Category Archives: Yemen

Post-revolt Arab Transitions: Driven by Distrust and Inexperience

Post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African countries are struggling to manage the transition from autocratic to more transparent, accountable societies. Increasingly prejudice, distrust and inexperience are proving to be greater obstacles, argues James M. Dorsey.

Post-revolt Arab nations are experiencing tumultuous times. The assassination of a prominent Tunisian opposition leader has sparked mass protests against Islamists held responsible for his death. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has called for the replacement of the Islamist-dominated Cabinet by a government of technocrats that would lead the country to elections, to the chagrin of his Ennahada party that fears loss of power.

Egypt has been wracked by violent street protests that have left more than 60 people dead in three Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, forcing President Mohamed Morsi to declare emergency rule and bring the military back into the streets and soccer stadiums to maintain law and order.

Underlying Fault Lines

Underlying the volatility in Egypt and Tunisia as well as difficult transitions in Libya and Yemen is the increasing lack of confidence between Islamists and non-Islamist forces. That fault line is fuelled by an ever deeper secularist suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who by and large have emerged from the revolts as the largest, most organised political force, are bent on creating Islamist states and enforcing Islamic law. This mistrust drives the weakening of the civilian and armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad in the continuing civil war in Syria.

For their part, Islamists, including moderates, are not certain where the allegiances of non-Islamists lie and whether significant segments of the secularists would opt for a less free society in cooperation with institutions like the judiciary, the police and security forces in a bid to halt what they see as an Islamist power grab.

To be sure, the militancy and violence of more radical Islamists in Tunisia in recent months as well as Morsi’s imperious style of government, his failed attempt to acquire absolute power, his unilaterally pushing through of a controversial constitution, his failed attempt to fire a state prosecutor and increased reliance on the despised police and security forces, have done little to assuage anti-Islamist fears.

Similarly, Syrian opposition forces with Islamists in the lead have failed to convince the country’s key minorities who could have made a difference in reducing the regime’s power base, that there would be a place for them and that their rights would be secured in a post-Assad Syria.

Yet, lost in the mixture of misperception and prejudice is the recognition that Islamists came to power virtually unprepared for government, having a history of a pressured existence either underground, a legal nether land or exile. The Muslim Brotherhood, two years after the overthrow of Mubarak and seven months after Morsi’s election as president, remains nominally an illegal organisation in Egypt. As a result, this reinforces a sense that he and the Brotherhood fail to truly understand the concept of democracy and are more focused on fending off threats and settling old scores.

A Mental Transition

Morsi, like his counterparts in other post-revolt Arab nations, (apart from Libya that suffers the consequences of Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to build institutions), have inherited states dominated by police and security forces and populated by institutions moulded by the former autocratic regimes with their own vested interests. It takes a degree of political savvy, mastering of electoral politics, backroom horse trading, give-and-take and an ability to manage public expectations rather than the bunker mentality in which Islamist leaders operated in the past. With few exceptions, they have yet to demonstrate that they can make that mental transition.

In retrospect, Morsi’s deft alliance late last year with the second echelon of Egypt’s military command that allowed him to sideline long-serving commanders who unsuccessfully sought to grab power in the period between his election and his assumption of office, seems more an exception than an indication of his ability to manoeuvre the minefield that constitutes Egyptian transition politics.

Jebali’s call for an interim technocratic government in a bid to avert a second popular revolt in Tunisia comes closest to Morsi’s rare display of political deftness in his handling of the military. It contrasts starkly with Morsi’s surprising reluctance to tackle reform of the police and security forces who for many years targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, his seeming willingness to maintain Mubarak-era structures and his increased reliance on them despite the existence of reformists within all of those institutions.

Relative calm has returned to the streets of Egyptian cities, giving Morsi at best a month to build bridges in advance of the country’s next flashpoint when a court in Cairo pronounces verdict in the case of the remaining 52 defendants accused of responsibility for the deaths of 74 soccer fans a year ago in a politically-loaded brawl in Port Said.

Flashpoint Offers Leverage

To do so, Morsi would have to convincingly reach out to his detractors in a bid to convince them that he has put the bunker mentality behind him, wants his government to be inclusive rather than exclusive and that he is serious about reform of key state institutions and is focusing on a turnaround of the country’s economy.

As much as the Port Said case constitutes a flash point – the court’s sentencing last month of the first batch of 21 defendants to death sparked the most violent protests – it also gives Morsi leverage. In the absence of a justification of the court’s ruling, a leaked summary of the prosecution’s case put the blame for the brawl as much on the police as it did on spectators in the stadium.

The prosecutor’s case, coupled with human rights reports that document that the police and security forces are a law unto themselves, provide Morsi with the ammunition to start the difficult process of reforming law enforcement. It is a move that would prove immensely popular and would help restore political calm needed to embark on a road of economic recovery.

A convincing move to amend the constitution in ways that removes fears of an Islamist takeover would further serve to bridge the widening gap in Egyptian politics. It is too early to write Morsi off as a failed leader. The ball is in his court, though time is running out.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

This Is Not a Revolution

The New-york review of books|

November 8, 2012
Hussein Agha
and Robert Malley|

All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

—Paul Simon

Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward. It slips sideways.

Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war. Nations divide, minorities awaken, sensing a chance to step out of the state’s confining restrictions. The picture is blurred. These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination. The changes that are now believed to be essential are liable to be disregarded as mere anecdotes on an extended journey.

New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.

Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.

In record time, Turkey evolved from having zero problems with its neighbors to nothing but problems with them. It has alienated Iran, angered Iraq, and had a row with Israel. It virtually is at war with Syria. Iraqi Kurds are now Ankara’s allies, even as it wages war against its own Kurds and even as its policies in Iraq and Syria embolden secessionist tendencies in Turkey itself.

For years, Iran opposed Arab regimes, cultivating ties with Islamists with whose religious outlook it felt it could make common cause. As soon as they take power, the Islamists seek to reassure their former Saudi and Western foes and distance themselves from Tehran despite Iran’s courting. The Iranian regime will feel obliged to diversify its alliances, reach out to non-Islamists who feel abandoned by the nascent order and appalled by the budding partnership between Islamists and the US. Iran has experience in such matters: for the past three decades, it has allied itself with secular Syria even as Damascus suppressed its Islamists.

When goals converge, motivations differ. The US cooperated with Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms in deposing Qaddafi yesterday and in opposing Assad today. It says it must be on the right side of history. Yet those regimes do not respect at home the rights they piously pursue abroad. Their purpose is neither democracy nor open societies. They are engaged in a struggle for regional domination. What, other than treasure, can proponents of a self-styled democratic uprising find in countries whose own system of governance is anathema to the democratic project they allegedly promote?

