Monday, June 23, 2014
Iraq is not just a Sunni-Shia clash; It's a challenge fundamentalist Wahabism is posing to the world
The dimensions of the Iraq crisis began hitting us only when Indian workers were kidnapped and Indian nurses stranded. There is also an awareness now about possible economic disaster if oil prices go crazy. These are grave issues and we must exert every nerve tackling them. But the big danger Iraq poses is ideological. A militant religious force is on a conquering spree and India will be among its prime targets.
Other versions of this religious force were frightening enough. Al-Qaida, conceived by one of the world's richest men, Osama bin Laden, was stridently ideological. Calling on Muslim countries to shed all foreign influences, it proclaimed the goal of creating a worldwide Islamic caliphate based on a rigorous version of the Shariat law. Al-Qaida's call for a global jihad was taken up by other organisations that came in its wake, most noticeably the Taliban. In and around Afghanistan Taliban unleashed barbaric practices. Today even Pakistan has turned against it despite their early collaboration. Following the recent suicide attack on Karachi airport, Pakistan's air force has been bombing the country's frontier regions where Taliban fighters are entrenched.
The sudden eruption of fighting in Iraq is the latest extension of the global-jihad ideology. Because it is Iraq, it is easy to say that the war is yet another showdown between Sunnis and Shias; Iraq is the only Muslim country where the rival factions are almost equal in numbers, Shias having an edge of one or two percentage points over Sunnis. Saddam Husain, the President whom America hanged, was a Sunni. Nouri al-Maliki, present Prime Minister America enthroned, is a Shia. Ironically, the US came up last week with the suggestion that al-Maliki must make way for a Sunni for the sake of peace. The Prime Minister promptly rejected the idea.
It was a woolly-headed idea anyway. Just as America never understood Vietnam despite many years of war, it has not understood Iraq despite the vainglorious Bush War. Those who learn nothing from their mistakes are condemned to repeat them. There is indeed a bloody Sunni-Shia rivalry for dominance in Iraq. Why was this not contained like the bloody Catholic-Protestant rivalry for dominance in Northern Ireland? Both Irish factions received support from influential Western powers; neither was seen in adversarial colours. In West Asia, the US and its allies isolated Iran as an adversary and embraced Saudi Arabia as an ally. That was an error of judgment.
Saudi Arabia's ruling elite has been globally promoting a fanatic ideology, Wahabism, which rejects even non-Wahabi Muslims as un-Islamic. It's like Pentecostal Christians rejecting traditional Churches as un-Christian. (Perhaps both can learn from Hinduism's uniqueness; Hindus can reject all their gods and still remain Hindus). Shia Iran condemns Sunni Wahabism as a threat to Islamic civilisation. But Shias have their own strains of rigidity. Their central belief is that the 12th Imam, the Mahdi, will come to establish a global Islamic caliphate. The way to hasten the Mahdi's coming is to annihilate Israel, the Little Satan. (The Great Satan is the US).
Iran's vehement opposition to Israel is the main reason for the US to see it in inimical terms. But Iran does not have an evangelical programme spread around the world to convert people to its ideology. That is Saudi Arabia's area of attention. Western condonation has enabled an ideological and far-reaching Wahabi campaign to gain speed, spread fundamentalism in Muslim as well as other countries and elevate jihadism as a religious duty. The campaign is visibly successful in previously tolerant Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and in various parts of India. The US has not yet got the message. So the radicalisation of Islam proceeds unchallenged to the detriment of others including non-fundamentalist Muslims.
India too sees Saudi Arabia as an honoured ally. This is as it should be. But it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that radical Islamist evangelism is strong in India. This is new in a tradition that saw Islamic scholars, artists and musicians contributing immensely to the cultural growth of India, and continue to do so. The extremists ignore this rich past and focus on narrow partisan issues. Partition itself is held against India. The demolition of Babri Masjid provoked the spirit of revenge among many fundamentalists abroad. They must have been incensed by the BJP coming to power in India, especially under a Prime Minister whom they hold guilty for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Wahabi victory in Iraq may well fire them into renewed action.