities and develop every possible method of forming bridges. But reality also necessitates preparation for the day when central governments lose their integrity and legitimacy. If not properly anticipated, a fragile Arab world, when combined with the growing tensions between religious communities, could produce a situation much worse than what we have witnessed up to now.

Conclusion The prospects for the future of relations between Sunnis and Shias are rather worrying. Until recently, both communities seemed to contain their divergences. But things started to change following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The emergence of a ‘Shia-led government’ in Baghdad with close links to Iran confirmed regional governmental fears. Gulf states became actively engaged in a strategy of denouncing the ‘Shia crescent’. Their concerns soon translated into attacks and fights between communities, with Iraq being the most obvious representation of this unrest. With the ‘Arab Spring’, the degree of sectarian fears increased. More and more elements organised as if there was an emerging rivalry, opposing a regional ‘Sunni leadership’ to a ‘Shia rival’. Broadly speaking, communities adhere to this ‘discourse of fear’ that emanates from some governments. But this does not mean that they necessarily translate theory to practice. Though there are extremists everywhere, we are not on the eve of a new war of religions that would bloodily oppose Sunnis and Shias. The major issue is the one that involves antiIranian governments and their regional rivals. These political matters happen to reflect on relations between some communities, but this does not mean that sectarianism has become an appropriate lens for analysing the Arab and/or even the Muslim world. Some official speeches and statements may give such an impression, but the reality is that we have not entered an era of global religious combat… yet. The disagreement between Sunnis and Shias remains mainly geopolitical, and it is hence limited to the political sphere. Only political rest is likely to bring a more peaceful environment. To guarantee such a positive result, it is important to keep in mind the importance of education. It will take a long time before states and governments decide to put aside their fears and rivalries. But, meanwhile, people and communities hold the key to better prospects for all and an overcoming of any fatalistic scenario based on the idea of a ‘clash of communities’. With the Arab Spring, the idea of a powerful and efficient ‘citizen power’ has started to prove its relevance. But while the potential of citizen and ‘netizen’ trends is not a myth, it also has yet to be confirmed. It is up to the people to prove that, far away from political considerations, peaceful relations can prevail within communities that have decided to live in total and mutual respect and to turn their differences into assets. Waiting for a top-down approach to the matter will only increase the risk of ending up with more disagreements and less prospects for peace.

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The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Barah Mikaïl is a senior researcher at FRIDE. Prior to joining the organisation, he was senior researcher on water issues and the Middle East and North Africa at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) in Paris (2002–2010). He specialises in the Middle East and North Africa region, covering topics such as EU and US policies and security, political and economic issues. Other areas of expertise include ethnicity, tribalism and Islam in the Arab world, plus political issues around water.

ABSTRACT Rivalries and the original misunderstanding between Sunnis and Shias go back to the origins of Islam. Politics and religion have both been at stake for 14 centuries, but facts emphasise that political issues and the quest for power have often been the main objectives of leaders of the Muslim world. This remains a reality today. Some states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are trying to achieve their geopolitical and strategic objectives by pretending indirectly to a religious sectarian-based legitimacy. Reading the evolutions of the region only through the angle of sectarianism would be misleading. But the growing importance of religion in state policies is a reality that must be kept in mind when trying to understand what is really at stake in the Arab world.

KEYWORDS Islam, Sunnis, Shias, Arab World, Sectarianism, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

‫امللخص‬ ‫ لتختلط السياسة‬،‫يعود تاريخ التنافس و النزاع اإلقليميني بني السنة و الشيعة إىل بداية ظهور اإلسالم‬ ‫ بالرغم من أن األحداث بينت لنا بأن قضية السياسة و الرصاع من أجل السلطة قد‬،‫ قرنا‬14 ‫بالدين ملدة‬ ‫و تحاول بعض‬. ‫ و هو األمر الذي مل يتبدل إىل يومنا هذا‬.‫شكال غالبا الهدف الرئييس لزعامء العامل اإلسالمي‬ ‫الدول مثل اململكة العربية السعودية و إيران تحقيق أهدافها الجيوسياسية و اإلسرتاتيجية بالتنافس الغري‬ ‫ لذلك فمن الخطإ تفسري التطورات الحاصلة يف املنطقة‬.‫املبارش حول الرشعية الدينية القامئة عىل املذهبية‬ ‫إنطالقا فقط من منطلقات مذهبية؛ لكن تزايد أهمية الدين يف سياسة الدولة يشكل من دون أدىن شك‬ .‫ إذا كنا نرغب يف فهم التحديات التي تواجه العامل العريب اليوم‬،‫حدثا يجب أخذه باإلعتبار‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ العربية السعودية‬،‫ إيران‬،‫ املذهبية‬،‫ العامل العريب‬،‫ الشيعة‬،‫ السنة‬،‫اإلسالم‬

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SAUDI ARABIA VERSUS IRAN: REGIONAL BALANCE OF POWER Fatiha Dazi-Héni

C

urrent sectarian divisions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) appear to be more a result of a geopolitical struggle with ideological antagonism, in the two nations’ quest for predominance in the Middle East, than purely related to religiosity. This new ‘cold war’ can be demonstrated by the strategies used by both states since the events of the Arab Spring, which have shown a growing bipolarisation, based on the sectarianism of the conflicts facing more and more Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since 2011. This situation could increase the probability of the sectarian narrative prevailing in their joint quest for predominance in the Middle East. However, these two states are also challenged by their own domestic agendas, which do not necessarily fit with their regional rhetoric concerning sectarianism.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry as a traditional geopolitical regional stake since 1979 The intense and direct contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence in the Persian Gulf, and more generally in the Middle East, is a recent phenomenon. The two countries are hardly natural allies. One is overwhelmingly Sunni; the other Shia. Since the Iranian Revolution, both have advanced claims to speak for the larger Muslim world. They also both share substantial coastlines along the Persian Gulf and have ambitions in the area. Iran is considerably larger in population; Saudi Arabia produces much more oil. Yet none of this means they are fated to permanent conflict. During the days of the Shah, the two countries regarded each other if not as allies, then at least not as enemies.


Fatiha Dazi-Héni

The more direct conflict of recent times stems from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad fundamentally altered the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Since then, we have witnessed a new ‘cold war’ between the KSA and IRI, with Iraq becoming the principal arena of that ideological rivalry, underpinned by the quest for leadership of the Middle East. When Iraq was a functioning state it served as a balance against Iranian power. The Saudis knew this and supported Hussein in his war against Iran from 1980 to 1988—even though they did not like or trust him. Even after Hussein’s ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraq served as a buffer zone between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The fall of Hussein’s regime and the inability of America to build a stable Iraqi establishment to succeed him turned Iraq from a player into a playing field in the Middle East power game. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia supported, and continue to support, local allies in the domestic political struggle in Iraq. The Iranians definitely have the upper hand, with many allies among the country’s Shia majority and a strong relationship with the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister. One of the unanticipated consequences of the US intervention in Iraq has been the increase in sectarian tensions, not only in that country but in the entire region. The collapse of the Iraqi state has led to greater Iranian assertiveness, prompting growing concern amongst Arab countries. King Abdullah of Jordan used the term ‘Shia crescent’ to describe alleged Iranian plans to shift the regional balance by supporting an alliance of Shia regimes. This fear is now becoming a reality, more in terms of an Iranian sphere of influence than a purely Shia umbrella dominated by Iran, because of the significant differences in theology between the Iranian Republic and the rest of the Shia in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Alawites, Zaïdites and Isma’ilis, whose beliefs are far from those of the Twelver majority. The Shia-oriented solidarity demonstrated by Iran’s strong support of the Syrian regime, which for two and a half years has faced a massive Sunni rebellion, is today vocally denounced by the dynastical Arab Gulf monarchies, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront. The Saudi–Iranian contest for influence in Iraq provides a template for their larger regional rivalry. That battle is fought in the fragmented domestic politics of weak Arab states: Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, as well as Iraq. Each side backs local allies in the hope that those allies will come to power—as Maliki has in Iraq—and tilt toward their foreign patron. For Iran, those allies include Hezbollah in Lebanon and, to a certain extent, Hamas in Palestine; for Saudi Arabia: the Palestinian Authority; and in Lebanon: the Sunni partisans of former prime minister Sa’ad al-Hariri, who are now challenged by a powerful Salafi trend openly backed by Riyadh. The KSA also supports various tribal sheikhs and Sunni political figures in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Neither Riyadh nor Tehran presents a real military threat to their neighbours. The Saudi army is quite small, untested and rarely used outside Saudi borders, other than its short and

26


Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

ultimately failed campaign against Huthi rebels in North Yemen between November 2009 and February 2010. The Iranian army is larger and more battle-tested, from its war with Iraq in the 1980s, but it too is not a real offensive threat—with the exception of its non-conventional ballistic missiles and nuclear enrichment program, intended only as a deterrent.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry since the Arab Spring Saudi Arabia and Iran battle for regional influence in the MENA region through the deployment of money, guns, ideology and sectarian influence in the domestic politics of their neighbours. This state of affairs became the big story of the Arab Spring: the main issue being how the rivalry for regional influence between the two countries is affected by domestic changes taking place in the Arab states. That rivalry, emerging from the two states’ geopolitical contest in the Persian Gulf, is now the most important international factor in the Middle East. While the Arab–Israeli conflict remains key, it is largely frozen right now. The main regional and international dynamic comes from the manoeuvrings of Tehran and Riyadh. Both have made gains and losses in the Arab Spring and both, ultimately, share a common interest in seeing the democratic process fail in the region—or at least the failing status quo prevail in the weak states of the Levant, Iraq and Yemen. The Arab Spring, by shaking the stability of a number of Arab states, has opened up new fields of contestation for Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Yemen, Saudis claim that Iranians have established tentative ties with the Huthi movement, which began a rebellion against the central government in the mid 2000s and currently controls much of the northern part of the country. In Bahrain, the government alleged (without much evidence) that the popular mobilisation for political reform that roiled the country in February to March 2011 was orchestrated from Tehran—which was enough for the Saudis to send troops into Bahrain in support of the ruling Sunni monarchy. In Egypt, the Saudis lost their major Arab ally against Iran when Hosni Mubarak fell from power, and they are trying to make the Iranians suffer the same fate by supporting the Syrian rebellion against Iranian-allied Bashar al-Assad. Syria is now becoming another major playing field in the Saudi–Iranian rivalry, as the power of the central government crumbles and the country devolves into civil war. Sectarianism has experienced a boost in the aftermath of the popular uprisings in the Arab world. The fall of authoritarian Arab leaders and fragile transitional processes has led to a number of rifts between Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals, as well as religious divisions between Sunnis and Shias. Recent events have also prompted improbable alliances, such as that in Egypt today between so-called pro-democratic liberals and the military, or that forged between a section of Salafis (Hizb al-Nour) and Christians (the Coptic Church) to get rid of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement from the political sphere. However, while sectarianism in the region is real and carries risks, I believe the rise of sectarian strife in the aftermath of the 2012 uprisings has mainly been stoked by political

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strategies. The deepening of sectarian rifts in the region goes back to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and has been accelerated by the Arab Spring, especially the Syrian conflict. In Iraq, for example, the central government remains weak and is struggling to ensure national unity. The rise of a strong Kurdish presence in the north and a Shia bastion in the south saw the Sunnis of the centre squeezed between strong rivalling regional factions. In the aftermath of the 2011–2012 power shifts, several Arab countries now fear that such sectarian tendencies could reach and destabilise their own territories, and their governments have felt pressure to respond to these developments in order to avoid possible spillovers. The risk of sectarian splits is real and present in several Arab countries, including Lebanon, where sectarian strife between Sunnis and Alawites in Beirut and Tripoli has resurfaced. However, Arab governments have also adroitly instrumentalised and overemphasised the dangers of sectarianism in order to safeguard ruling elites’ hold on power and maintain a lead on protests. In Saudi Arabia, repression of timid uprisings in the east of the country was portrayed by the rulers as a struggle against Shia-led sedition. A similar public diplomacy strategy was adopted in Bahrain, where violence extended on a wider scale. And in Yemen, President Saleh referred to tensions between communities as a plot aimed at destabilising and dividing the country. Sectarian tensions have assumed the most alarming proportions in Syria, where riots quickly turned to violence between Sunnis and Alawites. This emphasis today on the ‘Shiatisation’ of the Alawite sect, even though they never claimed to be Shias in the past, is a clear sign of growing sectarianism. The Syrian regime exerted harsh repression and justified its acts using the threat of a ‘foreign conspiracy’. The sectarian argument eventually served the Assad regime in its efforts to curtail the dynamics of protests by keeping people away from the streets.

Saudi state strategy As a traditional conservative regional player, Saudi Arabia’s aim is to ‘contain’ threats and maintain its own security. While the country seeks to distance itself from the impacts of the Arab Spring’s socio-political dynamics and prevent them from crossing its borders, its active role in the Syrian and Bahraini crises is focused on constraining Iran’s regional role, as well as strengthening its own relative security. Nevertheless, the only major Arab country likely to engage in active diplomacy today is Saudi Arabia. Its enormous oil wealth gives it the means, and it feels threatened by a nexus of external and internal forces demanding an active foreign policy to curb the growth of Iranian influence in the region. With its vast reserves of oil, significant demographic base and huge inventory of sophisticated armaments bought from the West, principally the United States, Saudi Arabia is located at the centre of the Arab Gulf system and is the predominant power in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which incorporates the six dynastical monarchies of the Arabian peninsula.

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Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

Its geostrategic competition with Iran and self-proclaimed role as the protector of Sunni interests against Iran and its Shia co-religionists in Iraq and the Levant have increased Saudi Arabia’s value as the major influential Arab state—and not Qatar, as it has often been related in the media. That tiny emirate faces a number of diplomatic, religious and demographic restrictions to expanding its influence, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia makes use of various instruments and mechanisms to export religious ideologies beyond its borders. The influence of the Saudi territory as the ‘cradle of Islam’ has favoured, as stated by Laurent Bonnefoy,18 the emergence of a number of mechanisms of proselytism, used as a tool of Saudi ‘soft power’ through the combination of major oil revenues with the diplomacy of NGOs and International Islamic organisations (World Muslim League, etc.). However, as a state, Saudi Arabia is like a colossus with feet of clay. Bolstering its capabilities, principally with the transfer of high-tech weapons from the United States, is unlikely to change the balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran. The Saudi state is vulnerable, mainly as its old leadership is regularly challenged by the issue of succession. This issue is now openly raised by the third generation of princes led by King Abdallah’s sons and the powerful heirs of the Sudeïri clan.19 As a result, despite its considerable financial and religious influence, Saudi Arabia’s inherent weakness and the built-in contradictions in its foreign policy are likely to limit its regional appeal and considerably hobble its diplomacy. The refusal of Saudi Arabia to give its speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013, shortly followed by its rejection of a non-permanent seat on the UN National Security Council because of its disagreement with the adopted UN resolutions in the Syrian file, showed a lack of the pragmatism traditionally used in diplomacy. If the aim was to show its dissatisfaction with the United Nations and the new US diplomatic orientation towards the Middle East, which demonstrates a clear unwillingness to participate in any other military interventions in the MENA region, this display of public discontent did not push Saudi authorities to challenge the US, their major ally in the area. Since the first events of the Arab Spring, Riyadh has adopted a defensive approach, based on maintaining the status quo, because of its deep fear of the irreversible winds of change in the Arab world. This explains its sense of panic when President Mubarak stepped down and the Muslim Brothers came to power after their success in the 2012 18 19

Laurent Bonnefoy (2013). ‘Saudi Arabia and the export of religious ideologies’, NOREF Policy Brief, September 2013. Sudeïri is the name of the mother of the six brothers who used to represent this clan: King Fahd, crown princes Sultan and Nayef (all dead), Princes Abdulrahman and Ahmad (both now without official functions) and the current crown prince, Salman. The clan is now represented more by the younger third generation, who have a less close-knit relationship than the previous generation, which was linked by direct brotherhood. The new main figures are Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, Minister of Interior; his brother Saud, Governor of the Hasa Province; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Chief of General Intelligence; his half brother Salman Bin Sultan, Deputy Minister of Defence; and the sons of Prince Salman: Abdel-Aziz, Vice Minister of Oil; Sultan, Head of the Supreme Council for Tourism; and Faysal, Governor of Medina.

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legislative and presidential elections. Indeed, Riyadh focused its primary actions on preserving its immediate sphere of influence, that of the GCC, and containing the Yemeni chaos. The first major unprecedented intervention was that of the Arabian Shield in Manama on 14 March 2011—a Saudi-led intervention, under the cover of a multilateral GCC action, to help the Khalifa Sunni dynasty put an end to the popular, Shia-dominated mobilisation. This mobilisation was started not for sectarian reasons but to make political demands and fight the social discrimination that its participants faced as Bahraini citizens.20 However, the fact that the Shia represents a majority of the population gave authority to the argument that it was a sectarian contestation willing to put an end to the Sunni leadership. The other diplomatic tool used by the KSA was the idea of launching a Union of the Gulf. The GCC was created on 25 May 1981 in response to the threatened expansion of the Islamic Revolution and the Iraqi–Iranian war in September 1980. The launching of the Gulf Union project by the KSA, during the 32nd GCC state summit in Abu Dhabi in December 2011, aimed to show its strength vis-à-vis its Iranian enemy. The GCC military intervention in Bahrain that has created discontent in the US administration also disturbed Iran. Even if the idea of the Union itself is not popular among the GCC member states that refused it,21 the idea of reinforcing GCC states with a united security and defence framework gained approval from the rulers, to a certain extent. Furthermore, although the proposal of a Gulf Union is written in Article 4 of the GCC charter, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia prefers to use the concept of Tawhid or unity, which is emphasised in Hanbali Wahhabi ideology and is the cornerstone of the religious and ideological foundation of the modern KSA. Through their sermons and Friday speeches, the Higher Council of Ulama (the official Wahhabi establishment), as the pre-eminent imams of the great mosques of Mecca and Medina, also praised several times during 2012 the great relevance of the economic and security-based union created within the GCC in order to be able to defeat hostile forces.22 The announcement made by the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, in the Manama meeting of December 2013, concerning the US commitment to provide security to its Arab Gulf allies, has been reasserted by America’s new willingness to help the GCC built its security and defence architecture, through new, sophisticated military capacities able to prevent any foreign aggression.23 20 21

22 23

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Geneive Abdo (2013). The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi‘a–Sunni Divide. Analysis paper number 29, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, 10 April 2013. During the Manama Dialogue (6–8 December 2013), an annual forum on security issues in the Gulf region, the minister of foreign affairs of the Sultanate of Oman publicly and firmly rejected any idea of joining the Gulf Union project introduced by the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, Nizar Madani. See Manama Dialogue, http://www.iiss.org/en/events/manama%20dialogue/archive/manama-dialogue-2013-4e92 and http://susris.com/glossary/manama-dialogue/ [Consulted on 8 December 2013]. Several articles in the Saudi press raised this issue (al-Watan, al-Sharq-al-Awsat and al-Hayat). Walter Pincus, ‘Hagel’s verbal assurances for continued U.S. presence in the Middle East come with action’, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/hagels-verbal-assurances-for-continued-


Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

The catalyst for this new ideological assertiveness and intensity in the Saudi–Iranian regional rivalry was provided by the Syrian civil war. A reduction in regional sectarian tensions is unlikely in the short term, especially on the Syrian battleground. Iran has no interest in making concessions relating to the Syrian file while it is trying to secure a final deal with the US and other members of the P5+1 group on its nuclear program. As for Saudi Arabia, it will never accept in Syria a situation like the Iraqi one, where Iran has the upper hand.

Iran state strategy Tehran gained the most from the geopolitical changes that accompanied the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, the Arab Spring runs counter to Tehran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East. Tehran has damaged its reputation with its still-ongoing support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. If Assad falls, Iran will lose a major ally. Also, at the same time that Arabs are becoming increasingly proud of their own revolutionary achievements, Iran is losing its reputation as an anti-Israeli and anti-American regime, especially since the last presidential elections, which saw President Hassan Rouhani addressing a rapprochement with Washington. As Mohsen Milani stresses,24 before the start of the Arab Spring, the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah was strong and popular with the so-called ‘axis of resistance’, which took its ideological basis from the narrative of ‘resistance’ against the United States and Israel. This triple alliance gave Iran strategic depth at the heart of the Arab Middle East, and opened up to Tehran what Milani calls a ‘corridor of resistance’, connecting it to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. So, ironically, whilst Iran supported the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain but not Syria; Saudi Arabia, which strongly opposed the Arab Spring uprisings, found in the Syrian uprising an opportunity to undermine Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. The only positive outcome of the Arab Spring for Iran was the fall of Mubarak, but with the removal of the elected president, Morsi, and the sharp repression of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, thwarting its initial aim to establish relations with Egypt, Iran followed a two-pronged policy of expanding its regional role and containing threats. Iran favoured acceleration of internal dynamics in Egypt, since it would lead to closer relations with Morsi’s government. In terms of Syria, Tehran’s policy is to contain the possible shift in the current regional balance of power, which would be to Iran’s detriment. By supporting Assad, Iran has fallen into a trap from which it cannot escape without substantial political and economic cost. Knowing that, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who was appointed by Ayatollah Khomeiny as special representative to supervise the creation of the Hezbollah organisation in 1982—is still

24

us-presence-in-the-middle-east-come-with-action [Consulted on 11 December 2013]. Mohsen Milani (2013). ‘Why Tehran won’t abandon Assad(ism)’. The Washington Quarterly, Fall 2013, pp. 79–93.

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resolute in his support for Assad. Syria is a major front in Tehran’s geostrategic competition with the United States, its cold war with Saudi Arabia and its war against Salafis and al-Qaida affiliated groups, whose hatred of Shiism is well known. Tehran perceives the collapse of the Assad regime would be an inauspicious move that could checkmate Hezbollah and the Islamic republic. This is why, argues Milani in his article, Iran will fight to the bitter end to protect the Syrian regime, with or without Assad. Rouhani’s moderate messages to Saudi Arabia won’t convince Riyadh about Iran’s Syrian policy, which cannot fundamentally change, especially in regard to its historical support for Hezbollah (created under Iranian supervision).

The

impact of sectarian rhetoric in the geopolitical

Saudi–Iranian

rivalry on

their own domestic agendas

The growing fragmentation of territories and weakened states in the Levant and Iraq has led to a deepening of sectarian divisions and the assertion of community identities by default. The new self-assertion of ‘Shiatisation’ by Alawites in Syria and Turkey is a clear example of the growing solidarity within the Sunni community, be it from Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood ideology, to assist their Syrian counterparts. These assertive solidarities are helping the Saudi and Iranian states to emphasise the sectarian divisions even though this stance could cause major damage to both their domestic agendas. Iran’s sectarian attitude is a clear sign that it no longer has the will to replicate its Islamic revolution on a universal model in the Islamic world. For the first time in its history as an Islamic republic, Iran is defending its regional interests as a sectarian state, and this is already damaging its reputation as the first Islamic revolutionary state. Operating a different strategy to the axis of resistance can affect balances of power inside the country too, on the domestic front. Due to the Arab uprisings, Iran is already finding it increasingly difficult to influence Arab states and societies through religious and ideological means, as it has done in the past. The following four reasons can explain why this is the case: • •

32

The suppression of the 2009 protests in Iran demonstrated the same brutal authoritarianism shown by most of the neighbouring Arab Sunni states; As Sunni societies and governments become more empowered, interest in Iran wanes and animosity increases. The ideology of the ‘resistance’ and the occupation of Palestine is no longer a mobilising factor in Arab political life today; The uprisings, particularly in the case of Egypt, brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood. But they have been removed from power by militaries that are backed by conservative Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates;


Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

The restoration of the Iraqi city of Najaf as a theological centre has elevated it over the Iranian centre of Qom in the eyes of the Arab Shia and this makes it more difficult for Tehran to continue to claim to be the exclusive guardian of Shiism.

Today, the picture is considerably different for Iran’s regional ambitions. The situation in Iraq between Sunnis and Shias is worsening, especially with the threat posed by the continuing uprising against the Alawite rule in Syria. This is one of the reasons that have driven the newly elected president, Rouhani, to come to an agreement with the P5+1 group concerning the nuclear file. The aim of the accord is to progressively give Iran the opportunity to reintegrate into the international community and regain its position as the major regional player in the Middle East and along its eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nevertheless, Iran’s nightmare remains regime change in Syria. A fundamental change in orientation of the Syrian government, as well as its military and security forces, would be perceived by Tehran as a fatal move that could, as outlined before, checkmate Hezbollah and the Islamic republic. But the longevity of the civil war has allowed Iran to provide vital assistance to Assad’s regime, through militia-building capacities and strategic, military and financial help—also perfected in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria has become the new centre of gravity for jihadist and terrorist organisations, such as the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda. If Assad falls, it’s unlikely that these jihadist organisations will leave Syria, and, consequently, Iran and the United States will share the strategic objective of eliminating these extremist groups and ensuring that the Syrian state does not totally collapse. The longevity of the Syrian civil war has also changed Saudi Arabia’s position. Even if it remains one of the most significant supporters of the Syrian rebellion (the Free Syrian Army and the National Coalition), the kingdom can no longer permit ‘Assadism’ or even a regime without Assad. The hatred of Assadism is deeply anchored in the Saudi public consciousness, as revealed by sermons of imams, social-network discussions and the hundreds of Sunni Saudi fighters battling Assad with their Syrian co-religionists. The longevity of the Syrian civilian war will emphasise the radicalisation of the Saudi position, similarly to that of its population, with an intensification of sectarianism. For the Saudi Kingdom and other dynastical Gulf monarchies, such as Bahrain and even Kuwait, the growing sectarian narrative and deepening divisions could erode the narrative of the Shia communities, which is mainly focused on their local and national integrative agenda. The danger is to see this agenda as becoming transnational, which is not the case according to Laurence Louër, who focuses her attention mainly on Bahrain, a kind of ideal case in the Gulf monarchies.25

25

Laurence Louër (2008). Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. London: Hurst & Company.

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In Saudi Arabia, the state has encouraged a sectarian propaganda, succeeding in isolating the Shia community, as Madawi al-Rasheed stressed.26 Her picture of the al-Saud House fearing any attempts by elites to bridge the sectarian divide and unite Sunni and Shia activists is unlikely in the KSA, because the huge majority of Saudis consider the Saudi Shia community as heretic and a fifth column, according to the teaching of the Wahhabi religious establishment. In that sense, the al-Saud House, despite its growing sectarian rhetoric, appears much more moderate than its population. And it is precisely the growing sectarian rhetoric regarding the geopolitical rivalry that could cause great damage to the Saudi leadership. Because the majority of Saudi Shias still remain loyal to the alSaud House, the radicalisation of the secessionist movement in the city of al-‘Awamiyya in the Hasa province, the Eastern region traditionally dominated by a Shia population, is quite minor. Today, according to unofficial sources from the ministry of the interior, the Shia majority in the province has been reduced by a massive arrival of Sunni Saudi citizens coming from the Najran and ‘Asir southern regions—highly encouraged by the state, in order to rebalance the demography. The same situation is occurring in Bahrain, where the Shia population today only represents about 55%, compared to 70% during the 1980s, due to the massive naturalisation of Sunni Jordanians, Syrians and Pakistanis. With its highly centralised decision-making process and huge financial means, the KSA has the ability to limit the effects of Shia and sectarian conflicts in its territory. But the overemphasis of the sectarian rhetoric could affect, in the medium term, the narrative of the Shia communities in the Gulf States. It is already the case for Bahrain and also Saudi Arabia, which has seen some limited uprisings in the cities of al-Qatif and al-‘Awamiyya. This move may establish more formal transnational solidarities, given that most of the Shia families in Bahrain are family connected with Saudi Shia. In Kuwait, the Shia community has particularly close ties with the ruling family, and the al-Sabah dynasty has always ruled the country with the Shia community as one of its basic pillars. This situation has provoked tensions among the Sunni population, with some Salafis and prominent tribal figures accusing the al-Sabah ruling dynasty of favouring Shia community interests at the expense of the Sunni community. This has created a sort of ‘positive discriminative’ sectarian feeling and a growing identity polarisation that compares with the country’s urban versus tribal tensions.

Conclusion Almost three years after the Arab uprisings began, the benefits for Iran and Saudi Arabia are clearly limited and the picture complicated. The Syrian war, in particular, has provided a mechanism for amplifying traditional sectarian conflict, effectively elevating

26

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Madawi al-Rasheed (2013). ‘Saudi Arabia’s Domestic Sectarian Politics’, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), August 2013.


Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

it to a transnational affair. The Sunni in Lebanon believe that by confronting Hezbollah they are fighting for all Sunni, especially their persecuted co-religionists in Syria who are being slaughtered at the hands of President al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. Similarly, the Shia in Bahrain believe their uprising is for the benefit of their long-oppressed coreligionists across the border in Saudi Arabia. In the Levant and Persian Gulf, sectarianism has become so pronounced that Sunni clerics now warn of the ‘Shiatisation’ of the Middle East and exploit the brutality committed by Assad’s regime to call for Sunni ascendancy. As a result, a strong argument can be made that the Sunni–Shia divide is on its way to replacing the broader conflict between Muslims and the West as the primary challenge facing the Islamic societies of the Middle East. Such sectarian conflict is also likely to supplant the occupation of Palestine as the central mobilising factor in Arab political life. As Arab societies become more politically active and aware in the aftermath of the uprisings, fighting Israel is less a priority, especially when there are so many domestic crises. For the next several years, it is likely we’ll see an intensification of identities, with religion, ethnicity and other local solidarities and primordial ties playing a far more prominent role in socio-political interactions.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Fatiha Dazi-Héni has a PhD from the Institute for Political Studies in Paris (Political Participation and Social Mobilisation in Kuwait through Diwaniyyas). She is currently a senior analyst in charge of Persian Gulf issues at the Delegation of Strategic Affairs, and maitre de conference at the Political Institute of Lille, teaching the course ‘The Arab world in transformations’. She is also the Middle East co-chair at Kedge Business School in Marseille, with the American University of Sharjah, and has published several works, among which are Monarchies and Societies in Arabia: The Stage of Confrontation (Paris, 2006) and many articles on GCC states and the sub-regional dynamics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

ABSTRACT Sectarian divisions between Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to be a result of the two nations’ geopolitical struggle in the Persian Gulf, driven by their quest for dominance of the Middle East. This ‘cold war’, with a sectarian narrative emphasised over that purely based on religiosity, is now the most important international factor in the Middle East, replacing the ancient regional order. The Syrian civil war provided the new catalyst for the Saudi–Iranian rivalry, with the two states now competing chiefly through the Syrian conflict, as well as Iraq and Lebanon. As a result, Iran is defending its regional interests as a sectarian state for the first time—rather than as an Islamic revolutionary state. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s regional credibility could be severely damaged by its radicalised sectarian narrative, potentially eroding its domestic stability.

35


‫‪Fatiha Dazi-Héni‬‬

‫‪KEYWORDS‬‬ ‫‪Saudi Arabia vs Iran, regional competition, sectarian polarisation, ‘cold war’, Sunni vs‬‬ ‫‪Shia, Syrian catalyst.‬‬

‫امللخص‬ ‫تبدو اإلنقسامات املذهبية ما بني العربية السعودية و إيران كنتاج للتنافس الجيوسيايس من أجل الهيمنة‬ ‫يف منطقة الرشق األوسط مع التشديد عىل الرسدية املذهبية و ليس عىل التدين‪ .‬و تعكس هذه «الحرب‬ ‫الباردة» التنافس الناتج عن املواجهة الجيوسياسية ما بني البلدين يف الخليج الفاريس التي تعد اليوم‬ ‫العامل الدويل األكرث أهمية يف منطقة الرشق األوسط‪ ،‬و الذي حل محل النظام اإلقليمي القديم‪ .‬و تتنافس‬ ‫إسرتاتيجيات الدولتني بشكل رئييس من خالل الحرب األهلية يف سوريا و عىل ساحات املعارك يف كل من‬ ‫العراق و لبنان‪ .‬و قد تحولت الحرب األهلية يف سوريا إىل حفاز جديد للتنافس ما بني العربية السعودية‬ ‫و إيران‪ .‬و النتيجة هي أن إيران أصبحت تدافع –ألول مرة– عن مصالح إقليمية كدولة مذهبية بدل‬ ‫دولة الثورة اإليرانية كام كانت تفعل يف السابق‪ .‬و من جهة أخرى‪ ،‬فإن مصداقية العربية السعودية يف‬ ‫املنطقة سيلحقها الرضر بشكل جدي بسبب رسديتها املذهبية املتشددة و التي ميكن أن تؤدي إىل تقويض‬ ‫إستقرارها الذاخيل‪.‬‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ ‫العربية السعودية ضد إيران‪ ،‬التنافس اإلقليمي‪ ،‬التقاطب املذهبي‪» ،‬الحرب الباردة«‪ ،‬السنة ضد الشيعة‪،‬‬ ‫الحفاز السوري‪.‬‬

‫‪36‬‬


THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA IN THE MIDDLE EASTERN SECTARIAN DIVIDE Khaled Hroub

I

nflammatory and demonising mass media is not only dangerous, but turns seriously deadly in certain volatile ethnic, racist or sectarian contexts. In an atmosphere charged with religious fervour and references, some media degenerate into mere propaganda against whatever ‘other’ that may be different in religion, or even against another sect within the same religion. The extent of the destruction that this sort of media could inflict depends, of course, on the particular conditions of the given case. In the current evolution of regional sectarian divisions in the Middle East, religious media have been manipulated by rival parties, furthering these divisions. Although there is a lack of recent and credible audience research that might inform us about the actual impact of this manipulated media, a number of conceptual considerations can be noted. From the outset, it should be stated that extremist religious discourses on media platforms (and elsewhere) do not fully dominate the public debate. Moderate and mild religious approaches and media are also part of the scene, though not as vocal and sensational as the former. The following remarks, however, will examine the extreme elements of religious media, and attempt to conceptualise their role and dynamics within current regional politics and rivalry. The focus in this discussion on television broadcasting, as opposed to other forms of media (for example, press and social media), is justified by the fact that TV remains the most influential of all media—old and new. This is the prevailing view among scholars and media researchers.27 In the Arab and Middle Eastern context, TV’s influence and

27

As Nick Couldry puts it: ‘television is likely to remain most people’s medium of communication in the


Khaled Hroub

lead over other media forms is yet further enhanced in countries where levels of illiteracy are shamefully high, relegating the usage rates of social media and other readable media to a secondary position. Before exploring any of these considerations, and by way of preparing the ground for discussion, it helps to recognise some aspects of the media– politics dynamics and settings in the region. In the first place, it should be underlined that we have a mediascape that is extremely crowded, with spectrum-spanning forms, content, ownership and geography. In terms of form, we have transborder TV broadcasting, radio transmission by air and online, newspapers and magazines and, most recently, the rapid spread of social media. In terms of ownership, we have state-owned or semi-state owned media, privately owned media and media that is owned by parties or certain groups. With regard to their politics and discourse of ‘mobilisation’, these media vary from ‘moderate’ to ‘radical’, with wide shades of colouring in between. When categorised according to their religious affiliation, we may group them into Sunni, Shia and Christian-inclined media.28 All these media should also be viewed from the perspective of the content they deliver, as news media, entertainment media, religious media or a combination of all three. Last but not least, one should ascertain whether these media are based in the region or beaming in from abroad and hoping to attract a following.29 Each media grouping has its own ‘sub-categories’ and is manifested in various ways and via different agents. But what matters more for the sake of our discussion here are the news and religious media where the fault lines of sectarian tensions and rising wars can be demarcated. News and religious channels in the region are mostly non-privately owned, with states, semi-statutory bodies or political/religious parties controlling the levers of money and orientation. Sunni news, entertainment and religious media encompasses a wide and diverse group, ranging from the mainstream Dubai-based MBC network (including al-Arabiya) and Qatar’s al-Jazeera, spanning dozens of Sunni religious channels all the way to jihadist websites and online streaming, such as Minbar al-Tawheed, one of the main supportive hubs of al-Qaeda ideology.30 Shia media spans no less diverse a spectrum, including the Hezbollah al-Manar TV; Iranian-backed TV and radio stations, such as al-Alam; and a plethora of Iraqi channels. Closely related to this group are the

28

29

30

38

foreseeable future, however delivered and with whatever web-based enhancements’, Nick Couldry (2012). Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity, p. 18. Apart from the Sunni–Shia tension manifested by TV media, there is the Muslim–Christian tension, where battles are fought between extreme TV channels belonging to each camp. This discussion falls outside the scope of this paper. For more on the structure and content of Christian and Salafi channels, see Khaled Hroub (2012). Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press. There are many media outlets that are based outside the Middle East but consider the region to be their main ‘target audience’—including the broadcasting owned and operated by the big external players. Besides the oldest service, BBC Arabic (originally in radio but also in TV since 2008), and BBC Persian (established in 2009), we have the Al-Hurra network, based in Washington DC (2003); the German Deutsche Welle Arabic TV in Berlin (2002); the Russian Rousya Al-Yaoum in Moscow (2007); and the French France 24, near Paris (2006). See Minbar Al-Tawheed wal Jihad, http://www.tawhed.ws [Consulted 15 January 2014].


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

media that consider themselves part of the ‘resistance axis’, such as the al-Mayadeen channel, which was founded in 2012 in Lebanon to support Syria and Hezbollah and is most likely financed by both. Though technically not a Shia channel, it nevertheless allies itself clearly to the Iran–Syria–Hezbollah axis. A more uneasy positioning is that of Hamas’s al-Aqsa TV, for it identifies itself as a ‘resistance media’ but stands at odds with other ‘resistance’ and Shia-oriented media. In addition to distinguishing the diverse mediascape in the region, this introductory remark must acknowledge the fact that when it comes to examining the manipulation of news and religious media, it is politics that we have to search for—and more specifically, state politics. As discussed elsewhere, the states in the region (mostly Iran and Saudi Arabia) are the main culprits of instigating sectarian politics: where foreign policy becomes aligned along sectarian divisions. The answer to the question of why, at this point in time, regional sectarianism is raging—when the very same sects and different religious populaces used to live in coexistence—can be found in the politics of competing regimes. ‘Bad’ and sectarian media is only reflective of ‘bad’ and sectarian politics. In a poisonous regional atmosphere, the media is perceived by the state as a tool in the service of its own interest, both internally and externally.

Post-Arab Spring religious media: occupying the ‘public sphere’ Any discussion of the role of the media in current regional sectarian divisions should consider the significant unfolding chapter chronicling changes within the Arab media post-Arab Spring. In the countries where the uprisings were successful in overthrowing old regimes—Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—media that used to be subject to the full control of the state were liberated. Dozens of media outlets and TV channels were founded immediately after the full or partial collapse of the old establishments. One phenomenal aspect of the new political media territory shaping out of the old came from religious broadcasting, which saw both the strengthening of the old TV channels and the rise of new ones. Under the old authoritarian regimes, most religious channels (largely with Salafi orientation) were anxious not to deal with politics and to keep all their material and programming politicsfree. The governments, in return, would allow them to operate, and were pleased with the ‘pacifying’ nature of these channels and the ‘neutralising’ effect they had on audiences, as opposed to the religious/political media deployed by the Islamist movements. In the new post-Arab Spring context in a number of countries, where low ceilings of freedom of expression had been bashed through and the fear of the heavy hand of the state was no longer present, most of the previously apolitical religious channels became politicised. The leading ones, for instance in Egypt, allied themselves with the Salafi parties and politics suddenly dominated the screens—in a break with the recent past. The sweep of this ‘politicisation’ affected almost all forms of religious broadcasting and took place at a time when the region was heading steadily towards bolder sectarian positioning of states and groups, following the Syrian revolution. The chaotic post-Arab Spring regional media

39


Khaled Hroub

landscape exacerbated existing problems concerning regional media, particularly the lack of regulatory systems, codes of ethics and sound laws and judicial regimes to maintain the balance between freedoms and individual rights. Within this scene, channels incited sectarian hatred and promoted calls for the excommunication of ‘others’ by invoking historical narratives and religious battles of the past, without facing legal liabilities.31 The collapse of authoritarianism in a number of Arab countries has freed up new space away from the heavy controlling hand of the state. In the classical Habermasian model, this growing ‘public sphere’, where people enjoy debating public affairs, express their views freely and feel empowered to criticise the authorities is a sign of healthier politics. It is a space where civil society, intellectual deliberation, media freedoms, creative art and other forms of emancipation express themselves. It is where the power of the public thrives, and where the power of the state is limited. In the wake of the downfall of any dictatorship, a suppressed public sphere starts to develop rapidly, if chaotically.32 In the context of post-Arab Spring politics, a state of ‘chaotic freedoms’ emerged soon after the collapse of every authoritarian system, out of which a healthy ‘public sphere’ it was hoped would grow. Instead, the vacuum created by the quick removal of the authoritarian state’s heavy presence was mostly filled by the Islamists: their politics, discourse and media. In the aforementioned Habermasian notion of the ‘public sphere’, the assumption is that this sphere encourages freethinking within a given secular context. The only suppressive force in this context is that of the state. Once this force is confronted and compelled to withdraw from its occupied territories of public life, the public sphere thrives. Against this assumed state-control versus public-sphere dynamic, post-Arab Spring cases have introduced another configuration, in which the force of the removed authoritarian state is simply replaced by an authoritarian religious discourse. Instead of creating an atmosphere of freer thinking, Arab contexts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (and other countries to varying extents) fell prey to rising religiosity. Even if levels of religiosity were always somewhat high before the regime changes that took place in the Arab Spring, the nature of that religiosity tended to be milder and far less politicised. The Islamists’ electoral victories gave them unprecedented public power and an omnipresent manifestation of Islamism, leading Islamists to ever-bolder discourse and aggressiveness. All this has materialised in the subsequent rise and dominance of religious media, mainly strengthening the dozens of influential religious channels and creating an attractive atmosphere for others to become 31

32

40

In documented examinations of and research in this area, it is noted that the lack of clear laws and regulations has left a broad grey area where defamation and other sorts of ‘collective insult’ exist. See Matt J. Duffy (2013). ‘Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries: Summary, Analysis, and Recommendations’, Doha Centre for Media Freedoms. The ‘public sphere’ theory is widely debated and was originally introduced by Jürgen Habermas in 1962, in German then translated into other languages. See Jürgen Habermas (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Many scholars have debated Habermas’s notion: see, for example, the collection of Bruce Robbins (ed.) (1993). The Phantom Public Sphere. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

established. What’s more, the rise of an ‘Islamist sphere’ has not been limited to the countries where actual regime change took place. In fact, the Islamisation that has emerged from the Arab Spring is only an advanced stage of the years-long creation of what could vaguely be described as a ‘regional Islamist sphere’. This is the sphere that has slowly been constructed by the practices, discourse, activism and religiosity infused into Arab society by Islamism and its media. One of the main structural changes that this Islamisation has succeeded in achieving in society has been the establishment of a new religious legitimacy, according to which norms and codes of sociality are measured.33

Characteristics and manifestations of the religious (sectarian) media Radical religious media, especially TV broadcasting, is a universal phenomenon, seen as part of the globalisation of communication in recent decades. The consequences have been varied, depending on the context, the politics behind the given media and the level of volatility surrounding the main players concerned. This method of using TV screens to spread religious messages on a mass scale was pioneered by religious broadcasting in the West, particularly in the United States.34 Some of the characteristics and manifestations of this media are universal, regardless of geography or faith, while others are specific to the given cases. The following discussion concentrates on Middle Eastern religious media, specifically Sunni and Shia media. To begin with, one should consider the common tactic used by religious media: of bringing to public consciousness religious intellectual battles and contestation of the past. In the Middle Eastern context, and amid the present regional rivalry between the Iran-led and the Saudi Arabia-led camps, religious mass media have been publicising arguments that used to be elitist, neglected or arcane theological conflicts and differences. As is the case with other religious traditions, there are deep differences between various schools of theology in Islam, which are typically limited to the specialised circles of the clergy. In the same way, differences between Shia and Sunni go back to the first century of Islam. Diverging religious interpretations of scripture evolved, entangling with politics as opposing political stances became entrenched in orthodoxies and uncompromising beliefs over the centuries. Throughout history, mass conversion to Shia belief or Sunni belief was led more by kings and rulers in shifts of power than any conviction in a given set of principles. The populace had little choice and often little compunction not to follow a

33

34

The assumed ‘regional Islamic sphere’, relating to the spread of religious media across the region, is perhaps the Middle Eastern example of what Ingrid Volkmer describes as trans- or supra-national public spheres, which are not limited by the state or national boundaries. See Ingrid Volkmer (2014). The Global Public Sphere: Public Communication in the Age of Reflective Interdependence. Cambridge: Polity. See, for example, Mark Ward (1994). Air of Salvation: The Story of Christian Broadcasting. Michigan: Baker Pub Group; on the impact of this media on audiences in relation to politics, see Brian Newman and Mark Caleb Smith (2007). ‘Fanning the Flames: Religious Media Consumption and American Politics’, American Politics Research, 35 (6), pp. 846–77.

