The Arab world came into the hands of non-Arab Ottomans in 1517 with the destruction of Mamluk Dynasty in Cairo and later became colonies, or the protectorate, of colonial powers like Britain, France and Italy. During this era, the Arab world did not get divided into sectarian polarities, as per the Treaty of Amasya, signed on May 29, 1555.
When Arabs got the chance to self-rule in the 20th century, they did not succumb to sectarian warfare in the post-colonial era. Rather the Arab world moved towards a secular Pan-Arab political identity led by Gamel Abdul Nasser and proposed by Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq. In this regard, different attempts were made to unify Arab states, like United Arab Republic, United Arab Federation, Arab Islamic Republic and United Arab Emirates, with only the last attempt being successful.
In the post-colonial era, modern-day Iraq and Syria were represented by minority regimes, i.e. Sunni dictator Saddam Hussain and Alevi Shia dictator Hafez-ul-Assad. There was no sectarian warfare in post-colonial Arab world till that time, since the Arab world was divided into two distinct camps; one was pro-Arab competing with a pan-Muslim identity. The former was represented through the Arab League on a foreign level, and domestically through Baath party, PLO and dictatorial regimes who were enjoying popular support through their anti-Israel rhetoric.
The Pan-Muslim political identity was represented by Muslim Brotherhood, which was under suppression under dictatorial regimes and hence could not successfully flourish to its full potential. It is believed that Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is very much involved in fuelling sectarian warfare in the Muslim world; but the fact is, KSA was there in 1932 and even in 1970s but such allegations were not leveled against it and there were no reports of sectarian warfare being fueled in or outside the Arab world by KSA. Rather the KSA gave refuge to its immediate threat, the members of Muslim Brotherhood during Gamel’s era.
The sectarian warfare in Muslim world initiated with the end of Iran-Iraq war, which was aimed against the first post-colonial sectarian based Islamic state, Iran, by the in-command pan-Arab polity, for whom, first sub-sectarian Islamic State was a security threat. Majority of the Arab countries were supporting Iraq’s assertion on Iran.
Sunni majority Arab countries like, Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait and even the Iraqi Sunni Kurds supported Iran against Iraq, which clears the notion that it was not a sectarian war for Arabs. For Iran, it was a matter of survival. Driven on the basis of sectarian identity the aggression was taken as sectarian war by the first sect-based Islamic State of modern era. In short, it was a war between those who believed in Arab identity and those who believed in sect-based identity and as a result, gave rise to sectarian identity overtaking the Arab identity.
However, with the territorial stalemate as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, and Sunni Kurds role within Iraq, Iran recalled the strategy of fifth-column warfare which was used by Saffavid dynasty of Persia against Ottomans by using Qizalbash to weaken the Ottoman dynasty.
In the aftermath of Iran-Iraq war, Iran vigorously initiated its political agenda in the Muslim world, and supported organizations which worked as fifth column, provoking sectarian identity in the Muslim world, which was detrimental to the unity of Muslim countries including those in the Arab world. Following this, KSA used the term of “Khadim-e-Harmaen- Sharfaen” for its political objective and also facilitated organizations to counter the segments of societies being affected by the influence of Iran’s sectarian political identity.
Since Shia Muslims live in almost every country of the Muslim world, their loyalties could only be questioned by exploiting the sectarian card. The strategy of creating a fifth-column i.e. using sect-based groups to undermine dominant groups either in favor of Iranian influence or towards weakening the political unity of other states, has proven successful and in favor of Iran.
In this lieu, different Muslim countries witnessed Shia political awakening on the basis of sectarian identity.
Whether it is the proscribed Tehreek e Jafria Pakistan (Shia Ulema Council), which is politically affiliated with the Islamic Council of Iran having representation in Gilgit-Baltistan assembly of Pakistan, or the pro-Iran Islamic Movement of Nigeria in West Africa, all have one thing in common, i.e., allegiance towards Iran’s doctrine of Wilayat-e-Faqih in which faqih is the political representative of Shias around the world.
Iran’s doctrine, in one of the most important country of Arab world, i.e. Egypt, is evident by the fact that a road in Iran is named after Khalid Islambouli, a member of Islamic Jihad Movement, who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The appreciation of an assassin by Iran shows how it implements the policy of fifth pillar in Arab countries, i.e. by creating heroes and influencing in the domestic policies of other states. For Iran, Islambouli’s execution was the execution of the fifth column in Egypt, which was consciously or subconsciously working for Iran’s political ambitions in the Muslim world.
Even the western African country Morocco is inflicted by Iran’s policy of supporting groups which can fulfill the role of fifth-column. This can be seen in its recognition of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic on Moroccan territory.
