PARADIGM SHIFT| Cracks among the Sunni Muslims countries

THE WAR in the Middle East began much earlier than today. The Middle East is the epicenter of world politics. Today nothing has changed in real politics in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya cut all their ties with Qatar and suspended all flights to and from that country. Saudi Arabia and its allies charge that Qatar has been serving Iranian interests in the region, has been critical of the Egyptian and Saudi regimes, and has supported the Muslims Brothers and Hamas. But what was shocking to me was the Maldives’ move to join the Gulf countries against Qatar. What pushed the Maldives to blockade Qatar by air, land, and sea? Presumably Maldives will not allow all those Qatari royal families to escape from Ramadan to go to the Maldives to enjoy the beaches and to avoid fasting. Further, each of these same Gulf countries asked Qatari citizens to leave its country.

This current crisis did not happen just last week, but is a problem that has been going on for years. Saudi Arabia might be right in accusing Qatar of supporting or letting all the dark organizations operate in Qatar because Qatar is in close contact with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations. Why would Qatar open its doors to these groups? Actually, those who have been to Qatar know that it is like a little UK. Nevertheless, all the Western countries are aware that these contacts have been going on for years, but why did they not say anything until now. Also, all of these organizations have somehow connected with the UK, too. But no one raises questions or says anything to the UK. It is also unclear who will benefit from the outcome. Many things could go wrong or may not go as planned in the socio- political arena in a similar way that they went with the Arab Spring.

There are several major players in the Middle East today, and everyone has its own plan. Some of the Muslims hastily and irrationally rushed to blame America for the Saudi move to punish Qatar for its approach toward Iran. Even if President Donald Trump has already drawn his battle lines against Iran, Muslim countries need to solve their internal issues among themselves. The Qatar issue is one that Muslim countries need to solve among themselves. This will not benefit those who started sanctions against Qatar, and it will push the country toward further instability.

A Turkish proverb claims that God has given Arabs money but no brains. It is true that they hold the world’s richest resources, that they do not know how to use them, and that many still live lives of misery. Many Arab countries are dysfunctional. There were coups in Tunisia and Egypt; Russia took charge of Syria where millions of Syrians have been killed; Iran turned the Middle East into a neo-Persian Empire and took charge of Iraq; millions of Iraqis have been killed and the government is destabilized; millions of African people are starving; Libya is now a failed state; Syria is a failed state, Iraq is a failed state; Egypt is under a dictator and thousands of people have died. Ironically, while all of this chaos was happening, none of the Arab countries came together to do something, but now they are united against Qatar.

Actually, there are two and a half countries in the Middle East. One is Iran, the second is Turkey, and the half is Egypt; the rest are a bunch of tribes and flags. Because Iran has a traditional history of the Persian Empire, and Turkey also has a traditional history of government and the Ottoman Empire, they qualify as countries. Egypt has a history, but it was part of the Ottoman Empire and, therefore, counts as a half. Actually, these kinds of crises help to keep these kings and sheiks in power; otherwise, these conflicts would be the end of them. Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have begun to play in Qatar. The game is complex and dangerous. The referees are the US, the UK, and Russia. Israel is very relaxed. Turkey threw its weight behind its ally Qatar and plans to deploy extra Turkish troops there. The move potentially will put Turkey on collision with Saudi Arabia. Another unknown yet potential move is what if Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries support the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) against Turkey?

Beginning in 1995, after the gas field was discovered, Qatar became the wealthiest state in the world, and the Qatari regime began to undermine the Sunni regimes of the Arab world. Qatar is Hamas’ main benefactor. In 2014, it pledged to give $1 billion toward reconstruction efforts in Gaza, but most of money went into the hands of corrupt Hamas leaders. The Qatari government established Al Jazeera media outlet in 1996. The government has kept a tight control on Al Jazeera news, which has reached millions of households in the region and around the world. The nation opposed the US allies in the Sunni world; instead, it supported all the organizations that the West and America consider as terror groups. Al Jazeera was at the forefront of the propaganda of Arab Spring against Egyptian Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and against Libyan leader Gaddafi. During the Obama administration talks between the Taliban and the Obama administration took place in Qatar. WikiLeaks published documents showing that a Qatari emir donated one million dollars to the Clinton Foundation as a gift for his birthday. During the days that Hillary was Secretary of State, the emir donated 6 million to the Clinton Foundation. The Obama administration and Hillary Clinton were deeply supportive of Aljazeera, and Hillary Clinton praised the media before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in 2011, and applauded Al Jazeera for its leading role in the Arab Spring. Qatar also put millions of dollars in US universities and in think tanks like the Brooking Institute, which was very supportive of Clinton and Obama. In return, Brookings scholars supported the overthrow of Mubarak and urged Obama to cut military relations with Egypt. Since Donald Trump is not affiliated with Brookings or taking money from the emir, his relation with Al Jazeera is tenuous.

The current Qatar crisis is telling us that a second Arab Spring is coming, and most likely it will not end in Qatar. This will spread to Turkey, if the crisis is not resolved soon. Qatar will be asked to expel leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas from Qatar, and, among other measures, Qatar will be asked to consider toning down the Al Jazeera TV news coverage; however, there is a limit to how far the demands can go because Qatar is a sovereignty and thus is entitled to make its own decisions and submitting to the other players would take away its legitimacy to rule. Of course, Qatar is fearful that Saudi Arabia may initiate a coup against the emir.