41


Khaled Hroub

victorious ruler, who would effectively force his subjects to adopt this or that particular school of religion. The actual fundamental religious differences and justifications would remain almost the exclusive business of scholars, especially those allied with the rulers. At the level of the people, where mixed Sunni–Shia communities persisted, varying degrees of coexistence would prevail, materialised in mutual social interactions including mixed marriages. This state of affairs continued to be the general mode of sociality in mixed communities until the 1970s. At present, a sharp turn is taking place with the advent of transnational mass media and its deployment in regional rivalries. Since Ayatollah Khomeini’s claim, after the victory of the Iranian Revolution, of speaking in the name of all Muslims (Shia and Sunni), Saudi Arabia has wanted to controvert this claim by instigating a ‘Sunni’ anti-Shia religious discourse. Since the 1980s, a radicalised Sunni (and fundamentally Salafi/Wahhabi) discourse has been shaped, questioning the very ‘Islamic-ness’ of the Shia altogether. In later years, and with the plethora of transborder TV broadcasting, the elements of this discourse became engrained in Sunni religious broadcasting, which dug deep into history to bring to ‘incontrovertible’ light evidence of Shia religious deviation and heresy according to the extreme versions of Sunni interpretation. Thus, all uncompromising orthodoxies and debates, previously fairly much consigned to theological circles, were brought to broad public awareness on the small screen. Audiences with little religious knowledge started to ‘discover’ the un-Islamic essence of their fellow citizens, the Shia. It’s the same story with radical Shia media, but in reverse, with Sunnis depicted as the usurpers of power and authority in Islam since the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Perhaps one of the boldest political examples, demonstrating clear sectarian references, is the statement recently made by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. During a visit to the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq on 25 December 2013, Maliki depicted the present fight against Sunni militant groups as a continuation of the ancient battle between al-Hussein and Yezid (two respectively Shia and Sunni figureheads, who fought against each other in the seventh century). He also described Karbala, where Hussein is believed to be buried, as the qibla for all Muslims.35 The term qibla, which is symbolic of the holiest space and the direction to which Muslim direct their prayers, is reserved for Mecca. The statement was widely quoted and re-transmitted, causing uproar among many Sunnis, who considered it not only outrageous but heretical. Within this mutual exercise to strip away the legitimacy of the other side, a selfproclamation of victimisation has become an integral part of the media’s religious discourse. Present battles are framed in bitter recycled histories, with current grievances presented graphically in the light of the past. Hence today’s Sunni–Shia rift is in fact a provoked 35

42

See the statement on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKfN13pqKbs [Consulted 22 January 2014]; also a comment by Mohammad al-Musfir (2014). ‘Iraq calls upon the Arabs’, Al-Sharq, 13 January, p. 34.


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

religious cover for what is in essence a Saudi–Iranian conflict, which in turn is promoted as a continuation of old seventh-century battles between two camps of Muhammad’s companions. In these clashes there is always a bold binary of truth and falsehood; there is no middle ground, for there is only one, absolute religious truth claimed by each side. If a claim has, throughout history, been buried in books and religious argumentation, now it is transmitted in the daily religious programming of TV channels. This continuous stoking of the atmosphere by the media, using religious material with a clear and uncompromising sectarian bent, has expanded polarities in mixed societies such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In tandem, the foundations of long periods of coexistence among Shia, Muslims and Christians started to erode. Sectarian violence, incidents and anecdotes of grievances were amplified and in many cases blown out of proportion by the media, attracting further anger and hatred. In such a poisonous climate, the corrosion of common living became increasingly manifested on a daily basis, from segregated religion- or sect-based neighbourhoods all the way to cases of divorce where the couple belong to different sects. This has further weakened the already shaky notion of citizenship, which never had the chance to become really deeply rooted in any post-colonial Middle Eastern state. Consequently, religious and sectarian loyalties overtook national allegiance and citizenry, and sought points of reference and authority both inside and outside each country. Transnational media, particularly religious media, provided platforms and broadcast channels to communicate these loyalties beyond national borders. Therefore, Shia or Sunni constituencies in any given country could feel stronger ties to similar constituencies abroad. Many of the Shia of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, for example, would bond more with Shia in Iran or even the Iranian state itself than Sunni Saudis or the Saudi state. Since the 2003 war in Iraq and the dominance of Shia power in the country, Iraqi Sunnis nowadays feel completely alienated by the state and perhaps by the majority of Iraqi Shia as well. Transnational media coverage of Sunni grievances and marginalisation in Iraq creates cross-national ties and expectations of help and support from ‘Sunni brothers’ elsewhere. The media is playing a significant role in the dismantling of the national sphere, replacing it with a vague, grey religious sphere that cuts across the region and connects communities that belong to the same sect. In this chaotic sectarian atmosphere, the state is not neutral. As mentioned above, most of this media is directly owned by the region’s states, or falls indirectly within their broad influence. Television media in the Middle East, particularly in the Arab region, is hardly profitable. Apart from a few networks whose focus is on light programming, music, soap operas and shows copied from the West, the TV industry is heavily subsidised and reliant on governments.36 News and religious media falls, by and large, within the sphere of state

36

The profitable/subsidised topography of Arab TV is neatly detailed by Naomi Sakr (2007). Arab Television

43


Khaled Hroub

leverage, thus one could safely assume that it is within the capacity of the states concerned to mitigate sectarian media, reducing it or shutting it down completely. There are, however, some complex media webs, especially involving religious channels, with ownerships that fall neither under the profit-making category nor under full state control. Over the past two decades or so, during the rise of Islamism and religious media in the region, forms of autonomous religious media supported or approved by rivalling states have emerged as part of the mediascape. These media are owned by religious groups, individuals, charities and/or (in the case of Shia media) religious figureheads, or marji‘ al-taqlid (literally: an authority to be emulated). These agents enjoy enough resources and a continuous stream of donations to further their agenda. Initially, the work of these institutions and individuals remains in line with the state. However, with the passage of time, accumulative experience and improved skills, these agents start to chart more independent and autonomous waters. In certain cases they grow in size, resources, networks and autonomy to a point beyond direct and automatic state control. Shutting them down or cracking down on them becomes a decision that warrants careful calculation, and even the success of doing so is questionable.37 Yet another manifestation of the current sweep of religious media in the region, which even further exacerbates sectarianism, results from the persistent promotion of artificial notions of homogeneity within widely diverse Shia and Sunni communities. The pluralist and diverse nature of almost every Shia or Sunni community in the region is utterly dismissed in the sectarian religious media. Instead, sharp dichotomous and exclusively topdown identities and categorisations are imposed. Individuals are identified only by their religious affiliation and reduced to the singular label of either Sunni or Shia. Embedded in this lies a set of assumptions about the individual, as being not only a believer but also religiously observant and politically adherent to ‘our camp’. There is no place in such reduced and forced identities for non-religious individuals, secular Sunnis or Shias, or simply the vast segments of politically indifferent people. Another ubiquitous characterisation of religious, and consequently sectarian, media is the phenomenal spread of fatwas38 on TV screens. Fatwa shows—typically hosted by a wellknown scholar who receives call-ins and instant messages from the audience, asking about the view of Islam on given issues—occupy a central place in the programming schedule of almost every religious TV channel or equivalent outlet. These shows attract more audiences (and commercials), creating competition between TV preachers over followers

37 38

44

Today. London: I. B. Tauris. A clear example here are the Saudi and Gulf-based groups and individuals who are supportive of al-Qaeda and other Jihadist armed groups. Despite years of regulating donations abroad and enforcing laws and punitive measures, money is still being funnelled from the Gulf to these groups. Fatwa is a religious ruling issued by an established scholar on a specific matter brought to him by individuals who are unsure how to handle this newly arising issue. The fatwa would inform the individual if it is permitted (halal) or prohibited (haram) to practice that specific matter.


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

and ratings. Although a deeply rooted religious tradition in Islam, the excessive use and ease of the delivery of fatwas at the present time have created enormous socio-cultural impacts. Originally, a fatwa was only sought for difficult issues, leaving the individual to deal with lesser matters according to their conscience. In the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad there are clear teachings where Muslims are invited to first and foremost ask their heart when facing troubling new questions.39 The rationale behind these teachings is to maintain the personal empowerment of the individual Muslim, with direct communication between individuals and Allah. Consequently, this would limit the authority of others, including religious scholars, and prevent them from claiming paternalistic hierarchy over people or seeking to derive religious power. The fatwa institution is an exception and a powerful authority that is bestowed upon scholars to influence and direct the lives of individuals. It is the judiciously used ‘third man’ that interferes with and occupies the vertical space between people and heaven. The plethora of fatwas by various means, but mostly and more effectively through the use of TV screens, has led to what could be described as the ‘fatawisation’ of the public sphere, where all issues of social life have been placed under the lens of the fatwa to deem them legitimate or otherwise. Coupled with the rise of generations of muftis and TV preachers, the fatawisation of the public sphere has crippled individuals from thinking freely, from being guided by their own conscience and from relying on their own understanding of their religion. Even worse, this powerful tool, the fatwa, has ended up in the hands of hundreds of half-educated scholars, whose desire for religious authority has led them to expand the areas of life that should be covered by fatwas. In the midst of this intensification of religiosity and the fatawisation of public life, streams of fatwas relating to the ‘position’ vis-à-vis ‘other’ sects has emerged. People who for decades used to interact with their fellow citizens without any reservations have become cornered by fatwas that depict ‘others’ as enemies of Allah who should be avoided.40 Religious and sectarian media, last but not least, enhances self-superiority over others and promotes a discourse that glorifies and purifies one’s own group while demonising and vilifying the other group. Insistent assurance that one is on the (sole) righteous path is delivered constantly and repeatedly emphases the other side as standing on false ground,

39

40

It is reported that a man came to Prophet Muhammad asking him about rightdoing and wrongdoing and the answer he received was as follows: ‘Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil. And wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and causes uneasiness in the breast, even though people have repeatedly given their legal opinion [in its favour]’. See, for example, fatwas given by Salafi preachers forbidding the marriage of Sunni men to Shia women, and forbidding eating their food in http://www.ahlalhdeeth.com/vb/showthread.php?t=147228, [Consulted on 23 January 2014]. Countless fatwas concerning Christians are issued on TV screens and online: forbidding, for example, congratulating Christians on the occasion of Christmas and New Year. See http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgsMgZZ805g [Consulted 23 January 2014]. It should be said, however, that despite the confusion that these fatwas have created, there are actually fatwas that take the opposite position and criticise the strict and radical stand of the ‘forbidding’ fatwas.

45


Khaled Hroub

in the wrong camp. Framing this superiority within religious references, any convergence toward common ground is dismissed as religiously inconceivable. The Sunni and Shia orthodoxies on Arab regional and extra-regional TV screens are engaged in a zero-sum war, refuting totally and absolutely the beliefs of the other side and offering neither a compromise nor a solution for such a dilemma.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Khaled Hroub is a professor-in-residence in Middle Eastern Studies and Arab Media Studies at Northwestern University, Qatar, and a senior research fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, where he is the director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project (CAMP). He authored Hamas: A Beginners Guide (2006/2010) and Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000), and edited Political Islam: Context versus Ideology (2011) and Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East (2012). In Arabic, he published Fragility of Ideology and Might of Politics (2010), In Praise of Revolution (2012), Tattoo of Cities (literary collection, 2008) and Enchantress of Poetry (poems, 2008).

ABSTRACT Rival states and political actors in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, have used religious media in different ways and for various ends: to amass legitimacy, mobilise people and enhance their control of power. In recent years, however, this (mis)use of religious media has taken precarious manifestations. With intra-national and cross-national political and violent conflicts sweeping several countries in the region, political actors have resorted to religious and sectarian references to justify their claims and positions. This has always been dangerous terrain and, falling into the trap of politicians, a significant part of the religious media has started to re-frame the political conflicts through the competing Saudi Arabia-led and Iran-led camps in religious Sunni–Shia terms. This discussion attempts to conceptualise the formation of this new religious media/political territory within the Sunni–Shia context, as well as its manipulative nature and impact.

KEYWORDS Middle East sectarian media, religious media, Islamic public sphere.

‫امللخص‬ ‫ مثلام يحدث‬، ‫تستعمل الدول و غريها من الفاعلني السياسيني املتنافسني عىل السلطة يف منطقة الرشق األوسط‬ ‫ و‬،‫ منها إكتساب الرشعية‬:‫ وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية بأشكال مختلفة و من أجل غايات متعددة‬،‫يف العامل بأرسه‬

46


‫‪The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide‬‬

‫تعبئة الجامهري و تعزيز تحكمهم يف السلطة‪ .‬لكن مع ذلك‪ ،‬فإن هذا اإلستعامل (و الشطط فيه) إكتىس يف‬ ‫السنوات األخرية متظهرات تتزايد خطورتها بإستمرار‪ :‬إذ و بينام تعيش عدة بلدان يف املنطقة رصاعات سياسية‬ ‫عنيفة‪،‬داخلية و عابرة للحدود‪ ،‬يلجأ الفاعلون السياسيون إىل مرجعيات دينية و مذهبية لتربير مطالبهم و‬ ‫مواقفهم‪ .‬و ألن هذا املجال هو مجال دائم التعقيد‪ ،‬فقد وقع جانب مهم من وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية يف يد‬ ‫املصالح السلطوية‪ ،‬و يتم إستخدامها من أجل إضفاء طابع ديني شيعي سني عىل الرصاع السيايس بني الطرف‬ ‫املوايل إليران و الطرف املوايل للعربية السعودية‪ .‬و يهدف هذا التحليل إىل مفهمة تشكُّل هذا املجال الجديد‬ ‫الذي تحتله وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية و املصالح السياسية يف السياق السني الشيعي‪ ،‬و تحديد طبيعته التالعبية‬ ‫و اآلثار املرتتبة عنه‪.‬‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ ‫وسائل اإلعالم املذهبية يف الرشق األوسط‪ ،‬وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية‪ ،‬املجال العمومي اإلسالمي‪.‬‬

‫‪47‬‬


ECONOMIC COMPETITION FOR REGIONAL SUPREMACY: IRAN VERSUS SAUDI ARABIA (AND QATAR) Thierry Coville

T

he competition for regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has reached a new level of intensity with the war in Syria, has an important economic dimension too. In fact, the rivalry between these two countries also takes the form of a competition between two economic powers. This paper will explore this power struggle through three main issues. Firstly, Iran and Saudi Arabia are major energy providers, so their ability to efficiently manage these huge energy resources is one of the key elements that will determine the outcome of this rivalry. The second issue is the way each of these countries manages to integrate into the global economy. The third and final aspect that needs to be analysed is the relative strength of these two economic systems with respect to their political and social environments.

Competition in the energy sector Oil Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the most important actors in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Although there are some uncertainties as to the real level of oil reserves claimed by the largest oil producers, it is established that Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the biggest powerhouses in the world in terms of oil reserves and production. Saudi Arabia and Iran have, respectively, the second and fourth largest reserves in the world.


Thierry Coville

Table 1. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and production (% of world total)

Iran

Saudi Arabia

Proved reserves

9.4

15.9

Production

4.2

13.3

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2013

Oil production trends Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are oil economies. Their economic systems are heavily dependent on oil exports, which represent 86.9% of exports and 91.8% of government revenues in Saudi Arabia, and 69.5% of exports and 42.7% of government revenues in Iran (Table 2). The Iranian oil sector has been affected by US sanctions since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. An embargo was imposed on the Iranian oil industry in 1995 by an executive order of the US president. The same year, the US Congress passed the Iran–Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which prohibited any US and foreign investment of more than $20 million in the Iranian oil industry.41 Nevertheless, the Iranian government had no trouble selling its oil to Europe and Asia. The ILSA constrained foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector, but some European companies (such as Total and ENI) still invested in Iran, despite these sanctions. In the end, the sanctions did not effectively affect the level of Iranian oil production. However, Iran did lose out on some revenues that it could have benefited from had there not been US opposition to the use of Iranian pipelines to export oil extracted from the Caspian Sea, or to Iran investing in the development of Azeri oil in 1995. In contrast, the good relations between Aramco,42 the public Saudi Arabian oil company, and the US is an established fact. Saudi Arabia, which is the only country in the world with the ability to significantly increase its oil production, has always played a key role in maintaining stability in the world oil market. Table 2. Oil as a proportion of total exports and government revenues in Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2012 (%)

Oil exports/Total exports

Oil revenues/ Total revenues

Iran

69.5

42.7

Saudi Arabia

86.9

91.8

Sources: Central Bank of Iran, Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency

41 42

50

The Iran–Libya Sanctions Act became the Iran Sanctions in 2006. See Kenneth Katzman (2007). The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA). Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, October 12, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS20871.pdf [Consulted 4 December 2013]. US oil companies had some equity participation in Aramco until 1980.


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Since 2011, the US sanctions on the Iranian financial system and the EU embargo on Iranian oil43 have led to a decrease in Iranian oil production, from 3,600 thousand barrels per day in 2010 to 2,600 thousand barrels per day in September 2013. Considering that Iran needs around 1,500 thousand barrels per day for internal consumption, that means Iranian oil exports have decreased by around 50%. In 2012, the main clients for Iranian oil were China and India (50%), South Korea and Japan (21%), and Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey (14%).44 This change in situation has led to a huge macroeconomic shock in Iran. According to government figures there was a recession in 2012, with GDP declining by -5.8%, after a growth of 3% in 2011. The lack of foreign exchange has led to a very large depreciation of the Iranian currency since 2010, which caused inflation to accelerate from 12.4% in 2010 to 41.6% in September 2013. It is important to consider that Saudi Arabia played an important role in the success of the sanctions, as since 2011 it has gradually increased its level of production in order to compensate for the decreased oil supply from Iran (Graphic 1). The main geographical destinations of Saudi oil in 2012 were Asia (54%), the US (15%) and Europe (15%). In 2012, Saudi Arabia was the second oil supplier to the US after Canada.45 Graphic 1. Iran and Saudi oil production (thousand barrels/day) 4,000

10,000

3,500

9,800 9,600

3,000

9,400

2,500

9,200

2,000

9,000

Iran (left axis)

1,500

8,800

Saudi Arabia (right axis)

8,600

1,000

8,400

500

8,200

0

8,000 2010

2011

2012

2013

Source: Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries

In both Iran and Saudi Arabia, a sensible acceleration of non-oil exports has taken place in recent years (Graphic 3). In the case of Saudi Arabia, its non-oil exports may have benefited from the country’s membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 2005. In the case of Iran, there has obviously been a ‘sanctions effect’. The decrease of its oil exports, due to the sanctions, forced the Iranian government and private sector to look for 43 44 45

EU countries stopped buying oil from Iran in July 2012. U. S. Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/ [Consulted 13 February 2014]. Ibidem.

51


Thierry Coville

alternative sources of foreign exchange. Due to the fall in value of the Iranian currency since 2010, following the imposing of sanctions, Iranian competitiveness has improved. The value of the dollar against the Iranian rial on the black market increased from 10,000 rials in 2010 to nearly 36,000 rials at the end of 2012 (Graphic 2). Dependency on oil for foreign trade seems less acute in Iran. Non-oil exports represented a higher proportion of total exports in Iran than in Saudi Arabia in 2012 (Table 2), with Iranian agricultural and industrial goods making up a greater part of exports than in Saudi Arabia46 (Tables 3 and 4). Iranian foreign trade has also lowered its dependency on oil revenues at a quicker pace than in Saudi Arabia. In Iran, the ratio of non-oil exports to imports has increased from 28.4% in 2006 to 45% in 2012.47 During the same period, the same ratio has gone from 17.6% to 21.3% in Saudi Arabia. What is interesting is that there is now a real consensus in Iran among the government and the private sector on the necessity to improve private-sector competitiveness in order to increase non-oil exports. The government of President Rouhani has stated clearly its willingness to support the private sector.48 The new government is also thinking about increasing the size of the private sector in the economy and simplifying firms’ legal requirements.49 Graphic 2. Exchange rate $/rial on the black market 45,000 40,000 35,000 30,000 25,000 20,000 15,000 10,000 5,000 0 december 2010

december 2011

december 2012

november 2013

Source: Author’s estimations

46 47 48 49

52

This data on non-oil exports is based on national sources. Some modifications were made by the author to make the data for Iran and Saudi Arabia comparable. So there is some degree of uncertainty as to its statistical reliability. This ratio had a net increase in 2012 as a result of the lower level of imports, due to the sanctions. Nevertheless, it is also a reflection of the ability of the Iranian economy to decrease its oil dependency. See ‘Willingness to cooperate between the economic team of Rohani and the private sector’, Donia Eqtesad, 3 December 2013, http://www.donya-e-eqtesad.com/news/750954/ [Consulted 4 December 2013]. See ‘To suppress non-obligatory regulations, the priority of Namatzadeh (Minister of Industry, Mines and Commerce)’, Eghtesadonline, 25 August 2013, http://www.eghtesadonline.com/fa/content/24811/ [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar) Graphic 3. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s non-oil exports (billion dollars) 35 30 25 20

Iran

15

Saudi Arabia

10 5 0 2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Sources: Central Bank of Iran, Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Table 3. Composition of Iranian exports in 2012 (%)

Oil

69.5

Agriculture

5.9

Petrochemicals

10

Industrial goods

13.6

Total

100

Source: Central Bank of Iran, Clawson (2013)50

Oil dependency is also less acute in Iran’s public finances. Oil revenues represented 42.7% of total revenues in Iran in 2012, against 91.8% in Saudi Arabia. It is true that the economic sanctions have led to a decrease in the relative importance of oil to total revenues in Iran since 2010, when oil revenues represented 53% of its total revenues. At the time, the Iranian fiscal system was already less dependent on oil revenues than Saudi Arabia. But it is clear that the impact of sanctions on oil revenues convinced the Iranian authorities to accelerate their reforms of the fiscal system.

50

Patrick Clawson (2013). ‘Iran Beyond Oil?’, Policy Watch, 2062, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. See http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iran-beyond-oil [Consulted 4 December 2013].

53


Thierry Coville

Table 4. Composition of Saudi Arabian exports in 2012 (%)

Oil

86.9

Agriculture

0.9

Petrochemicals

8.5

Manufacturing

0.9

Other

2.7

Total

100

Source: Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency

Despite its lower dependency on oil revenues, it is fair to say that the management of oil revenues by the Iranian government during recent years has not been exempt from criticism. The government of Mohammad Khatami in 1999 created an Oil Stabilization Fund (OSF), the objective of which was to invest oil revenues in order to support the private sector and act as a stabiliser against fluctuating oil revenues (only a budgeted amount of oil revenues would flow into the treasury, with the surplus allocated to the OSF). But, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005–2013), the OSF funds were misallocated and used to finance government expenditure. Then, in 2011, the OSF was replaced by a National Development Fund (NDF). It was decided that a minimum of 20% of the country’s oil and gas export revenues would be injected into this fund, which would only be available for long-term capital investments (especially strategic and hi-tech investments). So the NDF was not designed to act as a stabiliser against fluctuating oil revenues, like the OSF, but to be an investment fund. Due to the large decrease in Iran’s oil revenues in 2012, this fund was mainly used to finance government expenditure. In October 2013, the total assets of this fund reached $18.1 billion—$14 billion less than the previously estimated figure of $32 billion, said the fund’s board of directors in a statement.51 It is expected that the new government will improve the transparency of this fund and effectively use it to finance the private sector.52 In Saudi Arabia, several sovereign wealth funds have been established. The largest, the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority (SAMA) Foreign Holdings manages oil surpluses (if oil revenues are higher than what was budgeted). The SAMA, the country’s central bank, manages this fund, which is the second largest in the world, with total assets of $675.9 51 52

54

See ‘National Development Fund’s assets $14 billion less than thought’, Tehran Times, 26 October 2013. See Bijan Khajehpour (2013). ‘Development Fund to fill new role hopes Iran’s private sector’, Al Monitor, 3 October 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/hope-for-iran-private-sector-national-development-fund.html# [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

billion in 2013.53 The SAMA Foreign Holdings strategy has never changed, despite oil price variations and Saudi Arabian budgetary constraints. It has always acted as a stabilisation fund, with a strategy aimed at maintaining the initial value of the assets through safe investments in financial markets.54 In 2008, the SAMA had 85% of its assets invested in dollar-denominated fixed income securities. Despite the sub-prime crisis, the SAMA did not change its investment strategy.55 The significance of the assets it manages and the fact that most of the SAMA’s portfolio is invested in US financial markets can clearly be considered important elements in defining Saudi soft power. Here, Saudi Arabia has a clear advantage over Iran, which almost never invested its sovereign fund assets outside of the country. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also very dependent on oil as a domestic source of energy. Due to population growth and low energy prices, internal consumption of oil has increased in the two countries. It is a strategic issue for both, as increasing internal consumption is depleting the amount of oil that can be exported (Graphic 3). In 2010, Ahmadinejad’s government launched an ambitious plan to decrease energy subsidies in Iran. The policy was based on a clever scheme of compensating increasing energy prices through financial transfers to the population. This plan faced strong criticism due to its inflationary impact and the lack of support for companies that had to meet higher energy prices. Nevertheless, despite all its shortcomings, the plan was implemented and led to a decrease of oil consumption in Iran between 2010 and 2011.56 That was the first time in Iran that a government had dared to decrease energy subsidies. Saudi Arabia has not yet implemented such a reform, and even if its potential for oil exports is still huge, the present trends in oil consumption could lead in the long term to a significant decrease of oil exports in the country (Graphic 4). The recent nuclear deal in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (the five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) could obviously change the competitive environment in the oil sector. If there is a final deal in six months or one year, one could expect an increase in Iranian oil production. The macroeconomic impact on the Iranian economy should be positive in terms of higher growth and lower inflation. The impact of a possible increase of Iran exports on the oil price will depend on Saudi Arabia strategy. If it decides to decrease production, that could maintain oil prices at the present level. Other consequences could include an increase of Foreign Direct Investments (even from the US)

53 54 55 56

Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, http://www.swfinstitute.org/swfs/sama-foreign-holdings/ [Consulted 13 February 2014]. Sara Bazoobandi (2013). The Political Economy of the Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds: a case study of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Oxon: Routledge, p. 66. Ibidem, p. 66. Thierry Coville (2012). La suppression des subventions en Iran: une révolution économique?, in Djamshid A. (ed.). La Rente en République islamique d’Iran. Paris: L’Harmattan, pp. 75–88.

55


Thierry Coville

in the Iranian oil sector.57 It will also be interesting to see if the recent emphasis in Iran on non-oil sector development will resist a return to normal for oil revenues. Graphic 4. Oil consumption in Iran and Saudi Arabia (thousand barrels/day) 3,500 3,000 2,500 2,000 Iran

1,500

Saudi Arabia

1,000 500 0

Source: BP Graphic 5. Oil consumption in Iran and Saudi Arabia58 (% of production) 60

30

50

25

40

20

30

15

20

10

10

5

0

0

Saudi Arabia Iran

Source: BP

57

58

56

This raises the question of at what pace will all the relevant sanctions be abolished. There is no simple answer, if one considers the complexity of laws supporting sanctions against Iran. See International Crisis Group (2013). ‘The Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions’, Middle East Report, 138, Brussels, February 2013. The increase in Iranian oil consumption (in % of oil production) in 2012 is a result of the decrease in oil production, due to the sanctions.


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Natural gas There is competition in the field of natural gas between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which possess, respectively, the largest and fifth largest natural-gas reserves in the world. But the environment has been completely transformed by the arrival of a new player, Qatar, which has the third largest reserves in the world. Out of these three countries, Qatar has been the most successful in developing its exports (Graphic 6). This is due to an active policy of attracting foreign investment to develop production and exports (due to the low consumption of Qatar’s small population). Iran and Saudi Arabia have not been developing their natural-gas production at the same pace. In Iran, development has been impaired by a poor investment climate and the sanctions. In Saudi Arabia, the sector has only been opened gradually to foreign investors. And in both countries, the priority has been to allocate natural gas for internal consumption. The Qatari strategy, based on developing natural-gas exports, has led to a huge increase in living standards in the country. With a gross national income of $76,010 per capita in 2011,59 Qatar is now among the richest countries in the world. It has created a sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, which in November 2013 was managing $115 billion in assets.60 The Qatar Investment Authority is the 11th largest sovereign fund in the world. The importance of the investment realised by this fund in different key industries in Western Europe and the US is constitutive of Qatari soft power. Again, it is an area where Iran is at disadvantage compared to its Arab neighbours. Graphic 6. Natural-gas exports of Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (billion cubic metres) 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0 -20

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Iran

Saudi Arabia

Qatar

Source: BP

59 60

The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/country/qatar [Consulted 13 February 2014]. Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, http://www.swfinstitute.org/ [Consulted 13 February 2014].

57


Thierry Coville

The recent, transitory nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 could have an impact on the development of Iran’s natural-gas sector too. The Iranian authorities need foreign investment to develop the country’s natural-gas fields, especially the South Pars field (which is jointly owned by Iran and Qatar and is the largest natural-gas field in the world). The new Iranian government has also emphasised its willingness to develop natural-gas exports. Foreign direct investment (FDI) and technology (to develop Liquefied Natural Gas) in this sector could lead to an increase in Iran’s naturalgas exports. The European market could be one of the outlets, since the European Union needs to diversify its natural-gas suppliers in order to avoid excessive reliance on Russia. Another project that could be restarted, if the sanctions disappeared, is the Peace Pipeline, which would export natural gas from Iran to Pakistan and India. In the long run, the continuous increase of US oil and natural-gas production, due to the extraction of shale resources, could lead to a decrease in US energy imports from OPEC countries. This means that the geopolitical importance of Iran and Saudi Arabia as energy producers could decrease—another reason for the two countries to focus on diversifying their economies away from hydrocarbons. In this respect, it seems that Iran (mostly due to unfavourable external circumstances i.e. the sanctions) has been able to build a more diversified economy.

Integration in the global economy Saudi Arabia has been a member of the WTO since 2005. And the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, launched a Customs Union in 2003. Iran is not a WTO member and is not part of any regional trade agreement. Iran’s access to the WTO has been opposed by the US for political reasons. Yet even without US opposition it is not certain whether Iran would have become a member, as the magnitude of tarifs on Iranian imports and of subsidies in the Iranian economy is a significant obstacle to membership. WTO membership means that Saudi Arabia is more integrated in the global economy. According to the WTO, foreign trade in Saudi Arabia represents 81.3% of GDP (2010–2012) compared to 51.3% in Iran (2009–2011). The Saudi Arabian market is less protected than in Iran, with import tariffs on all goods at 5.1% in 2012, against 26.6% in Iran.61 More recently, Iranian integration in the world economy went even further backward, as a result of the impact of sanctions.62 The depreciation of the Iranian currency and the refusal of a large number of banks to work with Iran, due to the fear of being exposed to US sanctions, led to a decrease in Iranian imports (Graphic 7).

61 62

58

The data for Iran relates to 2011. It can be assumed it did not change in 2012. For more on US sanctions against Iran, see Kenneth Katzman (2013). Iran Sanctions. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, July 26, http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/212999.pdf [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar) Graphic 7. Iranian imports of goods ($ billion) 80 78 76 74 72 70 68 66 64 62 60 2009

2010

2011

2012

Source: Central Bank of Iran (CBI)

Saudi Arabia has also been able to attract more foreign direct investment than Iran. In 2012, FDI inflows in Saudi Arabia reached $12.2 billion, which represented 10.1% of gross fixed capital formation. In Iran, during the same year, FDI inflows amounted to $4.9 billion, equivalent to only 3.4% of gross capital formation. The dismal performance of Iran in attracting FDI is a result of the long list of US sanctions. The Iran Sanctions Act aimed to prevent foreign investment in the country’s energy sector. More recent sanctions, focused on financial organisations dealing with Iran and even specifically at car companies working in the country, have also been influential in decreasing the attractiveness of Iran for foreign investment. Iran has many advantages that could be of interest to foreign investors, such as a large population, a well-educated and consumer-orientated middle class, significant mineral resources and a strategic geographic location (between Europe and Asia; the Persian Gulf and Central Asia). Yet its business environment is clearly not attractive enough for national and foreign investors. Iran is positioned 152nd (out of 189 countries) by the 2013 World Bank Doing Business report, which ranks countries according to the ease of doing business.63 By comparison, Saudi Arabia is at number 26. In terms of business, Iran is especially bad at dealing with construction permits and getting electricity. There have been numerous reports and studies on the unattractiveness of Iran’s business environment due to its excessive number of laws and regulations.64 The Iranian business environment is also characterised by very high levels of corruption. Iran ranked 133rd (out of 176 countries) on Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, while Saudi Arabia ranked 66th. 63 64

See Doing Business, http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings [Consulted 4 December 2013]. United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) (2003). Strategy document to enhance the contribution of an efficient and competitive small and medium-sized enterprise sector to industrial and economic development in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Vienna: UNIDO, February 2003.

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However, it’s important to note that Saudi Arabia’s integration in the global economy mostly relates to its energy industry. As mentioned earlier, the proportion of non-oil exports in total exports is higher in Iran (30.5%) than in Saudi Arabia (13.1%). Iran has a more diversified industrial base. The Iranian private sector and government, constrained by the sanctions, had to focus on non-oil exports.65 It seems that Iran was quite successful in this respect, benefiting from price competitiveness and a favourable political and cultural environment in neighbouring markets. During the first half of 2013, China, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and India were the main markets for Iran’s non-oil exports. These exports have also increased significantly in Central Asian markets. It is clear that there is potential for further growth of Iranian non-oil exports in the region. The business environment in Iran could become more attractive in the coming months too. The possible progressive annulation of sanctions could lead some foreign companies to think increasingly of Iran as a destination for investment. The Rouhani government has also made statements concerning its willingness to improve the Iranian business environment and increase the size of the private sector.66 It is interesting to consider that in both Iran and Saudi Arabia a common objective is to reduce the size of the public sector. This objective, if realised, will have deep political implications, as the rent-seeking nature of both economies has created strong interrelations between the economic and political structures of the two countries.

Political economy challenges In oil economies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, there are complex relationships between the economic and socio-political structures. Historically, economists tended to look at oil economies through the ‘rentier state’ theory, which concluded that a government able to rely on oil revenues for its resources did not have to develop a real tax system. This also reduces the democratic accountability of these states, as they do not have to tax their constituents and hence do not have to bargain with them.67 Nowadays, it is not realistic to describe the Iranian or Saudi state as completely isolated from their citizens when they define and apply economic policy. Recent works have emphasised the complex relations in both countries between the state and different socio-economic groups.68 There is an unofficial social pact between the state and the population, according to which the state will officially promote and defend certain collective values (Islam, nationalism, social 65 66 67 68

60

Patrick Clawson (2013). ‘Iran Beyond Oil?’, Op. Cit. See ‘To suppress non-obligatory regulations, the priority of Namatzadeh (Minister of Industry, Mines and Commerce)’, Op. Cit. Hussein Mahdavy (1970). The Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier State: the Case of Iran, in M. A. Cook (ed.). Studies in the economic history of the Middle East: from the rise of Islam to the present day. London [u. a.]: Oxford University Press, pp. 428–467. For Iran, see Thierry Coville (2002). L’économie de l’Iran islamique: entre ordre et désordres. Paris: L’Harmattan; for Saudi Arabia, see Steffen Hertog (2011). Princes, Brokers and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia. New York: Cornell University Press.


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

justice etc.) that form the basis of its legitimacy among the people. In addition, there is formal and informal financial support for some socio-economic groups whose support is important for the state. In Iran, groups such as the bonyads (charitable foundations), bazaris (big merchants specialising in imports) and the Pasdarans have greatly benefited from a large number of financial transfers, thanks to low taxation, easy and subsidised bank credits, access to foreign exchange at a subsidised rates etc. In Saudi Arabia, princes from the royal family and powerful administrative spheres have also benefited from large financial redistribution by the state. Today, due to the modernisation trends of Iranian and Saudi societies, this social pact is becoming more fragile. The changing demographic patterns highlight these social changes. In Iran, the fertility rate (the number of children a woman can expect to bear during her lifetime) has decreased from an average of 6.5 for 1980–1985 to 2 for 2005– 2010, and in Saudi Arabia from 6.2 to 3.69 These changes can be explained by higher education levels and reflect a complete change of values, or weltangschauung (the view of the world), in both countries.70 This means that clientelism is no longer accepted by large parts of society. In Iran, sociological analysis reveals that there is demand for a change from a relations-based society to a rules-based society.71 Young people in both countries also reject this social pact. During the first quarter of 2013, the unemployment rate in Iran was officially estimated at 12.4%.72 But this does not give a true measure of the unemployment problem in Iran (someone who works one hour per week is not considered unemployed). Unemployment is affecting young people in large numbers as, due to demographic trends, at least 600,000 people join the labour market every year. In Saudi Arabia, the lack of skilled young Saudis led to an unemployment rate of 30% for 15–29 year olds at the end of 2012.73 To create more jobs in both countries, the social pact must be re-engineered from the logic of wealth redistribution towards the logic of wealth creation. The policy of creating public-sector jobs by increasing the size of the public sector must change to a policy of promoting private-sector development. These changes are gradually taking place in both

69 70

71 72

73

United Nations Development Report, http://hdr.undp.org/en [Consulted 13 February 2014]. For an analysis of the change in Iran’s demographic behaviour following the Islamic Revolution, see Marie Ladier-Fouladi (2003). Population et politique en Iran: de la monarchie à la République islamique. Paris: Inst. National d’Études Démographiques; for a study of the societal changes in Iran following the Islamic Revolution, see Thierry Coville (2007). Iran, la révolution invisible. Paris: La Découverte. Fariba Adelkhah (2000). Being Modern in Iran. New York: Columbia University Press. Again, the sanctions are one of the factors that explain the large numbers of unemployed people in Iran, but they are not the only cause. The redistributive nature of the economic system is the main cause of unemployment in Iran. See Thierry Coville (2012). La suppression des subventions en Iran: une révolution économique? Op. Cit. International Monetary Fund (2013). Saudi Arabia: selected issues. Washington D.C.: IMF Country Report 13/203, July 2013.

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Thierry Coville

countries,74 but further reforms would suggest deep transformations of the ‘old’ social pact, as described previously. Other social groups can feel discriminated by this social pact too. Some provinces where there are Sunni majorities, such as Sistan–Baluchestan, Western Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, are lagging in terms of literacy rates (Table 5). This may have been caused by a lack of public investment in these provinces.75 Ethnic and religious minorities in Iran (who are not part of the Persian–Shia majority) are also not getting a fair share in this economic system, as these groups live in the less-industrialised provinces of Iran: Sunni Baloutchs in Sistan–Baluchestan; Sunni Kurds in Western Azerbaijan, Lorestan and Kordestan; Arabs in Khuzestan etc. (Table 6). Nevertheless, one should also consider that even the most backwards provinces in terms of economic development have also been affected by the modernisation trends. In 2010, in Sistan–Baluchestan, more than half of the university students were female (Table 7). In Saudi Arabia, economic neglect of the Eastern province where the Shia minority lives and the main oil fields are located even led to large protests between 2011 and 2013.76 Table 5. Literacy rates in the provinces of Iran in 2006 (%)

74 75 76

62

Tehran

91.3

Semnan

88.7

Yazd

88.1

Esfahan

87.5

Fars

86.6

Bushehr

86.4

Khorasan-e-Razavi

86.2

Qom

86.2

Qazvin

85.7

For Saudi Arabia, see Steffen Hertog (2011). Princes, Brokers and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia. Op. Cit.; privatisation is part of Hassan Rouhani’s economic programme. See ‘Willingness to cooperate between the economic team of Rohani and the private sector’, Op. Cit. See Thierry Coville (2009). ‘Les inégalités fragilisent la République islamique’, Alternatives Internationales, 43. Frederic Wherey (2013). The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Washington D.C.: Carnegie endowment for International Peace, June 2013. See http://carnegieendowment.org/files/eastern_saudi_uprising.pdf [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Mazandaran

85

Total

84.6

Markazi

83.9

Khuzestan

83.6

Gilan

83.1

Kerman

82.8

Hamedan

82.6

Chaharmahal–Bakhtiari

82.5

Hormozgan

82.4

Kermanshah

82.2

Golestan

82.1

Ilam

82.1

Kohgiluyeh–Boyerahmad

81.7

Zanjan

81.7

East Azerbaijan

81.6

Lorestan

81.1

South Khorasan

81.1

Ardebil

80

North Khorasan

79.1

West Azerbaijan

77.8

Kordestan

77.4

Sistan–Baluchestan

68

Source: Statistical Centre of Iran

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Thierry Coville

Table 6. Number of manufacturing establishments with 10 or more workers/1,000 inhabitants in the provinces of Iran, 2009

64

Semnan

1.57

Qazvin

0.63

Markazi

0.47

Qom

0.44

Esfahan

0.42

Yazd

0.41

Tehran

0.28

Chaharmahal–Bakhtiari

0.26

Mazandaran

0.24

Ardebil

0.23

East Azerbaijan

0.22

Gilan

0.21

Hamedan

0.21

South Khorasan

0.20

Khorasan-e-Razavi

0.20

Zanjan

0.20

Golestan

0.16

Fars

0.16

Kermanshah

0.14

Hormozgan

0.12

West Azerbaijan

0.12

Bushehr

0.12

Ilam

0.11


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Khuzestan

0.10

North Khorasan

0.10

Kordestan

0.09

Kohgiluyeh–Boyerahmad

0.07

Lorestan

0.06

Kerman

0.06

Sistan–Baluchestan

0.04

Source: Statistical Centre of Iran Table 7. Percentage of students who are female in the provinces of Iran, 2010

Female students (%)

Khuzestan

63.6

Lorestan

61.2

Chaharmahal–Bakhtiari

60.7

Fars

59.8

Ilam

59.4

Hormozgan

59.1

Esfahan

57.7

Kermanshah

57.6

Hamedan

57.6

North Khorasan

57.3

Kerman

57.2

Bushehr

56.9

Qazvin

56.9

South Khorasan

56.6

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Thierry Coville

Khorasan-e-Razavi

56.0

Total country

55.9

Gilan

55.7

Zanjan

55.7

Kohgiluyeh–Boyerahmad

55.5

Tehran

55.4

Ardebil

55.4

Markazi

55.1

Golestan

54.8

Kordestan

54.4

Semnan

53.4

Yazd

53.3

East Azerbaijan

52.3

Mazandaran

51.7

West Azerbaijan

51.4

Sistan–Baluchestan

50.4

Qom

48.9

Source: Statistical Centre of Iran

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Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

The ‘old social pact’ is largely criticised in both societies due to modernisation trends, economic discrimination and economic inefficiency. However, the fact that the modernisation trends of Iranian society seem to be more pronounced than those of Saudi Arabia (looking at demographic figures), combined with the ‘relative’ flexibility of the Iranian political system, could lead observers to believe that peaceful change is more probable in Iran. In conclusion, it is clear that there is a real economic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s economy has a prominent place in the world oil market as the only producer able to significantly increase its production if necessary, which has led to a strategic partnership with the US. As Saudi Arabia has been able to increase its oil production since 2011 to compensate for the lower production levels of Iranian oil, the country was very important to the success of the sanctions that have recently crippled the Iranian economy. Saudi Arabia has also been using its sovereign wealth fund in a consistent way to consolidate its geopolitical relations with the US. There is also an economic competition between Iran and Qatar. Qatar has been much more successful than Iran in developing its natural-gas production and exports. This has led to Qatari economic success and global soft power—through the use of its sovereign wealth fund. On the other hand, one can see that there is perhaps more economic resilience in the Iranian economy. Iran, under pressure due to the sanctions, has been able to develop its non-oil sector at a much quicker pace than Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the modernisation of Iranian society is a real asset that could lead to a more efficient and privatised economic system. ‘Last but not least’, the possibility of a new geopolitical alliance between Iran and the United States could have far-reaching economic implications, which could benefit Iran in its quest for regional supremacy.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Thierry Coville is a research fellow at IRIS, the French research centre for international and strategic studies, and professor of economics at Novancia, a business school belonging to the Paris Chamber of Commerce. He was a research fellow in the French Institute of Research in Iran from 1991 to 1994 and an associated research fellow in the Iran Department of the National Centre for Scientific Research from 1991 to 2006. He worked as an economist in the Centre of Forecasting at the Paris Chamber of Commerce from 1996 to 2006. He was also the editor-in-chief of the magazine of the Paris Chamber of Commerce, specialising in international affairs. He has published a large number of articles and books on Iranian affairs, including L’économie de l’Iran islamique: entre ordre et désordres, L’Harmattan (2002); Perspectives Iran, Nord Sud Export (2002); L’Iran: la révolution invisible, La Découverte (2007). He has also consulted for firms interested in Middle East markets.

