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Friday, July 4, 2014

Modern Roots Of Sectarian Violence In Middle-East


The Middle-East cauldron appears to be on the verge of spilling over, presenting an unprecedented situation for world leaders. Unlike previous situations this is not a conflict between two actors,it involves numerous actors with varying agendas and objectives, with no clear statement of allegiance to any one ideological group or state. What began as the Syrian Arab spring soon turned into a civil war and gradually into a chaotic movement of bloodshed and strife. Although recent events have had a catalyzing effect in the flare up, the key to understanding the Middle-East jigsaw puzzle lies in history. To begin with, "the Middle-East" as such did not always exist, what existed was Arabia and then the Islamic empire. Although the entire history of the Islamic empire is rife with revolts,internecine feuds, it is the establishment of the Caliphate and its abolition that had larger ramification than others.


I may post on the former in the next installment, in this post I would rather focus on the abolition of the Caliphate and its effects. For those unawares the concept of Caliphate stands for a kind of Islamic super-state for the global Muslim community, lead by the Caliph or the successor to the Prophet Muhammad and ruled wholly by the Sharia. Although the last Caliph was removed from office and the institution abolished in,as recently as 1924,nearly all but a few Caliphs had allegiance of majority of Muslims. The state that completely fits the description lasted merely 30 years and is referred to as the Rashidun Caliphate for having been led by four Rashidun Caliphs (Rightly Guided Caliphs). After the end of the Rashidun Caliphate, the seat of the Caliph was mostly under attack by different claimants,its capital was frequently shifted and for a period of time more than one Caliphate existed at the same time (Baghdad-based Abbasids,Umayyads of Cordova and Shia Fatimids of Cairo, each claimed Caliphate roughly around same time).

By 15th Century, the Turkish Ottoman Sultans had claimed the title of Caliph but the job was gradually reduced to ceremonial figurehead by the 19th Century. The abolition of the Caliphate after Ottoman empire's defeat in the World War I sent shockwaves throughout the global Muslim community. Although the Ottoman Caliph had a very nominal role to play, the institution had a huge symbolic value (weakly analogous to the Holy See in Vatican) so much so that in the global protests that followed even Hindus under Mahatma Gandhi protested against the move during the Khilafat Movement in India (ironically,the movement actually became the casus belli for the abolition).  Anger of Arab radicals for the abolition of the Caliphate is at best misplaced if not hypocritical. Wasn't it the Arab revolt that partly cost Ottoman their empire ?

Perhaps it was the subsequent division of the Ottoman empire and the mandates provided to the Western powers over the territories sowed the seeds of discontent that was to manifest few decades later. Having stroked the fire of Arab nationalism to disintegrate Ottoman empire,dominance of Western influence and especially British and French mandates met with stiff resistance. Further, the Balfour Declaration which for the first time envisaged a Jewish State in Palestine (which was under British Mandate) was savagely resented by the Arabs and continues to be.

To safeguard their interests,which changed with time, the securing borders of British India,the subsequent Cold War and of course the region being major supplier of oil, the Western powers have never given up their control of the Middle-Eastern nations. Democracies such as the US, Britain and France armed with mandates after the First World War carved Arabia into monarchies and autocracies and have continued to support them. Initially I found it intriguing that in this region where sectarianism has always been strong, many of the states had kings and dictators who  did not belong to the same sect as the majority of the population. Iraq, a Shia majority nation had Sunni rulers for the major part of the century until Saddam Hussein's ouster and execution. Similarly,the ruling dynasty of Bahrain is Sunni but nearly three quarters of its Muslim population adheres to the Shia doctrine.

As for Syria, because of the ongoing orgy of violence in parts of Syria and Iraq, most of the people are now aware that the seats of power in Syria, starting with the President are occupied by the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam while the majority of Muslims are Sunni. None of this is accidental, the French who had mandate over Greater Syria (present day Syria and Levant what Arabs knew as as-Sham) actively promoted Alawites to high positions in the government. The propped up autocrats served neo-colonialist interest of unhindered access too region's precious natural resources, oil, but it also insulated the ruling elite belonging to minority sect from the majority population (Shia-Sunni schism is unlike any other schism for reasons I will provide later). Ground level resentment was met with brute force including use of chemical weapons, which the West denounced but continued to support (in case of Syria it was Russia and China rather than Western powers). States like Saudi Arabia which follows a rather extreme interpretation of Sharia and exported extremism, mostly during the Cold War when the US actively supported (through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) Islamic radicalization to first fight  Soviet forces in Afghanistan and later employ it to bring about dissolution of the USSR , now themselves face this grave threat.