The new system of alliances hinges on too many false assumptions and masks too many deep incongruities. It is not healthy because it cannot be real. Something is wrong. Something is unnatural. It cannot end well.

A media war that started in Egypt reaches its zenith in Syria. Each side shows only its own, amplifies the numbers, disregards the rest. In Bahrain, the opposite is true. No matter how many opponents of the regime turn up, few take notice. It does not register on the attention scale. Not long ago, footage from Libya glorified motley fighters with colorful bandanas and triumphant spiel. The real battles, bloody and often from the skies, raged elsewhere. Casualties were invisible.

Throngs gather in Tahrir Square. The camera zooms in on protesters. What about the unseen millions who stayed at home? Did they rejoice at Mubarak’s overthrow or quietly lament his departure? How do Egyptians feel about the current disorder, unrest, economic collapse, and political uncertainty? In the elections that ensued, 50 percent did not vote. Of those who did, half voted for the representative of the old order. Who will look after those who lie on the other side of the right side of history?

Most Syrians fight neither to defend the regime nor to support the opposition. They are at the receiving end of this vicious confrontation, their wishes unnoticed, their voices unheard, their fates forgotten. The camera becomes an integral part of the unrest, a tool of mobilization, propaganda, and incitement. The military imbalance favors the old regimes but is often more than compensated for by the media imbalance that favors the new forces. The former Libyan regime had Qaddafi’s bizarre rhetoric; Assad’s Syria relies on its discredited state-run media. It’s hardly a contest. In the battle for public sympathy, in the age of news-laundering, the old orders never stood a chance.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, no unifying figure of stature has emerged with the capacity to shape a new path. There is scant leadership. Where there is leadership, it tends to be by committee. Where there are committees, they emerge mysteriously to assume authority no one has granted them. More often than not, legitimacy is bestowed from abroad: the West provides respectability and exposure; Gulf Arab states supply resources and support; international organizations offer validity and succor.

Those in charge often lack the strength that comes from a clear and loyal domestic constituency; they need foreign approval and so they must be cautious, adjust their positions to what outsiders accept. Past revolutionary leaders were not driven by such considerations. For better or for worse, they were stubbornly independent and took pride in rebuffing foreign interference.

Not unlike the rulers they helped depose, Islamists placate the West. Not unlike those they replaced, who used the Islamists as scarecrows to keep the West by their side, the Muslim Brotherhood waves the specter of what might come next should it fail now: the Salafis who, for their part and not unlike the Brothers of yore, are torn between fealty to their traditions and the taste of power.

It’s a game of musical chairs. In Egypt, Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime. In Palestine, Islamic Jihad is the new Hamas, firing rockets to embarrass Gaza’s rulers; Hamas, the new Fatah, claiming to be a resistance movement while clamping down on those who dare resist; Fatah, a version of the old Arab autocracies it once lambasted. How far off is the day when Salafis present themselves to the world as the preferable alternative to jihadists?

Egyptian politics are wedged between the triumphant mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, more hard-line Salafis, anxious non-Islamists, and remnants of the old order. As the victorious Brotherhood tries to reach an arrangement with the rest, the political future is a blur. The speed and elegance with which the new president, Mohamed Morsi, retired or sidelined the old military leaders and the quiet with which this daring move was greeted suggest that the Islamists’ confidence has grown, that they are willing to move at a faster pace.

Tunisia is a mixed tale. The transition has been largely peaceful; the an-Nahda party, which won the elections last October, offers a pragmatic, moderate face of Islamism. But its efforts to consolidate power are a source of nervousness. Mistrust between secularists and Islamists is growing; socioeconomic protests at times become violent. Salafis lurk in the wings, assailing symbols of modern society, free speech, and gender equality.

In Yemen, former president Saleh is out of power but not offstage. One war brews in the north, another in the south. Jihadists flex their muscles. The young revolutionaries who dreamed of a complete change can only watch as different factions of the same old elite rearrange the deck. Saudis, Iranians, and Qataris sponsor their own factions. Minor clashes could escalate into major confrontations. Meanwhile, US drones eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and whoever happens to be in their vicinity.

Day by day, the civil war in Syria takes on an uglier, more sectarian hue. The country has become an arena for a regional proxy war. The opposition is an eclectic assortment of Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements, and foreign fighters. There is little that either the regime or the opposition won’t contemplate in their desperation to triumph. The state, society, and an ancient culture collapse. The conflict engulfs the region.

The battle in Syria also is a battle for Iraq. Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shiites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.

Islamists in the region await the outcome in Syria. They do not wish to bite off more than they can chew. If patience is the Islamist first principle, consolidation of gains is the second. Should Syria fall, Jordan could be next. Its peculiar demography—a Palestinian majority ruled over by a trans-Jordanian minority—has been a boon to the regime: the two communities bear deep grievances against the Hashemite rulers yet distrust each other more. That could change in the face of the unifying power of Islam for which ethnicity, in theory at least, is of little consequence.

Weaker entities may follow. In northern Lebanon, Islamist and Salafi groups actively support the Syrian opposition, with whom they may have more in common than with Lebanese Shiites and Christians. From the outset a fragile contraption, Lebanon is pulled in competing directions: some would look to a new Sunni-dominated Syria with envy, perhaps a yearning to join. Others would look to it with fright and despair.

In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy intent on retaining power and privilege violently suppresses the majority Shiites. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states come to their ally’s rescue. The West, so loud elsewhere, is mute. When Libya holds elections, Islamists do not fare well; their opponents believe they finally achieved their one victory in a country that has no tradition of political openness, lacks a state, and is sated with armed militias that regularly engage in deadly clashes. An octogenarian leadership in Saudi Arabia struggles with a looming transition, lives in fear of Iran and its own population, doles out cash to fend off dissatisfaction. How long can all this last?

Mohamed Morsi; drawing by John Springs

In some countries, regimes will be toppled, in others they will survive. Forces that have been defeated are unlikely to have been crushed. They will regroup and try to fight back. The balance of power is not clear-cut. Victory does not necessarily strengthen the victor.

Those in power occupy the state, but it is an asset that might prove of limited value. Inherently weak and with meager legitimacy, Arab states tend to be viewed by their citizens with suspicion, extraneous bodies superimposed on more deeply rooted, familiar social structures with long, continuous histories. They enjoy neither the acceptability nor the authority of their counterparts elsewhere. Where uprisings occur, the ability of these states to function weakens further as their coercive power erodes.