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Thierry Coville

ABSTRACT The competition for regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia has an economic dimension. Saudi Arabia has been able to increase its oil production since 2011 to compensate for the lower output of Iranian oil production, and was very important to the success of the sanctions that recently crippled the Iranian economy. There also exists an economic competition between Iran and Qatar. Qatar has been much more successful than Iran in developing its natural-gas exports. Yet Iran, under pressure due to the sanctions, has been more successful than Saudi Arabia in diversifying its economy and developing its non-oil exports. Moreover, the modernisation of Iranian society could lead to a more efficient and privatised economic system in the country. Last but not least, the possibility of a new geopolitical alliance between Iran and the United States could benefit the Iranian economy.

KEYWORDS Oil, natural gas, non-oil exports.

‫امللخص‬ ‫يأخذ التنافس بني إيران و اململكة العربية السعودية من أجل التفوق اإلقليمي بعدا إقتصاديا قويا؛ إذ‬ ‫ لتلعب‬،‫ لتعويض اإلنخفاض يف اإلنتاج اإليراين‬2011 ‫إستطاعت هذه األخرية الزيادة من إنتاجها للنفط سنة‬ ‫ و يحدث كذلك‬.‫بذلك دورا حاسام يف العقوبات التي شددت الخناق يف اآلونة األخرية عىل اإلقتصاد اإليراين‬ ‫تنافس إقتصادي بني إيران و قطر التي تعرف نجاحا أكرب من األوىل يف مجال تطوير صادرات الغاز الطبيعي؛‬ ،‫ فإن إيران قد أحرزت نجاحا أكرب من اململكة العربية السعودية يف تنويع إقتصادها‬،‫ من جهة أخرى‬،‫لكن‬ ‫ أكرث من ذلك ميكن للتحديث الذي‬.‫ألنها إستطاعت تطوير صادراتها الغري النفطية تحت ضغط العقوبات‬ ‫مييز املجتمع اإليراين أن يقود إىل تحوالت مهمة نحو نظام إقتصادي مخوصص و أكرث نجاعة يف البالد‬ ‫ ميكن للتحالف الجيوسيايس ما بني إيران و الواليات املتحدة األمريكية أن يكون مفيدا‬،‫أخريا و ليس آخرا‬. .‫لإلقتصاد اإليراين‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ الصادرات الغري النفطية‬،‫ الغاز الطبيعي‬،‫النفط‬

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MEDIATION IN THE FACE OF SECTARIANISM Oliver McTernan

The dangers of sectarianism

W

riting in the Financial Times in November 2013, prior to the agreement reached between Iran and the international community on curbing the former’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief, David Gardner expressed the hope that such an accord ‘would help to drain the poison of sectarian strife’77 in the Middle East. His argument was that given the intensity of the bloodletting, there is more to what we are witnessing in Syria than what some would say is ‘merely an interstate struggle for regional power between Saudi Arabia and Iran’.78 According to Gardner, this is a primordial struggle: a Sunni–Shia subplot. The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, seems to have made a similar analysis: that the Syrian conflict risks having a long-term negative impact on relations within the region. He warned the Istanbul Forum at the beginning of October that ‘ethnic and sectarian identity politics that are based on shallow geopolitical interests will usher in a period of medieval darkness in the region’. ‘It is a scenario’, he claimed, ‘that will lead to a “clash within the civilization” that will be more detrimental than a “clash of civilizations” [and] is the disaster scenario where everybody loses’. The only alternative, he declared, is ‘to transform their region into a space of peace, stability and welfare by meeting along common values and interests’.79 The question that both these analyses present is whether or not theological differences are a direct causal factor of regional or communal conflict, and if so, what is the ultimate goal of mediation in such conflicts? It is often argued, especially by secularists, that after years of religio-political conflict, progress and pluralism took root in Europe only when the Treaty of Westphalia removed religion from the international agenda and the Enlightenment drew a clear division between the realms of religious and political authority. In contrast, Muslim scholars argue that progress and pluralism advanced furthest in many Muslim societies when religion and politics were deeply integrated, and tyranny and injustice arose largely as a result of the sidelining and subsequent exploitation of religion for social and political purposes. I believe there is an element of truth in both these positions, however the relationship between religion and conflict is much more complex.

77 78 79

David Gardner (2013). ‘Accord would help to drain the poison of sectarian strife’, Financial Times, 10 November 2013. Ibidem. Verda Ozer (2013). ‘Farewell from President Gul to the Clash of Civilizations thesis’, The Daily News, 8 October 2013.


Oliver McTernan

Religion matters In his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington argues that in the post-Cold War era, cultural and religious differences replaced ideology as the more probable cause of conflict. The old divisions of the First, Second and Third Worlds, drawn up along ideological lines, gave way to new civil differences, which could prove even more menacing. Nationalism and communism are essentially artificially constructed belief systems, whereas culture—the defining factor in a civilisation, Huntington argues—is about identity itself. It shapes the basic perceptions that people have about life and their understanding of their relationships with God, each other, authority and the state. The differences between the major cultures that are re-emerging as key factors in the reshaping of the contemporary world are more profound than those created by the discarded ideologies of the 20th century. Huntington accepts that people can and do redefine their identities, but his basic premise is that: ‘Civilisations are nonetheless meaningful entities, and while the lines between them are seldom sharp, they are real’.80 This is particularly true of religion, which he regards as ‘possibly the most profound difference that can exist between people’.81 His second theory is that globalisation created greater opportunity for interaction between these diverse civilisations, making people conscious of their differences and, as a result, more anxious about where they fit into this new global design. His conclusion is that the possibility of conflict, especially along what he describes as the ‘fault lines’ where different civilisations meet and have to compete for resources and influence, is therefore greatly heightened. Huntington gives particular attention to the role of Islam in the remaking of the world order. He refutes the argument that the West does not have a problem with Islam itself, only with violent Islamist extremists. Relations between Islam and Christianity have often been ‘stormy’, he maintains, with Islam the only civilisation that has twice threatened the survival of the West. The cause of what he sees as an ‘ongoing pattern of conflict’ is deeper than any transitory phenomena and is rooted, he believes, in the nature of the two religions and the civilisations based on them. Missionary in nature, both Christianity and Islam aim to convert non-believers to their version of ‘the one true faith’. ‘From its origins’, Huntington argues, ‘Islam expanded by conquest and, when the opportunity existed, Christianity did also’.82

An alternative analysis Whilst others would acknowledge there can be a religious factor in many conflicts, few political and social scientists consider religion a serious enough actor to merit particular 80 81 82

70

Samuel P. Huntington (1997). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 43. Ibidem, p. 254. Idem, p. 211.


Mediation in the Face of Sectarianism

interest in their research. They offer paradigms that reflect the reductionist approach to conflict, prevalent within the social and political sciences. Reductionists always seek the simplest explanation for conflict: religion is considered to be a redundant factor in life, an epiphenomenon that is incapable of having its own independent impact on the social and political level, and therefore does not merit being taken seriously as a real cause. To focus on religious motives, many political and social scientists would argue, is to risk masking the real cause, which they claim is more likely to be a mix of grievance and political ambition. Paul Collier and Ted Gurr, for example, consider that grievance or greed alone are at the root of contemporary civil conflicts, not some ancient hatreds or religion-shaped identity. Jack Snyder, meanwhile, claims the rush to democracy that was promoted in the 1990s is greatly to blame for the increase in conflict. These theories provide important insights, but hardly explain what Gardner described as the ‘intensity of the bloodletting’ seen on the streets of Syria and Iraq. It is true that economic and political discrimination, injustice and unequal access to scarce essential resources are genuine causes of many ethnic and nationalistic regional conflicts we have witnessed over the past two decades, but they do not fully explain the hatred reflected in the rhetoric and actions of some of the key protagonists. The promotion of democracy, power sharing and economic growth will undoubtedly help to lessen the likelihood of ethnic or religious conflict in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society. Yet these factors in themselves are insufficient to guarantee against the kind of violence that is motivated solely by religious conviction, which justifies killing in the name of a higher cause. History shows that religion has always demonstrated a propensity for violence, regardless of the social and political conditions of its devotees.

Religious ambivalence Given the secular, reductionist understanding of the causes of conflict and the ambivalence, past and present, of the world’s different religious traditions towards the use of violence, it should come as no surprise to us that in the immediate aftermath of September 11 we witnessed a coming together of liberal commentators, religious leaders and politicians— all of whom were keen to exonerate religion from any form of responsibility for what had happened. At the time, it reminded me of the response to the first outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In 1970, church leaders were united in declaring that, whatever may be the causes, religion was not to blame. Liberal and academic opinion endorsed this view, pointing to Britain’s colonial record in Ireland as the real explanation for the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It took several hundred deaths before an inter-church working party finally acknowledged that religious identity and centuries of unchallenged sectarianism were, and for that matter still are, a real issue in Northern Ireland. The eagerness of religious leaders to repudiate and disclaim atrocities committed by their co-religionists is no doubt prompted by an understandable fear that violence linked

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Oliver McTernan

to religion portrays a distorted image of their faith. The scapegoating of the perpetrators, by labelling them as political criminals or misguided fanatics, has become a common mechanism used by leaders of all faiths to protect what they believe to be the purity and integrity of their religion. The denial that there is a problem, be it conscious or unconscious, is in itself part of the problem. It allows religious leaders to circumvent the fact that all the main faith traditions have a violent and bloody record, which needs to be acknowledged and addressed to avoid the risk of repetition. Today’s faith-identity linked violent activists have numerous exemplars within their own faith traditions that provide the kind of religious sanction they need to justify their use of violence. Reactions that either over exaggerate or underplay the role of religion in conflict fail to do justice to the complexity of faith-associated violence. While claims that we are witnessing a rejection of modernity and globalisation, or the pursuit of a kind of ‘apocalyptic nihilism’, are partial truths that fail to address the core of the problem, which lies within how these militants perceive their religion and, in particular, how they understand the process of revelation that lies behind their sacred texts. Whatever their particular religious beliefs and customs, today’s faith-inspired violent activists hold in common the belief that their scriptural or foundational texts were dictated verbatim by a divine authority, and as such are beyond interpretation. The word as it is written must be obeyed. The fact that they are always selective in their choice of texts and tend to focus on passages that underscore their exclusive claim to truth and superiority over others, whilst ignoring passages that stress the universal nature of divine love and compassion, seems not to perturb them. A man named Vivekananda, a Western-educated disciple of the 19th century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, said whilst addressing the Parliament of Religions (an assembly representing various religious bodies) in Chicago on 11 September 1893: ‘Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it time and again with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair’.83 A century earlier, the French philosopher Voltaire had reached a similar conclusion. Acutely aware of the injustices and cruelty committed in the name of religion, he concluded from his reading of history that ‘the differences between religions constituted the single most important cause of strife in the world’.84 A historical overview of the world’s mainstream religious traditions highlights how, without exception, each faith community—when under threat of extinction or given the

83 84

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Cited by Kana Mitra (1990). Outsiders–Insiders: Hindu Attitudes Toward Non-Hindus, in Leonard J. Swidler and Paul Mojzes (eds). Attitudes of Religions and Ideologies Toward the Outsider: the Other. Lewiston, New York: E. Mellen Press, p. 113. Voltaire and Simon Harvey (2000). Treatise on Tolerance. Cambridge, UK, New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 9.


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opportunity to expand—has interpreted its fundamental teachings to accommodate the changing circumstances, sanctioning the use of violence to protect and secure its own sectarian interests. In each faith tradition, one can find sufficient ambiguity in its founding texts and stories to justify killing for the glory of God. Each tradition has also its heroes who saw themselves as acting on divine authority when they plotted the destruction of those whom they perceived to be enemies of God. Today’s religious extremists can find their rationale for inflicting terror in the name of their god in the ambivalence towards violence that is be found in each faith tradition. In this article, I will focus by way of example on Christianity and Islam.

The Christian dilemma It is true that the Christian scriptures portray Jesus as a messiah who rejects the sword: ‘Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ he tells Peter, who tried to resist the group that had come to arrest Jesus (Matthew 26:52). Neither does he make claim to political power: ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews’, he tells Pilate, the Roman governor (John 18:36). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is even more explicit on rejecting violence: ‘You have heard that it was said to people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement”. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement’ (Matthew 5:21).85 The Letter to the Romans endorses Jesus’s non-violent teaching by counselling against taking revenge and articulating the ideal that evil should be overcome by good (Romans 12:21). The founding texts are not, however, without ambiguity. The image of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers as he drove them from the temple (Matthew 21:12); his words: ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34) and ‘If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one’ (Luke 22:36); as well as the violent images in the Book of Revelation, such as the four angels who were released ‘to kill a third of mankind’ (9:15), have led some to question the non-violent credentials of the Christian scriptures. It has even been suggested by some that it was Jesus’s sympathy for the Zealots’ cause that gave the Romans reason to execute him.86 But, despite the apparent ambiguities in the texts, there is clear evidence that for at least the first century and a half of their existence, Christians adopted a strongly pacifist approach, condemning the use of violence in any situation. War and military service were regarded as totally incompatible with Christian beliefs.

85 See The Holy Bible, New International Version. 86 David Little (1991). ‘Holy War’ Appeals and Western Christianity: A reconsideration of Bainton’s Approach in Just War and Jihad, in John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson (eds.). Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions. New York: Greenwood Press, footnote 7.

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It was the fifth century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo who attempted to put a positive spin on the morality of war, seeing it as an unavoidable necessity in checking evil in a fallen world. His sanctioning of violence had a profound influence on shaping the Christian attitude to the use of force in the post-Constantine era. It did not, though, totally eclipse the uncompromising Gospel message of non-violence. In the eighth century, for example, the Synod of Ratisbon expressed an unequivocal condemnation of clergy participating in any kind of warfare. Eusebius’s concept of a two-track vocation, lay and clerical, with higher expectations and moral codes of conduct applying to the clergy, had clearly become deeply rooted in the Christian psyche. It was a compromise that allowed the Church to function as an institution in the real world while at the same time maintaining some form of witness to the high ideals of the Sermon on the Mount. By the latter part of the 11th century, there is evidence to suggest that the pacifist mood of the pre-Constantine Church was reasserting itself. Canonists and papal courtiers alike were outspoken in their opposition to the sanctioning of violence and the use of force for whatever reason. Cardinal Peter Damiani wrote that: ‘In no circumstances is it licit to take up arms in the defence of the faith of the universal church; still less should men rage in battle for its earthly and transitory goods’. Cardinal Humbert condemned the use of force against heretics, claiming that Christians who used the sword in this way themselves became hardened in the ways of violence.87 In light of this clear reassertion of pacifism, both in practice and thought, it seems incongruous that Pope Urban II should have used the same occasion in which he officially promulgated the Truce of God as a law of the Church to launch the First Crusade, a holy war aimed ostensibly at regaining the holy places from infidel control. Urban II’s sermon at the Council of Claremont in 1095 marked a turning point, a new era in papal-sanctioned brutality.

The Crusades: a radical shift towards violence It was Urban II’s predecessor, Gregory VII, who masterminded the radical shift in official Church teaching on the use of violence. Driven by the desire to impose a Christian-dominated order on a fragmented world, Gregory VII sanctioned aggressive warfare, provided of course that it was waged under the banner of St. Peter. He identified the spiritual combat against the flesh—in which St. Paul encouraged all Christians to engage—with an earthly warfare that was undertaken for the sake of Christ. What had previously been regarded as sinful, even when prosecuted for noble reasons, became meritorious when men ‘dedicated their swords to the service of Christ and of Saint Peter’.88 Gregory VII himself had planned to lead a Christian army, ostensibly to relieve Byzantine87 88

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Herbert Edward John Cowdrey (1976). The Genesis of the Crusades: The Springs of Western Ideas of Holy War, in Thomas Patrick Murphy and Ohio State University, Columbus, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The Holy War: [papers]. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, p. 19. Ibidem, p. 20.


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rite Christians from the infidel threat. His real motive was probably to re-impose papal supremacy on the Christian world, divided after the schism of 1054. Although he failed to mobilise adequate support to fulfil his personal ambition, his reformulation of traditional Christian thinking on warfare—the thought that the sword could be used to further the cause of Christ—gained sufficient hold on the Christian imagination to ensure a robust response to Urban II’s call to arms to liberate the holy places a decade later. Few in late 11th century Europe would have had any first-hand knowledge of Muslims or an awareness of the circumstances in which Eastern Christians lived to warrant such a response. The Muslim world, in fact, was tolerant of other faiths—provided they accepted a lesser role in society and paid their taxes. Therefore, there were undoubtedly other factors that contributed to the popular response to Urban II’s appeal. European society at that time was experiencing demographic changes, with all the internal social tensions that inevitably follow. Population growth, the development of the knight class in search of social mobility, and the increased enforcement of law and order meant that warriors and those wanting to climb the social ladder had to look elsewhere in their need for land or new outlets for their innate sense of aggression and the practice of their martial skills. These factors, however, would have been insufficient in themselves to persuade men to endure the sacrifices they would have to make by embarking on a Crusade had it not been for the religious mood, which Urban II identified and tapped into successfully. In his article ‘The Genesis of the Crusades: The Springs of Western Ideas of Holy War’, Herbert Edward John Cowdrey identifies that mood as 11th century Europe’s preoccupation with sin and penance. At a time when the Church’s penitential system was in a state of disorder and confusion, people were never sure whether or not their penance could gain them full remission for their sins.89 The only two assured ways of receiving forgiveness until then had been to enter a monastery or go on an unarmed pilgrimage. The Church was now offering a third way: warriors could gain remission for their sins by doing what they were good at—and killing or being killed in God’s name would assure them of a place in paradise. Whatever high motives that deluded them, by legitimising the use of the sword in God’s name, Gregory VII and Urban II unleashed a destructive force that over the following three and a half centuries inflicted unspeakable human suffering on anyone who had the misfortune of being identified as an alien or infidel within or beyond the boundaries of Western Christianity. Within a year of Urban VII’s sermon at Claremont, Jews living in the Rhineland became victims of this new wave of religious fanaticism. In later years, Byzantine-rite Christians were subjected to the same barbarities as their Muslim and Jewish neighbours. Sir Steven Runciman’s description of the Crusaders’ siege of Alexandria compares to what happened in the two other great centres of belief, culture and trade that were also plundered, Jerusalem and Constantinople:

89

Idem, p. 21.

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They spared no one. The native Christians and Jews suffered as much as the Moslems; and even the European merchants settled in the city saw their factories and storehouses ruthlessly looted. Mosques and tombs were raided and their ornaments stolen or destroyed; churches too were sacked… Houses were entered, and householders who did not immediately hand over all their possessions were slaughtered with their families.90 The Crusaders’ record of barbarity could easily lead one to question whether these holy warriors were motivated more by a lust for violence and loot than any sense of religious idealism. Opportunistic behaviour and greed may well have overshadowed the religious intent of their mission at times, yet an analysis of the Crusaders’ songs and writings demonstrates that, at least initially, a religious mindset motivated them and legitimised their cruel behaviour. An anonymous knight put on record his own motives for embarking on the First Crusade, attributing his decision to fight to ‘a great stirring of the heart throughout the Frankish lands, so that if any man really wanted to follow God and faithfully to bear the cross after him, he could make no delay in taking the road to the Holy Sepulchre as quickly as possible’.91 The Crusader clearly saw himself as a pilgrim, albeit armed, who had undergone an inner conversion that led him ‘to join the sacred army of God’s saints’.

The remnant of the pacifism of early Christianity Not all Western Christians endorsed the belief in divinely sanctioned violence. One notable exception was Francis of Assisi, who in 1219 succeeded in engaging al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, in dialogue. Francis had hoped to bring an end to the senseless killing between Christians and Muslims by persuading the sultan to convert to Christianity. Although he failed in his immediate goal, Francis’s presence and manner had such an influence on al-Kamil that the sultan later sent a messenger proposing a truce, during which time he was prepared to explore with the Christian Crusaders the possibility of peace.92 The Crusaders agreed to the truce but declined the sultan’s offer to discuss peace, presumably because they believed themselves to be engaged on a sacred mission that did not allow for such compromises. Later, in the same century that Francis embarked on his peace mission, the English Franciscan and scientist Roger Bacon expressed similar beliefs that the Crusades were ‘cruel and useless’ and the infidel would be more open to

90 91 92

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Quoted by Malcolm Billings (2000). The Crusades. Stroud: Tempus in association with the British Library, p. 153. Gesta Francorum quoted by Herbert Edward John Cowdrey (1976). The Genesis of the Crusades: The Springs of Western Ideas of Holy War, Op. Cit., p. 11. Adrian House (2000). Francis of Assisi. London: Chatto and Windus, pp. 208–213.


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conversion if Christians were less aggressive and predatory. A couple of centuries later, Erasmus—while not rejecting the principle of a just war—based his arguments in favour of pacifism on his understanding of the New Testament.

Islam and violence The religious justification for fighting given in the Koran is rooted in the historical injustice that was done to Muhammad and his followers when they were driven out of their homes in Mecca and deprived of their livelihood because of their belief in God. In principle, a Muslim was only permitted to fight to right an injustice, defend themselves and protect their religion from destructive forces: ‘Permission to fight is granted to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged, and Allah indeed has the power to help them. They are those who have been driven out of their homes unjustly only because they affirmed: Our Lord is Allah. If Allah did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated, would surely be destroyed’.93 The reward for fighting unrelentingly against disbelieving neighbours was the assurance of paradise: ‘Whoso fights in the cause of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, we shall soon give him a great reward’.94 In the real world of Arabia’s inter-clan warfare, however, it would appear that attack was considered the best form of defence, leading Muhammad and his followers to take the military initiative in order to ensure the survival of the umma or community of believers. The concept of jihad was always considered to be broader than military action. This is well illustrated in Muslim tradition. Muhammad himself emphasised the priority that should be given to the jihad of the heart, the struggle to purify oneself and submit wholly to God alone, when on returning from battle he told his companions: ‘This day we have returned from the minor jihad (war) to the major jihad (self-control and betterment)’.95 In the course of time, Muslim jurists acknowledged the different nuances in the struggle to submit to God’s will and that jihad could be performed with the heart, tongue, hands and sword. The jihad of the heart represented the individual’s personal struggle with evil. The jihad of the tongue and the hands represented the struggle to promote what is right and correct what is wrong. The jihad of the sword represented the struggle against the enemies of the faith: those unbelievers who rejected the message and rule of Islam.96 It was every Muslim’s duty to offer their wealth and, if necessary, their lives in this struggle. All Muslim men who were physically able to fight were expected to take part. The jihad of the sword,

93 94 95 96

Koran 22:40–41. Koran 4:75. Hassan Hathout (1996). Reading the Muslim Mind. Plainfield, Ind.: American Trust Publications, pp. 108–109. Ibidem.

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though, was regarded as a collective responsibility, and not one that should be undertaken by an individual believer acting alone. Depending upon the particular circumstances or the nature of the threat that needed to be thwarted, jihad could be employed as an offensive or defensive action. It was justified within the dar al-Islam (the territory of peace) when embarked upon to punish wrongdoing or eradicate the forces of disbelief—to defend the faith and protect the unity and peace of the umma from the threat of apostasy, dissent, schism and rebellion: Fight those from among the people of the Book who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor hold as unlawful that which Allah and His Messenger have declared as unlawful nor follow the true religion, and who have not yet made peace with you, until they pay the tax willingly and make their submission (Koran 9:29). It was also justified as a defensive measure against the endemic threat posed by the dar al-harb (the territory of war), those regions that were beyond the rule of Islam. Although it began as a non-violent means of achieving social and religious reform, the concept of jihad developed to sanction the use of the sword, as the Muslim community grew to be a political power on the Arabian Peninsula. In the early days of the community at Mecca, Muslims accepted insult and rejection in their efforts to convert their fellow citizens to a new spiritual vision through their preaching and charity. It was after the hajj, the emigration to Medina, that Muslims were given permission to fight, essentially to right the injustice that had been done to them.97 The order to fight in the ‘cause of Allah’ was given when it was felt that the survival of the community was under threat from hostile neighbours. The sanctioning of a more pro-active use of the sword was justified when non-believers had dishonoured their pledges with Muslims. It was at this stage that jihad became instrumental in the spreading of Islam, and the time-honoured aggressiveness of the Arabian tribes that now formed the Muslim community became focused on the world of the non-believer. The relationship between the dar-al-Islam and the dar-al-harb, the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, was defined in terms of jihad, or a state of war, which applied even when hostilities were suspended. As the practice of war developed, becoming (for some at least) a way of life, so too did the rules governing the conduct of war. Jurists and scholars differed on the circumstances and to whom these rules applied but agreed that their prime aim was to limit violence and avoid the risk of acting out of anger or revenge. As war was a collective responsibility, it was to be declared only by the caliph or imam. No war was to be started, however, before

97

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James Turner Johnson (1997). The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, p. 60.


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the enemy was invited to convert to Islam or enter into a peace agreement. Summary executions, the torturing of prisoners, mutilating the bodies of the dead, the use of poisoned weapons, the killing or molesting of non-combatants, rape and sexual molestation, ethnic cleansing, the devastation of crops and the destruction of religious, medical and cultural institutions were outlawed.98 From its earliest history, the unity of Islam was threatened by a series of internal revolts and by those who believed they were justified in using violence to promote their self-proclaimed mission to purify their religion from the malpractices of leaders who had usurped power. Driven by the convictions that ‘the subject’s duty of obedience lapses where the command is sinful’ and ‘there must be no obedience to a creature against his Creator’,99 these rebellious groups, led frequently by charismatic leaders, perceived themselves to be acting virtuously by killing the unrighteous. Tyrannicide was looked upon as a religious duty. In the long run, however, these extremist groups lacked the organisation and popular support to withstand the military power and authority of the established leadership. A notable exception were the Assassins, whose terrorist activities spanned the best part of two centuries (1090–1275) and who only ceased to be a threat to the Sunni establishment when the Mongol invasion provided Baybars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, with an opportunity to seize their network of mountain strongholds in Syria.

The Westphalia and Enlightenment effect The social and political milieu can, and often does, provide the trigger for sectarian violence. However this, I would argue, is not necessarily the fundamental cause for religious intolerance and violence in the world today. The 17th century Treaty of Westphalia may have succeeded in putting an end to pitched battles over beliefs that had marred interstate relationships in Europe for most of that century. The claim that it removed once and for all the influence of religion from international politics is more questionable. It could be argued that by domesticating or nationalising belief, the motto being that the faith of the ruler was the faith of the realm or state, Westphalia in fact turned religion into a powerful social agent, which was used to enforce the cultural identity of the colonisers, as European princes and governments expanded their rule to embrace the countries of Africa and Asia. Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka and the BJP Hindu nationalist party in India argue British colonial policies that favoured one group over another, a practice aimed at restricting the religious hegemony that they enjoyed prior to colonisation, ultimately sowed the seeds of their countries’ present conflicts. 98 99

Hilmi M. Zawati (2001). Is Jihad a Just War?: War, Peace, and Human Rights under Islamic and Public International Law. Lewiston, New York: E. Mellen Press, pp. 40–45. Bernard Lewis (1995). Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 126–127.

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The impact of the Enlightenment may also have been over exaggerated in terms of conformation to the cultural norms and expectations of society. The phenomenon of believing without feeling a need to belong to a community or practice a particular faith makes it more difficult for social scientists to evaluate the real impact of religion on community or tribal life. To quote Alan Aldridge, the author of Religion in the Contemporary World, a Sociological Introduction, ‘Latent religiosity survives as a resource to be mobilised at times of crisis in the lives of individuals or the history of the society’.100

Religion and mediation Given that religion can be a causal factor in conflict, the question we need to explore is: can religion play the reverse role and help to mediate, manage and resolve conflict? The starting point, for me, is to acknowledge that theological differences rooted in firmly held dogmas are irreconcilable. On one level, inter-faith dialogue that fails to openly acknowledge these fundamental differences can be as much part of the problem as the solution. We have to learn to coexist with the cracks and not be tempted to paper over them. My Lisbon experience of living with a crack, caused by the 1755 earthquake, thought me this lesson. There is a risk of looking back and idolising past relationships—but there never has been a golden period. People of different faiths were tolerated so long as they knew their place within the established order. An unwritten social contract existed between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, where Christians were allowed to practice their faith and carry out works of charity provided they did not proselytise. To learn to live with our differences and not see the other as a threat or competitor calls for a real shift in mindset, a profound change in the understanding of ourselves and those who are different. We need to learn to think differently about the other and to actively promote a climate that allows for real interaction and the development of a genuine respect, despite our differences in belief and practice. We need to move beyond the sectarianism that can be engrained within religious communities. I recall meeting with Dr. Peter Shirlow of the University of Ulster to discuss research he had carried out in 2003 in neighbourhoods divided by so-called ‘peace lines’, physical barriers erected to keep neighbouring communities apart, which have increased in number since then. His research indicates that, since the peace process began, the gap between the two communities has widened, especially among the younger generation. He found that prejudice was so engrained on both sides that 68% of the 18–25 age group claim they never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the other community. His findings also revealed that 72% of all age groups refuse to use health centres located in areas dominated by the other religion, and 62% of unemployed people refuse to sign on

100 Alan Aldridge (2000). Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 3.

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at their local social-security office if it is located in what is seen to be the other’s territory. He told me that one of the main problems facing Northern Ireland is that everyone sees themselves as a victim of the other side and is unable to recognise that self as a perpetrator of violence and intimidation. The challenge, he believes, is to help people on each side see that they are both victims and perpetrators in the current divisions. The Irish School of Ecumenics report ‘Moving Beyond Sectarianism’, published in 2001, describes the pervasiveness of sectarianism at every level of Northern Irish society. It underlines the need to think about sectarianism as a systemic as well as a personal problem. ‘Sectarianism’, it concludes, ‘has become a system so efficient that it can take our sane and rational responses to a situation which it has generated and use them to further deepen sectarianism’.101 The example given is how people have responded to the violence over the years: the tendency has been to move from mixed residential areas to live ‘exclusively among our own’. The authors recognise that this is a perfectly understandable and blameless response but the unfortunate effect, they claim, is to reinforce sectarianism still further. What applied in Northern Ireland then is still applicable today in many parts of the world facing strife. People, the report found, approach sectarianism by drawing lines between themselves and others, and because they can always find people whose actions are worse than their own they can point to them as the real problem. The consequences of the dynamics of systemic sectarianism, the report claims, is that no one is ever responsible—‘the buck never stops passing’.102 Sectarianism can also feed on what the authors call ‘religiously motivated boundary maintenance’: people worship, are educated and marry almost exclusively within their own communities, with the intention not to be sectarian but to build strong communities. The result, nonetheless, according to the report, is ‘strengthening the sectarian divide’.103

The sectarian mindset A sectarian mindset is not a monopoly of the street or disadvantaged neighbourhoods, it is pervasive even at the highest level of religious leadership. Writing about the meeting of more than 2,000 religious leaders that was held in the United Nations building in New York, the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks says he found it easy to understand ‘why religion is as often a cause of conflict as it is of conciliation’. He criticises his fellow participants for their failure to rise above ‘the narrow loyalties of faith’, and says the peace spoken of was too often ‘peace on our terms’. The general message, he concludes, was: ‘Our faith speaks of peace; our holy texts praise peace; therefore, if only the world 101 Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg (2001). Moving Beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Columba Press, p. 12. 102 Ibidem, p. 13. 103 Idem, p. 14.

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shared our faith and our texts there would be peace’.104 John Stuart Mill’s argument that diversity should be nurtured and not merely endured, on the grounds of it leading to truth and human progress,105 appears to have been overshadowed by the climate of theological particularism (the belief that one group has exclusive possession of truth, knowledge and goodness that is universally applicable), which still shapes the outlook of many of today’s religious leaders.

Moving beyond tolerance Some would claim that religion can promote peace and coexistence in so far as it promotes tolerance of the other. The word ‘tolerance’ for many people today defines a positive attitude towards diversity, calling for respect and acceptance of those who think and act differently from oneself. The Latin roots of the word, meaning to endure or put up with the objectionable, indicate that tolerance, as it was originally defined, had more negative overtones. Far from embracing diversity and pluralism, Aquinas and others saw the willingness to permit or concede the practice of a religion they judged to be false as the lesser of two evils—since to act otherwise could possibly involve a greater evil. Even Locke endorsed ‘toleration’ only because he considered the ‘consequences of intolerance are a greater evil than the evil that is tolerated’. The original concept of tolerance prevails today, especially in religious circles. The 2003 edition of the New Catholic Encyclopaedia distinguishes between ‘personal’ tolerance (‘permitting others to hold and to put into practice views that diverge from one’s own’), which it endorses, and ‘doctrinal’ tolerance (‘permitting error to spread unopposed’), which it judges to be ‘reprehensible’. Even with its negative connotations, the traditional concept of tolerance, which allows for would-be warring communities to coexist side by side without violence, should not be undervalued. The achievement of ‘mere coexistence’, as it is sometimes disparagingly referred to, is no mean feat, especially in communities that have been marred by interethnic or inter-religious strife. The real threat to human existence presented by the face of intolerance today underscores the urgent need for religious communities in particular to re-evaluate their own attitudes towards diversity and pluralism. The French Catholic existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel believed that far from embattling people with negative attitudes towards others, a genuine religious experience or conviction mandates a person to be pro-active in defending the right of others to believe differently. He maintained that the ‘intense conviction’ a religious person experiences, which is so much part of who he or she is, should enable that person to empathise with another’s convictions, which are different but equally intense. This ability to identify or empathise 104 Jonathan Sacks (2002). The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. London, New York: Continuum, p. 9. 105 John Stuart Mill and Elizabeth Rapaport (1978). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., pp. 9 and 50.

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should lead believers to move beyond that state of passive acceptance usually referred to as tolerance.106

The right to be different To uphold and actively defend the right of others to make truth claims different from our own and act upon them, provided they are not detrimental to the rights and well-being of others, would be an important first step in taking people beyond ‘the sectarian milieu’ in which their own convictions have been formed. Robert Putnam judged education to be the key to counterbalancing the drift towards intolerance, which he found in American communities that were more religious in their make-up. I would agree that education could help to dispel the myths that allow others to be looked upon as outcasts or ‘demons’, but it is equally true that indoctrination, in the form of religious dogmatism based on absolute claims, can reinforce separatism and an intolerance of what is judged to be false. Respect for others and their conscientious beliefs and opinions is the framework for dialogue that allows for an honest exchange of conflicting ideas. High on the agenda of such exchanges should be a willingness to test truth claims that authorise a sense of exclusiveness or superiority over others. Equally high on that agenda should be a willingness to consider the reordering of the hierarchy or canon of beliefs that determine the faith and practice of each religious tradition. The affirmation of human life as a sacred experience or gift should take priority over what name we give to God or how we define our understanding of the divine. For the first time in our history, human beings have it within their power to extinguish the whole of life, and, in the process, cause grotesque disfiguration to the face of the globe. This awesome fact places a particular responsibility on those religious traditions that regard the whole of creation as a sacred gift to be cherished, and who believe that humans will be held accountable for their stewardship of the earth. Now is undoubtedly a defining moment in human history, which calls for an exceptional and imaginative response from the world’s religions. Whether they will be capable of responding to that challenge depends on the quality of religious leadership within the diverse traditions. The top-down approach is not sufficient: religious leaders need to have a depth of knowledge and spiritual maturity to engage their own faith communities at every level, in order to challenge the sectarian mindset that sees the other as less worthy of respect and therefore dispensable.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Oliver McTernan is the director and co-founder of Forward Thinking, a UK-based organisation that promotes better understanding between cultures and focuses on mediation in the MENA region. His book Violence in God’s Name: the Role of Religion in

106 Gabriel Marcel (1964). Creative Fidelity. New York: The Noonday Press, pp. 210–221.

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an Age of Conflict addresses the need to take the religious factor seriously in international efforts to address faith-fuelled identity conflicts.

ABSTRACT Religion can be a cause of conflict but, equally, it can be an important tool for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict. It can be a powerful force for integration or the cause of segregation and marginalisation. This is true regardless of the theological or ethnic differences that exist at global, regional or local levels. Faith imbues the whole life of a believer and, either consciously or unconsciously, helps shape their human response to the moral, social and political challenges they encounter every day. The challenge facing religious leadership today is to overcome the past and present ambivalence towards the use of violence that is prevalent in all the major religious traditions, and to help their adherents to recognise the need to live alongside and engage with the other, regardless of their theological differences.

KEYWORDS Religion, conflict, prevention, ambivalence, leadership

‫امللخص‬ ‫ لكن يف الوقت نفسه ميكنه أن يكون وسيلة يف غاية األهمية لتجنب‬،‫ميكن للدين أن يتحول إىل سبب للنزاع‬ ‫ و ذلك‬،‫النزاعات و تدبريها و حلها ؛ و ميكنه أن يكون مبثابة قوة هائلة لإلدماج أو للتفرقة و تهميش اآلخر‬ ‫ و يؤثر‬.‫بغض النظر عن اإلختالفات الالهوتية و اإلثنية القامئة عىل املستوى العاملي و الجهوي و املحيل‬ ‫ يف صياغته لجواب إنساين عىل التحديات األخالقية‬،‫ بوعي و بدونه‬،‫ و يساعده‬،‫الدين يف كل حياة املؤمن‬ ‫ هذا و يواجه رجال الدين اليوم تحدي تجاوز التعارض‬.‫و اإلجتامعية و السياسية التي تواجهه كل يوم‬ ‫ و مساعدة أتباعها‬،‫ الذي يسود يف كل التقاليد الكربى لألديان‬،‫بني املايض و الحارض حول إستخدام العنف‬ .‫لإلعرتاف برضورة العيش املشرتك و اإلنتظام مع اآلخرين من دون أخذ يف اإلعتبار إلختالفاتهم الدينية‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ الزعامة‬،‫ التعارض‬،‫ الوقاية‬،‫ النزاع‬،‫الدين‬

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CONFESSIONALISM AND MODERNITY: THE ORIGINS OF THE SYRIAN PARADOX Alejandra Álvarez Suárez

T

he organisational system of Arab Islamic societies has been accurately described as a ‘mosaic’ made up of different confessional communities.107 This structural model, more than likely dating back to the urban organisation that already existed in the period before Islam, has been present since the beginnings of Muslim civilisation, demonstrated by the fact that it has withstood all the changes this society has undergone throughout the centuries. This tendency to organise into semi-autonomous confessional communities also stretches to non-Muslim groups that inhabit in the Levantine Arab countries, and who, in this particular aspect, were decidedly influenced by the contact with Islam.108 This Islamic method of organising society aimed to protect and distinguish between different religious groups by establishing, on the one hand, the superiority of Islam as a religion and its political pre-eminence,109 and on the other, ensuring the existence and autonomy of these communities, provided they did not interfere with the lives of Muslims or the stability and security of the state.110 The three principles behind this method of 107 Ira M. Lapidus (1973). ‘The Early Evolution of Muslim Urban Society’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 15, pp. 21–50. 108 When we talk of ‘semi-autonomous confessional groups’ we are referring to communities that have their own internal legislation and the freedom to manage matters related to the personal status of their members, and which also share urban space alongside other similar groups in terms of autonomy and structure. 109 Abdullah Saeed (1999). ‘Rethinking Citizenship Rights of the Non-Muslims in an Islamic State: Rashid al-Ghannushi’s Contributions to the Evolving Debate’, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 10 (3), pp. 308–309. 110 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Cam-


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organisation, originating from the Koran itself and with a tradition that dates back to the times of Muhammad, are the following: 1) the aforementioned superiority of Islam, 2) religious tolerance and 3) the stringent differentiation between communities.111 In their famous Koran commentaries, classic authors such as Muhammad al-Qurtubi (d. 1272) mentioned these guidelines and their legal repercussions.112 It is interesting to note how in the Arab countries that emerged from the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire—particularly, though not solely, the Syrian Arab Republic—this organisational religious system was preserved partially modified, coexisting with modern and Western legislation. In the legal structure of the Syrian state, this makes possible the combination of at times contradictory concepts, such as the state, nation, religion, secularism, religious community and citizenship. The pages that follow will explain the origin of this duality, which is positioned precisely in the late Ottoman Empire, during the period of reforms better known as the Tanzimat.

The organisation of religious communities in the Ottoman era The Ottoman governors, known for being eminently pragmatic in their principles and actions, always tended to respect the legal customs of groups of people incorporated into the empire, combining them with Islamic law and the absolutist tradition characteristic of their central Asian nomadic tradition.113 The pragmatism of the Ottoman government is easy to understand from the point of view of the social complexity that stemmed from the vastness and variety of the domains under the authority of the sultan. In any event, the organisation of religious communities, at least in the Arab provinces, followed the guidelines established by the sharia, although the conditions and circumstances could vary from one place to the next, depending on local uses or the governors’ attitude.114 This part of the empire continued to organise the religious communities with a taifa system, however this system would be greatly modified from the 18th century onwards, and particularly during the 19th century. The noun taifa is used in Arab documents to denominate the religious communities, especially the non-Muslim ones. It is a word with a particularly vague meaning, and is employed to designate any group of people that differ from the rest because of a particular trait—be it profession, language, religion or any other defining aspect linked to identity. The term taifa passed, virtually unaltered, into Ottoman Turkish (taife), maintaining the same meaning as in Arabic. bridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 64, 84. 111 Antoine Fattal (1995). Le statut légal des non-musulmans en pays d’Islam. Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, pp. 160–161. Also see Bernard Lewis (2002). Los judíos del Islam. Madrid: Letrúmero, pp. 19–20, 25. 112 Muhammad Abu Abd-Allah al-Qurtubi (2003). Al-Yami li-Ahkam al-Qur’an [The Compiler of the Judgements in the Koran], 20 vols. Riyadh: Dar Alim al-Kutub 1423 H/2003, pp. 44, 93. 113 Nicoara Beldiceanu (1989). L’Organisation de l’Empire Ottoman (xiv–xv siècles), in Robert Mantran (ed.). Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman. Paris: Arthème Fayard, p. 118. 114 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Op. Cit., p. 17.

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It is interesting to note discernible similarities between the professional classes and religious communities. In the Ottoman documents originating from Syria, both groups are called ‘taifas’ and share common traits, right down to the last detail: a) they are local; b) they have their own statutes for self-government, based on their uses, customs and traditional regulations; c) they possess their own autonomy with which to choose their own leaders and representatives; and d) they require the official sanction of the authorities of the state—after which the head or leader of the organisation becomes administrator, collector, governor and representative of the taifa, and may even make use of its civil power to do so.115 As already indicated, the Ottoman Empire maintained the traditional system of religious organisation that came from previous epochs. It even employed the same Arabic term to designate religious communities—remarkable for an administration as sophisticated as the Ottoman one, with such precise institutional vocabulary and certain very well defined functional institutions.116 This would suggest that it did not create an institution or specific policy in this respect. Many Western studies uphold the theory that, following the conquest of Constantinople (1453), Sultan Mehmed II Fatih introduced a system called ‘millet’, a word that came from the Arabic milla (and in Ottoman Turkish meant ‘nation or group of people with the same religion or language’),117 which would become an essential and characteristic part of the organisation of the empire from the outset. According to this idea, each religious community acknowledged by the Sublime Porte would receive the title of millet and be centrally governed by the respective supreme religious authority from Istanbul, named by the sultan to that end. Thus, from the beginning, the Ottoman Empire distinguished between the governing millet (namely, that pertaining to Sunni Muslims or millet-i hâkime/ millet-i islamiye) and the governed millet (milel-i mahkûme), that is, the rest of the religious groups. In current research, this theory of the millet tends to be considered erroneous, since the reasoning is based on an untimely interpretation of the use of this term in documents—as adequately demonstrated by Halil Inalcık and Benjamin Braude. The first of these authors suggested that the modern meaning of millet could have influenced the interpretation of the term in documents prior to the reforms of the 19th century,118 while Braude deemed the

115 Abdul-Karim Rafeq (1991). ‘Craft Organization, Work Ethics and the Strains of Change in Ottoman Syria’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 111 (3), pp. 499–502 and 506–507; Alejandra Álvarez (2013). Comunidades no musulmanas en un entorno musulmán. La pervivencia del modelo otomano en la actual Siria. Madrid: Cantarabia, pp. 80–82. 116 In documents prior to the 19th century, other terms from Arabic are also occasionally found to designate religious groups. This is the case with mahalle (district) and cemaat (congregation, religious community). See Bahadır Alkım, Nazime Antel and others (1997). Redhouse Türkçe-Osmanlıca İngilizce Sözlük [Redhouse Turkish-Ottoman English Dictionary]. Istanbul: SEV Matbaacılık ve Yayıncılık A. S, pp. 220, 720. 117 Ibidem, p. 777. 118 Halil Inalcık (1964). ‘R. H. Davison, Reform in the Ottoman Empire 1856–1876’, Belleten, Turk Tarih Kurumu, 28, pp. 791–793.

