December 2, 2020

Leadership Contest for the Islamic Ummah

There are several claimants to the Islamic leadership with contestants trying to reshape the world.
Keywords: Islamic Ummah | Political Islam | Geopolitics | Middle East | Israel | Palestine | Saudi Arab | Turkey | Erdogan |
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The Islamic Ummah is going through yet another contest between traditional leaders of Muslims and the new ones trying to claim leadership. Likewise, the growth of radical and political Islam combined with geo-politics especially in the Middle East has engineered new fault lines and spurred acute competition for the religious space in the political context. The religious rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran illustrating the wider Sunni-Shia divide has gone on for a long time and is sui generis. It is the cause of a major contention for politico-religious influence in the region. 

Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and (Sunni) Hamas in Gaza among a large number of militia and militant groups assert their loyalty to Iran. Therefore Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have become the theatres of direct and proxy conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, further destabilising the region. 

The religious rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran illustrating the wider Sunni-Shia divide has gone on for a long time and is sui generis. It is the cause of a major contention for politico-religious influence in the region. 

Super powers are playing their own role using surrogates without any regard for the interest of people in the region. Saudi Arabia and its neighbours are client states for arms sales. Conflict suits the West as it bolsters the security of Israel which is a Euro-American protectorate. Accordingly, The West has played all sides as suits their own strategic goals.

Another underlying and perhaps more rabid rivalry has endured between the Islamic world and the State of Israel about the occupation of Palestine for over seven decades. However, as the issue of Palestinian State gets side-lined and loses traction, especially after the Arab Spring, that shook the autocratic monarchies in the region, some key states like UAE and Bahrain have decided to normalise relations with Israel as a result of decades long hidden interactions and US mediation. More are likely to follow. This will change the power dynamics in West Asia. 

As such the US-China conflict and Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and consistent use of sanctions as the first policy of choice against several countries has created the necessary and sufficient conditions for a counter narrative to take shape. Hence one can witness the emergence of a loose alliance among China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Qatar (CRIPTQ). 

As the issue of Palestinian State gets side-lined and loses traction, especially after the Arab Spring, that shook the autocratic monarchies in the region, some key states like UAE and Bahrain have decided to normalise relations with Israel.

The blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in 2017 has led to Turkey establishing a military base in Doha. Ankara’s and Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood brings them in direct confrontation with the Saudi led Quartet. Turkey has started flexing its muscle by projecting military power from Syria and Iraq to Libya in the eastern Mediterranean. President Erdogan has not only revived the Ottoman dream but also claims the leadership of the Islamic world with the support of the Muslim brotherhood. No wonder Erdogan continues to raise the Kashmir issue at UNGA and elsewhere, also at the behest of Pakistan. 

There are several claimants to the Islamic leadership and it is a crowded arena with contestants trying to reshape the world. and raising tensions. Mosques and religious symbols provide legitimacy to the leaders in that contest. The Saudi King is the custodian of two Holy mosques; the Iranian supreme spiritual leader has sway over a ‘Shiite arc of influence’; Jordanian King Abdullah II is a descendent from Prophet Mohammed and the custodian of Al Aqsa Islam’s third holiest mosque in Jerusalem. Erdogan has recently reconverted the venerable former basilica of Hagia Sophia into a mosque after building a new giant mosque in Istanbul. The UAE which is devoid of such a historic legacy, has taken the higher moral ground by declaring its commitment to Tolerance – religious and otherwise in the region. 

All these countries would not hesitate to protect and expand their respective areas of influence even by means of military brinkmanship. It is quite natural that these streams will not merge into one but will rather flow at crosscurrents. Political Islam has become anathema to the monarchies by challenging the legitimacy of the ruling families. Turkey may have its own grievances but being a NATO-member, it is under the critical scrutiny of western powers whose divisions Ankara has successfully exploited. Geo-economical designs combined with a quest for religious supremacy make a heady concoction.

Pakistan’s State sponsored cross border terrorism against India and Afghanistan and its hypocrisy have been exposed decades ago. However, this bluff seems to have run its course as Islamabad has been enveloped into Chinese embrace.

Pakistan so far has been successful in playing the Islamic card to the hilt with its benefactors in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States but also with Iran and Turkey. It has also tried to make itself indispensable to the Americans and Russians by playing Taliban card despite the world knowing too well that Pakistan was a haven of terrorist groups including the dreaded Osama bin Laden the Al Qaeda leader. Pakistan’s State sponsored cross border terrorism against India and Afghanistan and its hypocrisy have been exposed decades ago. However, this bluff seems to have run its course as Islamabad has been enveloped into Chinese embrace. China’s influence on Muslim governments is so deep seated that hardly any of them has overtly criticised the plight of minorities especially the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. 

Pakistan has misused the Organisation of Islamic Countries/Cooperation (OIC) – against India. But that has changed now as the major OIC countries have begun to realise Pakistan’s nefarious designs. India was invited to be the “Guest of Honour” at the 46th Council of Foreign Ministers meet held in Abu Dhabi on March 1-2, 2019. Late Mrs Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs (MEA), addressed the gathering. The Statement from MEA underscored the bilateral relationship with UAE: “We see this invitation as the desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level. We see this invitation as a milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE. We also see this invitation as a welcome recognition of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and of India’s contribution to the Islamic world “.

UAE had invited the “friendly country of India as the guest of honour in view of its great global political stature as well as its time-honoured and deeply rooted cultural and historical legacy, and its important Islamic component”. This rapprochement was evident in the response of major Gulf countries to the Pulwama and Balakot incidents and to the Abrogation of Article 370 which they considered as India’s internal matter.

A disgruntled Pakistani PM Imran Khan tried to create an alternative Islamic platform with Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar in the lead to counter the Saudi and UAE led OIC. This project has failed and economically distressed Pakistan is now facing the ire of its customary benefactors especially Saudi Arabia which has withdrawn all assistance including grants and credit facilities. This gives India some new ground to further cooperative relations with many Muslims nations.

As the Arab world goes through its own churn due to the global economic recession, the impact of COVID-19, changing global dynamic and overall uncertainty, India with its intrinsic strengths and vast economic opportunities offers them a reliable strategic mutually beneficial partnership.

India’s relations with West Asia continue to grow from strength to strength. The region is extremely important for India’s energy and physical security and also in view of its vast diaspora welfare. Most of the Gulf countries look at India as a benign democracy with the second largest Muslim population in the world. They have also realised that supporting a volatile and extremist-driven dispensation such as Pakistan will only yield negative outcomes for themselves. As the Arab world goes through its own churn due to the global economic recession, the impact of COVID-19, changing global dynamic and overall uncertainty, India with its intrinsic strengths and vast economic opportunities offers them a reliable strategic mutually beneficial partnership.

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Anil Trigunayat

Anil Trigunayat

Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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