To be in the seat of power need not mean to exercise power. In Lebanon, the pro-West March 14 coalition, invigorated while in opposition, was deflated after it formed the cabinet in 2005. Hezbollah has never been more on the defensive or enjoyed less moral authority than since it became the major force behind the government. Those out of power face fewer constraints. They have the luxury to denounce their rulers’ failings, the freedom that comes with the absence of responsibility. In a porous, polarized Middle East, they enjoy access to readily available outside support.

To be in charge, to operate along formal, official, state channels, can encumber as much as empower. Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 did not curb its influence; Damascus simply exerted it more surreptitiously, without public glare and accountability. Tomorrow, a similar pattern might hold in Syria itself. The regime’s collapse would be a significant blow to Iran and Hezbollah, but one can wonder how devastating. The day after such a long and violent conflict is more likely to witness chaos than stability, a scramble for power rather than a strong central government. Defeated and excluded political forces will seek help from any source and solicit foreign patrons regardless of their identity. To exploit disorder is a practice in which Iran and Hezbollah are far better versed than their foes. Without a Syrian regime whose interests they need to take into account and whose constraints they need to abide by, they might be able to act more freely.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails. The newly elected Egyptian president comes from their ranks. They rule in Tunisia. They control Gaza. They have gained in Morocco. In Syria and Jordan too, their time might come.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails: those are weighty and, not long ago, unthinkable, unutterable words. The Brothers survived eighty years in the underground and the trenches, hounded, tortured, and killed, forced to compromise and bide their time. The fight between Islamism and Arab nationalism has been long, tortuous, and bloody. Might the end be near?

World War I and the ensuing European imperial ascent halted four centuries of Islamic Ottoman rule. With fits and starts, the next century would be that of Arab nationalism. To many, this was an alien, unnatural, inauthentic Western import—a deviation that begged to be rectified. Forced to adjust their views, the Islamists acknowledged the confines of the nation-state and irreligious rule. But their targets remained the nationalist leaders and their disfigured successors.

Last year, they helped topple the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, the pale successors of the original nationalists. The Islamists had more worthy and dangerous adversaries in mind. They struck at Ben Ali and Mubarak, but the founding fathers—Habib Bourguiba and Gamal Abdel Nasser—were in their sights. They reckon they have corrected history. They have revived the era of musulmans sans frontières.

What will all this mean? The Islamists are loath either to share power achieved at high cost or to squander gains so patiently acquired. They must balance among their own restive rank-and-file, a nervous larger society, and an undecided international community. The temptation to strike fast pulls in one direction; the desire to reassure tugs in another. In general, they will prefer to eschew coercion, awaken the people to their dormant Islamic nature rather than foist it upon them. They will try to do it all: rule, enact social transformations incrementally, and be true to themselves without becoming a menace to others.

The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?

Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.

Unlike the close allies of the West they have replaced, Islamists are heard calling for NATO military intervention in Libya yesterday, Syria today, wherever they entertain the hope to take over tomorrow. One can use the distant infidels, who will not stay around for long, to jettison local infidels, who have hounded them for decades. Rejection of foreign interference, once a centerpiece of the post-independence outlook, is no longer the order of the day. It is castigated as counterrevolutionary.

What the US sought to obtain over decades through meddling and imposition, it might now obtain via acquiescence: Arab regimes that will not challenge Western interests. Little wonder that many in the region are persuaded that America was complicit in the Islamists’ rise, a quiet partner in what has been happening.

Everywhere, Israel faces the rise of Islam, of militancy, of radicalism. Former allies are gone; erstwhile foes reign supreme. But the Islamists have different and broader objectives. They wish to promote their Islamic project, which means consolidating their rule where they can, refraining from alienating the West, and avoiding perilous and precocious clashes with Israel. In this scheme, the presence of a Jewish state is and will remain intolerable, but it is probably the last piece of a larger puzzle that may never be fully assembled.

The quest to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state was never at the heart of the Islamist project. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, harbors grander, less territorially confined but also less immediately achievable designs. Despite Hamas’s circumlocutions and notwithstanding its political evolution, it never truly deviated from its original view—the Jewish state is illegitimate and all the land of historic Palestine is inherently Islamic. If the current balance of power is not in your favor, wait and do what you can to take care of the disparity. The rest is tactics.

The Palestinian question has been the preserve of the Palestinian national movement. As of the late 1980s, its declared goal became a sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Alternatives, whether interim or temporary, have been flatly rejected. The Islamists’ plan may be more ambitious and grandiose but more flexible and elastic. For them, a diminutive, amputated state, hemmed in by Israel, dependent on its goodwill, predicated on its recognition, and entailing an end to the conflict, is not worth fighting for.

They can live with a range of transient arrangements: an interim agreement; a long-term truce, or hudna; a possible West Bank confederation with Jordan, with Gaza moving toward Egypt. All will advance the further Islamization of Palestinian society. All permit Hamas to turn to its social, cultural, and religious agenda, its true calling. All allow Hamas to maintain the conflict with Israel without having to wage it. None violates Hamas’s core tenets. It can put its ultimate goal on hold. Someday, the time for Palestine, for Jerusalem may come. Not now.

In the age of Arab Islamism, Israel may find Hamas’s purported intransigence more malleable than Fatah’s ostensible moderation. Israel fears the Islamic awakening. But the more immediate threat could be to the Palestinian national movement. There is no energy left in the independence project; associated with the old politics and long-worn-out leaderships, it has expended itself. Fatah and the PLO will have no place in the new world. The two-state solution is no one’s primary concern. It might expire not because of violence, settlements, or America’s inexpert role. It might perish of indifference…..

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Towards a new Arab cultural revolution

By Alastair Crooke-
Jun 13, 2012 –

The “Awakening” is taking a turn, very different to the excitement and promise with which it was hailed at the outset. Sired from an initial, broad popular impulse, it is becoming increasingly understood, and feared, as a nascent counter-revolutionary “cultural revolution” – a re-culturation of the region in the direction of a prescriptive canon that is emptying out those early high expectations, and which makes a mockery of the West’s continuing characterization of it as somehow a project of reform and democracy.

Instead of yielding hope, its subsequent metamorphosis now gives rise to a mood of uncertainty and desperation – particularly among what are increasingly termed “‘the minorities” – the non-Sunnis, in other words. This chill of apprehension takes its grip from certain Gulf States’ fervor for the restitution of a Sunni

regional primacy – even, perhaps, of hegemony – to be attained through fanning rising Sunni militancy [1] and Salafist acculturation.

