Saudi Arabia has celebrated its “diamond jubilee” and Pakistan the “golden jubilee” of a strategic partnership with the U.S. In both cases, it was the United Kingdom (UK) that was crucial to the birth of both countries. The resulting close relationship has endured; except that since the 1960s, the United States has supplanted the UK as the dominant power in Riyadh and Islamabad.
Although some recent gestures have been made by the Saudi establishment to dilute the stringent codes of behaviour that characterise the state religion of Saudi Arabia, i.e. Wahabbism, the creed continues on its global mission of converting the Muslim Ummah to its relatively harsh and antediluvian ways of thinking and living. Such proselytisation has been greatly facilitated by the financial and diplomatic muscle that comes from being fortunate enough to have both immense oil deposits as well as be the country in which Mecca and Medina are located.
The two together have given the Saudi state and its Wahabbi adherents immense influence across the Muslim Ummah, displacing the more tolerant Sufi Islam even in its homeland of Turkey. Turkey’s ruling AKP’s (Justice and Development Party or Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) ideology may get passed off as “moderate,” and in line with the country’s Sufi ethos. But closer examination shows it to be ‘Wahabbi Lite.’ The theology ensures that Ankara follows Riyadh in fulfilling the core objective of Wahabbism, which – regionally – is to overthrow ‘apostates’ from authority. That means the Shia forms the largest single component of this category (if we use the Wahabbi definition) in the Islamic world. Hence the constant Wahabbi activity against the sect, seen for example in the way the Shia is suppressed in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that their home province produces the major share of that kingdom’s oil.
In a reflexive reaction to the 1979 takeover of power in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini – who has fashioned a theology much closer to Wahabbism than to traditional Shia Islam – the NATO powers have backed the Wahabbis over the Shia. That support was made NATO’s policy in the first decade of the 21st century, formulated by the Cheney-Powell line of adopting the Saudi definition of Friend-or-Foe. It was also the Pakistan army definition of those two categories in both the first (1979-89) and second (2001-present) Afghan wars, which the U.S. adopted. This means that NATO’s diplomatic and military assets have been officially put at the service of the Wahabbis in their (generally covert, at least as far as state agencies are concerned) crusade against the Shia, which comprises 16% of an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.
This is an error in geopolitical policy that threatens to create the same tragic circumstances for the major NATO powers, as it has for Israel. Starting from its involvement in the Lebanon civil war in 1982, Israel preceded NATO in adopting a policy that sees the Shia as an enemy. By taking sides against the Shia and in support of the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, Ariel Sharon, then Israeli defence minister and later prime minister, became responsible for the fact that his country is the only one in the western world that is the target of Shia extremists.
Unlike the Wahabbis – and in particular, the more extreme variants that have grown since the 1979-89 Afghan war – who target countries across continents through acts of terror, the Shia have thus far refrained from any such activity. That includes acts against the so-named ‘Crusader’ states of the U.S. and the European Union (EU) which are militarily active in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority states.
Had Sharon confined the Israel Defence Force’s operations during 1982-83 to expelling the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon, it may actually have won for itself substantial goodwill within Lebanon, most of whose inhabitants looked askance at Yasser Arafat’s formations. But Sharon went further, inserting Israel into a tussle for influence between the Shia and Maronite Christians that turned violent once the Israeli army was involved.
Israel’s generous provision of supplies, logistics and finance to the Maronite formations, including to those involved in the killing of weaponless Shiites, generated the birth of Hezbollah, an armed militia that used Shia force against Maronite force. Viewing Israel as the principal backer of the armed Maronites, Hezbollah began targeting the Jewish state from the start. Since then, other Shia groups have picked up the threads, becoming part of the governance mechanism in Lebanon, and targeting Israel in missile and other strikes designed to punish it for assisting those involved in the killing of hundreds of Shia during the 1980s. Sharon’s unfortunate policy of taking sides against the Shia in an intra-Arab conflict is responsible for much of the terror attacks that the Jewish state has been facing for the previous three decades.
Noteworthy now is the way the U.S. and its other NATO allies are following the Sharon copybook, creating a foe that is likely to unleash against them a second track of terrorism – this time, Shia-driven – in addition to the already active Wahabbi terrorism. While the origins of the ‘Sharon Line’ (of backing anti-Shia groups) are obscure, the anti-Shia path adopted by NATO seems to be a result of the close strategic ties between the alliance and Wahabbi powers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Adding to the toxic mix is the historical reliance on the (Wahabbised) Pakistan army in dealing with threats and challenges in South Asia (including Afghanistan).