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system a ‘myth’, putting forward guidelines for the correct analysis of the sources in which the term millet is mentioned.119 All of this points to the millets—centralised as they were around Istanbul authorities, with the aim of grouping all citizens according to a religious criteria—being a progressive creation, which culminated in the 19th century. The formation of this new organisational system began in the 18th century with the so-called ‘Millet Wars’, in which there was a predominance of concerns over the growing interference by the West in non-Muslim religious groups at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, and the ambition of religious leaders in close proximity to the Sublime Porte, who took advantage of the circumstances to extend their power to the co-religionists within the empire. The conflict ended with the approval of Rum milleti and Ermeni milleti (the Byzantine and Armenian millets, respectively), but what had initially been limited to these two specific groups ended up spreading around all the communities, with the understanding that making use of their own religious identity could mean obtaining the title of millet and securing political advantage—given that such acknowledgement would open the door to the power game of the court.120

Towards the politicisation of religion It was during the Tanzimat, the series of reforms that began in the second third of the 19th century, that this millet policy reached its peak. Paradoxically, this epoch, which marked the beginning of the legal modernisation of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of secularism at its heart, was also when a system was established that granted new political power to religious communities. The Tanzimat were promoted with the aim of overcoming the crisis and decadence of the empire, through an essentially centralist policy and reforms that responded not to social demand but rather to an initiative of the governing elites. These reforms began with the Gülhane Decree in 1839, which gave rise to a set of measures: including the renewal of the legislation, the aggiornamento of bureaucracy and the army, and the end of the traditional vision, according to which Islam must have political and social pre-eminence. After Gulhane, Ottoman citizens benefited from the same rights and shared the same obligations, without distinctions of religion. The decree tacitly declared universal equality, thus going against the sharia and popular opinion.121 The refusal of the highest Sunni religious authority in the empire, the Seyhülislam, to endorse the decree (it 119 Benjamin Braude (1982). Foundation Myths of the Millet System, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds.). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vols. New York, London: Holmes & Meier Publishers, vol. 1, pp. 69–88. 120 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Op. Cit., pp. 61–65, 98–100, 134; Carter Vaughn Findley (2008). The Tanzimat, in Suraiya N. Faroqhi, Kate Fleet and Resat Kasaba (eds.). The Cambridge History of Turkey, 4 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 4, p. 28. 121 Kemal H. Karpat (1982). Millet and Nationality: The Root of the Incongruity of Nation and State in the Post-Ottoman Era, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds.). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vols. Op. Cit., vol. 1, p. 162.

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was standard practice to approve laws that were related to Islamic law) showed the unease with which these measures were welcomed. This epoch would see the start of tensions between politics and religion.122 It was, in fact, the Imperial Decree of 1856, known as Islahat Hattı Hümayun or the Imperial Decree of Reforms, which brought about insurmountable discordance, as it proposed bold measures of modernisation whilst establishing the continuation of religious separation. It appealed to common citizens and equality between Ottomans, without distinguishing between sex or religion, whilst at the same time sanctioning the millet as the organisational system of religious communities, thus confirming their rights and privileges and establishing that it was the communities themselves, via their religious representatives, who must manage individual personal status law regarding matters such as marriage, family, inheritance and filiation.123 Unfortunately, this initiative to modernise while maintaining the traditional status quo gave rise to three disagreeable circumstances regarding the survival of the empire: 1. On the one hand, the process was traumatic for the people, since the traditional social structure was suddenly dismantled. Many believed Westerners were ultimately responsible, as the reformist ideas went against the order inspired by the sharia.124 In some places this discontent exploded in the form of religious violence, as was the case with the 1860 massacre in Syria.125 2. On the other hand, the authority of the sultan became seriously compromised, since many Muslims started to consider him an undignified representative of religion.126 In Arab territories, this situation triggered a type of religious-based Arab nationalism that supported the creation of a purely Arab caliphate in contrast to the corrupt Padisah.127 3. The millet system enabled religious power to be centralised in Istanbul, thus putting an end to the autonomous and local nature of the taifas. This accentuated the national consciousness of citizens from the provinces, who, having been under a distant authority, reacted by politicising religion, language and ethnicity—elements that had never represented a problem for the common consciousness up until that moment. Therefore,

122 Dora Glidewell Nadolski (1977). ‘Ottoman and Secular Civil Law’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 8, pp. 521–522. 123 Alejandra Álvarez (2013). Comunidades no musulmanas en un entorno musulmán. La pervivencia del modelo otomano en la actual Siria. Op. Cit., pp. 103–109. 124 Roderic H. Davison (1963). Reform in the Ottoman Empire 1856–1876. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 57. 125 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Op. Cit., pp. 3–6. 126 Philip Mansel (1995). Constantinopla, la ciudad deseada por el mundo, 1453–1924. Granada: Almed, p. 302. 127 Kemal H. Karpat (1972). ‘The Transformation of the Ottoman State, 1789–1908’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 3 (3), p. 273; Hasan Kayali (1997). Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908–1918. California: University of California Press, Ebooks Collection, p. 28.

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one consequence of the Tanzimat was the emergence of different types of nationalism within the empire, including the incipient Arab and Turkish nationalism.128 The organisation into millets lasted until the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire—made final after it suffered defeat to the Allied powers. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of data (relating to, for instance, ethnically and religiously motivated massacres between 1894 and 1897) that verifies how already in the epoch of Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) the state was unable to manage the heterogeneous nature of the different millets under one common Ottoman nationality (osmanlılık). Gradually, the notion that Islam was the only idea capable of uniting a society was forged (bearing in mind that the areas with a Christian majority were progressively becoming independent throughout the 19th century. This was the case with Armenia, which remained under Russian control from 1828 and 1829, and Greece, which became independent in 1830. It was the same for Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria in 1878, the same year the Austro-Hungarians annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Russians Eastern Anatolia. By the end of the century, the Ottoman Empire was overwhelmingly Muslim), as was the notion that the millet system must disappear by means of an almost forceful process of assimilation.129 In the final decade of the empire, the only aspect people could hold onto was Turkish identity. In the Turkey that came into being after the empire’s defeat, with a state wishing to forget its past, the millet system did disappear. However, in the eastern Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire that remained under the Mandates, and especially under the French Mandate (as in Syria’s case), the Ottoman organisation of religious groups was preserved and partially modified. Hence the paradox that remains in Syria of a state with modern structures coexisting with a traditional religious organisation.

The confessional strategy during the French Mandate for Syria The shortly lived kingdom of Faisal bin Hussein in Syria (1919–1920) did not represent any significant change in the confessional organisation of the Syria–Lebanon territory. This interim was followed by the French Mandate for Lebanon and Syria, which, although justified by the League of Nations (in 1922), would mean the inhabitants of this territory would never see the legitimacy the sultans had possessed.130 As shown in the results of the King–Crane Commission, an official and neutral investigation endorsed in 1919 by the North American government (at that time Woodrow Wilson was in office and his postwar policy regarding the old Ottoman territories was based on the right of the people’s self-determination), the majority of the inland population, namely Syria—in contrast

128 Albert Hourani (2003). La historia de los árabes. Barcelona: Vergara, p. 379; Maxime Rodinson (2005). Los árabes. Madrid: Siglo XXI, p. 87. 129 Kemal H. Karpat (1972). ‘The Transformation of the Ottoman State, 1789–1908’, Op. Cit., p. 280. 130 Philip S. Khoury (1987). Syria and the French Mandate. The Politics of the Arab Nationalism 1920–1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 4–5.

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to the Christian majority in Lebanon—were radically opposed to any French or Zionist intervention in their country. They saw their hopes of building a nation in the so-called ‘historical Syria’ (that is, inland Syria, Mount Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan—territories that have always embodied linguistic, cultural and social unity) reduced. In fact, only the Maronites and the rest of the Catholics preferred the French.131 Yet neither the British nor the French took on board the recommendations of this investigation, though the French did make use of the data generated to design their government strategy. In fact, during the period spanning the Mandate in Syria (from 1920—although the official date is 1922—until 1946), the French designed and developed a policy based primarily on the operation of the different religious communities. What is striking is that under such circumstances, an openly secular country like France made use of religion as a political tool.132 That said, the possible reasons for this course of action are twofold: firstly, because maintaining the religious system could have served as an instrument for dealing with the dominant Arab nationalism in inland Syria; and secondly, because French policy during this period applied the use of colonial theories that supported the so-called ‘association principle’ ahead of the ‘assimilation principle’, considered obsolete at the time. This desire to weaken the dominant Arab nationalism frequently identified with the Sunnis in inland Syria was the main reason the French maintained the religious system. The new governors brought with them their experiences of North Africa, which influenced them against Sunni Islam and determined the parameters of their policies.133 Consequently, the French could justify their presence in the area, given that their main mission was to defend the interests of minorities before the Sunnis (it is worth recalling that the minorities matter was one of the burning issues in the League of Nations after the war of 1914–1918, and the concession policy of the Mandates was conditioned by this issue).134 Some authors have also pointed to France’s naïve view of the situation, which would have been guided from the outset by optimistic information regarding the welcome they would receive from inhabitants of the territory. Such information, comparing the willing disposition of the Syrians with that of the inhabitants of Lebanon regarding France’s presence in the area, originated from the missionaries, the resident advisers in Damascus and the Rum Uniates of Hawran, and clashed with the harsh reality that followed the arrival of the heads of state.135 131 Original text in (1922). ‘King–Crane Report on the Near East’, New York: Editor and Publisher Co., vol. 55, no. 27, 2nd section (2 December 1922), xviii + map, 1 The Geography of the Claims, iii, paragraph 3. 132 Ignacio Gutiérrez de Terán Gómez-Benita (2003). Estado y confesión en Oriente Medio: el caso de Siria y Líbano. Religión, taifa y representatividad. Madrid: Cantarabia, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, p. 94. 133 Daniel Pipes (1992). Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 153. 134 Helmer Rosting (1923). ‘Protection of the Minorities by the League of Nations’, The American Journal of International Law, 17 (4), pp. 647–648; Benjamin Thomas White (2007). ‘The Nation State Form and the Emergence of ‘Minorities’ in Syria’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 7 (1), pp. 64–70. 135 David Kenneth Fieldhouse (2006). Western Imperialism in the Middle East 1914–1958. Oxford: Oxford

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The other reason for maintaining a religious system, the aforementioned ‘association principle’ (designed by Marshal Lyautey for Morocco), advanced how, when faced with the Eurocentric idea of making the native people more French, it was more advisable, useful and efficient to keep local institutions—ultimately controlling them by means of representatives from the mother country and exclusively French civil servants.136 Such respect for (Ottoman) institutions in the area was useful for justifying the backing of Article 6 of the Mandate of the League of Nations for Syria (1922), which guaranteed respect of the people’s religion under French authority. This religious policy materialised primarily in two forms: the creation of religious states and the maintenance and development of the taifa system. With regard to the creation of religious states, the French made use of the provincial organisation forged by the sultan in 1864 in Syria and Lebanon137 to create their own religious-inspired territorial division. A mere six weeks after they entered Damascus (1920), the state of Greater Lebanon was established and conceived as a ‘confessional community’ to welcome local Catholics,138 adding territories belonging to Syria. Shortly afterwards, the autonomous Alawi territory was created and, in 1922, named a state, with the justification that the group needed protection from the Sunnis.139 Subsequently, the autonomous sancak of Iskenderun was formed and, in 1939, handed over to the Turks, in exchange for neutrality in the global conflict that was looming.140 The Druzes also signed an agreement for the creation of their own state in Jabal ad Duruz in 1922, meanwhile the predominantly Sunni and Arab nationalist populations remained located in the inland states of Damascus and Aleppo, which were unified in 1924.141 The second measure, maintaining and developing the taifa system, is precisely the one we are concerned with in our argument—given the fact that the French maintained and respected the Ottoman legislation regarding the millets, appropriating it for the new political and regional set-up. As Benjamin Thomas White points out,

University Press, pp. 253–254. 136 Raymond F. Betts (2005). Assimilation and Association in French Colonial Theory 1890–1914. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 10–32; David Kenneth Fieldhouse (2006). Western Imperialism in the Middle East 1914–1958. Op. Cit., pp. 257–259. 137 George Young (ed.) (1905). Corps de Droit Ottoman: Recueil des Codes, Lois, Règlements, Ordonnances et Actes les plus importants du Droit Intèrieur, et d’Études sur le Droit Coutumier de l’Empire Ottoman, 7 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, i, pp. 36–45; Abdul Latif Tibawi (1969). A Modern History of Syria. London: McMillan, St. Martin’s Press, pp. 179–181; Zeyne N. Zeyne (1960). The Struggle for Arab Independence. Western Diplomacy & the Rise and Fall of Faisal’s Kingdom in Syria. Beirut: Khayats, pp. 33–35. 138 David D. Grafton (2003). The Christians of Lebanon. Political Rights in Islamic Law. London, New York: Tauris Academic Studies, p. 94. 139 Jean-David Mizrahi (2002). La France et sa politique de Mandat en Syrie et au Liban (1920–1939), in Nadine Meouchi (ed.). France, Syrie et Liban 1918–1946 : Les ambigüités et les dinamiques de la relation mandataire. Damascus: Institut Français d’Études Arabes, p. 41. 140 Abdul Latif Tibawi (1969). A Modern History of Syria. Op. Cit., pp. 352–353. 141 Youssef S. Takla (2001). Corpus Juris du Mandat Français, in Nadine Meouchi and Peter Sluglett (eds.). The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspectives. Leiden: Brill, pp. 80–85.

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it is quite possible that the French ceded to the demands of the religious heads, who wished to preserve their traditional power in facing the danger from Western-based secularisation.142 At any rate, during the period of the French Mandate, the Ottoman system developed under the Tanzimat was adapted—in this case recovering the term taifa to refer to what were previously called millets. Therefore, the noun taifa in the French Mandate’s legislation must not be understood in a traditional sense (in other words, as a local organisation), instead it should be likened to what the Ottomans called millet. The coincidences are multiple: a) both involved legal entities with national scope, recognised by a central authority via an official document; b) in both, the highest religious leader acquired the power of attorney of their community before the state; c) as in the epoch of the Tanzimat, the religious taifas were obliged to subject their statutes to the examination of the authorities, who determined the benefit of the hierarchical structure of the community, the dogmas and religious laws, the personal status laws and the administration method; and lastly d) in the case of both the Ottoman millets and the mandatary taifa, the approval of the religious community meant the recognition of their traditional privileges, while their personal status was turned into civil law and placed under state protection and the control of the public powers. Further proof that the organisation of the Ottoman Empire was accepted by the French is demonstrated by the fact that until 1936 no actual regulations were promulgated for the religious communities, given that (in mandatary logic) the triumphant Arab nationalism represented by the National Bloc (al-kutla al-wataniyya) could only be counteracted by once again employing confessional logic.143 Nonetheless, this arrêté did not go down well with either the religious leaders, who wished to maintain greater power within their communities and free themselves from the uneasy supervision of civil power,144 or with the Sunni Ulamas, offended by a decree that overlooked the sharia and treated Muslims as just another simple confessional community, tacitly allowing the marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, considering the possibility of freely changing to ‘any’ religion, or even—pursuant to the modifications upheld in 1938145—permitting individuals without a recognised confessional group or Muslims who have changed religion to raise their offspring in this 142 Benjamin Thomas White (2007). ‘The Nation State Form and the Emergence of ‘Minorities’ in Syria’, Op. Cit., p. 71. 143 Journal Officiel de la République Syrienne, X/13-3-1936, Arrêté n.º 61/L. R. 65; Benjamin Thomas White (2007). ‘The Nation State Form and the Emergence of ‘Minorities’ in Syria’, Op. Cit., p. 78. 144 The Ottomans had already tried with the promulgation of the Kararname in 1917, which was never put into practice because of the war. This decree saw all religious law related to marriage and family fall under the civil laws of the state. Düstur, tertip 2 [legal code, 2nd edition] (1911–1928). Istanbul, Ankara: Dersaadet Matbaa-i Osmanie, 11 vols., vol. 9, pp. 762–781; Ilber Ortayli (1994). Studies on Ottoman transformation. Istanbul: Issis Press, pp. 322, 332; Sükrü Hanioglu (2008). The Second Constitutional Period, 1908–1918, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds.). Christian and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Op. Cit., vol. 4, p. 102. 145 Journal Officiel de la République Syrienne, XLVII/29-12-1938, Arrêté n.º 146/L. R. 291–292.

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belief. The reactions in opposition, manifested in the form of popular protests, reached such a magnitude that the high commissioner agreed to call a halt to its application.146 Yet the French initiative did not fall by the wayside. Interestingly, the new independent Syrian state created in 1946 would incorporate the decrees mentioned above, thus sanctioning the taifal organisation that had been adapted by the mandatary power using the Ottoman model and so establishing continuity between the Ottoman period and modernity—the focal point of the premise this paper is based on.

The Syrian dilemma The Syrian Arab Republic that emerged after World War II based its political ideology on conciliatory secularism, which left religious differences aside for the sake of national construction and was rooted more in Arab nationalism—and the Ottoman reforms of the 19th century, previously referred to—than the secular tradition of France.147 In fact, the Syrian constitutions that materialised after independence (there were six— not counting the French constitution from 1928, which, with modifications, was used as a magna carta by the new state up until 1949, or that of Abd al-Naser, promulgated in 1958) carefully avoided any talk of Islam as the country’s official religion or determining the sharia as a source of legislation, which differentiates them from other magna cartas promulgated in the Arab Islamic world. The Faisal Constitution of 1920 talks of Islamic law (fiqh al-islami) as the main source of legislation—a more neutral form of expression, with less religious responsibility than the term sharia, used in other Arab constitutions.148 On balance, every Syrian constitution has been inspired by this approach, and by the nationalism that surfaced within the context of Ottoman decadence.149 The arrival of Ba’athism in 1963, with its markedly secular ideology and the subsequent ‘rectification movement’ (at-tashihiyya) introduced by General Hafez al-Assad in 1970,

146 Benjamin Thomas White (2010). ‘Addressing the State: The Syrian Ulama Protest Personal Status Law Reform, 1939’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42, p. 11; Philip S. Khoury (1987). Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of the Arab Nationalism 1920–1945. Op. Cit., pp. 576–577. 147 Raymond Hinnebusch (2001). Syria, Revolution from Above. London: Routledge, p. 19. 148 Dustur al-Yumhuriyya al-Arabiyya as-Suriyya as-sadir bil-marsum raqm 208 tarij 1973/03/13 [The Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic, promulgated in Decree 208, of 13 March 1973], Damascus: Dar as-safadi 2007, n.º 7; Robert C. Blitt and Tad Stahke (2005). The Religion–State Relationship and the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief: a Comparative Textual Analysis of the Constitutions of Predominantly Muslim Countries. Washington D.C.: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, pp. 9–11; Issa Ali (2011). ‘Constitution et religion dans les Etats arabes: la place de la religion dans le système constitutionnel moderne du monde arabe’, viiie Congrès National de l’Association Française de Droit Constitutionnel, Nancy 16–18 Juin 2011. Available at: http://www.afdc-nancy.eu [Consulted 25 November 2013]. 149 The Syrian constitutional texts are restricted to highlighting that Islam must be the religion of the president of the republic, as with the text from the Faisal constitution, which indicated that this must be the religion of the king of Syria. See Alejandra Álvarez Suárez (2013). La religión en la trayectoria constitucional de la República Árabe de Siria, in Paloma Gómez del Miño (ed.). La Primavera Árabe, ¿una revolución regional? Madrid: Universidad Complutense, pp. 535–545.

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served to further deepen the secular path of the state.150 The criticism of the policies of the Assad government, led by Islamists and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, were nothing but reruns of the discontent that groups had shown against the secularisation of the state since the 1940s—though on this occasion advantage was taken of the circumstance that saw an Alawi elite, deemed atheist and non-religious, accused of joining other minorities to weaken the large Sunni majority.151 This was to be the origin of the so-called ‘Syrian community issue’,152 a non-critical premise occasionally accepted by analysts and researchers. In fact, the 1973 constitution consciously avoided making any reference whatsoever to the religious taifas or personal status laws, even avoiding any mention of religious courts—essential to the correct application of the ‘private sphere’ laws, in Arab legal terminology—when dealing with the matter of judicial power.153 Thus, the existence in Syria of patent religiously inspired laws for the private sphere— in matters such as marriage, divorce, filiation or inheritance (collated in legal codes known in Arabic as laws of ‘personal status’, al-ahwal al-shajsiyya)—alongside civil legislation for the public sphere, preserved a model originally created by the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. As a result, the Syrian system perpetuated this legal and institutional ambiguity, caused by the coexistence of archetypal structures of a modern and secular state organised into confessional taifas. On this issue, it is worth highlighting that the Syrian state has always acknowledged the validity of laws on religious taifas decreed by the French in 1936 and 1938 (referred to earlier), which were but the Ottoman millet duly adapted to the circumstances of the Mandate. This recognition not only prompted the assimilation of Ottoman principles, it also meant the acceptance, to the letter, of the list of taifas from throughout history, which the French had inherited from the previous governors.154 The state’s acceptance of these decrees, which created numerous problems for the mandatary power, was tacitly developed in the years following independence, until in 1957 certain minor details were changed by means of a decree-law promulgated by President Shukri al-Quwatli. The fact that the 1973 constitution avoided making any reference to the religious courts must be understood as a purely rhetorical measure. In actual fact, the religious court system (mahakim diniyya), responsible for ensuring the fulfilment of personal status laws

150 Raymond Hinnebusch (2001). Syria, Revolution from Above. Op. Cit., pp. 58–62. 151 Liad Porat (2010). ‘The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Assad Regime’, Middle East Brief, 47, pp. 2–3. 152 Ignacio Gutiérrez de Terán Gómez-Benita (2003). Estado y confesión en Oriente Medio: el caso de Siria y Líbano. Religión, taifa y representatividad. Op. Cit., pp. 127–128. 153 Dustur al-Yumhuriyya al-Arabiyya as-Suriyya. Op. Cit., n.º 33; Gregory S. Mahler (1996). Constitutionalism and Palestinian Constitutional Development. Jerusalem: Passia, p. 93. 154 The Arabic text on the arrêtés, adopted by the Syrian state, follows the French original and can be read in Qawanin al-ahwal as-shajsiyya lit-tawa’if al-urthuduksiyya wal-kathulikiyya wal-inyiliyya wal-arman was-suriyan wal-musawiyyin [Personal Status Laws for Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Armenian, Syrian and Jewish taifas]. Damascus: Qassab Hasan (no date), pp. 7–18.

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corresponding to the religious confessions, was officially ratified in 1965. This ratification, signed by Amin al-Hafiz, signified the official acceptance of a dual judicial system comprising both secular and religious courts, which had been created by the Ottomans and would make it to the Syrian Arab Republic via the French.155 The taifal system described here, and the judicial system in which the religious courts have a sphere of activity with civil consequences, still exist in present-day Syria. For a secularly conceived state this gives rise to structural incoherence, which in turn results in a series of immediate consequences: a) the religious communities recognised by the Ottoman system immediately become indispensable state collaborators in terms of the ‘private’ civil sphere (this term is interpreted according to Ottoman jurisprudence); b) in accordance with the above, every religious community has its own provincial courts and appeal procedures, which boast significant autonomy (The taifas are responsible for selecting judges, which do not necessarily have to be Syrian, and only the state receives notification of each appointment); c) citizens are civilly obliged to have an assigned religion, since everything related to marriage, inheritance, filiation and divorce is managed by religious communities and their courts and is legally binding; d) given that every community is awarded its own laws and has its own legal codes, there is legal inequality among citizens, according to whether the person belongs to one religion or another; and e) the abundance of legal codes in the form of personal status laws and courts gives rise to frequent jurisdiction problems,156 particularly in the case of mixed marriages. In certain specific cases there are even contradictions between civil law and religious law: for instance, regarding the conversion by Muslims to other religions—permitted by the French law of 1936, which (as mentioned) was corroborated in 1957 and is still in force today, but strictly prohibited by the sharia.157

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Alejandra Álvarez Suárez has a bachelor’s degree in Arab Studies from The Complutense University, Madrid, and a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Barcelona.

155 Rania Maktabi (2009). Family Law and Gendered Citizenship in the Middle East: Paths of the Reform and Resilience in Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Lebanon. Draft Paper presented at the World Bank/Yale Workshop: Societal Transformation and the Challenges of Governance in Africa and the Middle East. Yale University, Department of Political Science [typescript], pp. 16–17. 156 The Ottoman kararname of 1917 remained in force until 1953, the year that a new text giving supremacy to Islamic law was approved. The new code was obligatorily applied to all citizens, regardless of their religion. Nevertheless, it was expected that non-Muslims could follow their personal status laws regarding marriage and divorce. See Arab text (2008). Qanun al-ahwal ash-shajsiyya. Damascus: Mu’assasat an-Nuri. There is a Spanish translation in Caridad Ruíz-Almodovar (1996). ‘El Código Sirio de Estatuto Personal’, Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebreos, Sección Árabe e Islam, 45, pp. 230–280. In practice, this also enabled autonomy in such matters as inheritance, adoption and filiation. In Syrian legislation, eight different personal status laws coexist. 157 Nevertheless, there are still some cases in the Syrian civil registry. Maurits Berger (1997). ‘The Legal System of Family Law in Syria’, Bulletin d’Études Orientales, 49, pp. 115–127.

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Confessionalism and Modernity: The Origins of the Syrian Paradox

She worked from 2006 to 2009 as a professor at the University of Aleppo, Syria, and is currently collaborating as a professor on the master’s course The Arab World and Islam at the University of Barcelona. She also authored the book Comunidades no musulmanas en un entorno musulmán: la pervivencia del modelo otomano en la actual Siria (Cantarabia, 2013).

ABSTRACT This article shows how the current system of religious organisation in Syria relates to a model that depends directly on the legislation established for this purpose during the Ottoman Empire. The coexistence of this traditional system with a modern legislation of Western and secular inspiration is a characteristic feature of the contemporary Syrian state. This peculiarity can only be properly understood after an analysis of the political, legal and social institutions that preceded and accompanied the establishment of the current Syrian state.

KEYWORDS Syria, confessionalism, legislation.

‫امللخص‬ ‫يظهر املقال التايل كيفية إستجابة التنظيم الطائفي الحايل يف سوريا لنموذج يرتبط بشكل مبارش بالنظام‬ ‫ فتعايش هذا النظام التقليدي مع ترشيع عرصي ذا بعد‬.‫الذي أرسته اإلمرباطورية العثامنية لهذا الغرض‬ ‫علامين و غريب يعترب سمة مميزة للدولة السورية املعارصة؛ و ال ميكن فهم هذه الخاصية فهام صحيحا‬ ‫إال من خالل دراسة املؤسسات السياسية و القانونية و اإلجتامعية التي سبقت و رافقت تأسيس الدولة‬ .‫الحالية‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ الترشيع‬،‫ الطائفية‬،‫سوريا‬

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Design and layout Zum Creativos ISBN 978-84-616-8965-1 © of the texts: its authors © of the photographs: its authors © of the present edition: Casa Árabe c/ Alcalá, 62. 28009 Madrid (España) www.casaarabe.es Printed in Spain. This content has also been published in Spanish in the Journal Awraq: Revista de análisis y pensamiento sobre el mundo árabe e islámico contemporáneo, 8 (second quarter of 2013). The full collection is available in electronic format at http://www.awraq.es/ and http://issuu.com/casaarabe/ Casa Árabe is a consortium comprising:


Sunni and Shia:

political readings of a religious dichotomy


Introduction. 7 Eduardo López Busquets The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview.

9

Barah Mikaïl Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power.

25

Fatiha Dazi-Héni The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide.

37

Khaled Hroub Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar).

49

Thierry Coville Mediation in the Face of Sectarianism.

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Oliver McTernan Confessionalism and Modernity: The Origins of the Syrian Paradox. Alejandra Álvarez Suárez

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The present collection of articles is the result of Casa Árabe’s efforts to address the different problems affecting peace and stability in the Middle East, and particularly in the Mashriq. The seminar ‘Sunni and Shia: Political Readings of a Religious Dichotomy’ was held towards the end of 2013 at Casa Mudéjar (Casa Árabe’s headquarters, in Córdoba), with various experts coming together for the discussion. The aim of the meeting was to analyse the causes and consequences of the widening gap between both branches of Islam, and call into question reductionist arguments which prevail in today’s narrative: is this situation caused by the exacerbation of the religious schism or is it the result of geopolitical determinants? This publication offers various approaches to the challenges facing the region, in light of growing sectarian conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen. From a geostrategic perspective, the authors concur that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the main centres of influence. Nevertheless, the new sectarianism comes in different shapes and sizes. Small groups that represent a large threat to regional stability are not uncommon. Moreover, within both Shiism and Sunnism there are differences and conflicts that are difficult to simplify— these two branches are not monolithic blocks that obey one sole authority. The media, in both traditional and 2.0 formats, intensify the manipulation of public opinion and have the ability to light a fuse in a matter of seconds. It is imperative, too, to have a better understanding of youth, given their undeniable role in recent popular Arab uprisings. Where do ‘cult mentalities’ and victimhood come from and in turn, how is the notion of citizenship distorted? Casa Árabe is in a privileged position to address complex issues such as sectarianism in the 21st century. Never has the antagonism between each branch of Islam had such an impact on the public political sphere and global awareness as it does nowadays. The articles in this publication call for reflection and dialogue—both key instruments, whether it is for coexistence, reconciliation, convergence or dealing with disagreement. Eduardo López Busquets General Director of Casa Árabe


THE GEOPOLITICS OF DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN SUNNIS AND SHIAS: A GLOBAL OVERVIEW Barah Mikaïl

W

ith the ‘Arab Spring’, the general misunderstanding that prevails between Sunnis and Shias seems to have gained momentum. While the ‘Sunni–Shia issue’ is by no means limited to the Arab world, it is this region that witnesses the most obvious examples of sectarian unrest. The roots of the global disagreement between Sunnis and Shias go back 14 centuries, but this rivalry also has to do with political matters. It is important, therefore, not to exaggerate the role of sectarianism in contemporary issues. Today, there is obvious social unrest that is linked to religious matters, but it has to do first with state rivalries. The intertwining of political and religious matters is in itself part of the history of Islam. Nevertheless, what can we expect from the rise of sectarianism that we are witnessing in the region? Will it remain mainly political and limited to relations between regimes and governments? Or will it extend more and more to the lives of citizens, transforming progressively the divergences between Sunnis and Shias into a global and violent fight? To answer these questions, we must first remember the main facts that contributed to the split of Islam into various branches, starting with Sunnism and Shiism. Then we will explore concrete examples of the contemporary Sunni–Shia disagreement and how it translates into violent representations. Finally, we will formulate some suggestions relating to the future of Sunni–Shia relations and how disagreements can be overcome in the future.


Barah Mikaïl

Between politics and religion: the reasons for a determinant disagreement The roots of the disagreement between Sunnis and Shias seem to be mainly theological. But on looking closer, it is easy to notice that they also have to do with politics and rivalry over power. Indeed, the seeds for this major inter-Muslim conflict were sown as soon as Muhammad—the Prophet of Islam—died in 632, leaving no successor. With his death, his companions (people who had converted to Islam and adhered to his thoughts and teachings) convened in al-Saqifa, a roofed place located in the town of al-Madina. They designated Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad’s followers and companions, as the first caliph of Islam (632–634). He was followed by Omar (634–644), Othman (644–656) and Ali (656–661). The serious problems occurred when Moawiya, the military governor of Damascus, rejected the legitimacy of Ali.1 This attempt by Moawiya to delegitimise Ali’s earning of the title Caliphate of Islam has to be understood first and foremost in its political dimension.2 From a religious point of view, Ali’s skills and legitimacy were at least as high as those of the caliphs who preceded him. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. He also had a special position having lived for many years in the house of the Prophet, becoming almost an adoptive son to him. But perhaps most important is the fact that Ali was the first Muslim man to have converted to Islam, while it had taken Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman more time to adhere to Muhammad’s calls to embrace Islam. Why then was Ali not chosen as the first successor to Muhammad? History has it that while Ali was washing Muhammad’s body ahead of burying him, the other companions of the Prophet were meeting in al-Saqifa, designating Muhammad’s successor. Ali’s absence weakened his position, and this is why he had to wait more than 20 years before being designated a caliph. But Moawiya’s challenge to Ali’s authority in Islam did not provoke serious religious argument. And since caliphs hold both spiritual and temporal powers in their hands, the governor of Damascus had to refer to politics to reach his objectives.3 Moawiya argued that Ali was responsible for the killing of his predecessor, Othman. Ali rejected the accusation but Moawiya’s position allowed him to build on his military capacities. He proposed to Ali that both their troops engage in a fight, in order for people to see which of them had the greater strength and therefore the greater legitimacy over Islam. But while Moawiya and Ali’s troops were standing face to face, ready for combat, 1 2

3

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Maxime Rodinson (2013). Mahomet. Paris: Editions du Seuil. For insightful details about the points that follow and the political dimension of the Sunni–Shia conflict vs religious aspects, some of the recommended books are: Roy P. Mottahedeh (2008). The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. Oxford: Oneworld; Mohammad Ali Amir Moezzi and Christian Jambet (2004). Qu’est-ce que le Shi‘isme? Paris: Fayard; and Hichem Djaït (2008). La grande discorde: Religion et politique dans l’islam des origins. Paris: Gallimard. Most of the points that follow are based on the facts and explanations that can be found in these books. There are several ways to understand Moawiya’s strategy: one is comprehensive, generally defended by Sunnis; the other is critical and mostly defended by Shias. To understand the Shia narrative of these events, see Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and Institute of Ismaili Studies (2011). The Spirituality of Shi’i Islam: Beliefs and Practices. London: I.B. Tauris. Also useful is Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub (2005). The Crisis of Muslim History: Religion and Politics in Early Islam. Oxford: Oneworld.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

Ali suddenly renounced the fight. His act was quickly recuperated by Moawiya, who saw Ali’s decision as an act of cowardice that confirmed his lack of legitimacy. Islam’s main rift, between Sunnis and Shias, began here. Summarising perspectives, we can say that those who supported Moawiya in his action are the Sunnis; and Ali’s supporters are the Shias. Both have gone their own way ever since, and the incident has led to a violent coexistence for the two schools in one and the same region. Moawiya had shown himself capable of exploiting his military strength and using it for the benefit of his political ambitions. The empires that were to follow the reign of the Umayyad (Abbasid, Ottoman etc.) all pretended to political and religious ‘legitimacies’ following their combats and conquests.4 Shias do not recognise Islam’s three first caliphs. They consider Ali to be the first caliph of Islam and the only legitimate successor to Muhammad. Sunnis do recognise Ali’s legitimacy but criticise the Shia rejection of his three predecessors. This disagreement persists today. It is so deeply rooted in each of these religious inter-Islam trends that nothing indicates relations between the two communities could embark on a positive track anytime soon. Islam is complex and its realities and disagreements go far beyond the Sunni–Shia issue. The many communities that are part of Islam all have their own appreciations and beliefs, and this situation only adds to the religion’s fragmentation. Nevertheless, the Sunni–Shia polarisation is without a doubt Islam’s main and most threatening rift. Today, the attempts of Sunnis and Shias to pretend to both political and religious legitimacy may reflect less on people’s feelings and claims, depending on the country or region we are talking about. But governments that allow the Sunni–Shia rift to be one of the main drivers for their policies are far more obvious. Events that go back more than 1,400 years old find an echo in contemporary geopolitical issues, adding more complexity to the challenges of a region that is already under heavy pressure. The Middle East is the object of rivalries and a quest for leadership. The main players in the region are Saudi Arabia and Iran. Though they have to include other players and strategies in their calculations, both countries are concentrating a significant part of their prospects in the region. This is not to say that the Saudi–Iranian quest of influence in the MENA region is necessarily the leading issue. With the Arab Spring in particular, events have demonstrated the individuality possessed by each of the countries in the Arab world. Each uprising evolved in its own way, though they sometimes happened to share commonalities too, as highlighted by the revolts that led to the falls of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Nevertheless, none of the states in the region can pretend to be fully hermetic to external influence. This is where Saudi Arabia and Iran’s respective attempts to place their pawns in the Arab world and gather the maximum number of actors to defend their policies and points of view reveal how much each of them is constantly trying to gain momentum.

4

For more on Islam, its history and evolution, see John L. Esposito (ed.) (1999). The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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The contemporary quest for legitimacy Saudi Arabia sees itself as the legitimate protector of Sunni interests. As well as the presence of two of the three sacred Sunni shrines on its soil (Mecca and Medina) and the official ideology of the state (Wahhabism), there’s the country’s active development of a panIslamic, Sunni-based strategy of education (symbolised by the example of Madrasas) and its support of Islamic fighters, which has been ongoing for decades. The case of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia supported the Mudjahideen in their combat against the Soviets, is one of the most telling examples.5 But this does not necessarily mean that Saudis engage in a blind strategy of supporting religious Sunni groups for the sake of their beliefs. Saudi Arabia’s main focus consists of controlling regional shifts and any dramatic trends, in order to ultimately avoid paying a high price. Saudi Arabia has been the diplomatic giant of the Arab world throughout the past four decades at least, and it has been able to fill the gap left by the death of Egyptian president Nasser in 1970 with discretion and success.6 But Saudis fear any change in the regional balance of power could alter their position, and this is why they want to have the upper hand. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was when their first anti-Iranian and anti-Shia fears really developed.7 While Saudi Arabia always took advantage of its alliance with the United States to contain the Shah of Iran’s ambitions to get access to important military means (nuclear being among them), the 1979 revolution got the country obsessed with the idea of Iran being able to take advantage of its Shia dogma to influence Shia communities and spread revolution in the Arab world. Some 25 years later, in 2003, following the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq made Saudis aware how damaging it could be if Shias held power in this neighbouring country. While Saudis felt Iraq had been neutralised since the end of the 1991 Gulf war, Iran’s ability to develop a political influence in this country made them feel there was a direct risk at their door. This only added to their fear of being surrounded by a ‘Shia crescent’.8 Iran, too, is trying to secure influence in the Arab world. The Iran–Iraq war (1980–1988) that followed the Islamic Revolution rather stood in its way. This important regional conflict weakened Iran and forced it to concentrate on the Gulf states-supported war it was facing. Nevertheless, Iran was able to find benefits in the evolution of the region. While Syria’s Hafez al-Assad decided to engage in a strategic alliance with Iran beginning in 1980, Tehran also supported (in 1982) the creation in Lebanon of a militant Shia Islamic group known

5 6 7 8

12

See Barnett R. Rubin (2013). Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press. For more on the history of Saudi Arabia, see Madawi al-Rasheed (2010). A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See James G. Blight, et al. (2012). Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 19791988. Lanham (Md.): Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. The expression ‘Shia crescent’ was first popularised by King Abdallah of Jordan in 2004, followed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

today as Hezbollah.9 For two decades, Iran’s strategy in the Arab world was based on these two pillars. But the aforementioned American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq allowed Tehran to extend its regional means. Iran’s political alliances in Iraq are obvious today, such as the good relations it has with Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister.10 From a commercial point of view, there is also Iran’s importance in the trade and economic balance of both Syria and Iraq, not to mention Tehran’s contribution to both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah’s military capacity. At the same time, many things have been said during this past decade concerning Iran’s ability to influence the Huthi Shia rebel group in northwest Yemen and Shia anti-regime protesters in Bahrain. Countries extending from Morocco to Egypt have officially referred to Iran’s threatening strategy of converting Sunnis to Shiism in order to achieve more regional influence. So far, paradoxically, most of these accusations seem obvious while at the same time difficult to prove. Morocco, Egypt and even Jordan’s denunciation of Iran’s ‘demoniac’ aims in the region seem to be linked primarily to their fears of ending up with popular ‘subversive’ attitudes influenced by Iran’s anti-Western views and policies. This is something these countries, and others in the region, share with Saudi Arabia, which also happens to be an important funder for many Arab states. Saudi Arabia and Iran’s primary aims do not have to be considered through the lens of their respective claims for religious legitimacy. Their rhetoric and the symbols they constantly refer to concern religion. It becomes easy, therefore, to believe that both are guided by a messianic duty that leaves no room for other religions, sects, currents and beliefs. Yet their path is far from being that narrow. History has proven that countries which try to make rigid ideologies or beliefs the main argument for their legitimacy are sentenced to lose power in the long run. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and its impact on the USSR stands as a perfect example. Saudi Arabia and Iran are aware that their power must find various channels of expression. This is why the things that really matter are not official statements but what is happening on the ground. The array of allies that Saudi Arabia and Iran are looking for go far beyond their religious beliefs. If common religious affiliations happen to also allow the building of alliances and strong political links, then neither will disregard them. But the main aim for both remains first and foremost political. The evolution of the Arab world has gained complexity, especially with the Arab Spring. Countries have to take into consideration both state levels and intra-state levels when it comes to defining and maintaining their strategies of influence. If Saudi Arabia and Iran had limited their policies solely to communitarian considerations, they would have ended up isolated and weakened. The degree of animosity that they feel towards each other requires activating policies and behaviours that sound appealing to a majority of players and actors, sometimes regardless of their religious belonging. Understanding the realities of the

9 10

Judith Palmer Harik (2004). Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism. London: I.B. Tauris. Toby Dodge (2013). Iraq: From War to a new Authoritarianism. London: Routledge, 2013.

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regional geopolitics of disagreement between ‘Sunni Saudis’ and ‘Shia Iranians’ requires understanding that Saudis can decide to adopt a Shia-appealing attitude when needed, just as Iranians may employ a Sunni-appealing attitude when they feel it is justified. The longevity and the resilience of states depend on pragmatism before convictions.

Contemporary representations of the Sunni–Shia disagreement Sunnis and Shias are not the product of the Middle East’s history alone. Both communities live in a region that extends from Morocco to Indonesia. Furthermore, both Sunni and Shia Muslims are a minority in the extended Muslim world. If events had to do with numbers, the challenges in the relations between Sunnis and Shias would lead us to focus more on Asian perspectives. Pakistan stands as a good example for the degree of violence and misunderstanding that prevails between the two communities. Nevertheless, the degree of political tensions and the strategic rivalries that prevail in the MENA region are the main reason so much attention is given to the Arab world’s prospects. By extension, the regions of the world that are from a different religious tradition can seldom pretend to be preserved from intra-MENA tensions. In the European Union, for example, the post-September 11 context revealed the significant number of Sunni communities living on European soil. It was as if everybody was just discovering that religious radicalism also has an existence in the EU. This fact brought about several hypotheses regarding the degree of support Saudi Arabia was giving to these communities, as well as the potential links between Sunni Arabs, non-Arabs and the al-Qaida organisation. The media and several governments contributed to creating a direct link in people’s minds between the fact of being a Sunni Muslim and a natural inclination for supporting religious extremism. Suspicions over who was responsible for the 11 September attacks also reflected negatively on Saudi Arabia and its alleged support of various groups of Sunni Muslim radicals. But, in fact, many of these analogies—though not necessary all of them—were abusive. The same situation prevailed in the case of Shias. Shias in general, and Arab Shias in particular, are not a majority in the US or EU. But they do form a significant section of the Arab Muslims that are settled in some Latin American and African countries, for reasons linked to the history of Arab migrations. Therefore, Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, were suspected of trying to get in touch with their Shia co-religionists around the world to encourage them to organise violent attacks in their respective countries. Examples were found in Argentina,11 even Bulgaria.12 Some Arab states added their voices to the growing concerns around the intentions of Iran and Hezbollah. Morocco expelled Iran’s ambassador to the country in 2009, while Hosni Mubarak often linked cases of conversion to Shiism to Iran’s desire to harm Egyptian interests. Similar accusations can also be found in the cases 11 12

14

With the Buenos Aires bombings of 1994, for which Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon are accused by Argentina. In 2012, a bus of Israeli tourists was bombed in Burgas, also inciting suspicions against Hezbollah.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

of Senegal and Algeria, though they sound exaggerated. The fears of many of the region’s governments vis-à-vis Iran and its regional allies are the main reason behind their obsession with the threats of Shiism. Iran never denied the existence of such conversions, but this does not mean that Tehran is actively promoting a strategy of converting Sunni and nonSunni Muslims to Shiism. Examples of such conversions exist but the idea that they are taking place on a large scale has yet to be proven. Furthermore, an individual adhering to Shiism does not necessarily have an automatic allegiance to Iran and its policies. Indeed, from a theological point of view, Shias have to follow religious guides or leaders of their choice, who enlighten them on religious attitudes to adopt. These people, called marja’, often put their religious beliefs above patriotic feelings.13 Though there are no statistics made available on the matter, the general belief among Shias is that a majority of them follow Iraqbased Ayatollah Sistani’s teachings and orientations. Sistani’s official stance of non-interference in political affairs has to be put in perspective: the ayatollah is known for giving discrete indications concerning Iraq’s political life, though he never does so publicly. And though a number of Shias may follow Iran’s regional policy because of their intrinsic bias, this doesn’t mean that their attitude can be attributed to a blind allegiance to the orientations of their marja’. Even if this were the case, in the case of Sistani his personal convictions and choices do not demonstrate any inclination to Iran, its official religious dogma or its policies. On the contrary, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei is challenging the school of thought of Sistani. As for Shia Arabs, they tend to focus on their internal (local and national) perspectives, without necessarily knowing much about Iran’s political life. Shias in general may agree with Iran on some important issues, such as opposing the policies of the US and its regional allies, and none could deny they are generally at odds with Sunnis, especially when it comes to dealing with their respective political beliefs. But none of this means that Shias in general could be heading towards a global and inevitable common agreement. The situation in Iraq, where Shias are in total disagreement over a large range of political and strategic issues, speaks for itself. The Iranian clergy’s authority over Shias in general is being challenged, as highlighted by the demonstrations that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, as well as the youth’s growing sense of disconnect with the country’s religious rules.14 There is also less cohesion between Shias of the Arab world than what is generally said and thought. This limits the possibility for a country such as Iran to emerge as a subsequent regional leader. Arab countries that have a majority of Shia nationals, such as Bahrain and Iraq, represent well the large diversity of Shiism. Both countries have something in common: ‘their’ Shias cannot disconnect their religion and beliefs from political considerations. In 13 14

For more on the Marja’iya, its history and contemporary translations, see Barah Mikaïl (2006). La question de la ‘Marja’iya’ chiite, http://www.iris-france.org/docs/consulting/2006_chiite.pdf [Consulted 15 December 2013]. Ahmadinejad does not follow Khamenei from a religious perspective, but he was the Supreme Guide’s protégé for years, before the two leaders exchanged strong disagreements at the end of Ahmadinejad’s second presidential mandate.