At least seven Middle Eastern states are now beset by bitter, and increasingly violent, power struggles; states such as Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are dismantling. Western states no longer trouble to conceal their aim of regime change in Syria, following Libya and the “non-regime-change” change in Yemen.

The region already exists in a state of low intensity war: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, bolstered by Turkey and the West, seem ready to stop at nothing to violently overthrow a fellow Arab head of state, President Bashar al-Assad – and to do whatever they can to hurt Iran.

Iranians increasingly interpret Saudi Arabia’s mood as a hungering for war; and Gulf statements do often have that edge of hysteria and aggression: a recent editorial in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat stated: “The climate in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] indicates that matters are heading towards a GCC-Iranian-Russian confrontation on Syrian soil, similar to what took place in Afghanistan during the Cold War. To be sure, the decision has been taken to overthrow the Syrian regime, seeing as it is vital to the regional influence and hegemony of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” [2]

What genuine popular impulse there was at the outset of the “Awakening” has now been subsumed and absorbed into three major political projects associated with this push to reassert primacy: a Muslim Brotherhood project, a Saudi-Qatari-Salafist project, and a militant Salafist project. No one really knows the nature of the Brotherhood project, whether it is that of a sect, or if it is truly mainstream [3]; and this opacity is giving rise to real fears.

At times, the Brotherhood presents a pragmatic, even an uncomfortably accomodationist, face to the world, but other voices from the movement, more discretely evoke the air of something akin to the rhetoric of literal, intolerant and hegemonic Salafism. What is clear however is that the Brotherhood tone everywhere is increasingly one of militant sectarian grievance. And the shrill of this is heard plainly from Syria.

The joint Saudi-Salafist project was conceived as a direct counter to the Brotherhood project: the Saudi aim in liberally funding and supporting Saudi-orientated Salafists throughout the region has been precisely to contain and counter the influence of the Brotherhood [4] (eg in Egypt) and to undermine this strand of reformist Islamism, which is seen to constitute an existential threat to Gulf state autocracy: a reformism that precisely threatens the authority of those absolute monarchs.

Qatar pursues a somewhat different line to Saudi Arabia. Whilst it too is firing-up, arming and funding militant Sunni movements [5], it is not so much attempting to contain and circumscribe the Brotherhood, Saudi-style, but rather to co-opt it with money; and to align it into the Saudi-Qatari aspiration for a Sunni power block that can contain Iran.

Plainly the Brotherhood needs Gulf funding to pursue its aim of acquiring the prime seat at the region’s table of power; and therefore the more explicitly sectarian, aggrieved discourse from the Brotherhood perhaps is a case of “he who pays the piper” … Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both Wahhabi Salafist states.

The third “project”, also highly funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – uncompromising Sunni radicalism – forms the vanguard of this new “Cultural Revolution”: It aims however not to contain, but simply to displace traditional Sunnism with the culture of Salafism. Unlike the Brotherhood, this element, whose influence is growing exponentially – thanks to a flood of Gulf dollars – has no political ambitions within the nation-state, per se.

It abhors conventional politics, but it is nonetheless radically political: Its aim, no less, is to displace traditional Sunnism, with the narrow, black and white, right and wrong, certitude embedded in Wahhabi Salafism – including its particular emphasis on fealty to established authority and Sharia. More radical elements go further, and envision a subsequent stage of seizing and holding of territory for the establishment of true Islamic Emirates [6] and ultimately a Kalifa.

A huge cultural and political shift is underway: the “Salafisation” of traditional Sunni Islam: the sheering-away of traditional Islam from heterogeneity, and its old established co-habitation with other sects and ethnicities. It is a narrowing-down, an introversion into a more rigid clutching to the certainties of right and wrong, and to the imposition of these “truths” on society: it is no coincidence that those movements which do seek political office, at this time, are demanding the culture and education portfolios, rather than those of justice or security. [7]

These Gulf States’ motives are plain: Qatari and Saudi dollars, coupled with the Saudi claim to be the legitimate successors to the Quraiysh (the Prophet’s tribe), is intended to steer the Sunni “stirrings” in such a way that the absolute monarchies of the Gulf acquire their “re-legitimisation”‘ and can reassert a leadership through the spread of Salafist culture – with its obeisance towards established authority: specifically the Saudi king.

Historically some of the radical Sunni recipients of Saudi financial largesse however have also proved to be some of the most violent, literalist, intolerant and dangerous groups – both to other Muslims, as well as to all those who do not hold to their particular ‘truth’. The last such substantive firing-up of such auxiliaries occurred at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – the consequences of which are still with us decades later today.

But all these projects, whilst they may overlap in some parts, are in a fundamental way, competitors with each other. And they are all essentially “power” projects – projects intended to take power. Ultimately they will clash: Sunni on Sunni. This has already begun in the Levant – violently.

Continued 1 2

A year after Jasmine and Tahrir

By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan- January 14, 2012-
It is still early to come to any conclusion about the dénouement of the churning in West Asia. Things are far from settled.

The euphoria generated by the Jasmine and Tahrir revolutions has all but dissipated during the past year. The unrealistic expectations, the hype built up mainly by the western governments and the media have given way to doubt, disappointment and even despair over the fate of ‘Arab Spring.’ The concern of most observers in the international community is now focussed on the direction in which “people’s movements” in various countries will proceed, and on the loss of lives that occurred in Libya, Yemen and, to a less extent, Egypt, and that is continuing in Syria and can be expected to happen in some other countries in the region in the coming months. It is a sad commentary on the rest of the international community that it unhesitatingly adopts the terminology coined by the West to describe the historic events in West Asia. ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Awakening’ is a condescending description; it suggests that the people of West Asia have been sleeping all these decades, not caring for freedoms enjoyed by people elsewhere. The fact is that non-regional governments have been supporting the authoritarian regimes through massive supply of deadly weapons and technology, which were used to suppress the people.

Increased Shia-Sunni tensions

There are some who would like the Egyptians to believe that their revolution would not have happened but for the speech of President Barack Obama in their capital two years ago. The fact is that the people of Tunisia, followed by the people of Egypt, owe their revolutions to no one except themselves; they are the owners of their revolutions. If anything, the intervention of external powers, as in Libya, has complicated matters for the most part, created space for more extreme forms of Islamic thought to gain ascendance and, perhaps unwittingly, greatly accentuated the tensions between Shias and Sunnis. It is still early days to come to any conclusions about the dénouement of the churning in the region. Things are far from settled, except to some extent in Tunisia where it all began a year ago. Some broad trends, however, may be attempted.