Iran and Saudi Arabia, both oil producing giants, see the other as a huge obstacle to their national interests in the conflict between Qatar and the Gulf countries. The conflict is about geopolitics in terms of not only the reality but also the religious vision it wears as a tribal badge. What all this means is that Sunnis and Shias side step up their activities, causing the other to feel more threatened and in return to harden their response.

The Sunni- Shia conflict is evident across the world from Qatar, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon, to Bahrain, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Iran are both using sectarianism as an overture to further their goals and thus create a Sunni–Shiite rift Iranian expansionism is one of the leading reasons for the current crisis in Qatar. Iranian expansionism has been clearly seen in the Gulf region in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but now we are seeing a new twist because there are cracks in the relationships among Sunni Arab countries.

Turkey has very good relations with Qatar, and President Erdogan was the first leader to call the Qatari Emir Sheikh, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, and consult with him on the crisis. Turkey also is bedfellows with Saudi Arabia, and, therefore, is making a diplomatic effort to help solve this problem.

The conflict actually began in the year 632 with the death of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed. The same is true of today’s violence, hatred, intolerance, injustice, oppression, and tensions gripping the Muslim world from Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Bahrain to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Pakistan. Now Qatar is under the siege from the Muslim Arab brothers. What the conflicts that are playing out across the Middle East have in common is that Sunni Muslims are on one side of the disagreement and the Shia Muslims on the other. The struggle between two great Islamic denominations runs like a tectonic fault line along what is known as the Shia movement starting in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and moving to Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Gulf countries. The fight between the two entities is about power and leadership. The divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims is the oldest one and is all about determining who is going to be the Muslims’ leader.

Turkey thinks it is the one best suited to be leader of the Muslim world, Iran believes they are the one, and Saudi Arabia considers themselves as the one because they host two of the holies places for Muslims, Mecca with The Sacred Mosque and the Kaaba and Medina. We hear a lot about fighting between the Sunnis and the Shiites, the two main sects of Islam. But many of us have no idea what the actual difference between the two groups is, and why there is so much friction between them. Further complicating the divide, Jihadist Al Qaeda volunteers on the Sunni side and Hezbollah militants on the Shia create war within the two factions.

A brief history and a summary of the geopolitics give a sense of what is really going on. There are 1.3 to 1.5 billion Muslims across the world. Roughly, 10% to 20 % of them are Shias. In most countries the Shias are a minority in a Sunni nation. But, in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan they are a majority. Creating palpable tensions in Syria even before the war, the Shia minority sect rules a Sunni majority country. By contrast, Iraq, a Shia country, was ruled by the Sunni sect until Saddam was removed from power; now Iraq is ruled by the Shia sect. Sunnis do not accept Shias as true Muslims, and Shias do not accept Sunnis as true Muslims either. The division began after the death of the Prophet Mohammed some fourteen centuries ago, over a disagreement about who should succeed him. Often succession would pass to the leader’s son. But Mohammed had no son, only a daughter. In Islam, his inheritance was spiritual as well as political. The Sunnis felt that Abu Bakr, a close friend of the prophet’s, ought to be the next Muslim leader. But the Shiites claimed that Mohammed had annointed his son-in-law, Ali, as his rightful successor.

Shia is an abbreviation of Shia Ali “Party of Ali.” The Sunnis won out, but a split arose with Mohammed’s third and favorite wife Aisha, who was also the daughter of Abu Bakr, leading troops against Ali. Ali was killed as was his son, Hussein; persecution began and the seeds of hate and violence were sown. Both Shia and Sunni agreed on the Quran but had different views on the hadiths, the traditions recorded by Mohammed’s followers about what he said and did in his life.

A clerical hierarchy, topped by imams and ayatollahs, became crucial in the schism, as did the belief in twelve imams. Early in the 20th century the Saudi royal family destroyed most of the Shia holy places. With the rise of the Sunni fundamentalism known as Wahhabism, severe restrictions have been placed on Shia practice and its leaders jailed. Last year Saudi Arabia executed one of Shia spiritual leaders. Actually, Sunnis brand Shiism as a heresy worse than Christianity or Judaism. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been nurtured in this Wahhabi ideology. Some of them consider Shia an apostasy that they say is death.

Like today, in the past outsiders have exploited the divisions among the Muslims. For example, in 1920 the British used an elite of the Sunni army officers to suppress a Shia rebellion and allowed Saddam, representing a minority Sunni, to rule Iraq, and, of course the Iran-Iraq War started in 1980 and ended in 1998 with millions dying. The US had backed Saddam in Iraq with the Iran War, and some European countries backed Iran. Today some support the Assad regimes while some are against it. This growth of ruthless sectarianism has spread across the Middle East.

The tensions are deeply rooted in history as well as in wider economic and geopolitical concerns. In the trajectory of the seventh century, the fighting and the bloodshed going on across the region today are less about religion than they are about which power will lead.

[Dr. Aland Mizell is President of the MCI and a regular contributor to Mindanao Times. You may email the author ]

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