In the last few days, virtually every news outlet has featured a series of stories on the rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The conflict by now is well-known: Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Shi‘i cleric Nimr al-Nimr. While both Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the worst global executioners of dissidents, the sheer size of these executions was rare even by their gruesome standards.
Iran retaliated through bombastic rhetoric, stating, “God’s hand of retaliation will grip the neck of Saudi politicians.” The two countries have broken off diplomatic relations, a tension that has rippled across the region.
The New York Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in America, featured a primer on the conflict that was devoted mostly to discussing succession disputes to the Prophet Muhammad that in due time led to the rise of the Sunni and Shi‘a sects. The Guardian has devoted a long section to this conflict. So has The Economist.
There are many political scientists and public policy pundits that you can turn to for grasping the geopolitics of the situation. You can listen to Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with NPR’s Renee Montaigne, and on PRI’s The World. But as a scholar of religion, let me share a few points that I think might be useful to keep in mind to think intelligently — and I trust, compassionately — through this latest conflict.
One. In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”
The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):
There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.
Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition.
Two. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both modern nation states. Yes, they are places steeped in history, but like all nation states they have been carved out of early modern empires, often tinged through painful encounters with colonialism, nationalist movements, and anti-colonial revolts. To make sense of both states, one has to look into geopolitical competition among post-colonial nation states trying to legitimize themselves by claiming the mantle of normativity. There is indeed a competition between both Saudia Arabia and Iran to claim a place of hegemony among Muslim-majority states.
Three. The competition is not merely over Islam. Since the time of the Iranian revolution, Iran has defined itself as adamantly anti-monarchical. Saudi Arabia is ruled through the vast network of the Saudi royal family.
Four. Sunni/Shi‘a is not the same thing as Arab/Persian. Today, Iran is a majority Persian culture with a majority Shi‘a population. One often hears a collapse of Iranian and Shi‘a, but there are Iranian Turks and Arabs in Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere who are Shi‘a. In fact, a thousand years ago Iran was the center of the Sunni world, and the first major Shi‘i state was in Egypt under the Fatimid Dynasty.
Five. Treating this as a Sunni-Shi‘a dispute actually overlooks the fact that, for most of Islamic history, the majority of Muslims followed an ahl-al-bayt friendly understanding of Islam. The Ahl-al-bayt are the family of the Prophet. Historically almost all Muslims — Sunni and Shi‘a alike — had love, respect, and devotion towards the family of the Prophet.
You see echoes of this almost everywhere you look. In Egypt one of the most popular mosques is a mosque that is named after Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet. Valerie Hoffman has a lovely article on devotion to the family of the Prophet in Egypt. The late Annemarie Schimmel likewise writes about the commemoration of Imam Hossein in South Asia. The Qawwali songs that are so popular in Pakistan and India likewise praise the family of the Prophet. You can listen to the incomparable Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing in praise of Imam Ali:
Or, watch him here.
It is not the Sunni background of Saudi Arabia that accounts for their opposition to Shi‘ism. Even the religious dimension is most properly connected to the puritanical Wahhabism that underwrites and informs the official practice of Islam there.
Six. Context, context, context. We cannot make sense of the strife of the modern world without dealing with nationalism, colonialism, and the oppressive apparatus of modern states. Watch the always amazing Mehdi Hasan to see similar points.
So why are we so hesitant to engage in a discussion of context? Because to discuss the history of the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have to discuss colonialism, first of the British and the French, and then of U.S. support for autocratic and dictatorial regimes (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, etc.) In short, we cannot tell the real story of the destabilization of Middle East without accounting for our own complicity.
Seven. Oil. Never underestimate the role of oil in determining the geopolitical interests of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. This map clearly identifies how the majority of the oil around the Persian Gulf is in Shi‘a-dominated areas. With the dwindling price of oil, there is greater urgency for these resources.
Eight. Clearly, it is Iran and Saudi Arabia who bear the brunt of the blame for escalating these hostilities. However, we in the United States should do some long and hard looking into our own culpability. It is the United States that is the largest producer and seller of military arms, and Saudi Arabia is one of the largest purchasers of weaponry worldwide (close to 60 billion dollars during the Obama presidency alone). The United States has a long-standing policy of friendship with Saudi Arabia, over and above the human rights violations of Saudi Arabia. Somehow we have to make the obvious point: we cannot serve the cause of world peace by continuing to arm the most volatile region in the world. In many cases, as in Syria, these arms end up in the hands of violent, terrorist organizations. In others, like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt, they are used on civilian populations.
Nine. It is also about internal politics. For example, in Iran, the attack on the Saudi consulate and embassy are an attempt by the Iranian hardliners to exert pressure on the more moderate President Rouhani, who immediately denounced the attacks on the Saudi embassy. Rouhani called on the rich Iranian tradition of “every guest is a friend of God” and reasserted the sanctity of foreign embassies.
Ten. So… Who loses? Almost all of us lose. The population at biggest risk are the Syrian people, who have suffered one of the largest human rights catastrophes since World War II. Over 250,000 people have been killed, and over half the population of Syria are either refugees or internally displaced peoples. The famine there is so serious that the residents who have not been able to flee have had to resort to eating grass.
Syria is caught in the death grip of geopolitics that has dismembered one of the richest and oldest cultures in our shared human history. It would have taken the leadership and collaboration of Iranians and Saudis to bring some long overdue stability to the conflict there. Now that is on the backburner, and there is little evidence of the cooperation that is so urgently needed to stop the bleeding in Syria.
Who else loses? Yemen and the people of Yemen do. The shameful Saudi bombardment of Yemen continues, with little attention. Twenty million Yemenis are left vulnerable as a result of a brutal Saudi bombardment campaign that has led to humanitarian groups calling it a “disaster.” According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 14 million people there are “food insecure.” Here again the United States is complicit. Human Rights Watch has called for halting the billion dollar-plus U.S. shipment of so-called “smart bombs” to Saudi Arabia, which will be used on the Yemeni population.
Let’s be clear. No one is suggesting that this conflict has nothing to do with sectarian conflicts. Of course it does, partially.
What I am saying is that Sunnis and Shi‘a have not always hated each other, and have certainly not always killed each other. Like the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, this is not an “ancient and eternal enmity.” It is an earthly, historical conflict, which at times uses the language of religion to justify a political conflict. It has an earthly beginning, and God-willing, it will have an earthly resolution. The lives in Iran, Saudi Arabia — but also in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere — depend on it.