Strengthening of Islamist groups

In all countries which have witnessed some degree of protests, Islamist groups have gained significant ground. In Tunisia, a ‘moderate’ Islamic party has won plurality of the vote. In Libya, where regional forces are refusing to give up their arms or disband their militias, hard-line Islamists, including loyalists of the al Qaeda, have secured influential positions. Egypt has surprised most observers, including knowledgeable Egyptians, by giving a huge electoral mandate to the Muslim Brotherhood and, more ominously, to Salafists; together, the two Islamist groups will control about 70 per cent seats in Parliament, to the great disappointment of the ‘secular’ forces. Similarly, in Yemen, the extremists have gained ground and will emerge as the most influential force as and when President Saleh leaves the country. The same phenomenon is evident in Syria in an acuter form. Bahrain is possibly an exception in the sense that the conflict there is between the minority Sunni ruling family and the majority Shia community.

The success of the Islamists by itself need not be seen as a negative outcome, except perhaps by Israel. Their success is an indication of the disillusionment of people with the ‘secular’ authoritarian regimes as well as the reward for the socially useful work they have been doing such as running hospitals and schools. Whatever the nature of the new governments, people will enjoy more freedoms and will have a greater say in running the affairs of the state. The most amazing phenomenon of 2011 is the shedding of fear by the people, first in the Arab world and, subsequently almost everywhere else, including Russia and China. (This does not apply much to India since we always were free and unafraid to protest and demonstrate, although Tahrir Square could have provided some inspiration.) The Time magazine is absolutely right in naming the unnamed ‘Protester’ as the person of the year. This means the Islamists, as and when they occupy positions of power, will not be able to manipulate people in any way they like. In the medium term, the Islamists-led regimes will insist, at the least, on all legislation being compliant with the Sharia, whatever it means in practice.

Security forces, the army and police, will continue to wield significant, even decisive, influence in the stability of governments. The Turkish model will not be followed consciously given past history but some variation of it should be expected to emerge at some stage. Libya has to go through the difficult process of creating an army out of disparate armed militias and will take longer to achieve stability. In Egypt, the armed forces, which have been used to wielding power for nearly five decades, will hold on to it for quite some time, especially since they also have significant vested interests in the economy.

More attention on Palestine

The Palestinian issue will receive much more attention and focus from the new regimes, which probably would mean more support for Hamas. Israel, which already feels threatened by Iran’s nuclear programme, will be under increased pressure to suspend settlement building. Israel’s posture will harden and its military spending will increase. The U.S. is in no position to bring effective pressure on Israel, especially in an election year, but it might appeal to Israel to be more reasonable on the Palestinian track in return for tightening the screws on Iran.

Syrian issue

Syria is a complex case but certain facts are clear. (1) There is genuine popular demand for reform. (2) There is repression and use of ruthless force by the regime — at the same time, it continues to enjoy the support of the security forces and significant sections. (3) There is open intervention by external powers and groups such as the Brotherhood as well as elements subscribing to the al-Qaeda ideology, if not the al-Qaeda itself. (4) Many dissident groups are well armed and have killed a number of security forces. (5) Western powers are determined to bring about regime change. (6) Israel is greatly interested in seeing Bashar Assad removed even if the alternative will be a fundamentalist regime. Its priority is Iran and whatever weakens Iran in the region is considered to be in Israel’s interest. Bashar’s removal will greatly diminish the Hezbollah’s ability to threaten Israel and also reduce Hamas’ clout. (7) Unless a solution is found soon, the country will be headed towards a bloody civil war.

The Shia-Sunni tensions and Saudi-Iranian rivalry will intensify. Iraq presents a most discouraging example in this respect. After so many years of American shepherding, society in Iraq remains deeply divided on sectarian fault lines. Prime Minister Maliki, now that he is liberated from whatever moderating influence American presence might have exercised on him, is dealing with the Sunni community in exactly the wrong way. The sectarian violence seems all set to return to the horrors of the 2005-07 period. Iraq’s Sunni neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, will definitely intervene to protect their Sunni brethren across the border. It is not a coincidence that Iraq’s Shia government has been voting against the Arab League’s decisions on the Alawite Shia-led Syrian regime. The Saudi hostility to Damascus has everything to do with the Shia-Sunni divide. Turkey’s current antagonism to Syria has many explanations and the Shia-Sunni factor is one of them. The Turkey-Syria-Iraq triangle offers quite a few fertile grounds for conflict — water, the Kurdish problem, Shia-Sunni hatred, etc. There is a tendency to downplay the Shia-Sunni tension but it is very much a fact of the Muslim life and it is better to recognise it.

In sum, the region is likely to remain unstable for quite some time. It would become destabilised should the Iranian nuclear issue lead to extremely harsh sanctions — and the process has begun — or worse, military action.

Some Indian experts would like India to take a more proactive role on the happenings in West Asia, to be on ‘the right side of the forces of history.’ It is no doubt good to feel self-righteous and earn an occasional pat on the back from the western or any other government. But it is more important to think of our national interests. Compared to our friends in the West, we are more dependent on the energy resources of West Asia. Most importantly, unlike other countries, we have to worry about 6 million of our compatriots who are working there and sending billions of dollars to their families back home. It makes sense to take a cautious stance, make as thorough an analysis as possible of the evolving situation and try to be on the winning side. That is our challenge. That challenge is coming sooner that we would like, in Iran.