On Jan 2016, a Saudi Shia citizen and cleric Nimr-al-Nimr was executed on orders of KSA’s Supreme Court, despite failed appeal on the charges of rebellion against the state. Nimr was schooled in Iran and was the leading Shia cleric involved in stirring an uprising on the basis of sectarian identity. However, KSA which in the past has also executed ruling family princes, received a hostile reaction from Iran against the execution of Nimr. It was the first time in post-colonial Muslim history that the embassy of a country was attacked by the population of another Muslim country. As a result KSA diplomatic staff had to leave the country.
Taking action against its own citizen as per law is the right of every sovereign country, but why was Iran so concerned about the execution of one Saudi citizen? For Iran, it was the execution of a representative of the fifth-column in KSA being actualized under sectarian card in favor of Iran at the expense of KSA’s territorial integrity.
The role of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria under Bashr-ul-Asad, Houthi-Shias in Yemen, is self-explanatory about the creation of fifth column within these states which are weakening these states. This policy has created states within a state and triggered civil warfare. Today, Iraq is very much under the influence of Iran, and being a Shia majority, there is no need to create any fifth column there.
Today, a pro-Iran Shia sitting in USA or France may pick up arms against their own country, if the seat of Wilayat-e-Faqih sanctions such fatwa. This is an exact replication of what adherents of Abu Bakar Baghdadi are capable of around the world. The doctrine of Wilayat-e-Faqih works in parallel with the strategy of fifth-column warfare which weakens other states from within, while making inroads in them through divisions based on sectarian identity.
The world is witnessing rapid changes, where it has to face narratives which are detrimental for the nation-state system which emerged after the 1648, Treaty of Westphalia. The political allegiance to a person, who is sitting at the head of affairs of state, in an alien country is more detrimental in the era of globalization and information age, for every sovereign state.
The transition of nation-state system into post-nation state system has already started with the paradigm shift in sources of power, i.e. from states to corporations and now has transcended into ideologically driven political entities, having no boundaries unlike states.
In early 20th century, the ideology of communism was used for creating fifth columns around the world. Adherents of Karl Marx’s ideology were united under the leadership of USSR and politically motivated for regime changes in favor of pro-Soviet camp, around the world.
In essence, sectarianism has nothing to do with religion; rather political motives instigate it, and the establishment of any state on the basis of any specific sect or ideology, will only result in political instability in the region.
Sunni or Shia identities are in essence political in nature and have evolved over a historical narrative; one can be a Muslim without being Sunni or Shia. There was no Shia or Sunni Muslim until the death of Hazrat Ali (R.A). These political identities gradually emerged with the shifting of capital from Damascus to Baghdad under the Abbasid dynasty.
The first sub-sect-based Islamic state i.e. Iran, in post-colonial Muslim history, needs to find communities around the world, to work as fifth column in other countries. This fifth column strategy is the exact replication of USSR’s policies in 1960s and 1970s around the world i.e., to spread and support communists across the globe.
Iran never violated, and will never violate, territorial integrity of any country; since it has learnt a lesson from USSR’s collapse, but, it will be using organizations in other countries to trigger the failure of states and intends an indirect control which is feasible and effective in this era of globalization.
The Iranian diaspora spread around the world, must focus on the resurgence of a new Iran which should be the symbol of unity of Muslims around the world and not of any specific sub-sectarian identity group. For which, it has to abandon the doctrine of Wilayat-e-Faqih and learn from the policy of Sistani of Iraq.
As Iran has lost respect in Muslim world by affiliating itself to one sub-sectarian group and is a continuous threat to the same group it claims to represent, where they are in minority like, Pakistan and KSA.
The risk associated with this ideologically driven sub-sectarian Islamic State is massive and other Muslim countries must monitor the people of Twelver-Shia adherents that they do not follow the political narrative of the seat of Wilayat-e-Faqih of sub-sectarian Islamic state. Otherwise, people like Nimr, and proscribed organizations like TJP, and its rival entities like ASWJ and SSP, will keep on emerging and will be more dangerous for the identity of any country. If this continues, the states will be focused on sectarian issues rather than progressive agendas.
If state fails to do so, the rise of organizations like SSP, MDM or ASWJ is inevitable and they are more capable of winning the seat in any constituent assembly, if sectarian identities are allowed to flourish. Those who believe in sectarian identity should be left to move towards countries which believe in sectarian identity, Pakistan should ensure it refrains from an identity which revolves around any sect.
This is the way forward for a strong Pakistan, and Islam should be incorporated with consultation of a modern interpretation of the religion and not on the basis of any specific school of thought, with an open room for revision of any belief or practice.