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Bahrain, Shias—who represent more than 60% of the population—are homogenously united over one political objective at least: to get the ruling (Sunni) dynasty to change its attitude towards them by recognising their basic rights and putting an end to their social discrimination. But their views are different from the Iraqi Shias, who are split between different trends depending on which political (or more often political and religious) leader they follow.15 In contrast, more cohesion can be found among Sunnis of both countries. Bahraini Sunnis have a majority to defend the ruling dynasty and few seem ready to consider the access of Shia politicians to key positions. In Iraq, a somewhat similar sense of solidarity exists among Sunnis, though it has nuances too. That said, the Sunni minority’s fears of ending up with a pro-Iranian (and, from their point of view, pro-Shia) regime have paved the way for the emergence of a union sacrée in recent years. As for the post-2003 context, it has deepened the rift between these communities—though the seeds were sown long before. The weakening of the feeling of national belonging has a lot to do with that. To a certain extent, similar observations can be formulated in the case of countries where Shias form a minority. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, sectarianism is part of politics. But it generally relates to internal perspectives and state regional policies, whereas in Bahrain and Iraq most of the challenges are national. Fifteen per cent of Saudi Arabia’s nationals are Shias and, like their Bahraini counterparts, they have demands for citizenship rights. Yet while a majority of Saudi Sunnis would consider these complaints about abuses to exaggerated and/or unjustified, the Saudi ruling royal family sees in its Shia nationals a community that could be influenced by Iran. The case is the same in Yemen, where Zaydi rebels complain about poor access to their rights as citizens and the Yemeni government often sees their demands as motivated by an Iranian plot against the country. At the same time, the weapons and military means possessed by Zaydis reflect negatively on their claims of being an independent, transparent movement. In Syria, the current president, who succeeded his father in 2000, is an Alawite. Alawites are a minority in the country,16 and there are various accusations that Syria is favouring the interests of Alawites at the expense of all other communities. In Lebanon, the 18 coexisting communities faced a political struggle between four of the main political representatives for religious communities: Sunnis, Shias, Christian Maronites and Druzes. But the main conflict is the ongoing clash between Shias and Sunnis. While the Lebanese Hezbollah justifies its detaining of weapons by its willingness to defend the country’s interests, the Sunni Future Party and its allies claim that Hezbollah is Iranian-led and holds a sectarian agenda. Ultimately, all of these situations lead to a regionalisation of internal issues. While

15 16

16

On the diversity of Shiism in Iraq, see Faleh A. Jabar (2003). The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq. London: Saqi Books; on Bahrain, see Laurence Louër (2008). Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. New York; Paris: Columbia University Press. But Alawites should be seen as issuing from one of the ramifications of Shiism, not as a ‘Shia orthodox’ community.


The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

Saudi Arabia involves Yemen in its struggle against Iranian influence in the region, the Syrian regime is leading—in parallel to its internal fight—a regional strategy, hand in hand with Iran and Hezbollah. Lebanon, too, is interacting with its regional environment: with Hezbollah being supported by Iran, and its rivals strongly supported by Saudi Arabia. Countries in which Shias do not represent a significant community are also confronted with this same Sunni–Shia issue. This is particularly the case for Morocco, Egypt and Jordan. In 2004, Jordan was the first country to talk about the emergence of a regional ‘Shia crescent’, in part because of American policies in the region, and its fears were echoed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ten years later, the three countries are still attuned to the same thinking. Morocco also declared similar concerns, with Rabat regularly warning of conversions to Shiism occurring on its territory, and the Iranian ambassador to Morocco was expelled in 2009. Morocco, which has a Sunni majority, may be sincere in expressing concern over religious issues, but the country is also dependent on Gulf-originated funds. By developing accusations against Iran and its presumed regional policies, it opens the door to more support from its Gulf funders. With the Arab Spring, these accusations have flourished. Similar to what we witnessed following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, it looked all of a sudden as if the Sunni states in the region were afraid of Iran’s capacity to exploit uprisings and encourage Arab Shias to take to the streets. Suspicions of a regional Iranian-led plot could not seriously explain the reasons for the ‘Arab uprisings’. Nevertheless, regional security issues became the easy target for pointing out Iran’s supposedly negative role, and the increasing destabilisation of the region was once again blamed on Iran and its quest for regional influence. That said, no new countries joined the initial group of states sceptical about Iran. Saudi Arabia remained the main, fierce critic of ‘foreign-led’ regional actors, whom it considered responsible for the violence. Egypt and Jordan became less vocal on the issue. Only Bahrain, anti-Hezbollah parties in Lebanon and Yemen made their ‘Iranian-Shia’ fears an official concern. As for Iranians, they rejected such accusations or tried to reassure Arab countries that they had no bad intentions towards them— though this does not mean Iranians do not share the same kind of concerns when it comes to fearing an ‘Arab–Sunni’ plot aimed at harming their interests. As an Iranian reformist cleric put it once: from Iran’s point of view, ‘there is no Shia crescent, but there is a Sunni one’.17

Syria: a strong indicator of the weakness of central governments and institutions? Sectarian issues are being used for political purposes. At the same time, and from a broader point of view, behind many of the regional fears lies the crisis of nation states. It is not easy to determine whether the region’s traditional boundaries will really change in the near future or not. But the partition of Sudan, the unrecognised but effective federalisation of Iraq, the fragile situation in Libya, sectarian rivalries in Lebanon and the uncertain

17

Interview in Qom, Iran, June 2006.

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future of Syria are strong reasons for alarm. With the exception of Libya, which is mired in tribal and political rivalries for leadership, the aforementioned countries are the subjects of strong sectarian rivalries. These disagreements and/or fights often relate to national territories. In Syria, the fiefs of Alawites, Christians and Kurds are known, and if the country happened to split, it would most certainly do so along these sectarian lines. In Lebanon, the situation is less homogeneous and tensions between communities often translate into conflicts between regions or districts. In Iraq, the same occurs with Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Arab Shias living in three distinct and identified geographical territories. The political tensions that prevail in all of these countries highlight a structural weakness in the central institutions. And if any of these countries had to split, there would be a significant chance it would provoke similar risks in its regional neighbourhood. This has become especially true in the case of Syria, and this possibility makes Gulf states in general and Saudi Arabia in particular feel uncomfortable. Countries of the Arabian peninsula consider their political structures to be strong, compared to most other Arab countries. But they don’t want this ‘stability’ they believe in to be threatened by either the Arab Spring or a foreign-led plot. Fostered sectarianism could indeed reach their territories, where social perspectives are not homogeneous. The ‘Shia factor’ remains a considerable cause for concern from their point of view, not necessarily because of traditional theological disagreements, but more because such a situation would increase the risks of a ‘Sudanisation’ of the region, with communities pushing to declare their socio-political specificity.

Myths and limits of the solutions for this geopolitics of disagreement Talking about fast and efficient solutions to the geopolitics of disagreement between Sunnis and Shias would be neither realistic nor easy to define. The roots for the problems between both communities go far beyond sole issues of perception. The intertwining of too many elements explains the complexity of the issue. Nevertheless, it remains possible to try and determine what steps have proven limited up to now, as well as to try and foresee what possible institutional changes could either defuse regional tensions or give more pragmatic answers to regional challenges in the long run.

Would a Muslim ‘Vatican 2’ solve things? There is a general consensus that the Council of Vatican 2 (1962–1965) changed the Catholic Church. Clearly, the reforms that were adopted at that time contributed to giving Catholicism a new face. Without being altered, the principles of Catholicism sounded more adapted to the world and its realities. But would it be realistic to consider the same move in the case of Islam in general and/or Sunnism and Shiism in particular? Both Sunnis and Shias have the same original common belief: they consider that Muhammad is the Prophet of Islam, and they read and share a common holy book, the Koran. But these elements are not enough to allow them to consider a common reform

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The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

under the banner of their mutual affiliation to Islam. Undoubtedly many of the teachings Muslims refer to, such as food restrictions, way of dressing and compatibility of some of their practices with the needs of contemporary world, would deserve an in-depth discussion before reform could be considered. However, the possibility of a ‘Mecca 2’ supposes that the beliefs of both communities are based on common and shared beliefs. Obviously, this is far from being the case with Sunnism and Shiism. The positions of Sunnis and Shias are not irreconcilable. Trying to globalise perspectives in both communities is a mistake. Both have their own radicals and reformists—and reformists and pragmatics could be the way forward to bridging the gap between Sunnis and Shias. Nevertheless, politics and geopolitics seem to be the major obstacle to their possible positive contribution to the situation. Regional drivers are being determined by the most influential countries of the region, who decide the topic and what should be understood from it—as highlighted by the regional media and the generally held ideas it defends. This is ground where states can play comfortably. Generally speaking, Sunnis and Shias have their own preconceived ideas and tend to rally around and/or believe the media that they feel cares about their interests. When it comes to satellite broadcasting channels, which are among the most influential media, it is easy to notice that the creation of several new channels over the past decade did not really impede the spreading of global, mainstream, preconceived ideas. This has important consequences. Most of the ideas that are developed in the media generally stick to one particular way for interpreting events. It is easy to notice that popular channels and newspapers in the Arab world are generally influenced by a Saudi and Qatari way of seeing and interpreting events. Both countries have developed an influential strategy, based on creating their own resources and funding popular media to get them defending their vision of events. Al-Jazeera is funded by Qatar, while al-Arabiya is co-funded by investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Al-Quda al-Arabi, one of the most popular newspapers in the Middle East, is funded by Qatar while al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, two of its main challengers, are supported by Saudi Arabia. The negative impact on the independence of these publications is evident. It is not rare to read or hear in most of these media ideas that suggest a sectarian interpretation of events. For reformists to follow a positive path there is a need to go beyond the regional sectarian climate and build a dynamic that would engage communities, their leaders and their representatives. While neither Sunnis nor Shias have their respective unique religious authorities, most of the official representatives of Islam have too close relations with governmental actors. Furthermore, the spirit of reformism does not seem to exist at the level of religious authorities or in places such as al-Azhar, Mecca, Qom or even Najaf. This only adds to the difficulty of moving forward, though authorities regularly say they are interested into bridging sectarian gaps.

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The unachieved dialogues of civilisations Many projects aiming at organising dialogues have been set up, particularly since the 11 September attacks. Some of these initiatives refer specifically to religion, while others prefer to use names such as ‘dialogue of civilisations’. Nevertheless, the success of these initiatives has been limited so far. The organising of debates and talks between representatives and members of various communities has garnered a lot of interest. Whether in the case of the UN or with countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has opened an International Centre for Interreligious and Cultural Dialogue in Vienna, many actors try to prove that they are engaged in provoking more rapprochements between communities. But positive and real results have yet to show. Interreligious dialogues may be motivated by good intentions. But they remain insufficient to bring solutions to the current global misunderstanding between some religious communities. Sunnis and Shias are among the most important groups worth consideration in this case. Many violent attacks in the Muslim world have Sunni or Shia targets, as highlighted by the examples of Pakistan and Iraq. Furthermore, the Arab Spring and the situation in Syria have given new life to a lexicon that focuses on the risks that would be represented by either ‘Sunni forces’ or ‘Shia forces’. Once again, political and geopolitical realities prove themselves to be stronger than goodwill and aims to foster dialogue. Furthermore, when such dialogues happen to be promoted by states that are party to conflicts, they automatically arouse suspicion. Public-funded projects are often seen as public-relations operations that have the main objective of defending the image of governments, which happens to be true in most cases. Figures of moderation do exist in the Muslim world, but their audience seems to be too limited. Political unrest and the worry of having to deal with people and communities motivated by a sectarian agenda have heightened fears. The reality of the Muslim world is that a global spirit of religious radicalism is gaining momentum. Communities fear more and more that they could be hijacked by their ‘religious rivals’. The weakening of governmental and political structures does not help them believe in better prospects for the future. National affiliation can stand as an efficient barrier to sectarianism, but the absence of strong national structures can easily result in the feeling that communities would be left to themselves. This is where dialogue between communities seems to be a useless tool that can scarcely give answers to the ongoing challenges. States can hardly pretend to neutrality while they are engaged in geopolitical dynamics, as is the case with radical movements that do not even think about the idea of starting a dialogue, such as al-Qaida. It’s unlikely that the legacy of misunderstanding and mutual mistrust can be reversed, especially in the ongoing context. The main representatives of both states and religious communities hardly give reason to believe in their strong commitment to overcoming their disagreements. At the same time, this does not mean that their stances engage all members of their respective communities. Thanks to the media and a more outward-looking attitude, the youth of the Muslim world are more open to facts and realities than their parents and

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The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

grandparents were before them. This inspires hope that a better state of affairs could exist in the future—though the time of pragmatic and moderate youth determining the nature of global evolutions seems not to have arrived yet.

Is shifting from centralism to federalisation a possible solution? On a broader level, there is a need to think about the pragmatic solutions that could help defuse the ongoing tensions. The current evolutions in some parts of the Muslim world provoke a crucial question: what if the future of some countries had to be considered in terms of concrete alternatives to nation states? As if so, would federalisation bring more positive prospects? The unrest that continues between Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon only heightens non-sectarian situations, such as in Egypt and Libya. In parallel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are also facing social unrest, though to different degrees. Without generalising, it is worth starting to consider whether a rethinking of the efficiency of central institutions could be part of the solution required for the future of some countries. Federalisation remains a taboo in the Arab world, and most people fear its institutionalisation would lead to a sectarian partition similar to that which recently split Sudan. But facts also speak for themselves. Iraq is already split between three communities that are each living in a specific part of the country. The central state is weak and increasingly less able to pretend it can guarantee the interests and preserve the security of its citizens. In Lebanon, sectarian tensions are nothing new. But the geographic concentration of communities in specific parts of the country has added to the tensions between the main political and religious leaders (namely Sunnis, Shias, Maronites and Druzes). This continues to jeopardise the country’s future. In Syria, it is too early to determine whether the country will be preserved from a split or not in the long run, but sectarianism is obviously part of the war logic that prevails in the country. Though Libya is a more homogeneous country from a social point of view, many leaders and citizens of its three main regions (Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica) claim their regional specificities and are increasingly demanding ‘political autonomy’ from the central state. Extending the same theory to the example of countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or even Yemen would be risky: every country has its own specificities, and what could work in one does not necessary apply to all. That said, we are forgetting too easily that national borders are the result of historical facts, and that the countries we are talking about today could have been born in another shape and even under another name. National affiliations have not been truly undermined up to now, and the feeling of belonging to a nation and a country remains a strong part of people’s identities. Besides, history has seen brutal accelerations with unexpected consequences. The Sykes–Picot agreements are less than 100 years behind us, but while they generated a fragile situation they did not undermine the sense of religious belonging. With the Arab world in crisis, it is easy to notice that people who don’t trust their governments seek to

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find consolation in religion and spiritual beliefs. Efforts should always be made to create dialogue between communities and develop every possible method of forming bridges. But reality also necessitates preparation for the day when central governments lose their integrity and legitimacy. If not properly anticipated, a fragile Arab world, when combined with the growing tensions between religious communities, could produce a situation much worse than what we have witnessed up to now.

Conclusion The prospects for the future of relations between Sunnis and Shias are rather worrying. Until recently, both communities seemed to contain their divergences. But things started to change following the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The emergence of a ‘Shia-led government’ in Baghdad with close links to Iran confirmed regional governmental fears. Gulf states became actively engaged in a strategy of denouncing the ‘Shia crescent’. Their concerns soon translated into attacks and fights between communities, with Iraq being the most obvious representation of this unrest. With the ‘Arab Spring’, the degree of sectarian fears increased. More and more elements organised as if there was an emerging rivalry, opposing a regional ‘Sunni leadership’ to a ‘Shia rival’. Broadly speaking, communities adhere to this ‘discourse of fear’ that emanates from some governments. But this does not mean that they necessarily translate theory to practice. Though there are extremists everywhere, we are not on the eve of a new war of religions that would bloodily oppose Sunnis and Shias. The major issue is the one that involves antiIranian governments and their regional rivals. These political matters happen to reflect on relations between some communities, but this does not mean that sectarianism has become an appropriate lens for analysing the Arab and/or even the Muslim world. Some official speeches and statements may give such an impression, but the reality is that we have not entered an era of global religious combat… yet. The disagreement between Sunnis and Shias remains mainly geopolitical, and it is hence limited to the political sphere. Only political rest is likely to bring a more peaceful environment. To guarantee such a positive result, it is important to keep in mind the importance of education. It will take a long time before states and governments decide to put aside their fears and rivalries. But, meanwhile, people and communities hold the key to better prospects for all and an overcoming of any fatalistic scenario based on the idea of a ‘clash of communities’. With the Arab Spring, the idea of a powerful and efficient ‘citizen power’ has started to prove its relevance. But while the potential of citizen and ‘netizen’ trends is not a myth, it also has yet to be confirmed. It is up to the people to prove that, far away from political considerations, peaceful relations can prevail within communities that have decided to live in total and mutual respect and to turn their differences into assets. Waiting for a top-down approach to the matter will only increase the risk of ending up with more disagreements and less prospects for peace.

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The Geopolitics of Disagreement between Sunnis and Shias: A Global Overview

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Barah Mikaïl is a senior researcher at FRIDE. Prior to joining the organisation, he was senior researcher on water issues and the Middle East and North Africa at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) in Paris (2002–2010). He specialises in the Middle East and North Africa region, covering topics such as EU and US policies and security, political and economic issues. Other areas of expertise include ethnicity, tribalism and Islam in the Arab world, plus political issues around water.

ABSTRACT Rivalries and the original misunderstanding between Sunnis and Shias go back to the origins of Islam. Politics and religion have both been at stake for 14 centuries, but facts emphasise that political issues and the quest for power have often been the main objectives of leaders of the Muslim world. This remains a reality today. Some states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are trying to achieve their geopolitical and strategic objectives by pretending indirectly to a religious sectarian-based legitimacy. Reading the evolutions of the region only through the angle of sectarianism would be misleading. But the growing importance of religion in state policies is a reality that must be kept in mind when trying to understand what is really at stake in the Arab world.

KEYWORDS Islam, Sunnis, Shias, Arab World, Sectarianism, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

‫امللخص‬ ‫ لتختلط السياسة‬،‫يعود تاريخ التنافس و النزاع اإلقليميني بني السنة و الشيعة إىل بداية ظهور اإلسالم‬ ‫ بالرغم من أن األحداث بينت لنا بأن قضية السياسة و الرصاع من أجل السلطة قد‬،‫ قرنا‬14 ‫بالدين ملدة‬ ‫و تحاول بعض‬. ‫ و هو األمر الذي مل يتبدل إىل يومنا هذا‬.‫شكال غالبا الهدف الرئييس لزعامء العامل اإلسالمي‬ ‫الدول مثل اململكة العربية السعودية و إيران تحقيق أهدافها الجيوسياسية و اإلسرتاتيجية بالتنافس الغري‬ ‫ لذلك فمن الخطإ تفسري التطورات الحاصلة يف املنطقة‬.‫املبارش حول الرشعية الدينية القامئة عىل املذهبية‬ ‫إنطالقا فقط من منطلقات مذهبية؛ لكن تزايد أهمية الدين يف سياسة الدولة يشكل من دون أدىن شك‬ .‫ إذا كنا نرغب يف فهم التحديات التي تواجه العامل العريب اليوم‬،‫حدثا يجب أخذه باإلعتبار‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ العربية السعودية‬،‫ إيران‬،‫ املذهبية‬،‫ العامل العريب‬،‫ الشيعة‬،‫ السنة‬،‫اإلسالم‬

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SAUDI ARABIA VERSUS IRAN: REGIONAL BALANCE OF POWER Fatiha Dazi-Héni

C

urrent sectarian divisions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) appear to be more a result of a geopolitical struggle with ideological antagonism, in the two nations’ quest for predominance in the Middle East, than purely related to religiosity. This new ‘cold war’ can be demonstrated by the strategies used by both states since the events of the Arab Spring, which have shown a growing bipolarisation, based on the sectarianism of the conflicts facing more and more Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since 2011. This situation could increase the probability of the sectarian narrative prevailing in their joint quest for predominance in the Middle East. However, these two states are also challenged by their own domestic agendas, which do not necessarily fit with their regional rhetoric concerning sectarianism.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry as a traditional geopolitical regional stake since 1979 The intense and direct contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional influence in the Persian Gulf, and more generally in the Middle East, is a recent phenomenon. The two countries are hardly natural allies. One is overwhelmingly Sunni; the other Shia. Since the Iranian Revolution, both have advanced claims to speak for the larger Muslim world. They also both share substantial coastlines along the Persian Gulf and have ambitions in the area. Iran is considerably larger in population; Saudi Arabia produces much more oil. Yet none of this means they are fated to permanent conflict. During the days of the Shah, the two countries regarded each other if not as allies, then at least not as enemies.


Fatiha Dazi-Héni

The more direct conflict of recent times stems from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad fundamentally altered the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Since then, we have witnessed a new ‘cold war’ between the KSA and IRI, with Iraq becoming the principal arena of that ideological rivalry, underpinned by the quest for leadership of the Middle East. When Iraq was a functioning state it served as a balance against Iranian power. The Saudis knew this and supported Hussein in his war against Iran from 1980 to 1988—even though they did not like or trust him. Even after Hussein’s ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraq served as a buffer zone between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The fall of Hussein’s regime and the inability of America to build a stable Iraqi establishment to succeed him turned Iraq from a player into a playing field in the Middle East power game. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia supported, and continue to support, local allies in the domestic political struggle in Iraq. The Iranians definitely have the upper hand, with many allies among the country’s Shia majority and a strong relationship with the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister. One of the unanticipated consequences of the US intervention in Iraq has been the increase in sectarian tensions, not only in that country but in the entire region. The collapse of the Iraqi state has led to greater Iranian assertiveness, prompting growing concern amongst Arab countries. King Abdullah of Jordan used the term ‘Shia crescent’ to describe alleged Iranian plans to shift the regional balance by supporting an alliance of Shia regimes. This fear is now becoming a reality, more in terms of an Iranian sphere of influence than a purely Shia umbrella dominated by Iran, because of the significant differences in theology between the Iranian Republic and the rest of the Shia in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Alawites, Zaïdites and Isma’ilis, whose beliefs are far from those of the Twelver majority. The Shia-oriented solidarity demonstrated by Iran’s strong support of the Syrian regime, which for two and a half years has faced a massive Sunni rebellion, is today vocally denounced by the dynastical Arab Gulf monarchies, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront. The Saudi–Iranian contest for influence in Iraq provides a template for their larger regional rivalry. That battle is fought in the fragmented domestic politics of weak Arab states: Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, as well as Iraq. Each side backs local allies in the hope that those allies will come to power—as Maliki has in Iraq—and tilt toward their foreign patron. For Iran, those allies include Hezbollah in Lebanon and, to a certain extent, Hamas in Palestine; for Saudi Arabia: the Palestinian Authority; and in Lebanon: the Sunni partisans of former prime minister Sa’ad al-Hariri, who are now challenged by a powerful Salafi trend openly backed by Riyadh. The KSA also supports various tribal sheikhs and Sunni political figures in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Neither Riyadh nor Tehran presents a real military threat to their neighbours. The Saudi army is quite small, untested and rarely used outside Saudi borders, other than its short and

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Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

ultimately failed campaign against Huthi rebels in North Yemen between November 2009 and February 2010. The Iranian army is larger and more battle-tested, from its war with Iraq in the 1980s, but it too is not a real offensive threat—with the exception of its non-conventional ballistic missiles and nuclear enrichment program, intended only as a deterrent.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry since the Arab Spring Saudi Arabia and Iran battle for regional influence in the MENA region through the deployment of money, guns, ideology and sectarian influence in the domestic politics of their neighbours. This state of affairs became the big story of the Arab Spring: the main issue being how the rivalry for regional influence between the two countries is affected by domestic changes taking place in the Arab states. That rivalry, emerging from the two states’ geopolitical contest in the Persian Gulf, is now the most important international factor in the Middle East. While the Arab–Israeli conflict remains key, it is largely frozen right now. The main regional and international dynamic comes from the manoeuvrings of Tehran and Riyadh. Both have made gains and losses in the Arab Spring and both, ultimately, share a common interest in seeing the democratic process fail in the region—or at least the failing status quo prevail in the weak states of the Levant, Iraq and Yemen. The Arab Spring, by shaking the stability of a number of Arab states, has opened up new fields of contestation for Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Yemen, Saudis claim that Iranians have established tentative ties with the Huthi movement, which began a rebellion against the central government in the mid 2000s and currently controls much of the northern part of the country. In Bahrain, the government alleged (without much evidence) that the popular mobilisation for political reform that roiled the country in February to March 2011 was orchestrated from Tehran—which was enough for the Saudis to send troops into Bahrain in support of the ruling Sunni monarchy. In Egypt, the Saudis lost their major Arab ally against Iran when Hosni Mubarak fell from power, and they are trying to make the Iranians suffer the same fate by supporting the Syrian rebellion against Iranian-allied Bashar al-Assad. Syria is now becoming another major playing field in the Saudi–Iranian rivalry, as the power of the central government crumbles and the country devolves into civil war. Sectarianism has experienced a boost in the aftermath of the popular uprisings in the Arab world. The fall of authoritarian Arab leaders and fragile transitional processes has led to a number of rifts between Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals, as well as religious divisions between Sunnis and Shias. Recent events have also prompted improbable alliances, such as that in Egypt today between so-called pro-democratic liberals and the military, or that forged between a section of Salafis (Hizb al-Nour) and Christians (the Coptic Church) to get rid of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement from the political sphere. However, while sectarianism in the region is real and carries risks, I believe the rise of sectarian strife in the aftermath of the 2012 uprisings has mainly been stoked by political

27


Fatiha Dazi-Héni

strategies. The deepening of sectarian rifts in the region goes back to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and has been accelerated by the Arab Spring, especially the Syrian conflict. In Iraq, for example, the central government remains weak and is struggling to ensure national unity. The rise of a strong Kurdish presence in the north and a Shia bastion in the south saw the Sunnis of the centre squeezed between strong rivalling regional factions. In the aftermath of the 2011–2012 power shifts, several Arab countries now fear that such sectarian tendencies could reach and destabilise their own territories, and their governments have felt pressure to respond to these developments in order to avoid possible spillovers. The risk of sectarian splits is real and present in several Arab countries, including Lebanon, where sectarian strife between Sunnis and Alawites in Beirut and Tripoli has resurfaced. However, Arab governments have also adroitly instrumentalised and overemphasised the dangers of sectarianism in order to safeguard ruling elites’ hold on power and maintain a lead on protests. In Saudi Arabia, repression of timid uprisings in the east of the country was portrayed by the rulers as a struggle against Shia-led sedition. A similar public diplomacy strategy was adopted in Bahrain, where violence extended on a wider scale. And in Yemen, President Saleh referred to tensions between communities as a plot aimed at destabilising and dividing the country. Sectarian tensions have assumed the most alarming proportions in Syria, where riots quickly turned to violence between Sunnis and Alawites. This emphasis today on the ‘Shiatisation’ of the Alawite sect, even though they never claimed to be Shias in the past, is a clear sign of growing sectarianism. The Syrian regime exerted harsh repression and justified its acts using the threat of a ‘foreign conspiracy’. The sectarian argument eventually served the Assad regime in its efforts to curtail the dynamics of protests by keeping people away from the streets.

Saudi state strategy As a traditional conservative regional player, Saudi Arabia’s aim is to ‘contain’ threats and maintain its own security. While the country seeks to distance itself from the impacts of the Arab Spring’s socio-political dynamics and prevent them from crossing its borders, its active role in the Syrian and Bahraini crises is focused on constraining Iran’s regional role, as well as strengthening its own relative security. Nevertheless, the only major Arab country likely to engage in active diplomacy today is Saudi Arabia. Its enormous oil wealth gives it the means, and it feels threatened by a nexus of external and internal forces demanding an active foreign policy to curb the growth of Iranian influence in the region. With its vast reserves of oil, significant demographic base and huge inventory of sophisticated armaments bought from the West, principally the United States, Saudi Arabia is located at the centre of the Arab Gulf system and is the predominant power in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which incorporates the six dynastical monarchies of the Arabian peninsula.

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Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

Its geostrategic competition with Iran and self-proclaimed role as the protector of Sunni interests against Iran and its Shia co-religionists in Iraq and the Levant have increased Saudi Arabia’s value as the major influential Arab state—and not Qatar, as it has often been related in the media. That tiny emirate faces a number of diplomatic, religious and demographic restrictions to expanding its influence, while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia makes use of various instruments and mechanisms to export religious ideologies beyond its borders. The influence of the Saudi territory as the ‘cradle of Islam’ has favoured, as stated by Laurent Bonnefoy,18 the emergence of a number of mechanisms of proselytism, used as a tool of Saudi ‘soft power’ through the combination of major oil revenues with the diplomacy of NGOs and International Islamic organisations (World Muslim League, etc.). However, as a state, Saudi Arabia is like a colossus with feet of clay. Bolstering its capabilities, principally with the transfer of high-tech weapons from the United States, is unlikely to change the balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran. The Saudi state is vulnerable, mainly as its old leadership is regularly challenged by the issue of succession. This issue is now openly raised by the third generation of princes led by King Abdallah’s sons and the powerful heirs of the Sudeïri clan.19 As a result, despite its considerable financial and religious influence, Saudi Arabia’s inherent weakness and the built-in contradictions in its foreign policy are likely to limit its regional appeal and considerably hobble its diplomacy. The refusal of Saudi Arabia to give its speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013, shortly followed by its rejection of a non-permanent seat on the UN National Security Council because of its disagreement with the adopted UN resolutions in the Syrian file, showed a lack of the pragmatism traditionally used in diplomacy. If the aim was to show its dissatisfaction with the United Nations and the new US diplomatic orientation towards the Middle East, which demonstrates a clear unwillingness to participate in any other military interventions in the MENA region, this display of public discontent did not push Saudi authorities to challenge the US, their major ally in the area. Since the first events of the Arab Spring, Riyadh has adopted a defensive approach, based on maintaining the status quo, because of its deep fear of the irreversible winds of change in the Arab world. This explains its sense of panic when President Mubarak stepped down and the Muslim Brothers came to power after their success in the 2012 18 19

Laurent Bonnefoy (2013). ‘Saudi Arabia and the export of religious ideologies’, NOREF Policy Brief, September 2013. Sudeïri is the name of the mother of the six brothers who used to represent this clan: King Fahd, crown princes Sultan and Nayef (all dead), Princes Abdulrahman and Ahmad (both now without official functions) and the current crown prince, Salman. The clan is now represented more by the younger third generation, who have a less close-knit relationship than the previous generation, which was linked by direct brotherhood. The new main figures are Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, Minister of Interior; his brother Saud, Governor of the Hasa Province; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Chief of General Intelligence; his half brother Salman Bin Sultan, Deputy Minister of Defence; and the sons of Prince Salman: Abdel-Aziz, Vice Minister of Oil; Sultan, Head of the Supreme Council for Tourism; and Faysal, Governor of Medina.

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Fatiha Dazi-Héni

legislative and presidential elections. Indeed, Riyadh focused its primary actions on preserving its immediate sphere of influence, that of the GCC, and containing the Yemeni chaos. The first major unprecedented intervention was that of the Arabian Shield in Manama on 14 March 2011—a Saudi-led intervention, under the cover of a multilateral GCC action, to help the Khalifa Sunni dynasty put an end to the popular, Shia-dominated mobilisation. This mobilisation was started not for sectarian reasons but to make political demands and fight the social discrimination that its participants faced as Bahraini citizens.20 However, the fact that the Shia represents a majority of the population gave authority to the argument that it was a sectarian contestation willing to put an end to the Sunni leadership. The other diplomatic tool used by the KSA was the idea of launching a Union of the Gulf. The GCC was created on 25 May 1981 in response to the threatened expansion of the Islamic Revolution and the Iraqi–Iranian war in September 1980. The launching of the Gulf Union project by the KSA, during the 32nd GCC state summit in Abu Dhabi in December 2011, aimed to show its strength vis-à-vis its Iranian enemy. The GCC military intervention in Bahrain that has created discontent in the US administration also disturbed Iran. Even if the idea of the Union itself is not popular among the GCC member states that refused it,21 the idea of reinforcing GCC states with a united security and defence framework gained approval from the rulers, to a certain extent. Furthermore, although the proposal of a Gulf Union is written in Article 4 of the GCC charter, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia prefers to use the concept of Tawhid or unity, which is emphasised in Hanbali Wahhabi ideology and is the cornerstone of the religious and ideological foundation of the modern KSA. Through their sermons and Friday speeches, the Higher Council of Ulama (the official Wahhabi establishment), as the pre-eminent imams of the great mosques of Mecca and Medina, also praised several times during 2012 the great relevance of the economic and security-based union created within the GCC in order to be able to defeat hostile forces.22 The announcement made by the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, in the Manama meeting of December 2013, concerning the US commitment to provide security to its Arab Gulf allies, has been reasserted by America’s new willingness to help the GCC built its security and defence architecture, through new, sophisticated military capacities able to prevent any foreign aggression.23 20 21

22 23

30

Geneive Abdo (2013). The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi‘a–Sunni Divide. Analysis paper number 29, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, 10 April 2013. During the Manama Dialogue (6–8 December 2013), an annual forum on security issues in the Gulf region, the minister of foreign affairs of the Sultanate of Oman publicly and firmly rejected any idea of joining the Gulf Union project introduced by the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, Nizar Madani. See Manama Dialogue, http://www.iiss.org/en/events/manama%20dialogue/archive/manama-dialogue-2013-4e92 and http://susris.com/glossary/manama-dialogue/ [Consulted on 8 December 2013]. Several articles in the Saudi press raised this issue (al-Watan, al-Sharq-al-Awsat and al-Hayat). Walter Pincus, ‘Hagel’s verbal assurances for continued U.S. presence in the Middle East come with action’, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/hagels-verbal-assurances-for-continued-


Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

The catalyst for this new ideological assertiveness and intensity in the Saudi–Iranian regional rivalry was provided by the Syrian civil war. A reduction in regional sectarian tensions is unlikely in the short term, especially on the Syrian battleground. Iran has no interest in making concessions relating to the Syrian file while it is trying to secure a final deal with the US and other members of the P5+1 group on its nuclear program. As for Saudi Arabia, it will never accept in Syria a situation like the Iraqi one, where Iran has the upper hand.

Iran state strategy Tehran gained the most from the geopolitical changes that accompanied the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, the Arab Spring runs counter to Tehran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East. Tehran has damaged its reputation with its still-ongoing support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. If Assad falls, Iran will lose a major ally. Also, at the same time that Arabs are becoming increasingly proud of their own revolutionary achievements, Iran is losing its reputation as an anti-Israeli and anti-American regime, especially since the last presidential elections, which saw President Hassan Rouhani addressing a rapprochement with Washington. As Mohsen Milani stresses,24 before the start of the Arab Spring, the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah was strong and popular with the so-called ‘axis of resistance’, which took its ideological basis from the narrative of ‘resistance’ against the United States and Israel. This triple alliance gave Iran strategic depth at the heart of the Arab Middle East, and opened up to Tehran what Milani calls a ‘corridor of resistance’, connecting it to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. So, ironically, whilst Iran supported the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain but not Syria; Saudi Arabia, which strongly opposed the Arab Spring uprisings, found in the Syrian uprising an opportunity to undermine Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. The only positive outcome of the Arab Spring for Iran was the fall of Mubarak, but with the removal of the elected president, Morsi, and the sharp repression of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, thwarting its initial aim to establish relations with Egypt, Iran followed a two-pronged policy of expanding its regional role and containing threats. Iran favoured acceleration of internal dynamics in Egypt, since it would lead to closer relations with Morsi’s government. In terms of Syria, Tehran’s policy is to contain the possible shift in the current regional balance of power, which would be to Iran’s detriment. By supporting Assad, Iran has fallen into a trap from which it cannot escape without substantial political and economic cost. Knowing that, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who was appointed by Ayatollah Khomeiny as special representative to supervise the creation of the Hezbollah organisation in 1982—is still

24

us-presence-in-the-middle-east-come-with-action [Consulted on 11 December 2013]. Mohsen Milani (2013). ‘Why Tehran won’t abandon Assad(ism)’. The Washington Quarterly, Fall 2013, pp. 79–93.

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resolute in his support for Assad. Syria is a major front in Tehran’s geostrategic competition with the United States, its cold war with Saudi Arabia and its war against Salafis and al-Qaida affiliated groups, whose hatred of Shiism is well known. Tehran perceives the collapse of the Assad regime would be an inauspicious move that could checkmate Hezbollah and the Islamic republic. This is why, argues Milani in his article, Iran will fight to the bitter end to protect the Syrian regime, with or without Assad. Rouhani’s moderate messages to Saudi Arabia won’t convince Riyadh about Iran’s Syrian policy, which cannot fundamentally change, especially in regard to its historical support for Hezbollah (created under Iranian supervision).

The

impact of sectarian rhetoric in the geopolitical

Saudi–Iranian

rivalry on

their own domestic agendas

The growing fragmentation of territories and weakened states in the Levant and Iraq has led to a deepening of sectarian divisions and the assertion of community identities by default. The new self-assertion of ‘Shiatisation’ by Alawites in Syria and Turkey is a clear example of the growing solidarity within the Sunni community, be it from Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood ideology, to assist their Syrian counterparts. These assertive solidarities are helping the Saudi and Iranian states to emphasise the sectarian divisions even though this stance could cause major damage to both their domestic agendas. Iran’s sectarian attitude is a clear sign that it no longer has the will to replicate its Islamic revolution on a universal model in the Islamic world. For the first time in its history as an Islamic republic, Iran is defending its regional interests as a sectarian state, and this is already damaging its reputation as the first Islamic revolutionary state. Operating a different strategy to the axis of resistance can affect balances of power inside the country too, on the domestic front. Due to the Arab uprisings, Iran is already finding it increasingly difficult to influence Arab states and societies through religious and ideological means, as it has done in the past. The following four reasons can explain why this is the case: • •

32

The suppression of the 2009 protests in Iran demonstrated the same brutal authoritarianism shown by most of the neighbouring Arab Sunni states; As Sunni societies and governments become more empowered, interest in Iran wanes and animosity increases. The ideology of the ‘resistance’ and the occupation of Palestine is no longer a mobilising factor in Arab political life today; The uprisings, particularly in the case of Egypt, brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood. But they have been removed from power by militaries that are backed by conservative Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates;


Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

The restoration of the Iraqi city of Najaf as a theological centre has elevated it over the Iranian centre of Qom in the eyes of the Arab Shia and this makes it more difficult for Tehran to continue to claim to be the exclusive guardian of Shiism.

Today, the picture is considerably different for Iran’s regional ambitions. The situation in Iraq between Sunnis and Shias is worsening, especially with the threat posed by the continuing uprising against the Alawite rule in Syria. This is one of the reasons that have driven the newly elected president, Rouhani, to come to an agreement with the P5+1 group concerning the nuclear file. The aim of the accord is to progressively give Iran the opportunity to reintegrate into the international community and regain its position as the major regional player in the Middle East and along its eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nevertheless, Iran’s nightmare remains regime change in Syria. A fundamental change in orientation of the Syrian government, as well as its military and security forces, would be perceived by Tehran as a fatal move that could, as outlined before, checkmate Hezbollah and the Islamic republic. But the longevity of the civil war has allowed Iran to provide vital assistance to Assad’s regime, through militia-building capacities and strategic, military and financial help—also perfected in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria has become the new centre of gravity for jihadist and terrorist organisations, such as the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda. If Assad falls, it’s unlikely that these jihadist organisations will leave Syria, and, consequently, Iran and the United States will share the strategic objective of eliminating these extremist groups and ensuring that the Syrian state does not totally collapse. The longevity of the Syrian civil war has also changed Saudi Arabia’s position. Even if it remains one of the most significant supporters of the Syrian rebellion (the Free Syrian Army and the National Coalition), the kingdom can no longer permit ‘Assadism’ or even a regime without Assad. The hatred of Assadism is deeply anchored in the Saudi public consciousness, as revealed by sermons of imams, social-network discussions and the hundreds of Sunni Saudi fighters battling Assad with their Syrian co-religionists. The longevity of the Syrian civilian war will emphasise the radicalisation of the Saudi position, similarly to that of its population, with an intensification of sectarianism. For the Saudi Kingdom and other dynastical Gulf monarchies, such as Bahrain and even Kuwait, the growing sectarian narrative and deepening divisions could erode the narrative of the Shia communities, which is mainly focused on their local and national integrative agenda. The danger is to see this agenda as becoming transnational, which is not the case according to Laurence Louër, who focuses her attention mainly on Bahrain, a kind of ideal case in the Gulf monarchies.25

25

Laurence Louër (2008). Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf. London: Hurst & Company.

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In Saudi Arabia, the state has encouraged a sectarian propaganda, succeeding in isolating the Shia community, as Madawi al-Rasheed stressed.26 Her picture of the al-Saud House fearing any attempts by elites to bridge the sectarian divide and unite Sunni and Shia activists is unlikely in the KSA, because the huge majority of Saudis consider the Saudi Shia community as heretic and a fifth column, according to the teaching of the Wahhabi religious establishment. In that sense, the al-Saud House, despite its growing sectarian rhetoric, appears much more moderate than its population. And it is precisely the growing sectarian rhetoric regarding the geopolitical rivalry that could cause great damage to the Saudi leadership. Because the majority of Saudi Shias still remain loyal to the alSaud House, the radicalisation of the secessionist movement in the city of al-‘Awamiyya in the Hasa province, the Eastern region traditionally dominated by a Shia population, is quite minor. Today, according to unofficial sources from the ministry of the interior, the Shia majority in the province has been reduced by a massive arrival of Sunni Saudi citizens coming from the Najran and ‘Asir southern regions—highly encouraged by the state, in order to rebalance the demography. The same situation is occurring in Bahrain, where the Shia population today only represents about 55%, compared to 70% during the 1980s, due to the massive naturalisation of Sunni Jordanians, Syrians and Pakistanis. With its highly centralised decision-making process and huge financial means, the KSA has the ability to limit the effects of Shia and sectarian conflicts in its territory. But the overemphasis of the sectarian rhetoric could affect, in the medium term, the narrative of the Shia communities in the Gulf States. It is already the case for Bahrain and also Saudi Arabia, which has seen some limited uprisings in the cities of al-Qatif and al-‘Awamiyya. This move may establish more formal transnational solidarities, given that most of the Shia families in Bahrain are family connected with Saudi Shia. In Kuwait, the Shia community has particularly close ties with the ruling family, and the al-Sabah dynasty has always ruled the country with the Shia community as one of its basic pillars. This situation has provoked tensions among the Sunni population, with some Salafis and prominent tribal figures accusing the al-Sabah ruling dynasty of favouring Shia community interests at the expense of the Sunni community. This has created a sort of ‘positive discriminative’ sectarian feeling and a growing identity polarisation that compares with the country’s urban versus tribal tensions.