The new Crescenters: Turkey and Qatar


Qatar and Turkey are the new Crescenters ( in opposition to crusaders) of the Arab world. They are working to move the whole Arab world into becoming Sunni Islamic republic. They plan to  “moderate” these countries by injecting massive funds in economical investment.
For that, they have the full support of the USA and the western countries tired of fighting against extremists isla, supporting hopeless dictators and facing increased immigration of moslems to their countries.
As for Iran with which Turkey and Qatar enjoy good relationship, they consider that with a few adjustments, ultimately Iran would become another moderate Islamic republic.
Syria, Lebanon and Iraq  are most difficult countries to tackle because they are not homogeneous so the move to a ‘moderate’ Sunni or Shia islamic republic is not as straighforward as Egypt, Libya, Yemen or Tunisia where the religious or ethnic minorities are either unexistant or weak.
At first, Turkey and Qatar thought that Syria that has a majority of sunni will easily replace the alawite regime by a sunni islamic republic. After 10  months, that plan failed because the regime had the support of Iran who refuses to have its allies in Lebanon isolated.
The different strategies are the following 1) Let Lebanon, Syria and Iraq stay under the umbrella of Iran with the hope that Iran will move to a moderate Islamic republic, 2)Let these countries in limbo to find their own balance or 3) Use a military option make the necessary changes.
It seems that the solution 2) is the one being considered by Turkey and Qatar after many attempts to use solution 3)

Sunni-Shia Sectarianism and Competition for the Leadership of Global Islam

by David Pinault

A traditional strength of Islam as it expanded beyond the Arab Middle East in the premodern era was its syncretistic adaptation to local religious traditions, whether in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or the islands of Indonesia. For centuries, Islamic practice was regionally based, a landscape-oriented faith linked to saints’ caves, Sufi tombs, and sacred trees (notwithstanding protests by pious-minded mullahs).

But worldwide socioeconomic changes after World War II profoundly affected Muslim communities. In a rapidly globalizing economy, farmers and other rural workers abandoned the countryside to find work in capitals such as Teheran, Cairo, and Jakarta. The suddenly wealthy Gulf emirates and Saudi Arabia drew labor migrants from throughout South Asia. Thus-to take one example-hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis migrated to the Arabian peninsula in the 1970s and 1980s in search of jobs. They returned with their earnings not to their villages of origin but to urban centers such as Karachi and Lahore. These migrants no longer found so appealing the old regionally based Islam they had once known. Deracinated Muslims, facing the challenges of modernity in unfamiliar city settings, were susceptible to evangelizing by the missionaries of a revivalist and universalist Islam, an Islam based on Qur’anic scriptural authority rather than the charisma associated with local saints’ tombs or Sufi shrines. The preachers of this revivalist Islam were quick to condemn the traditional folk rituals of the countryside as-depending on the locale-Hindu-tainted, Christian-derived, or simply pagan.

Much of the funding for such preaching came from oil revenues at the disposal of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Salafists. These are followers of a dichotomizing mentality that divides the world into mu’minin (believers) and kafirs (infidels, who are to be either converted or combated as enemies). Saudi Arabia’s religious authorities have long regarded themselves as the natural leaders of global Islam, citing their role as guardians of the haramayn (the “sacred cities” of Mecca and Medina). The Saudi government, as host of the hajj-pilgrimage to Mecca that draws millions every year, has used this opportunity to proselytize fellow Muslims, seeking to shape a unified and standardized Islam that will place all believers under Wahhabi leadership.

But since the late 1970s and the Iranian Revolution, Saudi Arabia has faced ever-increasing competition from a religious ideology long loathed by the Wahhabis and many other Sunnis. I can best illustrate the depth of this loathing via an anecdote from Pakistan.

Several years ago, while visiting the University of Peshawar in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, I was asked by a group of professors about my religious identity. Given that I was scheduled to give a guest lecture to their students on Sunni-Shia relations, they thought it appropriate to find out if I was Muslim. “No,” I replied. “I’m a Christian.”

Silence for a moment. I sensed disappointment. “Well,” said one of my hosts, breaking the tension, “at least you’re not Shia.”

I recall this incident because it reflects a prejudice I’ve encountered surprisingly often in Pakistan and elsewhere among Islamic communities-the notion that Shias (who make up some 15 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims) are kafirs who really aren’t Muslims at all. This religious bigotry isn’t new, but in recent years anti-Shia propaganda has circulated among Sunnis with renewed virulence. The reason for this phenomenon has to do, I believe, with a struggle for dominance of the ummah (the global community of Islam).

Thirst, Suffering, Martyrdom: Sacred History and Shia Identity

To gain perspective on this struggle, it’s helpful to know the historical origins of Islamic sectarianism. Shiism arose in the seventh century because of a political dispute over leadership of the ummah after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. Most Muslims (those who ultimately became known as Sunnis) supported the principle of election in selecting the caliph (the political title of the prophet’s successor). But a minority insisted that the caliphate should be reserved for Ali ibn Abi Talib (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law) and for the offspring of Ali and his wife Fatima. Such individuals were known as Shi’at Ali, “the adherents of Ali.” These Shias resented bitterly those Muslim leaders who tried to block Ali’s bid for the caliphate. In particular Shias condemned Abu Bakr and Umar, the first and second caliphs, who are revered by Sunnis as al-shaykhayn (the two elders). Shia partisans claimed that Abu Bakr and Umar conspired to rob Ali of his rightful throne.

Ali did manage to take power and rule as caliph for five years, only to be murdered in the year 661. Further tragedy befell his descendants. According to Shia sources, Ali’s elder son Hasan was poisoned by order of the reigning caliph. Thereupon the title of imam passed to Hasan’s younger brother, Husain ibn Ali.

The term “imam” is important for understanding doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shias. All Muslims use the term to mean “prayer leader,” someone who leads a congregation in worship. But most Shias (especially those belonging to the Ithna-‘Ashari or “Twelver” denomination, which is by far the most common form of Shiism, as well as the state religion of the Iranian Islamic Republic) also use the term in a more restricted sense, to refer to the rightful spiritual leader of the entire ummah. Twelver Shias insist that this global imam must be from the prophet’s immediate bloodline, and that he be both ma’sum (sinless, perfect, and divinely protected from error) and mansus (chosen by Allah as leader, thereby avoiding the vagaries of any human electoral process). The first such imam, say Twelver Shias, was Ali; the third was his younger son, Husain.

In the year 680, at the urging of Shia partisans in Kufa, Husain set out from Arabia to Iraq to organize a rebellion against the reigning caliph, Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah. Husain was accompanied by the women and children of his household and only a small number of bodyguards and servants.

He never reached his destination of Kufa. Yazid’s soldiers intercepted Husain near the river Euphrates at Karbala, which today is revered as Shiism’s foremost pilgrimage site. Not wanting Husain to become a martyr and rallying point for further Shia resistance, Yazid ordered his soldiers to force Husain to surrender and offer the caliph bay’ah (an oath of allegiance). So the soldiers besieged Husain and his family, preventing them from reaching food or water. Husain and his family suffered torments of thirst under Iraq’s pitiless desert sun. Shia preachers recount these sufferings in vivid detail during annual observances of Muharram, the Islamic month during which the siege of Karbala occurred.