Turning NATO into a support force for the Wahabbis in their battles with the Shia and making it a policy objective, is the work of Vice-President Dick Cheney and U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. This is illustrated by their 2004-05 call for an “equitable” (i.e. non-proportional) share in Iraq’s oil wealth between the majority Shia and the minority Sunni – despite almost all Iraqi oil being produced in the Shia and Kurd areas (the Kurd are Sunni but overwhelmingly moderate and therefore non-Wahabbi). The anxiety for “equity” clearly did not extend to the Shia; Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld were conspicuously silent about the fact that less than 8% of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth is spent in the Shia-majority eastern regions, despite this territory accounting for the bulk of the country’s oil output. Saudi Arabia treats its Shia population very differently from the way it does the Wahabbi segment. Bahrain presents an equally egregious example of discrimination against the Shia, although the sect is in a majority in that country.
Libya and now Syria are the latest triggers in the NATO decision to back the Wahabbis in the Middle East. Muammar Gaddafi was considered an apostate by Wahabbis, for the (in their view heinous) crime of permitting women to go about without a male escort or an abaya. That assassinated former ruler embraced an Islam very similar to the mild Sufi-suffused version favoured under the Turkish Caliphate.
Unlike the Saudis, who do not allow even a Shia mosque to be built in Riyadh – forget a church or a synagogue – Gaddafi allowed even non-Abrahamic faiths the freedom of worship, and openly mocked Wahabbis as being a sect that had nothing in common with Islam. This was heresy to the Wahabbi International; it waited for a chance to make him pay the price for such outpourings.
The opportunity arrived in early 2011, courtesy French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, when the duo decided on regime change in Tripoli in the guise of “protection of civilians.” That several times more civilians have been killed during and after the NATO bombing campaign in Libya – the latter in acts of revenge and tribal hatreds – has not dented the satisfaction of the two at having played a role in the Middle East similar to that played by statespersons in both countries during the period during World War I. The Wahabbi agenda of replacing Gaddafi with “true believers” has been fulfilled by NATO.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is, in the Wahabbi theological lexicon, also an apostate. He is an Alawite, a sect which is not only Shia, but secular in its moderation, just as the (Sunni) Kurds are. The Middle East is riddled with regimes where groups that have only a small share in the total population nevertheless have control of the state. Bahrain is a more flagrant example. But it is only in Syria that NATO has been vocally concerned about such a “demographic injustice.” The alliance is now openly backing regime change in Damascus – something that has been on the agenda of Wahabbi groups across the Mideast since the 1990s although these have seldom been as open as the key NATO partners have, about such an intention.
AKP-ruled Turkey too favours the ending of the Assad dynasty in Damascus. The party has adopted the Wahabbism Lite of its progenitor, the Islamic Virtue Party, and is “moderate” only because such a stance helps it in incrementally pushing for a more conservative agenda within the country. The grand plan includes the establishment of a conservative state with its own version of Sharia Law replacing the secular code.
Groups within Turkey are actively helping Wahabbis in Egypt in their on-going street battles with the (secular) military in that country. The Egyptian resisters to the army have taken their inspiration from Turkey where, with NATO backing, Prime Minister Erdogan has pushed the secular generals out of the core of the governance mechanism, aware that the lower rungs of the military are riddled with those of their own persuasion. Unlike the Wahabbised Pakistan army, which – also with NATO backing – still calls most of the shots in Islamabad, the Turkish military has been weakened to such an extent that it is presently unable to prevent the creeping Wahabbisation of their country.
For NATO then, clearly both the secular and Shia are out, and only the Wahabbis merit across-the-board backing. This is a geopolitical miscalculation that will have tragic security consequences for the alliance within a decade.
Even before Assad has been killed or captured in Syria, Iran is now in the sight of the NATO powers, with a succession of sanctions and warnings of an attack. The country has an overwhelming Shia majority, a fact which makes it the theological foe of Wahabbi states such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Neither would feel any regret were Iran to be attacked by Israel or NATO, or both.
Such an attack now seems inevitable. The mullahcracy in Tehran is a collection of fanatics that has much in common with its Wahabbi foes, at least so far as attitudes to women or personal freedoms are concerned.
NATO joining Israel in an attack on Iran may be the trigger that causes a second front of terrorism – this time from the Shia – to open in Europe and in North America. Israel has less to lose from an attack on Iran, given that the Jewish state is already the prime target of Shia terror; NATO has thus far escaped this scourge, but is now forewarned.
There is still a window for NATO to course-correct. Rather than joining hands with the Wahabbis against the Shia, NATO needs to be even-handed in the dialogue and conflicts going on within the Ummah. Most importantly, it needs to team up with genuine moderates in the Muslim world against the spread of the well-funded Wahabbi International and its ideology across the globe.
Should NATO follow in the path mapped out by Ariel Sharon in 1982, it would at least have the benefit of ending the three decade-long isolation of Israel of being the only country to experience the full fury of Shia terrorism. But given the speed at which NATO is operationalising a policy of global antipathy to the Shia, and the eagerness with which the alliance is assisting foes of the sect, a Sharon-style blowback may not be long in coming to NATO shores.
M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.
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