Shia Sectarians: Iran’s Other Geopolitical Headache

Developing Just Leadership

Tahir Mahmoud

Muharram 23, 1443 2021-09-01

News & Analysis

by Tahir Mahmoud (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 7, Muharram, 1443)

Islam is a practical deen (way of life that encompasses all aspects of life). Most of its theoretical dimensions carry some form of practical ramifications. These include its historicity in which the tragedy of Karbala plays an important role.

This, however, is not a theological/fiqhi tract on the events of Karbala. It is an analysis of how the self-professed lovers of Imam Hussein (ra) are blindly participating in besieging Iran. It is the only working contemporary Islamic governance system that is implicitly acknowledge even by Iran’s detractors.

The key importance of the events of Karbala is that it offers socio-political lessons for Muslims till eternity. This is an aspect on which scholars of all schools of Islamic thought agree, even those who shamelessly whitewash the murder of the Prophet’s (pbuh) family.

Imam Hussein (ra) sacrificing his life and that of his family members and close companions could at the very least make Muharram the month of intra-Muslim socio-political unity. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For decades, Wahhabi scholars under the influence of the Saudi regime have misused the month of Muharram as an occasion to generate anti-Shia sentiments.

Given that Riyadh’s soft power has significantly diminished since 2001, the words of Saudi trained/linked preachers no longer carry the weight they used to. This does not mean that the damage done by decades of anti-Iran and anti-Shia propaganda no longer has any effect. However, such negative effect would be greatly reduced if there were organized efforts to muffle the marginalized, but loud sectarian voices among Shia Muslims.

While this is a task for influential Shia Muslim scholars in their respective communities, all Muslims, especially the so-called staunch Shias, need to understand the wider geopolitical consequences of imitating the style and tone of the Saudified preachers. Their repercussions negatively affect Iran at the geopolitical level. It creates an opening for NATO regimes to exert pressure on Iran through its Sunni Muslim neighbors.

Detailed analysis of the socio-political events and the geopolitical narrative in the Muslim world reveals that the primary tactic of the divide and conquer policy is to ensure that all events and policies in the region are seen primarily through the Sunni vs Shia narrative. Currently NATO’s strategy to interpret events in Iran’s neighborhood as Sunni vs Shia is not as intense as it used to be in 2012-2013. There are two key reasons for this.

The first is Iran’s principled position on Palestine. It is the only Muslim country that provides the means of self-defense to Sunni Palestinians. The second is Washington’s spectacular failure in “nation building”, as evident through its latest fiasco in Afghanistan.

Iran’s Islamic leadership does not view the region in terms of Sunni vs Shia. The recent appointment of Shahram Irani, a Sunni Kurd, as commander of Iran’s Navy once again shows that sectarianism is not an underlying feature of Iran’s leadership.

Nevertheless, there is still a significant number of Sunni Muslims who have bought into the narrative that Iran’s aim is to dominate the region at the expense of the interests of its Sunni Muslim neighbors. Such interests are narrowly defined by the regimes since they are the ones oppressing authentic Sunni Muslim movements in their countries. These are the same regimes whose comfortable presence in power relies on their allegiance to NATO regimes and Zionist Israel, not the interests of the Sunni Muslim masses.

The narrative of Iran being a system geared towards proselytizing, is formulated through cherry-picked historical data which serves a particular contemporary geopolitical agenda.

Historical data fused with contemporary media campaigns projecting the Sunni vs Shia narrative through the rhetoric of sectarian Shia preachers and laymen provides relevance to the anti-Iran narrative fueled by propaganda.

The rhetoric of sectarian Shia Muslims creates a framework where non-regional imperialist powers can either project themselves as saviors of Sunni Muslim countries or at the very least, the lesser of two evils.

While Iran’s pragmatic relations with its Muslim neighbors, especially Turkey, with whom Tehran maturely agrees to disagree on some regional matters, has significantly decreased sectarianism in the Muslims world in comparison to 2012-2013. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go.

It is unlikely that sectarians among Shia and Sunni Muslims can understand the broader harm of sectarianism. It is a disease that blinds people. Hopefully, they can come to realize their mistaken attitude based on a sectarian explanation. They project Iran as the primary defender of Shia Muslims, by insulting Sunni Muslims in a crude manner using highly sectarian rhetoric. Sectarian Shias thus primarily harm Iran.

The immediate neighborhood of Iran is predominantly Sunni. While it is easy to sit on a pulpit in the UK, US or Germany and spew sectarian hatred, it is people in the Muslim world that pay a heavy political, economic and social price of hateful sectarian rhetoric.

In Iran’s case, maintaining a sectarian image of it is essential for the US and Israel.

Neither Israel nor the US have the stamina to launch a direct conventional military attack against Islamic Iran. The political, economic, and military circumstances make this impossible.

Thus, their primary choice to exert pressure on Iran via hard power are regional militant and terrorist groups.

These groups need an indigenous agenda to implement Washington’s strategic denial policy.

And what better agenda than ‘defense of Islam’, but not from real threats, only from other Muslims. Thus, when Shia sectarians spew hatred against Sunnis, they are essentially providing the divide and conquer policy of imperialist powers with an organic façade. This veneer is used mainly to build policies against Islamic Iran.

As NATO regimes have been forced into a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, the sectarian dynamic in the Muslim world can either significantly improve or worsen. Only time will show.

However, if ‘Shia’ Iran and ‘Sunni’ Afghanistan, both ruled by Islamic movements rooted in their commitment to traditional Islamic scholarship and worldview, establish a good working relationship, there will be a new geopolitical dynamic that can contribute positively to durable peace in the region.

Washington is unlikely to allow the new emerging government in Afghanistan to rule the country calmly.

Destabilization, proxy-militias, drone strikes, and economic sabotage are hallmarks of US policy, especially when things do not go its way.

Like in Iraq, the sectarian card will, therefore, be an important geopolitical leverage to keep Afghanistan tense. One of the aims of this policy is geared towards creating an additional theater of conflict near Iran, where Tehran’s needed participation can be framed in sectarian terms via Western propaganda.

Since the new emerging government in Afghanistan is in economic and political need of Tehran, it is unlikely to allow sectarian jabs against Iran, much less do it themselves. This is where sectarian Shias will play their role and be nudged to keep sectarian tensions alive and kicking.

For several decades, Salafi Muslims have been used to maintain the sectarian leverage against Iran. The rapidly changing geopolitical situation in Central Asia may make Shia sectarians a far more dangerous tool against Iran than the Wahhibized Salafis.

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