In the end, Husain chose death rather than surrender. On Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram (the high point of the liturgical calendar of lamentation for Shias today), Husain died in combat against Yazid’s forces. This effectively put an end to Twelver Shia hopes for reclaiming the caliphate.

The Usefulness of Revulsion: Blood and Lamentation

But it was precisely this political failure that generated the rise of Shiism as a distinctive theological tradition within Islam. Shia theologians argued that Husain had foreknowledge of what would happen at Karbala but voluntarily sacrificed himself for the good of the ummah. In exchange, Allah granted Husain the power of shafa’ah (intercession on behalf of sinners). Preachers I encountered in Pakistan and India recounted legends about how Fatima continues to lament her martyred son even while she resides in paradise, and about how she is comforted whenever mourners gather here on earth to remember the Karbala Martyrs. Husain will exert his power of shafa’ah on behalf of anyone who joins his mother in mourning and sheds tears in remembrance of Karbala.

Such mourning rituals are referred to by the term matam. During Muharram, preachers recount the sufferings of the martyrs, with the express purpose of moving their congregations to tears and loud wailing. Each year, in the days leading up to Ashura, Twelver Shias hold processions in which they chant nauhajat (lamentation poems in honor of Husain and the other Karbala Martyrs) and mark time by rhythmically slapping their chests. In countries such as Pakistan and India, many matami guruhan (Shia lamentation associations) go further, arranging public processions in which hundreds of men perform zanjiri-matam (self-flagellation involving knives, flails, or chains).

This ritual bloodshed is both controversial and popular. Theologically, matam earns practitioners intercession; but from a sociological perspective, it’s worth noting that, wherever possible, Shias tend to perform such rituals publicly. One gains access to Husain’s favor by having the courage to stand up and be identified as a Shia via conspicuously distinctive rituals. (Under Saddam Hussein’s secularist-Baathist regime, public Muharram processions were prohibited, but since his fall from power, Iraqi Shias have fervently embraced the public performance of self-scourging.)

Nevertheless the bloody forms of matam generate widespread revulsion, both among Sunnis and even among some Shias (as will be discussed below). Spurting blood is normally classed in Islamic law as najis (ritually polluting), and the extravagant weeping and displays of grief associated with matam offend Islamic notions of decorum and self-restraint. Of course it is precisely this offensive quality of matam that makes such rituals socially useful, as a means of defining and demarcating a minority community and safeguarding it from being absorbed by a dominant majority.

The “Hidden Imam” and the Purging of the World

One other distinctive Ithna-‘Ashari practice should be noted in this context: veneration for the twelfth Imam. Ithna-‘Ashari Shias believe that in the ninth century, Muhammad al-Muntazar, the twelfth Imam, was on the point of being murdered by the reigning Sunni caliph. Allah intervened, however, and protected the Imam by causing him to enter al-ghaybah (occultation): he became invisible and hidden from his persecutors. The twelfth Imam is still alive but will return to usher in Judgment Day, fill the earth with justice, and execute intiqam (vengeance or retribution) against all those who have made Shias suffer.

While looking forward to this retribution, Shias are permitted to practice taqiyah (protective dissimulation) by pretending to be Sunnis and disguising their religious identity for survival’s sake while residing among a potentially hostile non-Shia population. To this day, Shia congregational prayers include invocations to Sahib al-zaman (one of the Twelfth Imam’s titles: “the lord of time” or “lord of the age”). When this Hidden Imam returns to earth, he will bear the title al-Mahdi (“the one who is divinely guided”).

Khomeinist Politics and Iran‘s Bid for Leadership of Global Islam

The history and rituals noted above are worth knowing about because they figure in the increasingly fierce sectarian polemics linked to the Iranian Islamic Republic’s bid for leadership of global Islam. The regime in Teheran, fully aware of the widespread hostility to Shiism among Sunni populations, has pursued a policy-dating back to the reign of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-of downplaying its Shia identity in international pronouncements directed to the general Muslim public. Hence Iran’s support for the militant group Hamas; hence Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s frequent televised appearances featuring maps of Palestine and photos of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Support for Palestinian militancy constitutes an attempt to gain popularity among Sunni Arabs by focusing on shared objects of revulsion: Israel, Zionism, and America.

Saudi-based Wahhabi Salafists, eager to derail Iran’s drive for leadership, have been reminding Sunnis of precisely those sectarian differences that are most likely to keep anti-Shia sentiment alive. The first of these differences (and one that Sunni informants referred to angrily, in interviews I conducted in Yemen and Pakistan) involves the centuries-old Shia practice called sabb al-sahabah (reviling the companions). As noted above, Shias to this day fault those companions of Muhammad who blocked Ali ibn Abi Talib from the caliphate; particular blame is focused on the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar. Since Sunnis revere these two figures as “rightly guided” Muslim leaders, this is a particularly sore point. Partly because of this issue, Shias are sometimes derided with the term Rafidi (rejectionist or renegade), a pejorative that recurs in present-day anti-Shia polemics.

The Dangling Corpse: Sectarian Politics in the Thousand and One Nights

“Reviling the companions” has a long pedigree that can be discerned even in the celebrated medieval collection of stories known as the Kitab alf laylah wa-laylah (the Book of the Thousand and One Nights). The story I have in mind features the famous Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid and comes from a nineteenth-century Arabic edition of the Nights published in Egypt (a country with an overwhelmingly Sunni population).

Harun wrongly suspects the story’s hero-a young man named ‘Ala al-Din-of a crime, has him arrested, and orders him killed. Unknown to Harun, the hero escapes and another prisoner is hanged instead. Thereafter the caliph announces a desire to see ‘Ala al-Din’s corpse hanging from the gallows. Accompanied by his vizier Ja’far, Harun goes to the execution ground but becomes suspicious when he sees the dangling corpse.

“Then,” we are told, “Harun ordered the corpse to be brought down from the gallows. When they brought it down, he found inscribed on the bottoms of its feet the names of the “two sheikhs” [that is, Abu Bakr and Umar]. Then Harun said, ‘O vizier, ‘Ala al-Din was a Sunni, and this fellow is a Rafidi!'”

Inscribing these names on the bottoms of one’s feet is a way of reviling Abu Bakr and Umar with every step one takes. The assumption underlying this episode, of course, is that only a Shia “rejectionist” would dishonor the first two caliphs like this. The fact that the storyteller doesn’t bother to explain this suggests how widespread among the Sunni audience of the Nights this perception of Twelver Shia attitudes and behavior was. The story may also dramatize Sunni impressions of the doctrine of taqiyah: as a crypto-Shia, this Rafidi outwardly appeared to be an orthodox Sunni, but concealed beneath his feet was his contempt for the “two sheikhs.”