Conclusion Almost three years after the Arab uprisings began, the benefits for Iran and Saudi Arabia are clearly limited and the picture complicated. The Syrian war, in particular, has provided a mechanism for amplifying traditional sectarian conflict, effectively elevating

26

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Madawi al-Rasheed (2013). ‘Saudi Arabia’s Domestic Sectarian Politics’, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), August 2013.


Saudi Arabia versus Iran: Regional Balance of Power

it to a transnational affair. The Sunni in Lebanon believe that by confronting Hezbollah they are fighting for all Sunni, especially their persecuted co-religionists in Syria who are being slaughtered at the hands of President al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. Similarly, the Shia in Bahrain believe their uprising is for the benefit of their long-oppressed coreligionists across the border in Saudi Arabia. In the Levant and Persian Gulf, sectarianism has become so pronounced that Sunni clerics now warn of the ‘Shiatisation’ of the Middle East and exploit the brutality committed by Assad’s regime to call for Sunni ascendancy. As a result, a strong argument can be made that the Sunni–Shia divide is on its way to replacing the broader conflict between Muslims and the West as the primary challenge facing the Islamic societies of the Middle East. Such sectarian conflict is also likely to supplant the occupation of Palestine as the central mobilising factor in Arab political life. As Arab societies become more politically active and aware in the aftermath of the uprisings, fighting Israel is less a priority, especially when there are so many domestic crises. For the next several years, it is likely we’ll see an intensification of identities, with religion, ethnicity and other local solidarities and primordial ties playing a far more prominent role in socio-political interactions.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Fatiha Dazi-Héni has a PhD from the Institute for Political Studies in Paris (Political Participation and Social Mobilisation in Kuwait through Diwaniyyas). She is currently a senior analyst in charge of Persian Gulf issues at the Delegation of Strategic Affairs, and maitre de conference at the Political Institute of Lille, teaching the course ‘The Arab world in transformations’. She is also the Middle East co-chair at Kedge Business School in Marseille, with the American University of Sharjah, and has published several works, among which are Monarchies and Societies in Arabia: The Stage of Confrontation (Paris, 2006) and many articles on GCC states and the sub-regional dynamics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

ABSTRACT Sectarian divisions between Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to be a result of the two nations’ geopolitical struggle in the Persian Gulf, driven by their quest for dominance of the Middle East. This ‘cold war’, with a sectarian narrative emphasised over that purely based on religiosity, is now the most important international factor in the Middle East, replacing the ancient regional order. The Syrian civil war provided the new catalyst for the Saudi–Iranian rivalry, with the two states now competing chiefly through the Syrian conflict, as well as Iraq and Lebanon. As a result, Iran is defending its regional interests as a sectarian state for the first time—rather than as an Islamic revolutionary state. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s regional credibility could be severely damaged by its radicalised sectarian narrative, potentially eroding its domestic stability.

35


‫‪Fatiha Dazi-Héni‬‬

‫‪KEYWORDS‬‬ ‫‪Saudi Arabia vs Iran, regional competition, sectarian polarisation, ‘cold war’, Sunni vs‬‬ ‫‪Shia, Syrian catalyst.‬‬

‫امللخص‬ ‫تبدو اإلنقسامات املذهبية ما بني العربية السعودية و إيران كنتاج للتنافس الجيوسيايس من أجل الهيمنة‬ ‫يف منطقة الرشق األوسط مع التشديد عىل الرسدية املذهبية و ليس عىل التدين‪ .‬و تعكس هذه «الحرب‬ ‫الباردة» التنافس الناتج عن املواجهة الجيوسياسية ما بني البلدين يف الخليج الفاريس التي تعد اليوم‬ ‫العامل الدويل األكرث أهمية يف منطقة الرشق األوسط‪ ،‬و الذي حل محل النظام اإلقليمي القديم‪ .‬و تتنافس‬ ‫إسرتاتيجيات الدولتني بشكل رئييس من خالل الحرب األهلية يف سوريا و عىل ساحات املعارك يف كل من‬ ‫العراق و لبنان‪ .‬و قد تحولت الحرب األهلية يف سوريا إىل حفاز جديد للتنافس ما بني العربية السعودية‬ ‫و إيران‪ .‬و النتيجة هي أن إيران أصبحت تدافع –ألول مرة– عن مصالح إقليمية كدولة مذهبية بدل‬ ‫دولة الثورة اإليرانية كام كانت تفعل يف السابق‪ .‬و من جهة أخرى‪ ،‬فإن مصداقية العربية السعودية يف‬ ‫املنطقة سيلحقها الرضر بشكل جدي بسبب رسديتها املذهبية املتشددة و التي ميكن أن تؤدي إىل تقويض‬ ‫إستقرارها الذاخيل‪.‬‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ ‫العربية السعودية ضد إيران‪ ،‬التنافس اإلقليمي‪ ،‬التقاطب املذهبي‪» ،‬الحرب الباردة«‪ ،‬السنة ضد الشيعة‪،‬‬ ‫الحفاز السوري‪.‬‬

‫‪36‬‬


THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA IN THE MIDDLE EASTERN SECTARIAN DIVIDE Khaled Hroub

I

nflammatory and demonising mass media is not only dangerous, but turns seriously deadly in certain volatile ethnic, racist or sectarian contexts. In an atmosphere charged with religious fervour and references, some media degenerate into mere propaganda against whatever ‘other’ that may be different in religion, or even against another sect within the same religion. The extent of the destruction that this sort of media could inflict depends, of course, on the particular conditions of the given case. In the current evolution of regional sectarian divisions in the Middle East, religious media have been manipulated by rival parties, furthering these divisions. Although there is a lack of recent and credible audience research that might inform us about the actual impact of this manipulated media, a number of conceptual considerations can be noted. From the outset, it should be stated that extremist religious discourses on media platforms (and elsewhere) do not fully dominate the public debate. Moderate and mild religious approaches and media are also part of the scene, though not as vocal and sensational as the former. The following remarks, however, will examine the extreme elements of religious media, and attempt to conceptualise their role and dynamics within current regional politics and rivalry. The focus in this discussion on television broadcasting, as opposed to other forms of media (for example, press and social media), is justified by the fact that TV remains the most influential of all media—old and new. This is the prevailing view among scholars and media researchers.27 In the Arab and Middle Eastern context, TV’s influence and

27

As Nick Couldry puts it: ‘television is likely to remain most people’s medium of communication in the


Khaled Hroub

lead over other media forms is yet further enhanced in countries where levels of illiteracy are shamefully high, relegating the usage rates of social media and other readable media to a secondary position. Before exploring any of these considerations, and by way of preparing the ground for discussion, it helps to recognise some aspects of the media– politics dynamics and settings in the region. In the first place, it should be underlined that we have a mediascape that is extremely crowded, with spectrum-spanning forms, content, ownership and geography. In terms of form, we have transborder TV broadcasting, radio transmission by air and online, newspapers and magazines and, most recently, the rapid spread of social media. In terms of ownership, we have state-owned or semi-state owned media, privately owned media and media that is owned by parties or certain groups. With regard to their politics and discourse of ‘mobilisation’, these media vary from ‘moderate’ to ‘radical’, with wide shades of colouring in between. When categorised according to their religious affiliation, we may group them into Sunni, Shia and Christian-inclined media.28 All these media should also be viewed from the perspective of the content they deliver, as news media, entertainment media, religious media or a combination of all three. Last but not least, one should ascertain whether these media are based in the region or beaming in from abroad and hoping to attract a following.29 Each media grouping has its own ‘sub-categories’ and is manifested in various ways and via different agents. But what matters more for the sake of our discussion here are the news and religious media where the fault lines of sectarian tensions and rising wars can be demarcated. News and religious channels in the region are mostly non-privately owned, with states, semi-statutory bodies or political/religious parties controlling the levers of money and orientation. Sunni news, entertainment and religious media encompasses a wide and diverse group, ranging from the mainstream Dubai-based MBC network (including al-Arabiya) and Qatar’s al-Jazeera, spanning dozens of Sunni religious channels all the way to jihadist websites and online streaming, such as Minbar al-Tawheed, one of the main supportive hubs of al-Qaeda ideology.30 Shia media spans no less diverse a spectrum, including the Hezbollah al-Manar TV; Iranian-backed TV and radio stations, such as al-Alam; and a plethora of Iraqi channels. Closely related to this group are the

28

29

30

38

foreseeable future, however delivered and with whatever web-based enhancements’, Nick Couldry (2012). Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity, p. 18. Apart from the Sunni–Shia tension manifested by TV media, there is the Muslim–Christian tension, where battles are fought between extreme TV channels belonging to each camp. This discussion falls outside the scope of this paper. For more on the structure and content of Christian and Salafi channels, see Khaled Hroub (2012). Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press. There are many media outlets that are based outside the Middle East but consider the region to be their main ‘target audience’—including the broadcasting owned and operated by the big external players. Besides the oldest service, BBC Arabic (originally in radio but also in TV since 2008), and BBC Persian (established in 2009), we have the Al-Hurra network, based in Washington DC (2003); the German Deutsche Welle Arabic TV in Berlin (2002); the Russian Rousya Al-Yaoum in Moscow (2007); and the French France 24, near Paris (2006). See Minbar Al-Tawheed wal Jihad, http://www.tawhed.ws [Consulted 15 January 2014].


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

media that consider themselves part of the ‘resistance axis’, such as the al-Mayadeen channel, which was founded in 2012 in Lebanon to support Syria and Hezbollah and is most likely financed by both. Though technically not a Shia channel, it nevertheless allies itself clearly to the Iran–Syria–Hezbollah axis. A more uneasy positioning is that of Hamas’s al-Aqsa TV, for it identifies itself as a ‘resistance media’ but stands at odds with other ‘resistance’ and Shia-oriented media. In addition to distinguishing the diverse mediascape in the region, this introductory remark must acknowledge the fact that when it comes to examining the manipulation of news and religious media, it is politics that we have to search for—and more specifically, state politics. As discussed elsewhere, the states in the region (mostly Iran and Saudi Arabia) are the main culprits of instigating sectarian politics: where foreign policy becomes aligned along sectarian divisions. The answer to the question of why, at this point in time, regional sectarianism is raging—when the very same sects and different religious populaces used to live in coexistence—can be found in the politics of competing regimes. ‘Bad’ and sectarian media is only reflective of ‘bad’ and sectarian politics. In a poisonous regional atmosphere, the media is perceived by the state as a tool in the service of its own interest, both internally and externally.

Post-Arab Spring religious media: occupying the ‘public sphere’ Any discussion of the role of the media in current regional sectarian divisions should consider the significant unfolding chapter chronicling changes within the Arab media post-Arab Spring. In the countries where the uprisings were successful in overthrowing old regimes—Tunisia, Egypt and Libya—media that used to be subject to the full control of the state were liberated. Dozens of media outlets and TV channels were founded immediately after the full or partial collapse of the old establishments. One phenomenal aspect of the new political media territory shaping out of the old came from religious broadcasting, which saw both the strengthening of the old TV channels and the rise of new ones. Under the old authoritarian regimes, most religious channels (largely with Salafi orientation) were anxious not to deal with politics and to keep all their material and programming politicsfree. The governments, in return, would allow them to operate, and were pleased with the ‘pacifying’ nature of these channels and the ‘neutralising’ effect they had on audiences, as opposed to the religious/political media deployed by the Islamist movements. In the new post-Arab Spring context in a number of countries, where low ceilings of freedom of expression had been bashed through and the fear of the heavy hand of the state was no longer present, most of the previously apolitical religious channels became politicised. The leading ones, for instance in Egypt, allied themselves with the Salafi parties and politics suddenly dominated the screens—in a break with the recent past. The sweep of this ‘politicisation’ affected almost all forms of religious broadcasting and took place at a time when the region was heading steadily towards bolder sectarian positioning of states and groups, following the Syrian revolution. The chaotic post-Arab Spring regional media

39


Khaled Hroub

landscape exacerbated existing problems concerning regional media, particularly the lack of regulatory systems, codes of ethics and sound laws and judicial regimes to maintain the balance between freedoms and individual rights. Within this scene, channels incited sectarian hatred and promoted calls for the excommunication of ‘others’ by invoking historical narratives and religious battles of the past, without facing legal liabilities.31 The collapse of authoritarianism in a number of Arab countries has freed up new space away from the heavy controlling hand of the state. In the classical Habermasian model, this growing ‘public sphere’, where people enjoy debating public affairs, express their views freely and feel empowered to criticise the authorities is a sign of healthier politics. It is a space where civil society, intellectual deliberation, media freedoms, creative art and other forms of emancipation express themselves. It is where the power of the public thrives, and where the power of the state is limited. In the wake of the downfall of any dictatorship, a suppressed public sphere starts to develop rapidly, if chaotically.32 In the context of post-Arab Spring politics, a state of ‘chaotic freedoms’ emerged soon after the collapse of every authoritarian system, out of which a healthy ‘public sphere’ it was hoped would grow. Instead, the vacuum created by the quick removal of the authoritarian state’s heavy presence was mostly filled by the Islamists: their politics, discourse and media. In the aforementioned Habermasian notion of the ‘public sphere’, the assumption is that this sphere encourages freethinking within a given secular context. The only suppressive force in this context is that of the state. Once this force is confronted and compelled to withdraw from its occupied territories of public life, the public sphere thrives. Against this assumed state-control versus public-sphere dynamic, post-Arab Spring cases have introduced another configuration, in which the force of the removed authoritarian state is simply replaced by an authoritarian religious discourse. Instead of creating an atmosphere of freer thinking, Arab contexts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (and other countries to varying extents) fell prey to rising religiosity. Even if levels of religiosity were always somewhat high before the regime changes that took place in the Arab Spring, the nature of that religiosity tended to be milder and far less politicised. The Islamists’ electoral victories gave them unprecedented public power and an omnipresent manifestation of Islamism, leading Islamists to ever-bolder discourse and aggressiveness. All this has materialised in the subsequent rise and dominance of religious media, mainly strengthening the dozens of influential religious channels and creating an attractive atmosphere for others to become 31

32

40

In documented examinations of and research in this area, it is noted that the lack of clear laws and regulations has left a broad grey area where defamation and other sorts of ‘collective insult’ exist. See Matt J. Duffy (2013). ‘Media Laws and Regulations of the GCC Countries: Summary, Analysis, and Recommendations’, Doha Centre for Media Freedoms. The ‘public sphere’ theory is widely debated and was originally introduced by Jürgen Habermas in 1962, in German then translated into other languages. See Jürgen Habermas (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Many scholars have debated Habermas’s notion: see, for example, the collection of Bruce Robbins (ed.) (1993). The Phantom Public Sphere. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

established. What’s more, the rise of an ‘Islamist sphere’ has not been limited to the countries where actual regime change took place. In fact, the Islamisation that has emerged from the Arab Spring is only an advanced stage of the years-long creation of what could vaguely be described as a ‘regional Islamist sphere’. This is the sphere that has slowly been constructed by the practices, discourse, activism and religiosity infused into Arab society by Islamism and its media. One of the main structural changes that this Islamisation has succeeded in achieving in society has been the establishment of a new religious legitimacy, according to which norms and codes of sociality are measured.33

Characteristics and manifestations of the religious (sectarian) media Radical religious media, especially TV broadcasting, is a universal phenomenon, seen as part of the globalisation of communication in recent decades. The consequences have been varied, depending on the context, the politics behind the given media and the level of volatility surrounding the main players concerned. This method of using TV screens to spread religious messages on a mass scale was pioneered by religious broadcasting in the West, particularly in the United States.34 Some of the characteristics and manifestations of this media are universal, regardless of geography or faith, while others are specific to the given cases. The following discussion concentrates on Middle Eastern religious media, specifically Sunni and Shia media. To begin with, one should consider the common tactic used by religious media: of bringing to public consciousness religious intellectual battles and contestation of the past. In the Middle Eastern context, and amid the present regional rivalry between the Iran-led and the Saudi Arabia-led camps, religious mass media have been publicising arguments that used to be elitist, neglected or arcane theological conflicts and differences. As is the case with other religious traditions, there are deep differences between various schools of theology in Islam, which are typically limited to the specialised circles of the clergy. In the same way, differences between Shia and Sunni go back to the first century of Islam. Diverging religious interpretations of scripture evolved, entangling with politics as opposing political stances became entrenched in orthodoxies and uncompromising beliefs over the centuries. Throughout history, mass conversion to Shia belief or Sunni belief was led more by kings and rulers in shifts of power than any conviction in a given set of principles. The populace had little choice and often little compunction not to follow a

33

34

The assumed ‘regional Islamic sphere’, relating to the spread of religious media across the region, is perhaps the Middle Eastern example of what Ingrid Volkmer describes as trans- or supra-national public spheres, which are not limited by the state or national boundaries. See Ingrid Volkmer (2014). The Global Public Sphere: Public Communication in the Age of Reflective Interdependence. Cambridge: Polity. See, for example, Mark Ward (1994). Air of Salvation: The Story of Christian Broadcasting. Michigan: Baker Pub Group; on the impact of this media on audiences in relation to politics, see Brian Newman and Mark Caleb Smith (2007). ‘Fanning the Flames: Religious Media Consumption and American Politics’, American Politics Research, 35 (6), pp. 846–77.

41


Khaled Hroub

victorious ruler, who would effectively force his subjects to adopt this or that particular school of religion. The actual fundamental religious differences and justifications would remain almost the exclusive business of scholars, especially those allied with the rulers. At the level of the people, where mixed Sunni–Shia communities persisted, varying degrees of coexistence would prevail, materialised in mutual social interactions including mixed marriages. This state of affairs continued to be the general mode of sociality in mixed communities until the 1970s. At present, a sharp turn is taking place with the advent of transnational mass media and its deployment in regional rivalries. Since Ayatollah Khomeini’s claim, after the victory of the Iranian Revolution, of speaking in the name of all Muslims (Shia and Sunni), Saudi Arabia has wanted to controvert this claim by instigating a ‘Sunni’ anti-Shia religious discourse. Since the 1980s, a radicalised Sunni (and fundamentally Salafi/Wahhabi) discourse has been shaped, questioning the very ‘Islamic-ness’ of the Shia altogether. In later years, and with the plethora of transborder TV broadcasting, the elements of this discourse became engrained in Sunni religious broadcasting, which dug deep into history to bring to ‘incontrovertible’ light evidence of Shia religious deviation and heresy according to the extreme versions of Sunni interpretation. Thus, all uncompromising orthodoxies and debates, previously fairly much consigned to theological circles, were brought to broad public awareness on the small screen. Audiences with little religious knowledge started to ‘discover’ the un-Islamic essence of their fellow citizens, the Shia. It’s the same story with radical Shia media, but in reverse, with Sunnis depicted as the usurpers of power and authority in Islam since the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Perhaps one of the boldest political examples, demonstrating clear sectarian references, is the statement recently made by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. During a visit to the Shia holy city of Karbala in Iraq on 25 December 2013, Maliki depicted the present fight against Sunni militant groups as a continuation of the ancient battle between al-Hussein and Yezid (two respectively Shia and Sunni figureheads, who fought against each other in the seventh century). He also described Karbala, where Hussein is believed to be buried, as the qibla for all Muslims.35 The term qibla, which is symbolic of the holiest space and the direction to which Muslim direct their prayers, is reserved for Mecca. The statement was widely quoted and re-transmitted, causing uproar among many Sunnis, who considered it not only outrageous but heretical. Within this mutual exercise to strip away the legitimacy of the other side, a selfproclamation of victimisation has become an integral part of the media’s religious discourse. Present battles are framed in bitter recycled histories, with current grievances presented graphically in the light of the past. Hence today’s Sunni–Shia rift is in fact a provoked 35

42

See the statement on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKfN13pqKbs [Consulted 22 January 2014]; also a comment by Mohammad al-Musfir (2014). ‘Iraq calls upon the Arabs’, Al-Sharq, 13 January, p. 34.


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

religious cover for what is in essence a Saudi–Iranian conflict, which in turn is promoted as a continuation of old seventh-century battles between two camps of Muhammad’s companions. In these clashes there is always a bold binary of truth and falsehood; there is no middle ground, for there is only one, absolute religious truth claimed by each side. If a claim has, throughout history, been buried in books and religious argumentation, now it is transmitted in the daily religious programming of TV channels. This continuous stoking of the atmosphere by the media, using religious material with a clear and uncompromising sectarian bent, has expanded polarities in mixed societies such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In tandem, the foundations of long periods of coexistence among Shia, Muslims and Christians started to erode. Sectarian violence, incidents and anecdotes of grievances were amplified and in many cases blown out of proportion by the media, attracting further anger and hatred. In such a poisonous climate, the corrosion of common living became increasingly manifested on a daily basis, from segregated religion- or sect-based neighbourhoods all the way to cases of divorce where the couple belong to different sects. This has further weakened the already shaky notion of citizenship, which never had the chance to become really deeply rooted in any post-colonial Middle Eastern state. Consequently, religious and sectarian loyalties overtook national allegiance and citizenry, and sought points of reference and authority both inside and outside each country. Transnational media, particularly religious media, provided platforms and broadcast channels to communicate these loyalties beyond national borders. Therefore, Shia or Sunni constituencies in any given country could feel stronger ties to similar constituencies abroad. Many of the Shia of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, for example, would bond more with Shia in Iran or even the Iranian state itself than Sunni Saudis or the Saudi state. Since the 2003 war in Iraq and the dominance of Shia power in the country, Iraqi Sunnis nowadays feel completely alienated by the state and perhaps by the majority of Iraqi Shia as well. Transnational media coverage of Sunni grievances and marginalisation in Iraq creates cross-national ties and expectations of help and support from ‘Sunni brothers’ elsewhere. The media is playing a significant role in the dismantling of the national sphere, replacing it with a vague, grey religious sphere that cuts across the region and connects communities that belong to the same sect. In this chaotic sectarian atmosphere, the state is not neutral. As mentioned above, most of this media is directly owned by the region’s states, or falls indirectly within their broad influence. Television media in the Middle East, particularly in the Arab region, is hardly profitable. Apart from a few networks whose focus is on light programming, music, soap operas and shows copied from the West, the TV industry is heavily subsidised and reliant on governments.36 News and religious media falls, by and large, within the sphere of state

36

The profitable/subsidised topography of Arab TV is neatly detailed by Naomi Sakr (2007). Arab Television

43


Khaled Hroub

leverage, thus one could safely assume that it is within the capacity of the states concerned to mitigate sectarian media, reducing it or shutting it down completely. There are, however, some complex media webs, especially involving religious channels, with ownerships that fall neither under the profit-making category nor under full state control. Over the past two decades or so, during the rise of Islamism and religious media in the region, forms of autonomous religious media supported or approved by rivalling states have emerged as part of the mediascape. These media are owned by religious groups, individuals, charities and/or (in the case of Shia media) religious figureheads, or marji‘ al-taqlid (literally: an authority to be emulated). These agents enjoy enough resources and a continuous stream of donations to further their agenda. Initially, the work of these institutions and individuals remains in line with the state. However, with the passage of time, accumulative experience and improved skills, these agents start to chart more independent and autonomous waters. In certain cases they grow in size, resources, networks and autonomy to a point beyond direct and automatic state control. Shutting them down or cracking down on them becomes a decision that warrants careful calculation, and even the success of doing so is questionable.37 Yet another manifestation of the current sweep of religious media in the region, which even further exacerbates sectarianism, results from the persistent promotion of artificial notions of homogeneity within widely diverse Shia and Sunni communities. The pluralist and diverse nature of almost every Shia or Sunni community in the region is utterly dismissed in the sectarian religious media. Instead, sharp dichotomous and exclusively topdown identities and categorisations are imposed. Individuals are identified only by their religious affiliation and reduced to the singular label of either Sunni or Shia. Embedded in this lies a set of assumptions about the individual, as being not only a believer but also religiously observant and politically adherent to ‘our camp’. There is no place in such reduced and forced identities for non-religious individuals, secular Sunnis or Shias, or simply the vast segments of politically indifferent people. Another ubiquitous characterisation of religious, and consequently sectarian, media is the phenomenal spread of fatwas38 on TV screens. Fatwa shows—typically hosted by a wellknown scholar who receives call-ins and instant messages from the audience, asking about the view of Islam on given issues—occupy a central place in the programming schedule of almost every religious TV channel or equivalent outlet. These shows attract more audiences (and commercials), creating competition between TV preachers over followers

37 38

44

Today. London: I. B. Tauris. A clear example here are the Saudi and Gulf-based groups and individuals who are supportive of al-Qaeda and other Jihadist armed groups. Despite years of regulating donations abroad and enforcing laws and punitive measures, money is still being funnelled from the Gulf to these groups. Fatwa is a religious ruling issued by an established scholar on a specific matter brought to him by individuals who are unsure how to handle this newly arising issue. The fatwa would inform the individual if it is permitted (halal) or prohibited (haram) to practice that specific matter.


The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide

and ratings. Although a deeply rooted religious tradition in Islam, the excessive use and ease of the delivery of fatwas at the present time have created enormous socio-cultural impacts. Originally, a fatwa was only sought for difficult issues, leaving the individual to deal with lesser matters according to their conscience. In the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad there are clear teachings where Muslims are invited to first and foremost ask their heart when facing troubling new questions.39 The rationale behind these teachings is to maintain the personal empowerment of the individual Muslim, with direct communication between individuals and Allah. Consequently, this would limit the authority of others, including religious scholars, and prevent them from claiming paternalistic hierarchy over people or seeking to derive religious power. The fatwa institution is an exception and a powerful authority that is bestowed upon scholars to influence and direct the lives of individuals. It is the judiciously used ‘third man’ that interferes with and occupies the vertical space between people and heaven. The plethora of fatwas by various means, but mostly and more effectively through the use of TV screens, has led to what could be described as the ‘fatawisation’ of the public sphere, where all issues of social life have been placed under the lens of the fatwa to deem them legitimate or otherwise. Coupled with the rise of generations of muftis and TV preachers, the fatawisation of the public sphere has crippled individuals from thinking freely, from being guided by their own conscience and from relying on their own understanding of their religion. Even worse, this powerful tool, the fatwa, has ended up in the hands of hundreds of half-educated scholars, whose desire for religious authority has led them to expand the areas of life that should be covered by fatwas. In the midst of this intensification of religiosity and the fatawisation of public life, streams of fatwas relating to the ‘position’ vis-à-vis ‘other’ sects has emerged. People who for decades used to interact with their fellow citizens without any reservations have become cornered by fatwas that depict ‘others’ as enemies of Allah who should be avoided.40 Religious and sectarian media, last but not least, enhances self-superiority over others and promotes a discourse that glorifies and purifies one’s own group while demonising and vilifying the other group. Insistent assurance that one is on the (sole) righteous path is delivered constantly and repeatedly emphases the other side as standing on false ground,

39

40

It is reported that a man came to Prophet Muhammad asking him about rightdoing and wrongdoing and the answer he received was as follows: ‘Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels at ease and the heart feels tranquil. And wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and causes uneasiness in the breast, even though people have repeatedly given their legal opinion [in its favour]’. See, for example, fatwas given by Salafi preachers forbidding the marriage of Sunni men to Shia women, and forbidding eating their food in http://www.ahlalhdeeth.com/vb/showthread.php?t=147228, [Consulted on 23 January 2014]. Countless fatwas concerning Christians are issued on TV screens and online: forbidding, for example, congratulating Christians on the occasion of Christmas and New Year. See http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgsMgZZ805g [Consulted 23 January 2014]. It should be said, however, that despite the confusion that these fatwas have created, there are actually fatwas that take the opposite position and criticise the strict and radical stand of the ‘forbidding’ fatwas.

45


Khaled Hroub

in the wrong camp. Framing this superiority within religious references, any convergence toward common ground is dismissed as religiously inconceivable. The Sunni and Shia orthodoxies on Arab regional and extra-regional TV screens are engaged in a zero-sum war, refuting totally and absolutely the beliefs of the other side and offering neither a compromise nor a solution for such a dilemma.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Khaled Hroub is a professor-in-residence in Middle Eastern Studies and Arab Media Studies at Northwestern University, Qatar, and a senior research fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, where he is the director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project (CAMP). He authored Hamas: A Beginners Guide (2006/2010) and Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000), and edited Political Islam: Context versus Ideology (2011) and Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East (2012). In Arabic, he published Fragility of Ideology and Might of Politics (2010), In Praise of Revolution (2012), Tattoo of Cities (literary collection, 2008) and Enchantress of Poetry (poems, 2008).

ABSTRACT Rival states and political actors in the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, have used religious media in different ways and for various ends: to amass legitimacy, mobilise people and enhance their control of power. In recent years, however, this (mis)use of religious media has taken precarious manifestations. With intra-national and cross-national political and violent conflicts sweeping several countries in the region, political actors have resorted to religious and sectarian references to justify their claims and positions. This has always been dangerous terrain and, falling into the trap of politicians, a significant part of the religious media has started to re-frame the political conflicts through the competing Saudi Arabia-led and Iran-led camps in religious Sunni–Shia terms. This discussion attempts to conceptualise the formation of this new religious media/political territory within the Sunni–Shia context, as well as its manipulative nature and impact.

KEYWORDS Middle East sectarian media, religious media, Islamic public sphere.

‫امللخص‬ ‫ مثلام يحدث‬، ‫تستعمل الدول و غريها من الفاعلني السياسيني املتنافسني عىل السلطة يف منطقة الرشق األوسط‬ ‫ و‬،‫ منها إكتساب الرشعية‬:‫ وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية بأشكال مختلفة و من أجل غايات متعددة‬،‫يف العامل بأرسه‬

46


‫‪The Role of the Media in the Middle Eastern Sectarian Divide‬‬

‫تعبئة الجامهري و تعزيز تحكمهم يف السلطة‪ .‬لكن مع ذلك‪ ،‬فإن هذا اإلستعامل (و الشطط فيه) إكتىس يف‬ ‫السنوات األخرية متظهرات تتزايد خطورتها بإستمرار‪ :‬إذ و بينام تعيش عدة بلدان يف املنطقة رصاعات سياسية‬ ‫عنيفة‪،‬داخلية و عابرة للحدود‪ ،‬يلجأ الفاعلون السياسيون إىل مرجعيات دينية و مذهبية لتربير مطالبهم و‬ ‫مواقفهم‪ .‬و ألن هذا املجال هو مجال دائم التعقيد‪ ،‬فقد وقع جانب مهم من وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية يف يد‬ ‫املصالح السلطوية‪ ،‬و يتم إستخدامها من أجل إضفاء طابع ديني شيعي سني عىل الرصاع السيايس بني الطرف‬ ‫املوايل إليران و الطرف املوايل للعربية السعودية‪ .‬و يهدف هذا التحليل إىل مفهمة تشكُّل هذا املجال الجديد‬ ‫الذي تحتله وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية و املصالح السياسية يف السياق السني الشيعي‪ ،‬و تحديد طبيعته التالعبية‬ ‫و اآلثار املرتتبة عنه‪.‬‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ ‫وسائل اإلعالم املذهبية يف الرشق األوسط‪ ،‬وسائل اإلعالم الطائفية‪ ،‬املجال العمومي اإلسالمي‪.‬‬

‫‪47‬‬


ECONOMIC COMPETITION FOR REGIONAL SUPREMACY: IRAN VERSUS SAUDI ARABIA (AND QATAR) Thierry Coville

T

he competition for regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has reached a new level of intensity with the war in Syria, has an important economic dimension too. In fact, the rivalry between these two countries also takes the form of a competition between two economic powers. This paper will explore this power struggle through three main issues. Firstly, Iran and Saudi Arabia are major energy providers, so their ability to efficiently manage these huge energy resources is one of the key elements that will determine the outcome of this rivalry. The second issue is the way each of these countries manages to integrate into the global economy. The third and final aspect that needs to be analysed is the relative strength of these two economic systems with respect to their political and social environments.

Competition in the energy sector Oil Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the most important actors in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Although there are some uncertainties as to the real level of oil reserves claimed by the largest oil producers, it is established that Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the biggest powerhouses in the world in terms of oil reserves and production. Saudi Arabia and Iran have, respectively, the second and fourth largest reserves in the world.


Thierry Coville

Table 1. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and production (% of world total)

Iran

Saudi Arabia

Proved reserves

9.4

15.9

Production

4.2

13.3

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2013

Oil production trends Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are oil economies. Their economic systems are heavily dependent on oil exports, which represent 86.9% of exports and 91.8% of government revenues in Saudi Arabia, and 69.5% of exports and 42.7% of government revenues in Iran (Table 2). The Iranian oil sector has been affected by US sanctions since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. An embargo was imposed on the Iranian oil industry in 1995 by an executive order of the US president. The same year, the US Congress passed the Iran–Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which prohibited any US and foreign investment of more than $20 million in the Iranian oil industry.41 Nevertheless, the Iranian government had no trouble selling its oil to Europe and Asia. The ILSA constrained foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector, but some European companies (such as Total and ENI) still invested in Iran, despite these sanctions. In the end, the sanctions did not effectively affect the level of Iranian oil production. However, Iran did lose out on some revenues that it could have benefited from had there not been US opposition to the use of Iranian pipelines to export oil extracted from the Caspian Sea, or to Iran investing in the development of Azeri oil in 1995. In contrast, the good relations between Aramco,42 the public Saudi Arabian oil company, and the US is an established fact. Saudi Arabia, which is the only country in the world with the ability to significantly increase its oil production, has always played a key role in maintaining stability in the world oil market. Table 2. Oil as a proportion of total exports and government revenues in Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2012 (%)

Oil exports/Total exports

Oil revenues/ Total revenues

Iran

69.5

42.7

Saudi Arabia

86.9

91.8

Sources: Central Bank of Iran, Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency

41 42

50

The Iran–Libya Sanctions Act became the Iran Sanctions in 2006. See Kenneth Katzman (2007). The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA). Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, October 12, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS20871.pdf [Consulted 4 December 2013]. US oil companies had some equity participation in Aramco until 1980.


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Since 2011, the US sanctions on the Iranian financial system and the EU embargo on Iranian oil43 have led to a decrease in Iranian oil production, from 3,600 thousand barrels per day in 2010 to 2,600 thousand barrels per day in September 2013. Considering that Iran needs around 1,500 thousand barrels per day for internal consumption, that means Iranian oil exports have decreased by around 50%. In 2012, the main clients for Iranian oil were China and India (50%), South Korea and Japan (21%), and Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey (14%).44 This change in situation has led to a huge macroeconomic shock in Iran. According to government figures there was a recession in 2012, with GDP declining by -5.8%, after a growth of 3% in 2011. The lack of foreign exchange has led to a very large depreciation of the Iranian currency since 2010, which caused inflation to accelerate from 12.4% in 2010 to 41.6% in September 2013. It is important to consider that Saudi Arabia played an important role in the success of the sanctions, as since 2011 it has gradually increased its level of production in order to compensate for the decreased oil supply from Iran (Graphic 1). The main geographical destinations of Saudi oil in 2012 were Asia (54%), the US (15%) and Europe (15%). In 2012, Saudi Arabia was the second oil supplier to the US after Canada.45 Graphic 1. Iran and Saudi oil production (thousand barrels/day) 4,000

10,000

3,500

9,800 9,600

3,000

9,400

2,500

9,200

2,000

9,000

Iran (left axis)

1,500

8,800

Saudi Arabia (right axis)

8,600

1,000

8,400

500

8,200

0

8,000 2010

2011

2012

2013

Source: Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries

In both Iran and Saudi Arabia, a sensible acceleration of non-oil exports has taken place in recent years (Graphic 3). In the case of Saudi Arabia, its non-oil exports may have benefited from the country’s membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 2005. In the case of Iran, there has obviously been a ‘sanctions effect’. The decrease of its oil exports, due to the sanctions, forced the Iranian government and private sector to look for 43 44 45

EU countries stopped buying oil from Iran in July 2012. U. S. Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/ [Consulted 13 February 2014]. Ibidem.

51


Thierry Coville

alternative sources of foreign exchange. Due to the fall in value of the Iranian currency since 2010, following the imposing of sanctions, Iranian competitiveness has improved. The value of the dollar against the Iranian rial on the black market increased from 10,000 rials in 2010 to nearly 36,000 rials at the end of 2012 (Graphic 2). Dependency on oil for foreign trade seems less acute in Iran. Non-oil exports represented a higher proportion of total exports in Iran than in Saudi Arabia in 2012 (Table 2), with Iranian agricultural and industrial goods making up a greater part of exports than in Saudi Arabia46 (Tables 3 and 4). Iranian foreign trade has also lowered its dependency on oil revenues at a quicker pace than in Saudi Arabia. In Iran, the ratio of non-oil exports to imports has increased from 28.4% in 2006 to 45% in 2012.47 During the same period, the same ratio has gone from 17.6% to 21.3% in Saudi Arabia. What is interesting is that there is now a real consensus in Iran among the government and the private sector on the necessity to improve private-sector competitiveness in order to increase non-oil exports. The government of President Rouhani has stated clearly its willingness to support the private sector.48 The new government is also thinking about increasing the size of the private sector in the economy and simplifying firms’ legal requirements.49 Graphic 2. Exchange rate $/rial on the black market 45,000 40,000 35,000 30,000 25,000 20,000 15,000 10,000 5,000 0 december 2010

december 2011

december 2012

november 2013

Source: Author’s estimations

46 47 48 49

52

This data on non-oil exports is based on national sources. Some modifications were made by the author to make the data for Iran and Saudi Arabia comparable. So there is some degree of uncertainty as to its statistical reliability. This ratio had a net increase in 2012 as a result of the lower level of imports, due to the sanctions. Nevertheless, it is also a reflection of the ability of the Iranian economy to decrease its oil dependency. See ‘Willingness to cooperate between the economic team of Rohani and the private sector’, Donia Eqtesad, 3 December 2013, http://www.donya-e-eqtesad.com/news/750954/ [Consulted 4 December 2013]. See ‘To suppress non-obligatory regulations, the priority of Namatzadeh (Minister of Industry, Mines and Commerce)’, Eghtesadonline, 25 August 2013, http://www.eghtesadonline.com/fa/content/24811/ [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar) Graphic 3. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s non-oil exports (billion dollars) 35 30 25 20

Iran

15

Saudi Arabia

10 5 0 2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Sources: Central Bank of Iran, Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Table 3. Composition of Iranian exports in 2012 (%)

Oil

69.5

Agriculture

5.9

Petrochemicals

10

Industrial goods

13.6

Total

100

Source: Central Bank of Iran, Clawson (2013)50

Oil dependency is also less acute in Iran’s public finances. Oil revenues represented 42.7% of total revenues in Iran in 2012, against 91.8% in Saudi Arabia. It is true that the economic sanctions have led to a decrease in the relative importance of oil to total revenues in Iran since 2010, when oil revenues represented 53% of its total revenues. At the time, the Iranian fiscal system was already less dependent on oil revenues than Saudi Arabia. But it is clear that the impact of sanctions on oil revenues convinced the Iranian authorities to accelerate their reforms of the fiscal system.

50

Patrick Clawson (2013). ‘Iran Beyond Oil?’, Policy Watch, 2062, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. See http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iran-beyond-oil [Consulted 4 December 2013].

53


Thierry Coville

Table 4. Composition of Saudi Arabian exports in 2012 (%)

Oil

86.9

Agriculture

0.9

Petrochemicals

8.5

Manufacturing

0.9

Other

2.7

Total

100

Source: Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency

Despite its lower dependency on oil revenues, it is fair to say that the management of oil revenues by the Iranian government during recent years has not been exempt from criticism. The government of Mohammad Khatami in 1999 created an Oil Stabilization Fund (OSF), the objective of which was to invest oil revenues in order to support the private sector and act as a stabiliser against fluctuating oil revenues (only a budgeted amount of oil revenues would flow into the treasury, with the surplus allocated to the OSF). But, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005–2013), the OSF funds were misallocated and used to finance government expenditure. Then, in 2011, the OSF was replaced by a National Development Fund (NDF). It was decided that a minimum of 20% of the country’s oil and gas export revenues would be injected into this fund, which would only be available for long-term capital investments (especially strategic and hi-tech investments). So the NDF was not designed to act as a stabiliser against fluctuating oil revenues, like the OSF, but to be an investment fund. Due to the large decrease in Iran’s oil revenues in 2012, this fund was mainly used to finance government expenditure. In October 2013, the total assets of this fund reached $18.1 billion—$14 billion less than the previously estimated figure of $32 billion, said the fund’s board of directors in a statement.51 It is expected that the new government will improve the transparency of this fund and effectively use it to finance the private sector.52 In Saudi Arabia, several sovereign wealth funds have been established. The largest, the Saudi Arabia Monetary Authority (SAMA) Foreign Holdings manages oil surpluses (if oil revenues are higher than what was budgeted). The SAMA, the country’s central bank, manages this fund, which is the second largest in the world, with total assets of $675.9 51 52

54

See ‘National Development Fund’s assets $14 billion less than thought’, Tehran Times, 26 October 2013. See Bijan Khajehpour (2013). ‘Development Fund to fill new role hopes Iran’s private sector’, Al Monitor, 3 October 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/hope-for-iran-private-sector-national-development-fund.html# [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

billion in 2013.53 The SAMA Foreign Holdings strategy has never changed, despite oil price variations and Saudi Arabian budgetary constraints. It has always acted as a stabilisation fund, with a strategy aimed at maintaining the initial value of the assets through safe investments in financial markets.54 In 2008, the SAMA had 85% of its assets invested in dollar-denominated fixed income securities. Despite the sub-prime crisis, the SAMA did not change its investment strategy.55 The significance of the assets it manages and the fact that most of the SAMA’s portfolio is invested in US financial markets can clearly be considered important elements in defining Saudi soft power. Here, Saudi Arabia has a clear advantage over Iran, which almost never invested its sovereign fund assets outside of the country. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also very dependent on oil as a domestic source of energy. Due to population growth and low energy prices, internal consumption of oil has increased in the two countries. It is a strategic issue for both, as increasing internal consumption is depleting the amount of oil that can be exported (Graphic 3). In 2010, Ahmadinejad’s government launched an ambitious plan to decrease energy subsidies in Iran. The policy was based on a clever scheme of compensating increasing energy prices through financial transfers to the population. This plan faced strong criticism due to its inflationary impact and the lack of support for companies that had to meet higher energy prices. Nevertheless, despite all its shortcomings, the plan was implemented and led to a decrease of oil consumption in Iran between 2010 and 2011.56 That was the first time in Iran that a government had dared to decrease energy subsidies. Saudi Arabia has not yet implemented such a reform, and even if its potential for oil exports is still huge, the present trends in oil consumption could lead in the long term to a significant decrease of oil exports in the country (Graphic 4). The recent nuclear deal in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (the five members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) could obviously change the competitive environment in the oil sector. If there is a final deal in six months or one year, one could expect an increase in Iranian oil production. The macroeconomic impact on the Iranian economy should be positive in terms of higher growth and lower inflation. The impact of a possible increase of Iran exports on the oil price will depend on Saudi Arabia strategy. If it decides to decrease production, that could maintain oil prices at the present level. Other consequences could include an increase of Foreign Direct Investments (even from the US)

53 54 55 56

Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, http://www.swfinstitute.org/swfs/sama-foreign-holdings/ [Consulted 13 February 2014]. Sara Bazoobandi (2013). The Political Economy of the Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds: a case study of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Oxon: Routledge, p. 66. Ibidem, p. 66. Thierry Coville (2012). La suppression des subventions en Iran: une révolution économique?, in Djamshid A. (ed.). La Rente en République islamique d’Iran. Paris: L’Harmattan, pp. 75–88.

55


Thierry Coville

in the Iranian oil sector.57 It will also be interesting to see if the recent emphasis in Iran on non-oil sector development will resist a return to normal for oil revenues. Graphic 4. Oil consumption in Iran and Saudi Arabia (thousand barrels/day) 3,500 3,000 2,500 2,000 Iran

1,500

Saudi Arabia

1,000 500 0

Source: BP Graphic 5. Oil consumption in Iran and Saudi Arabia58 (% of production) 60

30

50

25

40

20

30

15

20

10

10

5

0

0

Saudi Arabia Iran

Source: BP

57

58

56

This raises the question of at what pace will all the relevant sanctions be abolished. There is no simple answer, if one considers the complexity of laws supporting sanctions against Iran. See International Crisis Group (2013). ‘The Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions’, Middle East Report, 138, Brussels, February 2013. The increase in Iranian oil consumption (in % of oil production) in 2012 is a result of the decrease in oil production, due to the sanctions.


