Articles > The Peoples of Islam > 2017 > The Divisions in the Middle East: Not Only Sunnis and Shiites

The Divisions in the Middle East: Not Only Sunnis and Shiites

In the Gulf crisis, Ulama and preachers have aligned not according to religious but political orientation

Michele Brignone | 05 July 2017
Mecca, Saudi Arabia, detail (Samet Guler / Shutterstock.com)

According to common opinion and crystallized in the thesis of the clash of civilizations, Islam is a theological-political complex destined by its very nature to come into conflict with the West. A variation on this theme is the idea of the Muslim divide between Sunnis and Shiites, who, according to peremptory as much as inaccurate formula, have been involved in a mutual fight “for 1400 years” and whose most recent effect is the current break-up of the Middle East. The split, which happened on 5 June between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain on one hand and Qatar on the other, offers a very different spectacle.

According to a logic of “civilizational blocks”, the five countries, all Muslim, all of a Sunni majority or ruled by Sunnis, all Arab, should belong to the same front. Instead however, they are fighting each other. Qatar, a small but very wealthy appendix of the Arabic peninsula, which for twenty years has been trying to forge an autonomous political space for itself from the Saudi giant, has been isolated from the other countries with the accusation of supporting terrorism (from the Islamic Brotherhood to Isis), of flirting with Iran and aiming at creating instability in the other states of the region by its means of communication (especially through the influential al-Jazeera).

At the root of this divide, other than personal ambitions of a new generation of political leaders in the Gulf, lies a different concept of Middle-Eastern order, especially within the scenario created by the revolts of 2010-2011. Qatar has been in fact, along with Turkey, the great sponsor of the rise to power of the Islamist parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the leaders of the other countries oppose. This break was also reflected in the way religious figures reacted to the Gulf crisis, using Islam to defend or delegitimize the parties in question.

The first to take action was the Kuwaiti Salafi preacher Hamid al-‘Ali, supporter and, according to the Treasury Department of the United States, also fundraiser for al-Qaeda. On the same day of the crisis, al-‘Ali issued a fatwa-statement in which he condemned the sanctions imposed on Qatar for infringing on sharia and invited “men of science” (the Ulama) to express their disapproval, for “he who says nothing, is a mute devil.” Immediately he was echoed by the International Union of Muslim Scholars, a trans-national network created and presided over by Yousef al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brother ideologue and (thanks to Qatar) a world-renowned preacher, and whom the four states of the anti-Doha block inserted in a list of 59 “terrorists” linked to the small Gulf state. The Secretary General of the Union, Ali Muhyi al-din al-Qaradaghi, has declared that according to Islamic law the break with Qatar is unlawful, because it violates the obligation of solidarity and unity between fraternal Muslim states. Ahmed Raissuni, Vice President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars and leading figure of the Morrocan Islamist movement “Unity and Reform” has explicitly associated himself with the fatwa of al-‘Ali, with whom he promoted a shared petition with some eighty scholars in favour of Qatar. The synergy momentarily created between the Islamist reformer Raissuni and the pro-jihadist preacher al-‘Ali confirms therefore the blurriness of the lines which analysts and scholars trace between “moderate” and “extremist” Islamists.

Rashid Ghannoushi, leader of the Tunisian party En-Nahda, acted more cautiously, wishing for a quick solution to the crisis. In the last couple of years Ghannoushi has for that matter managed to maintain good relations both with Qatar and with Saudi Arabia: although being a frequent guest of al-Jazeera, in 2012 he obliged the British daily newspaper The Independent to deny the accusations of Qatari funds to his party and has been received multiple times by the Saudi King Salman.

The official religious authorities of the countries which imposed the embargo declared themselves in favour of the break-up. The Mufti of the Saudi Kingdom, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn ‘Abdallah Al al-Shayhk, has stated that the measures against Qatar have been taken in the interest of “the Qatari people” and has invited the Muslim Brotherhood to renounce “extremism” and “fanaticism”.

The Egyptian mosque of al-Azhar has supported cutting ties with “regimes that support terrorism” and warned Qatar of the risks entailed in “going solo” by quoting two unsettling prophetic sayings (“the wolf eats the sheep which strays most from the herd” and “be in unity with the community, for he who parts will finish in the fire”) contributing to an unhealthy confusion between the political and the religion spheres. This tone however doesn’t come as much of a surprise in the light of the fatwa wars which in the Summer of 2013, on the occasion of the deposition of the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, divided Qaradawi and the great imam of the mosque, Ahmad al-Tayyeb.

In the case of the anti-Qatar front as well, the profile of the various figures which have expressed themselves on the issue is quite varied. Other than the state scholars, the Saudi monarchy has in fact mobilized the constellation of preachers which through television and social media spread the Salafist creed worldwide. Among these stands out Muhammad al-‘Arifi, who, as well as the Kuwaiti al-‘Ali has more than once called Muslims to jihad in Syria, is certainly not more moderate than the “terrorist” Qaradawi, and nonetheless did not fail to join the choir of criticism against Qatar.

On the other extreme of the Islamic spectrum, within the same pro-Saudi block, lie liberal intellectuals and reformers. One of these is Abd al-Rahman Rashid, former director of the al-Arabiya broadcasting station and the pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat (both financed by Saudis), which became famous in the West because of a sentence written in 2004, which has never ceased to be quoted: “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. Another is the Lebanese intellectual and renowned scholar of Contemporary Islam, Ridwan al-Sayyed. The latter, very active in the Middle-Eastern public debate, for years has condemned with acumen the damage caused by mixing politics and religion and of the spreading of extremist interpretations of Islam, but this does not stop him from siding without hesitation with the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, which he considers a fundamental lynchpin of political order in the Middle-East.

It is not Islam that has caused conflict between the Arab countries. However, the political tensions between the States of the Gulf have poured into the religious sphere, producing unexpected convergences. Ulama, preachers and intellectuals have not taken sides according to the degree of extremism or moderation, two concepts which dominate the imagination and language of the West as much as in those countries with a Muslim majority, but according to their political orientations and the sphere of influence under which they find themselves. This is a fact that sums up by itself how much more complex the Islamic religious scenario is than how we normally imagine it and sheds light on the political weakness and ambiguity of the attempts of the much-spoken about reform of Islam.

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