Quite a few experts have defined Islamist terrorism as the West and its regional allies' Frankenstein monster which may be true for groups like Al-Qaeda with its decentralized global network of sleeper cells, carrying out deadly attacks against civilian targets all around the world but the Jihadist terror groups operating in Middle-East seem much similar to militias except for the lack of minimum ethics. The Sunni insurgents fighting in Iraq are a motley collection of militant groups including the secular Baathist,and other Sunni groups who split off from Al-Qaeda for the latter's extremism but Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki's persecution of Sunni's since 2011 drove these groups to form alliance with a group that even Al-Qaeda considered too extreme- ISIS. It is not really surprising that most Syrian Sunni groups were being actively supported by Saudi Arabia and the West.

While the "Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham" may have swept across a large swathe of territory,taking over important towns and creating a state of its own, the declaration of establishing Caliphate may turn out to be a monumental blunder. It not only declared hostile intent towards neighbouring governments, including  Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen etc but is also expecting global Muslim population offer allegiance to a person who wasn't elected by representatives of Muslims worldwide and not with support of a few thousands gun totting militants. There is a reason why none of the "Islamic countries" including Saudi Arabia and Taliban rule Afghanistan never staked claim to Caliphate.  As for territories captured, it was the Iraqi government that created the situation by following a partisan policy.  

All ISIS did is step into the vacuum that had been created in the Sunni ranks after ruthless repression by Assad and Al-Maliki governments, it hardly had mandate of even those fighting alongside it. The recent execution of 7 Jihadist (2 of them crucified), of another Syrian rebel group indicates the level of dissension within the different Sunni groups. Interestingly, one of the earliest blows to ISIS campaign was brought about by Israel-backed Kurdish Peshmerga. Far from offering allegiance,the predominantly Sunni Kurds are now preparing to secede from Iraq and form an independent country of their own. ISIS closing in to Baghdad, has brought all international actors on the same page. The US is providing military assistance to Iraqi forces even if Iranian soldiers are fighting alongside it while Russia is providing fighter planes to Iraq and China promising to continue aids. 

In such a situation Iraqi government is likely to wrench back control of ISIS-held territories through brute force but recent history suggests that insurgents in the region have been quite resilient. The only solution to stabilize the region is political solution. With the criticism Al-Maliki has faced, coming from as diverse personalities such as Hillary Clinton to Grand Ayatollah of Iraq Al-Sistani (he didn't name though), Sunni and Kurdish leaders and even powerful Shia cleric such as Al-Sadr it is imperative that Al-Maliki step down and a unity government be formed. Iraq may become relatively peaceful but there is no guarantee that a similar situation doesn't develop in other Arab countries, Yemen for example. With rise of Salafism which considers Shias  apostate from Islam and the perception of Shia Iran trying to broaden its sphere of influence by leveraging its near-nuclear capability, eruption of sectarian violence in Middle-East will remain an immediate threat. 

 The Arabs,Kurds and other ethnic groups in the region have been denied basic civil liberties and rights far too long and in information age, it would be difficult to extinguish those aspirations. As the US continues to coordinate Iraqi forces it should also (with the help of other democracies) coordinate the states' transition to inclusive democracy. In fact, the US has faced a similar situation during Iranian revolution, when it chose to side with the Shah leading to Iranian people viewing the US as the Great Satan. Obama recently remarked that the US is becoming irrelevant in Middle-East. True enough, with the kind of support coming in from Russia and China, the balance may tip in the latter's favour in the region. However, the US along with EU can maintain the balance by persuading their allies to implement robust and inclusive political reforms.
Wishful thinking ? 

Further reading
Baghdadi's misconstrued caliphate project    



Lawrence of Arabia - A Review


My interest in Ottoman-Arab theatre of the First World War, Arab Revolt and partitioning of Arabia was roused, 10 years back, after watching the hugely successful and award winning movie Lawrence of Arabia, by director David Lean (won Oscar for Best Direction). The film is an autobiographical account of British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole)  who is sent to assist Arabs revolting against the Ottomans during World War I. Lawrence soon becomes closely associated with the rebellion and emerges as a heroic leader of Arabs but faces emotional crisis because of his conflicted loyalties. Lawrence also faces the daunting task of fighting the Turks as well as keep the warring Arab tribes together. There is a reason why this movie is considered one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema. It is for you to find out if you already haven't.
The cast includes Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer and Indian actor I.S. Johar.
Of course, the movie is not historically accurate but it does capture the essence of the historical event.
Must watch if you like movies, and more so if you like history too :)

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