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Natural gas There is competition in the field of natural gas between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which possess, respectively, the largest and fifth largest natural-gas reserves in the world. But the environment has been completely transformed by the arrival of a new player, Qatar, which has the third largest reserves in the world. Out of these three countries, Qatar has been the most successful in developing its exports (Graphic 6). This is due to an active policy of attracting foreign investment to develop production and exports (due to the low consumption of Qatar’s small population). Iran and Saudi Arabia have not been developing their natural-gas production at the same pace. In Iran, development has been impaired by a poor investment climate and the sanctions. In Saudi Arabia, the sector has only been opened gradually to foreign investors. And in both countries, the priority has been to allocate natural gas for internal consumption. The Qatari strategy, based on developing natural-gas exports, has led to a huge increase in living standards in the country. With a gross national income of $76,010 per capita in 2011,59 Qatar is now among the richest countries in the world. It has created a sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, which in November 2013 was managing $115 billion in assets.60 The Qatar Investment Authority is the 11th largest sovereign fund in the world. The importance of the investment realised by this fund in different key industries in Western Europe and the US is constitutive of Qatari soft power. Again, it is an area where Iran is at disadvantage compared to its Arab neighbours. Graphic 6. Natural-gas exports of Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (billion cubic metres) 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0 -20

2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 Iran

Saudi Arabia

Qatar

Source: BP

59 60

The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/country/qatar [Consulted 13 February 2014]. Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, http://www.swfinstitute.org/ [Consulted 13 February 2014].

57


Thierry Coville

The recent, transitory nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 could have an impact on the development of Iran’s natural-gas sector too. The Iranian authorities need foreign investment to develop the country’s natural-gas fields, especially the South Pars field (which is jointly owned by Iran and Qatar and is the largest natural-gas field in the world). The new Iranian government has also emphasised its willingness to develop natural-gas exports. Foreign direct investment (FDI) and technology (to develop Liquefied Natural Gas) in this sector could lead to an increase in Iran’s naturalgas exports. The European market could be one of the outlets, since the European Union needs to diversify its natural-gas suppliers in order to avoid excessive reliance on Russia. Another project that could be restarted, if the sanctions disappeared, is the Peace Pipeline, which would export natural gas from Iran to Pakistan and India. In the long run, the continuous increase of US oil and natural-gas production, due to the extraction of shale resources, could lead to a decrease in US energy imports from OPEC countries. This means that the geopolitical importance of Iran and Saudi Arabia as energy producers could decrease—another reason for the two countries to focus on diversifying their economies away from hydrocarbons. In this respect, it seems that Iran (mostly due to unfavourable external circumstances i.e. the sanctions) has been able to build a more diversified economy.

Integration in the global economy Saudi Arabia has been a member of the WTO since 2005. And the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, launched a Customs Union in 2003. Iran is not a WTO member and is not part of any regional trade agreement. Iran’s access to the WTO has been opposed by the US for political reasons. Yet even without US opposition it is not certain whether Iran would have become a member, as the magnitude of tarifs on Iranian imports and of subsidies in the Iranian economy is a significant obstacle to membership. WTO membership means that Saudi Arabia is more integrated in the global economy. According to the WTO, foreign trade in Saudi Arabia represents 81.3% of GDP (2010–2012) compared to 51.3% in Iran (2009–2011). The Saudi Arabian market is less protected than in Iran, with import tariffs on all goods at 5.1% in 2012, against 26.6% in Iran.61 More recently, Iranian integration in the world economy went even further backward, as a result of the impact of sanctions.62 The depreciation of the Iranian currency and the refusal of a large number of banks to work with Iran, due to the fear of being exposed to US sanctions, led to a decrease in Iranian imports (Graphic 7).

61 62

58

The data for Iran relates to 2011. It can be assumed it did not change in 2012. For more on US sanctions against Iran, see Kenneth Katzman (2013). Iran Sanctions. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, July 26, http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/212999.pdf [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar) Graphic 7. Iranian imports of goods ($ billion) 80 78 76 74 72 70 68 66 64 62 60 2009

2010

2011

2012

Source: Central Bank of Iran (CBI)

Saudi Arabia has also been able to attract more foreign direct investment than Iran. In 2012, FDI inflows in Saudi Arabia reached $12.2 billion, which represented 10.1% of gross fixed capital formation. In Iran, during the same year, FDI inflows amounted to $4.9 billion, equivalent to only 3.4% of gross capital formation. The dismal performance of Iran in attracting FDI is a result of the long list of US sanctions. The Iran Sanctions Act aimed to prevent foreign investment in the country’s energy sector. More recent sanctions, focused on financial organisations dealing with Iran and even specifically at car companies working in the country, have also been influential in decreasing the attractiveness of Iran for foreign investment. Iran has many advantages that could be of interest to foreign investors, such as a large population, a well-educated and consumer-orientated middle class, significant mineral resources and a strategic geographic location (between Europe and Asia; the Persian Gulf and Central Asia). Yet its business environment is clearly not attractive enough for national and foreign investors. Iran is positioned 152nd (out of 189 countries) by the 2013 World Bank Doing Business report, which ranks countries according to the ease of doing business.63 By comparison, Saudi Arabia is at number 26. In terms of business, Iran is especially bad at dealing with construction permits and getting electricity. There have been numerous reports and studies on the unattractiveness of Iran’s business environment due to its excessive number of laws and regulations.64 The Iranian business environment is also characterised by very high levels of corruption. Iran ranked 133rd (out of 176 countries) on Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index, while Saudi Arabia ranked 66th. 63 64

See Doing Business, http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings [Consulted 4 December 2013]. United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) (2003). Strategy document to enhance the contribution of an efficient and competitive small and medium-sized enterprise sector to industrial and economic development in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Vienna: UNIDO, February 2003.

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Thierry Coville

However, it’s important to note that Saudi Arabia’s integration in the global economy mostly relates to its energy industry. As mentioned earlier, the proportion of non-oil exports in total exports is higher in Iran (30.5%) than in Saudi Arabia (13.1%). Iran has a more diversified industrial base. The Iranian private sector and government, constrained by the sanctions, had to focus on non-oil exports.65 It seems that Iran was quite successful in this respect, benefiting from price competitiveness and a favourable political and cultural environment in neighbouring markets. During the first half of 2013, China, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and India were the main markets for Iran’s non-oil exports. These exports have also increased significantly in Central Asian markets. It is clear that there is potential for further growth of Iranian non-oil exports in the region. The business environment in Iran could become more attractive in the coming months too. The possible progressive annulation of sanctions could lead some foreign companies to think increasingly of Iran as a destination for investment. The Rouhani government has also made statements concerning its willingness to improve the Iranian business environment and increase the size of the private sector.66 It is interesting to consider that in both Iran and Saudi Arabia a common objective is to reduce the size of the public sector. This objective, if realised, will have deep political implications, as the rent-seeking nature of both economies has created strong interrelations between the economic and political structures of the two countries.

Political economy challenges In oil economies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, there are complex relationships between the economic and socio-political structures. Historically, economists tended to look at oil economies through the ‘rentier state’ theory, which concluded that a government able to rely on oil revenues for its resources did not have to develop a real tax system. This also reduces the democratic accountability of these states, as they do not have to tax their constituents and hence do not have to bargain with them.67 Nowadays, it is not realistic to describe the Iranian or Saudi state as completely isolated from their citizens when they define and apply economic policy. Recent works have emphasised the complex relations in both countries between the state and different socio-economic groups.68 There is an unofficial social pact between the state and the population, according to which the state will officially promote and defend certain collective values (Islam, nationalism, social 65 66 67 68

60

Patrick Clawson (2013). ‘Iran Beyond Oil?’, Op. Cit. See ‘To suppress non-obligatory regulations, the priority of Namatzadeh (Minister of Industry, Mines and Commerce)’, Op. Cit. Hussein Mahdavy (1970). The Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier State: the Case of Iran, in M. A. Cook (ed.). Studies in the economic history of the Middle East: from the rise of Islam to the present day. London [u. a.]: Oxford University Press, pp. 428–467. For Iran, see Thierry Coville (2002). L’économie de l’Iran islamique: entre ordre et désordres. Paris: L’Harmattan; for Saudi Arabia, see Steffen Hertog (2011). Princes, Brokers and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia. New York: Cornell University Press.


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

justice etc.) that form the basis of its legitimacy among the people. In addition, there is formal and informal financial support for some socio-economic groups whose support is important for the state. In Iran, groups such as the bonyads (charitable foundations), bazaris (big merchants specialising in imports) and the Pasdarans have greatly benefited from a large number of financial transfers, thanks to low taxation, easy and subsidised bank credits, access to foreign exchange at a subsidised rates etc. In Saudi Arabia, princes from the royal family and powerful administrative spheres have also benefited from large financial redistribution by the state. Today, due to the modernisation trends of Iranian and Saudi societies, this social pact is becoming more fragile. The changing demographic patterns highlight these social changes. In Iran, the fertility rate (the number of children a woman can expect to bear during her lifetime) has decreased from an average of 6.5 for 1980–1985 to 2 for 2005– 2010, and in Saudi Arabia from 6.2 to 3.69 These changes can be explained by higher education levels and reflect a complete change of values, or weltangschauung (the view of the world), in both countries.70 This means that clientelism is no longer accepted by large parts of society. In Iran, sociological analysis reveals that there is demand for a change from a relations-based society to a rules-based society.71 Young people in both countries also reject this social pact. During the first quarter of 2013, the unemployment rate in Iran was officially estimated at 12.4%.72 But this does not give a true measure of the unemployment problem in Iran (someone who works one hour per week is not considered unemployed). Unemployment is affecting young people in large numbers as, due to demographic trends, at least 600,000 people join the labour market every year. In Saudi Arabia, the lack of skilled young Saudis led to an unemployment rate of 30% for 15–29 year olds at the end of 2012.73 To create more jobs in both countries, the social pact must be re-engineered from the logic of wealth redistribution towards the logic of wealth creation. The policy of creating public-sector jobs by increasing the size of the public sector must change to a policy of promoting private-sector development. These changes are gradually taking place in both

69 70

71 72

73

United Nations Development Report, http://hdr.undp.org/en [Consulted 13 February 2014]. For an analysis of the change in Iran’s demographic behaviour following the Islamic Revolution, see Marie Ladier-Fouladi (2003). Population et politique en Iran: de la monarchie à la République islamique. Paris: Inst. National d’Études Démographiques; for a study of the societal changes in Iran following the Islamic Revolution, see Thierry Coville (2007). Iran, la révolution invisible. Paris: La Découverte. Fariba Adelkhah (2000). Being Modern in Iran. New York: Columbia University Press. Again, the sanctions are one of the factors that explain the large numbers of unemployed people in Iran, but they are not the only cause. The redistributive nature of the economic system is the main cause of unemployment in Iran. See Thierry Coville (2012). La suppression des subventions en Iran: une révolution économique? Op. Cit. International Monetary Fund (2013). Saudi Arabia: selected issues. Washington D.C.: IMF Country Report 13/203, July 2013.

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Thierry Coville

countries,74 but further reforms would suggest deep transformations of the ‘old’ social pact, as described previously. Other social groups can feel discriminated by this social pact too. Some provinces where there are Sunni majorities, such as Sistan–Baluchestan, Western Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, are lagging in terms of literacy rates (Table 5). This may have been caused by a lack of public investment in these provinces.75 Ethnic and religious minorities in Iran (who are not part of the Persian–Shia majority) are also not getting a fair share in this economic system, as these groups live in the less-industrialised provinces of Iran: Sunni Baloutchs in Sistan–Baluchestan; Sunni Kurds in Western Azerbaijan, Lorestan and Kordestan; Arabs in Khuzestan etc. (Table 6). Nevertheless, one should also consider that even the most backwards provinces in terms of economic development have also been affected by the modernisation trends. In 2010, in Sistan–Baluchestan, more than half of the university students were female (Table 7). In Saudi Arabia, economic neglect of the Eastern province where the Shia minority lives and the main oil fields are located even led to large protests between 2011 and 2013.76 Table 5. Literacy rates in the provinces of Iran in 2006 (%)

74 75 76

62

Tehran

91.3

Semnan

88.7

Yazd

88.1

Esfahan

87.5

Fars

86.6

Bushehr

86.4

Khorasan-e-Razavi

86.2

Qom

86.2

Qazvin

85.7

For Saudi Arabia, see Steffen Hertog (2011). Princes, Brokers and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia. Op. Cit.; privatisation is part of Hassan Rouhani’s economic programme. See ‘Willingness to cooperate between the economic team of Rohani and the private sector’, Op. Cit. See Thierry Coville (2009). ‘Les inégalités fragilisent la République islamique’, Alternatives Internationales, 43. Frederic Wherey (2013). The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Washington D.C.: Carnegie endowment for International Peace, June 2013. See http://carnegieendowment.org/files/eastern_saudi_uprising.pdf [Consulted 4 December 2013].


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Mazandaran

85

Total

84.6

Markazi

83.9

Khuzestan

83.6

Gilan

83.1

Kerman

82.8

Hamedan

82.6

Chaharmahal–Bakhtiari

82.5

Hormozgan

82.4

Kermanshah

82.2

Golestan

82.1

Ilam

82.1

Kohgiluyeh–Boyerahmad

81.7

Zanjan

81.7

East Azerbaijan

81.6

Lorestan

81.1

South Khorasan

81.1

Ardebil

80

North Khorasan

79.1

West Azerbaijan

77.8

Kordestan

77.4

Sistan–Baluchestan

68

Source: Statistical Centre of Iran

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Thierry Coville

Table 6. Number of manufacturing establishments with 10 or more workers/1,000 inhabitants in the provinces of Iran, 2009

64

Semnan

1.57

Qazvin

0.63

Markazi

0.47

Qom

0.44

Esfahan

0.42

Yazd

0.41

Tehran

0.28

Chaharmahal–Bakhtiari

0.26

Mazandaran

0.24

Ardebil

0.23

East Azerbaijan

0.22

Gilan

0.21

Hamedan

0.21

South Khorasan

0.20

Khorasan-e-Razavi

0.20

Zanjan

0.20

Golestan

0.16

Fars

0.16

Kermanshah

0.14

Hormozgan

0.12

West Azerbaijan

0.12

Bushehr

0.12

Ilam

0.11


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

Khuzestan

0.10

North Khorasan

0.10

Kordestan

0.09

Kohgiluyeh–Boyerahmad

0.07

Lorestan

0.06

Kerman

0.06

Sistan–Baluchestan

0.04

Source: Statistical Centre of Iran Table 7. Percentage of students who are female in the provinces of Iran, 2010

Female students (%)

Khuzestan

63.6

Lorestan

61.2

Chaharmahal–Bakhtiari

60.7

Fars

59.8

Ilam

59.4

Hormozgan

59.1

Esfahan

57.7

Kermanshah

57.6

Hamedan

57.6

North Khorasan

57.3

Kerman

57.2

Bushehr

56.9

Qazvin

56.9

South Khorasan

56.6

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Thierry Coville

Khorasan-e-Razavi

56.0

Total country

55.9

Gilan

55.7

Zanjan

55.7

Kohgiluyeh–Boyerahmad

55.5

Tehran

55.4

Ardebil

55.4

Markazi

55.1

Golestan

54.8

Kordestan

54.4

Semnan

53.4

Yazd

53.3

East Azerbaijan

52.3

Mazandaran

51.7

West Azerbaijan

51.4

Sistan–Baluchestan

50.4

Qom

48.9

Source: Statistical Centre of Iran

66


Economic Competition for Regional Supremacy: Iran versus Saudi Arabia (and Qatar)

The ‘old social pact’ is largely criticised in both societies due to modernisation trends, economic discrimination and economic inefficiency. However, the fact that the modernisation trends of Iranian society seem to be more pronounced than those of Saudi Arabia (looking at demographic figures), combined with the ‘relative’ flexibility of the Iranian political system, could lead observers to believe that peaceful change is more probable in Iran. In conclusion, it is clear that there is a real economic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s economy has a prominent place in the world oil market as the only producer able to significantly increase its production if necessary, which has led to a strategic partnership with the US. As Saudi Arabia has been able to increase its oil production since 2011 to compensate for the lower production levels of Iranian oil, the country was very important to the success of the sanctions that have recently crippled the Iranian economy. Saudi Arabia has also been using its sovereign wealth fund in a consistent way to consolidate its geopolitical relations with the US. There is also an economic competition between Iran and Qatar. Qatar has been much more successful than Iran in developing its natural-gas production and exports. This has led to Qatari economic success and global soft power—through the use of its sovereign wealth fund. On the other hand, one can see that there is perhaps more economic resilience in the Iranian economy. Iran, under pressure due to the sanctions, has been able to develop its non-oil sector at a much quicker pace than Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the modernisation of Iranian society is a real asset that could lead to a more efficient and privatised economic system. ‘Last but not least’, the possibility of a new geopolitical alliance between Iran and the United States could have far-reaching economic implications, which could benefit Iran in its quest for regional supremacy.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Thierry Coville is a research fellow at IRIS, the French research centre for international and strategic studies, and professor of economics at Novancia, a business school belonging to the Paris Chamber of Commerce. He was a research fellow in the French Institute of Research in Iran from 1991 to 1994 and an associated research fellow in the Iran Department of the National Centre for Scientific Research from 1991 to 2006. He worked as an economist in the Centre of Forecasting at the Paris Chamber of Commerce from 1996 to 2006. He was also the editor-in-chief of the magazine of the Paris Chamber of Commerce, specialising in international affairs. He has published a large number of articles and books on Iranian affairs, including L’économie de l’Iran islamique: entre ordre et désordres, L’Harmattan (2002); Perspectives Iran, Nord Sud Export (2002); L’Iran: la révolution invisible, La Découverte (2007). He has also consulted for firms interested in Middle East markets.

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Thierry Coville

ABSTRACT The competition for regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia has an economic dimension. Saudi Arabia has been able to increase its oil production since 2011 to compensate for the lower output of Iranian oil production, and was very important to the success of the sanctions that recently crippled the Iranian economy. There also exists an economic competition between Iran and Qatar. Qatar has been much more successful than Iran in developing its natural-gas exports. Yet Iran, under pressure due to the sanctions, has been more successful than Saudi Arabia in diversifying its economy and developing its non-oil exports. Moreover, the modernisation of Iranian society could lead to a more efficient and privatised economic system in the country. Last but not least, the possibility of a new geopolitical alliance between Iran and the United States could benefit the Iranian economy.

KEYWORDS Oil, natural gas, non-oil exports.

‫امللخص‬ ‫يأخذ التنافس بني إيران و اململكة العربية السعودية من أجل التفوق اإلقليمي بعدا إقتصاديا قويا؛ إذ‬ ‫ لتلعب‬،‫ لتعويض اإلنخفاض يف اإلنتاج اإليراين‬2011 ‫إستطاعت هذه األخرية الزيادة من إنتاجها للنفط سنة‬ ‫ و يحدث كذلك‬.‫بذلك دورا حاسام يف العقوبات التي شددت الخناق يف اآلونة األخرية عىل اإلقتصاد اإليراين‬ ‫تنافس إقتصادي بني إيران و قطر التي تعرف نجاحا أكرب من األوىل يف مجال تطوير صادرات الغاز الطبيعي؛‬ ،‫ فإن إيران قد أحرزت نجاحا أكرب من اململكة العربية السعودية يف تنويع إقتصادها‬،‫ من جهة أخرى‬،‫لكن‬ ‫ أكرث من ذلك ميكن للتحديث الذي‬.‫ألنها إستطاعت تطوير صادراتها الغري النفطية تحت ضغط العقوبات‬ ‫مييز املجتمع اإليراين أن يقود إىل تحوالت مهمة نحو نظام إقتصادي مخوصص و أكرث نجاعة يف البالد‬ ‫ ميكن للتحالف الجيوسيايس ما بني إيران و الواليات املتحدة األمريكية أن يكون مفيدا‬،‫أخريا و ليس آخرا‬. .‫لإلقتصاد اإليراين‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ الصادرات الغري النفطية‬،‫ الغاز الطبيعي‬،‫النفط‬

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MEDIATION IN THE FACE OF SECTARIANISM Oliver McTernan

The dangers of sectarianism

W

riting in the Financial Times in November 2013, prior to the agreement reached between Iran and the international community on curbing the former’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief, David Gardner expressed the hope that such an accord ‘would help to drain the poison of sectarian strife’77 in the Middle East. His argument was that given the intensity of the bloodletting, there is more to what we are witnessing in Syria than what some would say is ‘merely an interstate struggle for regional power between Saudi Arabia and Iran’.78 According to Gardner, this is a primordial struggle: a Sunni–Shia subplot. The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, seems to have made a similar analysis: that the Syrian conflict risks having a long-term negative impact on relations within the region. He warned the Istanbul Forum at the beginning of October that ‘ethnic and sectarian identity politics that are based on shallow geopolitical interests will usher in a period of medieval darkness in the region’. ‘It is a scenario’, he claimed, ‘that will lead to a “clash within the civilization” that will be more detrimental than a “clash of civilizations” [and] is the disaster scenario where everybody loses’. The only alternative, he declared, is ‘to transform their region into a space of peace, stability and welfare by meeting along common values and interests’.79 The question that both these analyses present is whether or not theological differences are a direct causal factor of regional or communal conflict, and if so, what is the ultimate goal of mediation in such conflicts? It is often argued, especially by secularists, that after years of religio-political conflict, progress and pluralism took root in Europe only when the Treaty of Westphalia removed religion from the international agenda and the Enlightenment drew a clear division between the realms of religious and political authority. In contrast, Muslim scholars argue that progress and pluralism advanced furthest in many Muslim societies when religion and politics were deeply integrated, and tyranny and injustice arose largely as a result of the sidelining and subsequent exploitation of religion for social and political purposes. I believe there is an element of truth in both these positions, however the relationship between religion and conflict is much more complex.

77 78 79

David Gardner (2013). ‘Accord would help to drain the poison of sectarian strife’, Financial Times, 10 November 2013. Ibidem. Verda Ozer (2013). ‘Farewell from President Gul to the Clash of Civilizations thesis’, The Daily News, 8 October 2013.


Oliver McTernan

Religion matters In his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington argues that in the post-Cold War era, cultural and religious differences replaced ideology as the more probable cause of conflict. The old divisions of the First, Second and Third Worlds, drawn up along ideological lines, gave way to new civil differences, which could prove even more menacing. Nationalism and communism are essentially artificially constructed belief systems, whereas culture—the defining factor in a civilisation, Huntington argues—is about identity itself. It shapes the basic perceptions that people have about life and their understanding of their relationships with God, each other, authority and the state. The differences between the major cultures that are re-emerging as key factors in the reshaping of the contemporary world are more profound than those created by the discarded ideologies of the 20th century. Huntington accepts that people can and do redefine their identities, but his basic premise is that: ‘Civilisations are nonetheless meaningful entities, and while the lines between them are seldom sharp, they are real’.80 This is particularly true of religion, which he regards as ‘possibly the most profound difference that can exist between people’.81 His second theory is that globalisation created greater opportunity for interaction between these diverse civilisations, making people conscious of their differences and, as a result, more anxious about where they fit into this new global design. His conclusion is that the possibility of conflict, especially along what he describes as the ‘fault lines’ where different civilisations meet and have to compete for resources and influence, is therefore greatly heightened. Huntington gives particular attention to the role of Islam in the remaking of the world order. He refutes the argument that the West does not have a problem with Islam itself, only with violent Islamist extremists. Relations between Islam and Christianity have often been ‘stormy’, he maintains, with Islam the only civilisation that has twice threatened the survival of the West. The cause of what he sees as an ‘ongoing pattern of conflict’ is deeper than any transitory phenomena and is rooted, he believes, in the nature of the two religions and the civilisations based on them. Missionary in nature, both Christianity and Islam aim to convert non-believers to their version of ‘the one true faith’. ‘From its origins’, Huntington argues, ‘Islam expanded by conquest and, when the opportunity existed, Christianity did also’.82

An alternative analysis Whilst others would acknowledge there can be a religious factor in many conflicts, few political and social scientists consider religion a serious enough actor to merit particular 80 81 82

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Samuel P. Huntington (1997). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 43. Ibidem, p. 254. Idem, p. 211.


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interest in their research. They offer paradigms that reflect the reductionist approach to conflict, prevalent within the social and political sciences. Reductionists always seek the simplest explanation for conflict: religion is considered to be a redundant factor in life, an epiphenomenon that is incapable of having its own independent impact on the social and political level, and therefore does not merit being taken seriously as a real cause. To focus on religious motives, many political and social scientists would argue, is to risk masking the real cause, which they claim is more likely to be a mix of grievance and political ambition. Paul Collier and Ted Gurr, for example, consider that grievance or greed alone are at the root of contemporary civil conflicts, not some ancient hatreds or religion-shaped identity. Jack Snyder, meanwhile, claims the rush to democracy that was promoted in the 1990s is greatly to blame for the increase in conflict. These theories provide important insights, but hardly explain what Gardner described as the ‘intensity of the bloodletting’ seen on the streets of Syria and Iraq. It is true that economic and political discrimination, injustice and unequal access to scarce essential resources are genuine causes of many ethnic and nationalistic regional conflicts we have witnessed over the past two decades, but they do not fully explain the hatred reflected in the rhetoric and actions of some of the key protagonists. The promotion of democracy, power sharing and economic growth will undoubtedly help to lessen the likelihood of ethnic or religious conflict in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society. Yet these factors in themselves are insufficient to guarantee against the kind of violence that is motivated solely by religious conviction, which justifies killing in the name of a higher cause. History shows that religion has always demonstrated a propensity for violence, regardless of the social and political conditions of its devotees.

Religious ambivalence Given the secular, reductionist understanding of the causes of conflict and the ambivalence, past and present, of the world’s different religious traditions towards the use of violence, it should come as no surprise to us that in the immediate aftermath of September 11 we witnessed a coming together of liberal commentators, religious leaders and politicians— all of whom were keen to exonerate religion from any form of responsibility for what had happened. At the time, it reminded me of the response to the first outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In 1970, church leaders were united in declaring that, whatever may be the causes, religion was not to blame. Liberal and academic opinion endorsed this view, pointing to Britain’s colonial record in Ireland as the real explanation for the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It took several hundred deaths before an inter-church working party finally acknowledged that religious identity and centuries of unchallenged sectarianism were, and for that matter still are, a real issue in Northern Ireland. The eagerness of religious leaders to repudiate and disclaim atrocities committed by their co-religionists is no doubt prompted by an understandable fear that violence linked

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to religion portrays a distorted image of their faith. The scapegoating of the perpetrators, by labelling them as political criminals or misguided fanatics, has become a common mechanism used by leaders of all faiths to protect what they believe to be the purity and integrity of their religion. The denial that there is a problem, be it conscious or unconscious, is in itself part of the problem. It allows religious leaders to circumvent the fact that all the main faith traditions have a violent and bloody record, which needs to be acknowledged and addressed to avoid the risk of repetition. Today’s faith-identity linked violent activists have numerous exemplars within their own faith traditions that provide the kind of religious sanction they need to justify their use of violence. Reactions that either over exaggerate or underplay the role of religion in conflict fail to do justice to the complexity of faith-associated violence. While claims that we are witnessing a rejection of modernity and globalisation, or the pursuit of a kind of ‘apocalyptic nihilism’, are partial truths that fail to address the core of the problem, which lies within how these militants perceive their religion and, in particular, how they understand the process of revelation that lies behind their sacred texts. Whatever their particular religious beliefs and customs, today’s faith-inspired violent activists hold in common the belief that their scriptural or foundational texts were dictated verbatim by a divine authority, and as such are beyond interpretation. The word as it is written must be obeyed. The fact that they are always selective in their choice of texts and tend to focus on passages that underscore their exclusive claim to truth and superiority over others, whilst ignoring passages that stress the universal nature of divine love and compassion, seems not to perturb them. A man named Vivekananda, a Western-educated disciple of the 19th century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, said whilst addressing the Parliament of Religions (an assembly representing various religious bodies) in Chicago on 11 September 1893: ‘Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it time and again with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair’.83 A century earlier, the French philosopher Voltaire had reached a similar conclusion. Acutely aware of the injustices and cruelty committed in the name of religion, he concluded from his reading of history that ‘the differences between religions constituted the single most important cause of strife in the world’.84 A historical overview of the world’s mainstream religious traditions highlights how, without exception, each faith community—when under threat of extinction or given the

83 84

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Cited by Kana Mitra (1990). Outsiders–Insiders: Hindu Attitudes Toward Non-Hindus, in Leonard J. Swidler and Paul Mojzes (eds). Attitudes of Religions and Ideologies Toward the Outsider: the Other. Lewiston, New York: E. Mellen Press, p. 113. Voltaire and Simon Harvey (2000). Treatise on Tolerance. Cambridge, UK, New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 9.


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opportunity to expand—has interpreted its fundamental teachings to accommodate the changing circumstances, sanctioning the use of violence to protect and secure its own sectarian interests. In each faith tradition, one can find sufficient ambiguity in its founding texts and stories to justify killing for the glory of God. Each tradition has also its heroes who saw themselves as acting on divine authority when they plotted the destruction of those whom they perceived to be enemies of God. Today’s religious extremists can find their rationale for inflicting terror in the name of their god in the ambivalence towards violence that is be found in each faith tradition. In this article, I will focus by way of example on Christianity and Islam.

The Christian dilemma It is true that the Christian scriptures portray Jesus as a messiah who rejects the sword: ‘Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ he tells Peter, who tried to resist the group that had come to arrest Jesus (Matthew 26:52). Neither does he make claim to political power: ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews’, he tells Pilate, the Roman governor (John 18:36). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is even more explicit on rejecting violence: ‘You have heard that it was said to people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement”. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement’ (Matthew 5:21).85 The Letter to the Romans endorses Jesus’s non-violent teaching by counselling against taking revenge and articulating the ideal that evil should be overcome by good (Romans 12:21). The founding texts are not, however, without ambiguity. The image of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers as he drove them from the temple (Matthew 21:12); his words: ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34) and ‘If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one’ (Luke 22:36); as well as the violent images in the Book of Revelation, such as the four angels who were released ‘to kill a third of mankind’ (9:15), have led some to question the non-violent credentials of the Christian scriptures. It has even been suggested by some that it was Jesus’s sympathy for the Zealots’ cause that gave the Romans reason to execute him.86 But, despite the apparent ambiguities in the texts, there is clear evidence that for at least the first century and a half of their existence, Christians adopted a strongly pacifist approach, condemning the use of violence in any situation. War and military service were regarded as totally incompatible with Christian beliefs.

85 See The Holy Bible, New International Version. 86 David Little (1991). ‘Holy War’ Appeals and Western Christianity: A reconsideration of Bainton’s Approach in Just War and Jihad, in John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson (eds.). Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions. New York: Greenwood Press, footnote 7.

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It was the fifth century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo who attempted to put a positive spin on the morality of war, seeing it as an unavoidable necessity in checking evil in a fallen world. His sanctioning of violence had a profound influence on shaping the Christian attitude to the use of force in the post-Constantine era. It did not, though, totally eclipse the uncompromising Gospel message of non-violence. In the eighth century, for example, the Synod of Ratisbon expressed an unequivocal condemnation of clergy participating in any kind of warfare. Eusebius’s concept of a two-track vocation, lay and clerical, with higher expectations and moral codes of conduct applying to the clergy, had clearly become deeply rooted in the Christian psyche. It was a compromise that allowed the Church to function as an institution in the real world while at the same time maintaining some form of witness to the high ideals of the Sermon on the Mount. By the latter part of the 11th century, there is evidence to suggest that the pacifist mood of the pre-Constantine Church was reasserting itself. Canonists and papal courtiers alike were outspoken in their opposition to the sanctioning of violence and the use of force for whatever reason. Cardinal Peter Damiani wrote that: ‘In no circumstances is it licit to take up arms in the defence of the faith of the universal church; still less should men rage in battle for its earthly and transitory goods’. Cardinal Humbert condemned the use of force against heretics, claiming that Christians who used the sword in this way themselves became hardened in the ways of violence.87 In light of this clear reassertion of pacifism, both in practice and thought, it seems incongruous that Pope Urban II should have used the same occasion in which he officially promulgated the Truce of God as a law of the Church to launch the First Crusade, a holy war aimed ostensibly at regaining the holy places from infidel control. Urban II’s sermon at the Council of Claremont in 1095 marked a turning point, a new era in papal-sanctioned brutality.

The Crusades: a radical shift towards violence It was Urban II’s predecessor, Gregory VII, who masterminded the radical shift in official Church teaching on the use of violence. Driven by the desire to impose a Christian-dominated order on a fragmented world, Gregory VII sanctioned aggressive warfare, provided of course that it was waged under the banner of St. Peter. He identified the spiritual combat against the flesh—in which St. Paul encouraged all Christians to engage—with an earthly warfare that was undertaken for the sake of Christ. What had previously been regarded as sinful, even when prosecuted for noble reasons, became meritorious when men ‘dedicated their swords to the service of Christ and of Saint Peter’.88 Gregory VII himself had planned to lead a Christian army, ostensibly to relieve Byzantine87 88

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Herbert Edward John Cowdrey (1976). The Genesis of the Crusades: The Springs of Western Ideas of Holy War, in Thomas Patrick Murphy and Ohio State University, Columbus, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The Holy War: [papers]. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, p. 19. Ibidem, p. 20.


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rite Christians from the infidel threat. His real motive was probably to re-impose papal supremacy on the Christian world, divided after the schism of 1054. Although he failed to mobilise adequate support to fulfil his personal ambition, his reformulation of traditional Christian thinking on warfare—the thought that the sword could be used to further the cause of Christ—gained sufficient hold on the Christian imagination to ensure a robust response to Urban II’s call to arms to liberate the holy places a decade later. Few in late 11th century Europe would have had any first-hand knowledge of Muslims or an awareness of the circumstances in which Eastern Christians lived to warrant such a response. The Muslim world, in fact, was tolerant of other faiths—provided they accepted a lesser role in society and paid their taxes. Therefore, there were undoubtedly other factors that contributed to the popular response to Urban II’s appeal. European society at that time was experiencing demographic changes, with all the internal social tensions that inevitably follow. Population growth, the development of the knight class in search of social mobility, and the increased enforcement of law and order meant that warriors and those wanting to climb the social ladder had to look elsewhere in their need for land or new outlets for their innate sense of aggression and the practice of their martial skills. These factors, however, would have been insufficient in themselves to persuade men to endure the sacrifices they would have to make by embarking on a Crusade had it not been for the religious mood, which Urban II identified and tapped into successfully. In his article ‘The Genesis of the Crusades: The Springs of Western Ideas of Holy War’, Herbert Edward John Cowdrey identifies that mood as 11th century Europe’s preoccupation with sin and penance. At a time when the Church’s penitential system was in a state of disorder and confusion, people were never sure whether or not their penance could gain them full remission for their sins.89 The only two assured ways of receiving forgiveness until then had been to enter a monastery or go on an unarmed pilgrimage. The Church was now offering a third way: warriors could gain remission for their sins by doing what they were good at—and killing or being killed in God’s name would assure them of a place in paradise. Whatever high motives that deluded them, by legitimising the use of the sword in God’s name, Gregory VII and Urban II unleashed a destructive force that over the following three and a half centuries inflicted unspeakable human suffering on anyone who had the misfortune of being identified as an alien or infidel within or beyond the boundaries of Western Christianity. Within a year of Urban VII’s sermon at Claremont, Jews living in the Rhineland became victims of this new wave of religious fanaticism. In later years, Byzantine-rite Christians were subjected to the same barbarities as their Muslim and Jewish neighbours. Sir Steven Runciman’s description of the Crusaders’ siege of Alexandria compares to what happened in the two other great centres of belief, culture and trade that were also plundered, Jerusalem and Constantinople:

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Idem, p. 21.

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They spared no one. The native Christians and Jews suffered as much as the Moslems; and even the European merchants settled in the city saw their factories and storehouses ruthlessly looted. Mosques and tombs were raided and their ornaments stolen or destroyed; churches too were sacked… Houses were entered, and householders who did not immediately hand over all their possessions were slaughtered with their families.90 The Crusaders’ record of barbarity could easily lead one to question whether these holy warriors were motivated more by a lust for violence and loot than any sense of religious idealism. Opportunistic behaviour and greed may well have overshadowed the religious intent of their mission at times, yet an analysis of the Crusaders’ songs and writings demonstrates that, at least initially, a religious mindset motivated them and legitimised their cruel behaviour. An anonymous knight put on record his own motives for embarking on the First Crusade, attributing his decision to fight to ‘a great stirring of the heart throughout the Frankish lands, so that if any man really wanted to follow God and faithfully to bear the cross after him, he could make no delay in taking the road to the Holy Sepulchre as quickly as possible’.91 The Crusader clearly saw himself as a pilgrim, albeit armed, who had undergone an inner conversion that led him ‘to join the sacred army of God’s saints’.

The remnant of the pacifism of early Christianity Not all Western Christians endorsed the belief in divinely sanctioned violence. One notable exception was Francis of Assisi, who in 1219 succeeded in engaging al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, in dialogue. Francis had hoped to bring an end to the senseless killing between Christians and Muslims by persuading the sultan to convert to Christianity. Although he failed in his immediate goal, Francis’s presence and manner had such an influence on al-Kamil that the sultan later sent a messenger proposing a truce, during which time he was prepared to explore with the Christian Crusaders the possibility of peace.92 The Crusaders agreed to the truce but declined the sultan’s offer to discuss peace, presumably because they believed themselves to be engaged on a sacred mission that did not allow for such compromises. Later, in the same century that Francis embarked on his peace mission, the English Franciscan and scientist Roger Bacon expressed similar beliefs that the Crusades were ‘cruel and useless’ and the infidel would be more open to

90 91 92

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Quoted by Malcolm Billings (2000). The Crusades. Stroud: Tempus in association with the British Library, p. 153. Gesta Francorum quoted by Herbert Edward John Cowdrey (1976). The Genesis of the Crusades: The Springs of Western Ideas of Holy War, Op. Cit., p. 11. Adrian House (2000). Francis of Assisi. London: Chatto and Windus, pp. 208–213.


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conversion if Christians were less aggressive and predatory. A couple of centuries later, Erasmus—while not rejecting the principle of a just war—based his arguments in favour of pacifism on his understanding of the New Testament.

Islam and violence The religious justification for fighting given in the Koran is rooted in the historical injustice that was done to Muhammad and his followers when they were driven out of their homes in Mecca and deprived of their livelihood because of their belief in God. In principle, a Muslim was only permitted to fight to right an injustice, defend themselves and protect their religion from destructive forces: ‘Permission to fight is granted to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged, and Allah indeed has the power to help them. They are those who have been driven out of their homes unjustly only because they affirmed: Our Lord is Allah. If Allah did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated, would surely be destroyed’.93 The reward for fighting unrelentingly against disbelieving neighbours was the assurance of paradise: ‘Whoso fights in the cause of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, we shall soon give him a great reward’.94 In the real world of Arabia’s inter-clan warfare, however, it would appear that attack was considered the best form of defence, leading Muhammad and his followers to take the military initiative in order to ensure the survival of the umma or community of believers. The concept of jihad was always considered to be broader than military action. This is well illustrated in Muslim tradition. Muhammad himself emphasised the priority that should be given to the jihad of the heart, the struggle to purify oneself and submit wholly to God alone, when on returning from battle he told his companions: ‘This day we have returned from the minor jihad (war) to the major jihad (self-control and betterment)’.95 In the course of time, Muslim jurists acknowledged the different nuances in the struggle to submit to God’s will and that jihad could be performed with the heart, tongue, hands and sword. The jihad of the heart represented the individual’s personal struggle with evil. The jihad of the tongue and the hands represented the struggle to promote what is right and correct what is wrong. The jihad of the sword represented the struggle against the enemies of the faith: those unbelievers who rejected the message and rule of Islam.96 It was every Muslim’s duty to offer their wealth and, if necessary, their lives in this struggle. All Muslim men who were physically able to fight were expected to take part. The jihad of the sword,

93 94 95 96

Koran 22:40–41. Koran 4:75. Hassan Hathout (1996). Reading the Muslim Mind. Plainfield, Ind.: American Trust Publications, pp. 108–109. Ibidem.

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though, was regarded as a collective responsibility, and not one that should be undertaken by an individual believer acting alone. Depending upon the particular circumstances or the nature of the threat that needed to be thwarted, jihad could be employed as an offensive or defensive action. It was justified within the dar al-Islam (the territory of peace) when embarked upon to punish wrongdoing or eradicate the forces of disbelief—to defend the faith and protect the unity and peace of the umma from the threat of apostasy, dissent, schism and rebellion: Fight those from among the people of the Book who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor hold as unlawful that which Allah and His Messenger have declared as unlawful nor follow the true religion, and who have not yet made peace with you, until they pay the tax willingly and make their submission (Koran 9:29). It was also justified as a defensive measure against the endemic threat posed by the dar al-harb (the territory of war), those regions that were beyond the rule of Islam. Although it began as a non-violent means of achieving social and religious reform, the concept of jihad developed to sanction the use of the sword, as the Muslim community grew to be a political power on the Arabian Peninsula. In the early days of the community at Mecca, Muslims accepted insult and rejection in their efforts to convert their fellow citizens to a new spiritual vision through their preaching and charity. It was after the hajj, the emigration to Medina, that Muslims were given permission to fight, essentially to right the injustice that had been done to them.97 The order to fight in the ‘cause of Allah’ was given when it was felt that the survival of the community was under threat from hostile neighbours. The sanctioning of a more pro-active use of the sword was justified when non-believers had dishonoured their pledges with Muslims. It was at this stage that jihad became instrumental in the spreading of Islam, and the time-honoured aggressiveness of the Arabian tribes that now formed the Muslim community became focused on the world of the non-believer. The relationship between the dar-al-Islam and the dar-al-harb, the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, was defined in terms of jihad, or a state of war, which applied even when hostilities were suspended. As the practice of war developed, becoming (for some at least) a way of life, so too did the rules governing the conduct of war. Jurists and scholars differed on the circumstances and to whom these rules applied but agreed that their prime aim was to limit violence and avoid the risk of acting out of anger or revenge. As war was a collective responsibility, it was to be declared only by the caliph or imam. No war was to be started, however, before

97

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James Turner Johnson (1997). The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, p. 60.


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the enemy was invited to convert to Islam or enter into a peace agreement. Summary executions, the torturing of prisoners, mutilating the bodies of the dead, the use of poisoned weapons, the killing or molesting of non-combatants, rape and sexual molestation, ethnic cleansing, the devastation of crops and the destruction of religious, medical and cultural institutions were outlawed.98 From its earliest history, the unity of Islam was threatened by a series of internal revolts and by those who believed they were justified in using violence to promote their self-proclaimed mission to purify their religion from the malpractices of leaders who had usurped power. Driven by the convictions that ‘the subject’s duty of obedience lapses where the command is sinful’ and ‘there must be no obedience to a creature against his Creator’,99 these rebellious groups, led frequently by charismatic leaders, perceived themselves to be acting virtuously by killing the unrighteous. Tyrannicide was looked upon as a religious duty. In the long run, however, these extremist groups lacked the organisation and popular support to withstand the military power and authority of the established leadership. A notable exception were the Assassins, whose terrorist activities spanned the best part of two centuries (1090–1275) and who only ceased to be a threat to the Sunni establishment when the Mongol invasion provided Baybars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, with an opportunity to seize their network of mountain strongholds in Syria.

The Westphalia and Enlightenment effect The social and political milieu can, and often does, provide the trigger for sectarian violence. However this, I would argue, is not necessarily the fundamental cause for religious intolerance and violence in the world today. The 17th century Treaty of Westphalia may have succeeded in putting an end to pitched battles over beliefs that had marred interstate relationships in Europe for most of that century. The claim that it removed once and for all the influence of religion from international politics is more questionable. It could be argued that by domesticating or nationalising belief, the motto being that the faith of the ruler was the faith of the realm or state, Westphalia in fact turned religion into a powerful social agent, which was used to enforce the cultural identity of the colonisers, as European princes and governments expanded their rule to embrace the countries of Africa and Asia. Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka and the BJP Hindu nationalist party in India argue British colonial policies that favoured one group over another, a practice aimed at restricting the religious hegemony that they enjoyed prior to colonisation, ultimately sowed the seeds of their countries’ present conflicts. 98 99

Hilmi M. Zawati (2001). Is Jihad a Just War?: War, Peace, and Human Rights under Islamic and Public International Law. Lewiston, New York: E. Mellen Press, pp. 40–45. Bernard Lewis (1995). Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 126–127.

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The impact of the Enlightenment may also have been over exaggerated in terms of conformation to the cultural norms and expectations of society. The phenomenon of believing without feeling a need to belong to a community or practice a particular faith makes it more difficult for social scientists to evaluate the real impact of religion on community or tribal life. To quote Alan Aldridge, the author of Religion in the Contemporary World, a Sociological Introduction, ‘Latent religiosity survives as a resource to be mobilised at times of crisis in the lives of individuals or the history of the society’.100

Religion and mediation Given that religion can be a causal factor in conflict, the question we need to explore is: can religion play the reverse role and help to mediate, manage and resolve conflict? The starting point, for me, is to acknowledge that theological differences rooted in firmly held dogmas are irreconcilable. On one level, inter-faith dialogue that fails to openly acknowledge these fundamental differences can be as much part of the problem as the solution. We have to learn to coexist with the cracks and not be tempted to paper over them. My Lisbon experience of living with a crack, caused by the 1755 earthquake, thought me this lesson. There is a risk of looking back and idolising past relationships—but there never has been a golden period. People of different faiths were tolerated so long as they knew their place within the established order. An unwritten social contract existed between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, where Christians were allowed to practice their faith and carry out works of charity provided they did not proselytise. To learn to live with our differences and not see the other as a threat or competitor calls for a real shift in mindset, a profound change in the understanding of ourselves and those who are different. We need to learn to think differently about the other and to actively promote a climate that allows for real interaction and the development of a genuine respect, despite our differences in belief and practice. We need to move beyond the sectarianism that can be engrained within religious communities. I recall meeting with Dr. Peter Shirlow of the University of Ulster to discuss research he had carried out in 2003 in neighbourhoods divided by so-called ‘peace lines’, physical barriers erected to keep neighbouring communities apart, which have increased in number since then. His research indicates that, since the peace process began, the gap between the two communities has widened, especially among the younger generation. He found that prejudice was so engrained on both sides that 68% of the 18–25 age group claim they never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the other community. His findings also revealed that 72% of all age groups refuse to use health centres located in areas dominated by the other religion, and 62% of unemployed people refuse to sign on

100 Alan Aldridge (2000). Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 3.

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at their local social-security office if it is located in what is seen to be the other’s territory. He told me that one of the main problems facing Northern Ireland is that everyone sees themselves as a victim of the other side and is unable to recognise that self as a perpetrator of violence and intimidation. The challenge, he believes, is to help people on each side see that they are both victims and perpetrators in the current divisions. The Irish School of Ecumenics report ‘Moving Beyond Sectarianism’, published in 2001, describes the pervasiveness of sectarianism at every level of Northern Irish society. It underlines the need to think about sectarianism as a systemic as well as a personal problem. ‘Sectarianism’, it concludes, ‘has become a system so efficient that it can take our sane and rational responses to a situation which it has generated and use them to further deepen sectarianism’.101 The example given is how people have responded to the violence over the years: the tendency has been to move from mixed residential areas to live ‘exclusively among our own’. The authors recognise that this is a perfectly understandable and blameless response but the unfortunate effect, they claim, is to reinforce sectarianism still further. What applied in Northern Ireland then is still applicable today in many parts of the world facing strife. People, the report found, approach sectarianism by drawing lines between themselves and others, and because they can always find people whose actions are worse than their own they can point to them as the real problem. The consequences of the dynamics of systemic sectarianism, the report claims, is that no one is ever responsible—‘the buck never stops passing’.102 Sectarianism can also feed on what the authors call ‘religiously motivated boundary maintenance’: people worship, are educated and marry almost exclusively within their own communities, with the intention not to be sectarian but to build strong communities. The result, nonetheless, according to the report, is ‘strengthening the sectarian divide’.103

The sectarian mindset A sectarian mindset is not a monopoly of the street or disadvantaged neighbourhoods, it is pervasive even at the highest level of religious leadership. Writing about the meeting of more than 2,000 religious leaders that was held in the United Nations building in New York, the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks says he found it easy to understand ‘why religion is as often a cause of conflict as it is of conciliation’. He criticises his fellow participants for their failure to rise above ‘the narrow loyalties of faith’, and says the peace spoken of was too often ‘peace on our terms’. The general message, he concludes, was: ‘Our faith speaks of peace; our holy texts praise peace; therefore, if only the world 101 Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg (2001). Moving Beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Columba Press, p. 12. 102 Ibidem, p. 13. 103 Idem, p. 14.

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shared our faith and our texts there would be peace’.104 John Stuart Mill’s argument that diversity should be nurtured and not merely endured, on the grounds of it leading to truth and human progress,105 appears to have been overshadowed by the climate of theological particularism (the belief that one group has exclusive possession of truth, knowledge and goodness that is universally applicable), which still shapes the outlook of many of today’s religious leaders.

Moving beyond tolerance Some would claim that religion can promote peace and coexistence in so far as it promotes tolerance of the other. The word ‘tolerance’ for many people today defines a positive attitude towards diversity, calling for respect and acceptance of those who think and act differently from oneself. The Latin roots of the word, meaning to endure or put up with the objectionable, indicate that tolerance, as it was originally defined, had more negative overtones. Far from embracing diversity and pluralism, Aquinas and others saw the willingness to permit or concede the practice of a religion they judged to be false as the lesser of two evils—since to act otherwise could possibly involve a greater evil. Even Locke endorsed ‘toleration’ only because he considered the ‘consequences of intolerance are a greater evil than the evil that is tolerated’. The original concept of tolerance prevails today, especially in religious circles. The 2003 edition of the New Catholic Encyclopaedia distinguishes between ‘personal’ tolerance (‘permitting others to hold and to put into practice views that diverge from one’s own’), which it endorses, and ‘doctrinal’ tolerance (‘permitting error to spread unopposed’), which it judges to be ‘reprehensible’. Even with its negative connotations, the traditional concept of tolerance, which allows for would-be warring communities to coexist side by side without violence, should not be undervalued. The achievement of ‘mere coexistence’, as it is sometimes disparagingly referred to, is no mean feat, especially in communities that have been marred by interethnic or inter-religious strife. The real threat to human existence presented by the face of intolerance today underscores the urgent need for religious communities in particular to re-evaluate their own attitudes towards diversity and pluralism. The French Catholic existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel believed that far from embattling people with negative attitudes towards others, a genuine religious experience or conviction mandates a person to be pro-active in defending the right of others to believe differently. He maintained that the ‘intense conviction’ a religious person experiences, which is so much part of who he or she is, should enable that person to empathise with another’s convictions, which are different but equally intense. This ability to identify or empathise 104 Jonathan Sacks (2002). The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. London, New York: Continuum, p. 9. 105 John Stuart Mill and Elizabeth Rapaport (1978). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., pp. 9 and 50.

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should lead believers to move beyond that state of passive acceptance usually referred to as tolerance.106

The right to be different To uphold and actively defend the right of others to make truth claims different from our own and act upon them, provided they are not detrimental to the rights and well-being of others, would be an important first step in taking people beyond ‘the sectarian milieu’ in which their own convictions have been formed. Robert Putnam judged education to be the key to counterbalancing the drift towards intolerance, which he found in American communities that were more religious in their make-up. I would agree that education could help to dispel the myths that allow others to be looked upon as outcasts or ‘demons’, but it is equally true that indoctrination, in the form of religious dogmatism based on absolute claims, can reinforce separatism and an intolerance of what is judged to be false. Respect for others and their conscientious beliefs and opinions is the framework for dialogue that allows for an honest exchange of conflicting ideas. High on the agenda of such exchanges should be a willingness to test truth claims that authorise a sense of exclusiveness or superiority over others. Equally high on that agenda should be a willingness to consider the reordering of the hierarchy or canon of beliefs that determine the faith and practice of each religious tradition. The affirmation of human life as a sacred experience or gift should take priority over what name we give to God or how we define our understanding of the divine. For the first time in our history, human beings have it within their power to extinguish the whole of life, and, in the process, cause grotesque disfiguration to the face of the globe. This awesome fact places a particular responsibility on those religious traditions that regard the whole of creation as a sacred gift to be cherished, and who believe that humans will be held accountable for their stewardship of the earth. Now is undoubtedly a defining moment in human history, which calls for an exceptional and imaginative response from the world’s religions. Whether they will be capable of responding to that challenge depends on the quality of religious leadership within the diverse traditions. The top-down approach is not sufficient: religious leaders need to have a depth of knowledge and spiritual maturity to engage their own faith communities at every level, in order to challenge the sectarian mindset that sees the other as less worthy of respect and therefore dispensable.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Oliver McTernan is the director and co-founder of Forward Thinking, a UK-based organisation that promotes better understanding between cultures and focuses on mediation in the MENA region. His book Violence in God’s Name: the Role of Religion in

106 Gabriel Marcel (1964). Creative Fidelity. New York: The Noonday Press, pp. 210–221.

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an Age of Conflict addresses the need to take the religious factor seriously in international efforts to address faith-fuelled identity conflicts.

ABSTRACT Religion can be a cause of conflict but, equally, it can be an important tool for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict. It can be a powerful force for integration or the cause of segregation and marginalisation. This is true regardless of the theological or ethnic differences that exist at global, regional or local levels. Faith imbues the whole life of a believer and, either consciously or unconsciously, helps shape their human response to the moral, social and political challenges they encounter every day. The challenge facing religious leadership today is to overcome the past and present ambivalence towards the use of violence that is prevalent in all the major religious traditions, and to help their adherents to recognise the need to live alongside and engage with the other, regardless of their theological differences.

KEYWORDS Religion, conflict, prevention, ambivalence, leadership

‫امللخص‬ ‫ لكن يف الوقت نفسه ميكنه أن يكون وسيلة يف غاية األهمية لتجنب‬،‫ميكن للدين أن يتحول إىل سبب للنزاع‬ ‫ و ذلك‬،‫النزاعات و تدبريها و حلها ؛ و ميكنه أن يكون مبثابة قوة هائلة لإلدماج أو للتفرقة و تهميش اآلخر‬ ‫ و يؤثر‬.‫بغض النظر عن اإلختالفات الالهوتية و اإلثنية القامئة عىل املستوى العاملي و الجهوي و املحيل‬ ‫ يف صياغته لجواب إنساين عىل التحديات األخالقية‬،‫ بوعي و بدونه‬،‫ و يساعده‬،‫الدين يف كل حياة املؤمن‬ ‫ هذا و يواجه رجال الدين اليوم تحدي تجاوز التعارض‬.‫و اإلجتامعية و السياسية التي تواجهه كل يوم‬ ‫ و مساعدة أتباعها‬،‫ الذي يسود يف كل التقاليد الكربى لألديان‬،‫بني املايض و الحارض حول إستخدام العنف‬ .‫لإلعرتاف برضورة العيش املشرتك و اإلنتظام مع اآلخرين من دون أخذ يف اإلعتبار إلختالفاتهم الدينية‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ الزعامة‬،‫ التعارض‬،‫ الوقاية‬،‫ النزاع‬،‫الدين‬

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T

he organisational system of Arab Islamic societies has been accurately described as a ‘mosaic’ made up of different confessional communities.107 This structural model, more than likely dating back to the urban organisation that already existed in the period before Islam, has been present since the beginnings of Muslim civilisation, demonstrated by the fact that it has withstood all the changes this society has undergone throughout the centuries. This tendency to organise into semi-autonomous confessional communities also stretches to non-Muslim groups that inhabit in the Levantine Arab countries, and who, in this particular aspect, were decidedly influenced by the contact with Islam.108 This Islamic method of organising society aimed to protect and distinguish between different religious groups by establishing, on the one hand, the superiority of Islam as a religion and its political pre-eminence,109 and on the other, ensuring the existence and autonomy of these communities, provided they did not interfere with the lives of Muslims or the stability and security of the state.110 The three principles behind this method of 107 Ira M. Lapidus (1973). ‘The Early Evolution of Muslim Urban Society’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 15, pp. 21–50. 108 When we talk of ‘semi-autonomous confessional groups’ we are referring to communities that have their own internal legislation and the freedom to manage matters related to the personal status of their members, and which also share urban space alongside other similar groups in terms of autonomy and structure. 109 Abdullah Saeed (1999). ‘Rethinking Citizenship Rights of the Non-Muslims in an Islamic State: Rashid al-Ghannushi’s Contributions to the Evolving Debate’, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 10 (3), pp. 308–309. 110 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Cam-


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organisation, originating from the Koran itself and with a tradition that dates back to the times of Muhammad, are the following: 1) the aforementioned superiority of Islam, 2) religious tolerance and 3) the stringent differentiation between communities.111 In their famous Koran commentaries, classic authors such as Muhammad al-Qurtubi (d. 1272) mentioned these guidelines and their legal repercussions.112 It is interesting to note how in the Arab countries that emerged from the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire—particularly, though not solely, the Syrian Arab Republic—this organisational religious system was preserved partially modified, coexisting with modern and Western legislation. In the legal structure of the Syrian state, this makes possible the combination of at times contradictory concepts, such as the state, nation, religion, secularism, religious community and citizenship. The pages that follow will explain the origin of this duality, which is positioned precisely in the late Ottoman Empire, during the period of reforms better known as the Tanzimat.

The organisation of religious communities in the Ottoman era The Ottoman governors, known for being eminently pragmatic in their principles and actions, always tended to respect the legal customs of groups of people incorporated into the empire, combining them with Islamic law and the absolutist tradition characteristic of their central Asian nomadic tradition.113 The pragmatism of the Ottoman government is easy to understand from the point of view of the social complexity that stemmed from the vastness and variety of the domains under the authority of the sultan. In any event, the organisation of religious communities, at least in the Arab provinces, followed the guidelines established by the sharia, although the conditions and circumstances could vary from one place to the next, depending on local uses or the governors’ attitude.114 This part of the empire continued to organise the religious communities with a taifa system, however this system would be greatly modified from the 18th century onwards, and particularly during the 19th century. The noun taifa is used in Arab documents to denominate the religious communities, especially the non-Muslim ones. It is a word with a particularly vague meaning, and is employed to designate any group of people that differ from the rest because of a particular trait—be it profession, language, religion or any other defining aspect linked to identity. The term taifa passed, virtually unaltered, into Ottoman Turkish (taife), maintaining the same meaning as in Arabic. bridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 64, 84. 111 Antoine Fattal (1995). Le statut légal des non-musulmans en pays d’Islam. Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, pp. 160–161. Also see Bernard Lewis (2002). Los judíos del Islam. Madrid: Letrúmero, pp. 19–20, 25. 112 Muhammad Abu Abd-Allah al-Qurtubi (2003). Al-Yami li-Ahkam al-Qur’an [The Compiler of the Judgements in the Koran], 20 vols. Riyadh: Dar Alim al-Kutub 1423 H/2003, pp. 44, 93. 113 Nicoara Beldiceanu (1989). L’Organisation de l’Empire Ottoman (xiv–xv siècles), in Robert Mantran (ed.). Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman. Paris: Arthème Fayard, p. 118. 114 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Op. Cit., p. 17.

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It is interesting to note discernible similarities between the professional classes and religious communities. In the Ottoman documents originating from Syria, both groups are called ‘taifas’ and share common traits, right down to the last detail: a) they are local; b) they have their own statutes for self-government, based on their uses, customs and traditional regulations; c) they possess their own autonomy with which to choose their own leaders and representatives; and d) they require the official sanction of the authorities of the state—after which the head or leader of the organisation becomes administrator, collector, governor and representative of the taifa, and may even make use of its civil power to do so.115 As already indicated, the Ottoman Empire maintained the traditional system of religious organisation that came from previous epochs. It even employed the same Arabic term to designate religious communities—remarkable for an administration as sophisticated as the Ottoman one, with such precise institutional vocabulary and certain very well defined functional institutions.116 This would suggest that it did not create an institution or specific policy in this respect. Many Western studies uphold the theory that, following the conquest of Constantinople (1453), Sultan Mehmed II Fatih introduced a system called ‘millet’, a word that came from the Arabic milla (and in Ottoman Turkish meant ‘nation or group of people with the same religion or language’),117 which would become an essential and characteristic part of the organisation of the empire from the outset. According to this idea, each religious community acknowledged by the Sublime Porte would receive the title of millet and be centrally governed by the respective supreme religious authority from Istanbul, named by the sultan to that end. Thus, from the beginning, the Ottoman Empire distinguished between the governing millet (namely, that pertaining to Sunni Muslims or millet-i hâkime/ millet-i islamiye) and the governed millet (milel-i mahkûme), that is, the rest of the religious groups. In current research, this theory of the millet tends to be considered erroneous, since the reasoning is based on an untimely interpretation of the use of this term in documents—as adequately demonstrated by Halil Inalcık and Benjamin Braude. The first of these authors suggested that the modern meaning of millet could have influenced the interpretation of the term in documents prior to the reforms of the 19th century,118 while Braude deemed the

115 Abdul-Karim Rafeq (1991). ‘Craft Organization, Work Ethics and the Strains of Change in Ottoman Syria’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 111 (3), pp. 499–502 and 506–507; Alejandra Álvarez (2013). Comunidades no musulmanas en un entorno musulmán. La pervivencia del modelo otomano en la actual Siria. Madrid: Cantarabia, pp. 80–82. 116 In documents prior to the 19th century, other terms from Arabic are also occasionally found to designate religious groups. This is the case with mahalle (district) and cemaat (congregation, religious community). See Bahadır Alkım, Nazime Antel and others (1997). Redhouse Türkçe-Osmanlıca İngilizce Sözlük [Redhouse Turkish-Ottoman English Dictionary]. Istanbul: SEV Matbaacılık ve Yayıncılık A. S, pp. 220, 720. 117 Ibidem, p. 777. 118 Halil Inalcık (1964). ‘R. H. Davison, Reform in the Ottoman Empire 1856–1876’, Belleten, Turk Tarih Kurumu, 28, pp. 791–793.

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system a ‘myth’, putting forward guidelines for the correct analysis of the sources in which the term millet is mentioned.119 All of this points to the millets—centralised as they were around Istanbul authorities, with the aim of grouping all citizens according to a religious criteria—being a progressive creation, which culminated in the 19th century. The formation of this new organisational system began in the 18th century with the so-called ‘Millet Wars’, in which there was a predominance of concerns over the growing interference by the West in non-Muslim religious groups at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, and the ambition of religious leaders in close proximity to the Sublime Porte, who took advantage of the circumstances to extend their power to the co-religionists within the empire. The conflict ended with the approval of Rum milleti and Ermeni milleti (the Byzantine and Armenian millets, respectively), but what had initially been limited to these two specific groups ended up spreading around all the communities, with the understanding that making use of their own religious identity could mean obtaining the title of millet and securing political advantage—given that such acknowledgement would open the door to the power game of the court.120

Towards the politicisation of religion It was during the Tanzimat, the series of reforms that began in the second third of the 19th century, that this millet policy reached its peak. Paradoxically, this epoch, which marked the beginning of the legal modernisation of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of secularism at its heart, was also when a system was established that granted new political power to religious communities. The Tanzimat were promoted with the aim of overcoming the crisis and decadence of the empire, through an essentially centralist policy and reforms that responded not to social demand but rather to an initiative of the governing elites. These reforms began with the Gülhane Decree in 1839, which gave rise to a set of measures: including the renewal of the legislation, the aggiornamento of bureaucracy and the army, and the end of the traditional vision, according to which Islam must have political and social pre-eminence. After Gulhane, Ottoman citizens benefited from the same rights and shared the same obligations, without distinctions of religion. The decree tacitly declared universal equality, thus going against the sharia and popular opinion.121 The refusal of the highest Sunni religious authority in the empire, the Seyhülislam, to endorse the decree (it 119 Benjamin Braude (1982). Foundation Myths of the Millet System, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds.). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vols. New York, London: Holmes & Meier Publishers, vol. 1, pp. 69–88. 120 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Op. Cit., pp. 61–65, 98–100, 134; Carter Vaughn Findley (2008). The Tanzimat, in Suraiya N. Faroqhi, Kate Fleet and Resat Kasaba (eds.). The Cambridge History of Turkey, 4 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, vol. 4, p. 28. 121 Kemal H. Karpat (1982). Millet and Nationality: The Root of the Incongruity of Nation and State in the Post-Ottoman Era, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds.). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The Functioning of a Plural Society, 2 vols. Op. Cit., vol. 1, p. 162.

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was standard practice to approve laws that were related to Islamic law) showed the unease with which these measures were welcomed. This epoch would see the start of tensions between politics and religion.122 It was, in fact, the Imperial Decree of 1856, known as Islahat Hattı Hümayun or the Imperial Decree of Reforms, which brought about insurmountable discordance, as it proposed bold measures of modernisation whilst establishing the continuation of religious separation. It appealed to common citizens and equality between Ottomans, without distinguishing between sex or religion, whilst at the same time sanctioning the millet as the organisational system of religious communities, thus confirming their rights and privileges and establishing that it was the communities themselves, via their religious representatives, who must manage individual personal status law regarding matters such as marriage, family, inheritance and filiation.123 Unfortunately, this initiative to modernise while maintaining the traditional status quo gave rise to three disagreeable circumstances regarding the survival of the empire: 1. On the one hand, the process was traumatic for the people, since the traditional social structure was suddenly dismantled. Many believed Westerners were ultimately responsible, as the reformist ideas went against the order inspired by the sharia.124 In some places this discontent exploded in the form of religious violence, as was the case with the 1860 massacre in Syria.125 2. On the other hand, the authority of the sultan became seriously compromised, since many Muslims started to consider him an undignified representative of religion.126 In Arab territories, this situation triggered a type of religious-based Arab nationalism that supported the creation of a purely Arab caliphate in contrast to the corrupt Padisah.127 3. The millet system enabled religious power to be centralised in Istanbul, thus putting an end to the autonomous and local nature of the taifas. This accentuated the national consciousness of citizens from the provinces, who, having been under a distant authority, reacted by politicising religion, language and ethnicity—elements that had never represented a problem for the common consciousness up until that moment. Therefore,

122 Dora Glidewell Nadolski (1977). ‘Ottoman and Secular Civil Law’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 8, pp. 521–522. 123 Alejandra Álvarez (2013). Comunidades no musulmanas en un entorno musulmán. La pervivencia del modelo otomano en la actual Siria. Op. Cit., pp. 103–109. 124 Roderic H. Davison (1963). Reform in the Ottoman Empire 1856–1876. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 57. 125 Bruce Masters (2001). Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arabic World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Op. Cit., pp. 3–6. 126 Philip Mansel (1995). Constantinopla, la ciudad deseada por el mundo, 1453–1924. Granada: Almed, p. 302. 127 Kemal H. Karpat (1972). ‘The Transformation of the Ottoman State, 1789–1908’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 3 (3), p. 273; Hasan Kayali (1997). Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908–1918. California: University of California Press, Ebooks Collection, p. 28.

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one consequence of the Tanzimat was the emergence of different types of nationalism within the empire, including the incipient Arab and Turkish nationalism.128 The organisation into millets lasted until the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire—made final after it suffered defeat to the Allied powers. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of data (relating to, for instance, ethnically and religiously motivated massacres between 1894 and 1897) that verifies how already in the epoch of Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) the state was unable to manage the heterogeneous nature of the different millets under one common Ottoman nationality (osmanlılık). Gradually, the notion that Islam was the only idea capable of uniting a society was forged (bearing in mind that the areas with a Christian majority were progressively becoming independent throughout the 19th century. This was the case with Armenia, which remained under Russian control from 1828 and 1829, and Greece, which became independent in 1830. It was the same for Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria in 1878, the same year the Austro-Hungarians annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Russians Eastern Anatolia. By the end of the century, the Ottoman Empire was overwhelmingly Muslim), as was the notion that the millet system must disappear by means of an almost forceful process of assimilation.129 In the final decade of the empire, the only aspect people could hold onto was Turkish identity. In the Turkey that came into being after the empire’s defeat, with a state wishing to forget its past, the millet system did disappear. However, in the eastern Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire that remained under the Mandates, and especially under the French Mandate (as in Syria’s case), the Ottoman organisation of religious groups was preserved and partially modified. Hence the paradox that remains in Syria of a state with modern structures coexisting with a traditional religious organisation.

The confessional strategy during the French Mandate for Syria The shortly lived kingdom of Faisal bin Hussein in Syria (1919–1920) did not represent any significant change in the confessional organisation of the Syria–Lebanon territory. This interim was followed by the French Mandate for Lebanon and Syria, which, although justified by the League of Nations (in 1922), would mean the inhabitants of this territory would never see the legitimacy the sultans had possessed.130 As shown in the results of the King–Crane Commission, an official and neutral investigation endorsed in 1919 by the North American government (at that time Woodrow Wilson was in office and his postwar policy regarding the old Ottoman territories was based on the right of the people’s self-determination), the majority of the inland population, namely Syria—in contrast

128 Albert Hourani (2003). La historia de los árabes. Barcelona: Vergara, p. 379; Maxime Rodinson (2005). Los árabes. Madrid: Siglo XXI, p. 87. 129 Kemal H. Karpat (1972). ‘The Transformation of the Ottoman State, 1789–1908’, Op. Cit., p. 280. 130 Philip S. Khoury (1987). Syria and the French Mandate. The Politics of the Arab Nationalism 1920–1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 4–5.

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to the Christian majority in Lebanon—were radically opposed to any French or Zionist intervention in their country. They saw their hopes of building a nation in the so-called ‘historical Syria’ (that is, inland Syria, Mount Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan—territories that have always embodied linguistic, cultural and social unity) reduced. In fact, only the Maronites and the rest of the Catholics preferred the French.131 Yet neither the British nor the French took on board the recommendations of this investigation, though the French did make use of the data generated to design their government strategy. In fact, during the period spanning the Mandate in Syria (from 1920—although the official date is 1922—until 1946), the French designed and developed a policy based primarily on the operation of the different religious communities. What is striking is that under such circumstances, an openly secular country like France made use of religion as a political tool.132 That said, the possible reasons for this course of action are twofold: firstly, because maintaining the religious system could have served as an instrument for dealing with the dominant Arab nationalism in inland Syria; and secondly, because French policy during this period applied the use of colonial theories that supported the so-called ‘association principle’ ahead of the ‘assimilation principle’, considered obsolete at the time. This desire to weaken the dominant Arab nationalism frequently identified with the Sunnis in inland Syria was the main reason the French maintained the religious system. The new governors brought with them their experiences of North Africa, which influenced them against Sunni Islam and determined the parameters of their policies.133 Consequently, the French could justify their presence in the area, given that their main mission was to defend the interests of minorities before the Sunnis (it is worth recalling that the minorities matter was one of the burning issues in the League of Nations after the war of 1914–1918, and the concession policy of the Mandates was conditioned by this issue).134 Some authors have also pointed to France’s naïve view of the situation, which would have been guided from the outset by optimistic information regarding the welcome they would receive from inhabitants of the territory. Such information, comparing the willing disposition of the Syrians with that of the inhabitants of Lebanon regarding France’s presence in the area, originated from the missionaries, the resident advisers in Damascus and the Rum Uniates of Hawran, and clashed with the harsh reality that followed the arrival of the heads of state.135 131 Original text in (1922). ‘King–Crane Report on the Near East’, New York: Editor and Publisher Co., vol. 55, no. 27, 2nd section (2 December 1922), xviii + map, 1 The Geography of the Claims, iii, paragraph 3. 132 Ignacio Gutiérrez de Terán Gómez-Benita (2003). Estado y confesión en Oriente Medio: el caso de Siria y Líbano. Religión, taifa y representatividad. Madrid: Cantarabia, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, p. 94. 133 Daniel Pipes (1992). Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 153. 134 Helmer Rosting (1923). ‘Protection of the Minorities by the League of Nations’, The American Journal of International Law, 17 (4), pp. 647–648; Benjamin Thomas White (2007). ‘The Nation State Form and the Emergence of ‘Minorities’ in Syria’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 7 (1), pp. 64–70. 135 David Kenneth Fieldhouse (2006). Western Imperialism in the Middle East 1914–1958. Oxford: Oxford

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The other reason for maintaining a religious system, the aforementioned ‘association principle’ (designed by Marshal Lyautey for Morocco), advanced how, when faced with the Eurocentric idea of making the native people more French, it was more advisable, useful and efficient to keep local institutions—ultimately controlling them by means of representatives from the mother country and exclusively French civil servants.136 Such respect for (Ottoman) institutions in the area was useful for justifying the backing of Article 6 of the Mandate of the League of Nations for Syria (1922), which guaranteed respect of the people’s religion under French authority. This religious policy materialised primarily in two forms: the creation of religious states and the maintenance and development of the taifa system. With regard to the creation of religious states, the French made use of the provincial organisation forged by the sultan in 1864 in Syria and Lebanon137 to create their own religious-inspired territorial division. A mere six weeks after they entered Damascus (1920), the state of Greater Lebanon was established and conceived as a ‘confessional community’ to welcome local Catholics,138 adding territories belonging to Syria. Shortly afterwards, the autonomous Alawi territory was created and, in 1922, named a state, with the justification that the group needed protection from the Sunnis.139 Subsequently, the autonomous sancak of Iskenderun was formed and, in 1939, handed over to the Turks, in exchange for neutrality in the global conflict that was looming.140 The Druzes also signed an agreement for the creation of their own state in Jabal ad Duruz in 1922, meanwhile the predominantly Sunni and Arab nationalist populations remained located in the inland states of Damascus and Aleppo, which were unified in 1924.141 The second measure, maintaining and developing the taifa system, is precisely the one we are concerned with in our argument—given the fact that the French maintained and respected the Ottoman legislation regarding the millets, appropriating it for the new political and regional set-up. As Benjamin Thomas White points out,

University Press, pp. 253–254. 136 Raymond F. Betts (2005). Assimilation and Association in French Colonial Theory 1890–1914. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 10–32; David Kenneth Fieldhouse (2006). Western Imperialism in the Middle East 1914–1958. Op. Cit., pp. 257–259. 137 George Young (ed.) (1905). Corps de Droit Ottoman: Recueil des Codes, Lois, Règlements, Ordonnances et Actes les plus importants du Droit Intèrieur, et d’Études sur le Droit Coutumier de l’Empire Ottoman, 7 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, i, pp. 36–45; Abdul Latif Tibawi (1969). A Modern History of Syria. London: McMillan, St. Martin’s Press, pp. 179–181; Zeyne N. Zeyne (1960). The Struggle for Arab Independence. Western Diplomacy & the Rise and Fall of Faisal’s Kingdom in Syria. Beirut: Khayats, pp. 33–35. 138 David D. Grafton (2003). The Christians of Lebanon. Political Rights in Islamic Law. London, New York: Tauris Academic Studies, p. 94. 139 Jean-David Mizrahi (2002). La France et sa politique de Mandat en Syrie et au Liban (1920–1939), in Nadine Meouchi (ed.). France, Syrie et Liban 1918–1946 : Les ambigüités et les dinamiques de la relation mandataire. Damascus: Institut Français d’Études Arabes, p. 41. 140 Abdul Latif Tibawi (1969). A Modern History of Syria. Op. Cit., pp. 352–353. 141 Youssef S. Takla (2001). Corpus Juris du Mandat Français, in Nadine Meouchi and Peter Sluglett (eds.). The British and French Mandates in Comparative Perspectives. Leiden: Brill, pp. 80–85.

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it is quite possible that the French ceded to the demands of the religious heads, who wished to preserve their traditional power in facing the danger from Western-based secularisation.142 At any rate, during the period of the French Mandate, the Ottoman system developed under the Tanzimat was adapted—in this case recovering the term taifa to refer to what were previously called millets. Therefore, the noun taifa in the French Mandate’s legislation must not be understood in a traditional sense (in other words, as a local organisation), instead it should be likened to what the Ottomans called millet. The coincidences are multiple: a) both involved legal entities with national scope, recognised by a central authority via an official document; b) in both, the highest religious leader acquired the power of attorney of their community before the state; c) as in the epoch of the Tanzimat, the religious taifas were obliged to subject their statutes to the examination of the authorities, who determined the benefit of the hierarchical structure of the community, the dogmas and religious laws, the personal status laws and the administration method; and lastly d) in the case of both the Ottoman millets and the mandatary taifa, the approval of the religious community meant the recognition of their traditional privileges, while their personal status was turned into civil law and placed under state protection and the control of the public powers. Further proof that the organisation of the Ottoman Empire was accepted by the French is demonstrated by the fact that until 1936 no actual regulations were promulgated for the religious communities, given that (in mandatary logic) the triumphant Arab nationalism represented by the National Bloc (al-kutla al-wataniyya) could only be counteracted by once again employing confessional logic.143 Nonetheless, this arrêté did not go down well with either the religious leaders, who wished to maintain greater power within their communities and free themselves from the uneasy supervision of civil power,144 or with the Sunni Ulamas, offended by a decree that overlooked the sharia and treated Muslims as just another simple confessional community, tacitly allowing the marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, considering the possibility of freely changing to ‘any’ religion, or even—pursuant to the modifications upheld in 1938145—permitting individuals without a recognised confessional group or Muslims who have changed religion to raise their offspring in this 142 Benjamin Thomas White (2007). ‘The Nation State Form and the Emergence of ‘Minorities’ in Syria’, Op. Cit., p. 71. 143 Journal Officiel de la République Syrienne, X/13-3-1936, Arrêté n.º 61/L. R. 65; Benjamin Thomas White (2007). ‘The Nation State Form and the Emergence of ‘Minorities’ in Syria’, Op. Cit., p. 78. 144 The Ottomans had already tried with the promulgation of the Kararname in 1917, which was never put into practice because of the war. This decree saw all religious law related to marriage and family fall under the civil laws of the state. Düstur, tertip 2 [legal code, 2nd edition] (1911–1928). Istanbul, Ankara: Dersaadet Matbaa-i Osmanie, 11 vols., vol. 9, pp. 762–781; Ilber Ortayli (1994). Studies on Ottoman transformation. Istanbul: Issis Press, pp. 322, 332; Sükrü Hanioglu (2008). The Second Constitutional Period, 1908–1918, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds.). Christian and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Op. Cit., vol. 4, p. 102. 145 Journal Officiel de la République Syrienne, XLVII/29-12-1938, Arrêté n.º 146/L. R. 291–292.

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belief. The reactions in opposition, manifested in the form of popular protests, reached such a magnitude that the high commissioner agreed to call a halt to its application.146 Yet the French initiative did not fall by the wayside. Interestingly, the new independent Syrian state created in 1946 would incorporate the decrees mentioned above, thus sanctioning the taifal organisation that had been adapted by the mandatary power using the Ottoman model and so establishing continuity between the Ottoman period and modernity—the focal point of the premise this paper is based on.

The Syrian dilemma The Syrian Arab Republic that emerged after World War II based its political ideology on conciliatory secularism, which left religious differences aside for the sake of national construction and was rooted more in Arab nationalism—and the Ottoman reforms of the 19th century, previously referred to—than the secular tradition of France.147 In fact, the Syrian constitutions that materialised after independence (there were six— not counting the French constitution from 1928, which, with modifications, was used as a magna carta by the new state up until 1949, or that of Abd al-Naser, promulgated in 1958) carefully avoided any talk of Islam as the country’s official religion or determining the sharia as a source of legislation, which differentiates them from other magna cartas promulgated in the Arab Islamic world. The Faisal Constitution of 1920 talks of Islamic law (fiqh al-islami) as the main source of legislation—a more neutral form of expression, with less religious responsibility than the term sharia, used in other Arab constitutions.148 On balance, every Syrian constitution has been inspired by this approach, and by the nationalism that surfaced within the context of Ottoman decadence.149 The arrival of Ba’athism in 1963, with its markedly secular ideology and the subsequent ‘rectification movement’ (at-tashihiyya) introduced by General Hafez al-Assad in 1970,

146 Benjamin Thomas White (2010). ‘Addressing the State: The Syrian Ulama Protest Personal Status Law Reform, 1939’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42, p. 11; Philip S. Khoury (1987). Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of the Arab Nationalism 1920–1945. Op. Cit., pp. 576–577. 147 Raymond Hinnebusch (2001). Syria, Revolution from Above. London: Routledge, p. 19. 148 Dustur al-Yumhuriyya al-Arabiyya as-Suriyya as-sadir bil-marsum raqm 208 tarij 1973/03/13 [The Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic, promulgated in Decree 208, of 13 March 1973], Damascus: Dar as-safadi 2007, n.º 7; Robert C. Blitt and Tad Stahke (2005). The Religion–State Relationship and the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief: a Comparative Textual Analysis of the Constitutions of Predominantly Muslim Countries. Washington D.C.: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, pp. 9–11; Issa Ali (2011). ‘Constitution et religion dans les Etats arabes: la place de la religion dans le système constitutionnel moderne du monde arabe’, viiie Congrès National de l’Association Française de Droit Constitutionnel, Nancy 16–18 Juin 2011. Available at: http://www.afdc-nancy.eu [Consulted 25 November 2013]. 149 The Syrian constitutional texts are restricted to highlighting that Islam must be the religion of the president of the republic, as with the text from the Faisal constitution, which indicated that this must be the religion of the king of Syria. See Alejandra Álvarez Suárez (2013). La religión en la trayectoria constitucional de la República Árabe de Siria, in Paloma Gómez del Miño (ed.). La Primavera Árabe, ¿una revolución regional? Madrid: Universidad Complutense, pp. 535–545.

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served to further deepen the secular path of the state.150 The criticism of the policies of the Assad government, led by Islamists and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, were nothing but reruns of the discontent that groups had shown against the secularisation of the state since the 1940s—though on this occasion advantage was taken of the circumstance that saw an Alawi elite, deemed atheist and non-religious, accused of joining other minorities to weaken the large Sunni majority.151 This was to be the origin of the so-called ‘Syrian community issue’,152 a non-critical premise occasionally accepted by analysts and researchers. In fact, the 1973 constitution consciously avoided making any reference whatsoever to the religious taifas or personal status laws, even avoiding any mention of religious courts—essential to the correct application of the ‘private sphere’ laws, in Arab legal terminology—when dealing with the matter of judicial power.153 Thus, the existence in Syria of patent religiously inspired laws for the private sphere— in matters such as marriage, divorce, filiation or inheritance (collated in legal codes known in Arabic as laws of ‘personal status’, al-ahwal al-shajsiyya)—alongside civil legislation for the public sphere, preserved a model originally created by the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. As a result, the Syrian system perpetuated this legal and institutional ambiguity, caused by the coexistence of archetypal structures of a modern and secular state organised into confessional taifas. On this issue, it is worth highlighting that the Syrian state has always acknowledged the validity of laws on religious taifas decreed by the French in 1936 and 1938 (referred to earlier), which were but the Ottoman millet duly adapted to the circumstances of the Mandate. This recognition not only prompted the assimilation of Ottoman principles, it also meant the acceptance, to the letter, of the list of taifas from throughout history, which the French had inherited from the previous governors.154 The state’s acceptance of these decrees, which created numerous problems for the mandatary power, was tacitly developed in the years following independence, until in 1957 certain minor details were changed by means of a decree-law promulgated by President Shukri al-Quwatli. The fact that the 1973 constitution avoided making any reference to the religious courts must be understood as a purely rhetorical measure. In actual fact, the religious court system (mahakim diniyya), responsible for ensuring the fulfilment of personal status laws

150 Raymond Hinnebusch (2001). Syria, Revolution from Above. Op. Cit., pp. 58–62. 151 Liad Porat (2010). ‘The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Assad Regime’, Middle East Brief, 47, pp. 2–3. 152 Ignacio Gutiérrez de Terán Gómez-Benita (2003). Estado y confesión en Oriente Medio: el caso de Siria y Líbano. Religión, taifa y representatividad. Op. Cit., pp. 127–128. 153 Dustur al-Yumhuriyya al-Arabiyya as-Suriyya. Op. Cit., n.º 33; Gregory S. Mahler (1996). Constitutionalism and Palestinian Constitutional Development. Jerusalem: Passia, p. 93. 154 The Arabic text on the arrêtés, adopted by the Syrian state, follows the French original and can be read in Qawanin al-ahwal as-shajsiyya lit-tawa’if al-urthuduksiyya wal-kathulikiyya wal-inyiliyya wal-arman was-suriyan wal-musawiyyin [Personal Status Laws for Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Armenian, Syrian and Jewish taifas]. Damascus: Qassab Hasan (no date), pp. 7–18.

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corresponding to the religious confessions, was officially ratified in 1965. This ratification, signed by Amin al-Hafiz, signified the official acceptance of a dual judicial system comprising both secular and religious courts, which had been created by the Ottomans and would make it to the Syrian Arab Republic via the French.155 The taifal system described here, and the judicial system in which the religious courts have a sphere of activity with civil consequences, still exist in present-day Syria. For a secularly conceived state this gives rise to structural incoherence, which in turn results in a series of immediate consequences: a) the religious communities recognised by the Ottoman system immediately become indispensable state collaborators in terms of the ‘private’ civil sphere (this term is interpreted according to Ottoman jurisprudence); b) in accordance with the above, every religious community has its own provincial courts and appeal procedures, which boast significant autonomy (The taifas are responsible for selecting judges, which do not necessarily have to be Syrian, and only the state receives notification of each appointment); c) citizens are civilly obliged to have an assigned religion, since everything related to marriage, inheritance, filiation and divorce is managed by religious communities and their courts and is legally binding; d) given that every community is awarded its own laws and has its own legal codes, there is legal inequality among citizens, according to whether the person belongs to one religion or another; and e) the abundance of legal codes in the form of personal status laws and courts gives rise to frequent jurisdiction problems,156 particularly in the case of mixed marriages. In certain specific cases there are even contradictions between civil law and religious law: for instance, regarding the conversion by Muslims to other religions—permitted by the French law of 1936, which (as mentioned) was corroborated in 1957 and is still in force today, but strictly prohibited by the sharia.157

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY Alejandra Álvarez Suárez has a bachelor’s degree in Arab Studies from The Complutense University, Madrid, and a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Barcelona.

155 Rania Maktabi (2009). Family Law and Gendered Citizenship in the Middle East: Paths of the Reform and Resilience in Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Lebanon. Draft Paper presented at the World Bank/Yale Workshop: Societal Transformation and the Challenges of Governance in Africa and the Middle East. Yale University, Department of Political Science [typescript], pp. 16–17. 156 The Ottoman kararname of 1917 remained in force until 1953, the year that a new text giving supremacy to Islamic law was approved. The new code was obligatorily applied to all citizens, regardless of their religion. Nevertheless, it was expected that non-Muslims could follow their personal status laws regarding marriage and divorce. See Arab text (2008). Qanun al-ahwal ash-shajsiyya. Damascus: Mu’assasat an-Nuri. There is a Spanish translation in Caridad Ruíz-Almodovar (1996). ‘El Código Sirio de Estatuto Personal’, Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebreos, Sección Árabe e Islam, 45, pp. 230–280. In practice, this also enabled autonomy in such matters as inheritance, adoption and filiation. In Syrian legislation, eight different personal status laws coexist. 157 Nevertheless, there are still some cases in the Syrian civil registry. Maurits Berger (1997). ‘The Legal System of Family Law in Syria’, Bulletin d’Études Orientales, 49, pp. 115–127.

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Confessionalism and Modernity: The Origins of the Syrian Paradox

She worked from 2006 to 2009 as a professor at the University of Aleppo, Syria, and is currently collaborating as a professor on the master’s course The Arab World and Islam at the University of Barcelona. She also authored the book Comunidades no musulmanas en un entorno musulmán: la pervivencia del modelo otomano en la actual Siria (Cantarabia, 2013).

ABSTRACT This article shows how the current system of religious organisation in Syria relates to a model that depends directly on the legislation established for this purpose during the Ottoman Empire. The coexistence of this traditional system with a modern legislation of Western and secular inspiration is a characteristic feature of the contemporary Syrian state. This peculiarity can only be properly understood after an analysis of the political, legal and social institutions that preceded and accompanied the establishment of the current Syrian state.

KEYWORDS Syria, confessionalism, legislation.

‫امللخص‬ ‫يظهر املقال التايل كيفية إستجابة التنظيم الطائفي الحايل يف سوريا لنموذج يرتبط بشكل مبارش بالنظام‬ ‫ فتعايش هذا النظام التقليدي مع ترشيع عرصي ذا بعد‬.‫الذي أرسته اإلمرباطورية العثامنية لهذا الغرض‬ ‫علامين و غريب يعترب سمة مميزة للدولة السورية املعارصة؛ و ال ميكن فهم هذه الخاصية فهام صحيحا‬ ‫إال من خالل دراسة املؤسسات السياسية و القانونية و اإلجتامعية التي سبقت و رافقت تأسيس الدولة‬ .‫الحالية‬ ‫الكلامت املفتاحية‬ .‫ الترشيع‬،‫ الطائفية‬،‫سوريا‬

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Design and layout Zum Creativos ISBN 978-84-616-8965-1 © of the texts: its authors © of the photographs: its authors © of the present edition: Casa Árabe c/ Alcalá, 62. 28009 Madrid (España) www.casaarabe.es Printed in Spain. This content has also been published in Spanish in the Journal Awraq: Revista de análisis y pensamiento sobre el mundo árabe e islámico contemporáneo, 8 (second quarter of 2013). The full collection is available in electronic format at http://www.awraq.es/ and http://issuu.com/casaarabe/ Casa Árabe is a consortium comprising:


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