“Standardized Islam” and Exporting the Iranian Revolution

The second sectarian issue that appears frequently today involves matam lamentation rituals during the annual Muharram season. Since 1994, Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader of Iran, has issued fatwas forbidding the public performance of self-flagellation. Khamenei’s stated justification? “It is not a question of individual or physical harm,” he has argued, “but of great injuries linked to the reputation of Islam.” In forbidding the public performance of bloody matam, he’s claimed that outsiders might point to this ritual in order to “present both Islam and Shiism as an institution of superstition.”

Khamenei’s fatwas represent a trend currently discernible among competing Shia and Sunni missionaries: the attempt to eradicate traditional, regionally based forms of Muslim worship and replace them with a standardized and homogenized version of Islam-a global Islam that would be easier to supervise from one centralized source.

These fatwas have encountered considerable resistance. Shias I have visited since the 1990s in Muslim locales in Pakistan and India continue to stage spectacularly bloody public performances of matam. They express resentment at what they see as attempts by Iranian outsiders to meddle in local affairs. Sunni polemicists, for their part, regard Khamenei’s decrees as a ruse to disguise Shiism’s inherently unorthodox and un-Islamic character and as a tactic to further the Khomeinist policy of tasdir al-thawrah al-iraniyah (exporting the Iranian revolution).

Rushing to the Apocalypse? Ahmadinejad and the theology of the “Hasteners”

The third sectarian difference that has drawn attention in recent years involves devotion to the twelfth Imam. Insurrectionist and militant movements have often invoked this figure. An example is Muqtada al-Sadr’s Iraqi Shia militia known as Jaysh al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army).

Among the more notorious devotees of the Mahdi in recent years is Iran’s Ahmadinejad. For centuries many Shias have favored a theological stance known as intizar (awaiting, expectation): rather than wage war against tyrants and other earthly incarnations of injustice, faithful Shias avoid political confrontations and adopt a quietist position, piously awaiting the Mahdi’s appearance among us. But Ahmadinejad belongs to a sect known as the Ta’jiliyan (those who bring [something] about quickly, or the “Hasteners”).

This sect claims that believers can, through their actions, “hasten” the twelfth Imam’s apocalyptic return. An October 2009 BBC broadcast noted that Ahmadinejad ended a speech he gave at the United Nations with a prayer for the Mahdi’s appearance: “O mighty Lord, I pray to you: hasten the emergence of the promised one, that perfect and pure human being.” The BBC noted that Ahmadinejad has supervised the rebuilding of the Jamkaran Shrine in southern Teheran (from which the Mahdi will one day arise, according to Twelver belief) and that Iran’s president claims to be in personal contact with the Hidden Imam.

Ahmadinejad’s version of “Hastener” theology was explored at the 2009 Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering on Israeli security issues, in a presentation by the researcher Shmuel Bar. Bar remarked that “Ahmadinejad’s declared objective … is to hasten the appearance of the Hidden Imam. This is to be accomplished through the precipitation of a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West.”

It should be noted that Iran’s political-clerical leadership is divided on this issue. Nevertheless, in light of Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear capability, and the very real possibility that the Islamic Republic will develop nuclear weaponry, Ahmadinejad’s Hastener devotionalism is-to put it mildly-not reassuring. This prospect, of a nuclear-armed and ever-more influential Iran, has spurred Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Salafists to do whatever they can to lessen their adversary’s prestige by portraying Iran as “Persian” and Shia, and hence as alien and heterodox in the eyes of Sunni Arabs.

Sunni-Shia Polemics, from the Palestinian Territories to Yemen

Sectarian polemics have also arisen in intra-Palestinian politics (despite the fact that almost all Palestinian Muslims are Sunni). Members of Fatah have taken to taunting their rivals in Hamas by calling them “Shia”-a derogatory reminder of the support given Hamas by Teheran.

Competition between Sunnis and Shias has also become manifest recently in the realm of religious conversion from one denomination to another within Islam. A current arena for such competition is Yemen. The target: a segment of Yemen’s population known as the Zaydis. Zaydi religious teachings, although historically derived from Shiism, occupy a doctrinal position that shares features of both Sunnism and Shiism. Zaydis I interviewed in Sanaa (Yemen’s capital) in May and June 2009 acknowledged that since the abolition of Yemen’s Zaydi Imamate in 1962 and the subsequent diminishment of Zaydi political power, many young Zaydis are ideologically adrift and uncertain of their own communal identity.

Saudi-funded missionaries have succeeded in converting some Zaydis to Wahhabi puritanism. Other Zaydis, however, are drawn to Iran’s Khomeinist propaganda. Government sources in Yemen accuse Iran of funding the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen’s Saada province, along the Saudi border (the Houthis are militant Zaydis whose leadership comes from the family of Badr al-Din al-Houthi). The Houthis deny that they are funded by Teheran, and they repudiate the claim made by many Yemeni Sunnis that Houthis have secretly converted to the Twelver Shiism that is Iran’s state religion.

But Zaydis I met in Sanaa told me that Houthis take inspiration from Iran and Hezbollah and that they like the feeling of joining a worldwide movement, a universal struggle against what are perceived as satanic forces at loose in the world. A Houthi apologist recited for me the Houthi slogan: “Allahu akbar al-mawt li-Amrika al-mawt li-Isra’il al-la’nah ‘ala al-yahud al-nasr lil-islam” (“Allah is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. May the Jews be cursed. Victory belongs to Islam.”)

Internet web postings offer further perspectives on the situation in Yemen. Twelver Shia missionaries refer to individuals who convert to their form of Islam as mustabsirun (those who have become endowed with insight). The Arabic-language website of the pro-Shia Markaz al-abhath al-‘aqa’idiyah (Office of Doctrinal Research) offers the personal testimony of former Sunnis and Zaydis who are now listed as mustabsirun.

Their backgrounds are varied. One is a journalist; another, a highly educated attorney with wide travel experience. A third is presented as a one-time Wahhabi; a fourth, as an anti-Shia zealot who originally set out to write a book refuting Twelver doctrine. But they have something in common. The website portrays them all as restless spiritual questers, who independently did research on Twelver Shiism and became so impressed with what they learned that they spontaneously became mustabsirun.

When I mentioned the mustabsirun phenomenon to a Sunni mosque-leader I met in Sanaa, he rejected any notion of the sincerity of their conversion, insisting that such individuals were no more than pawns in a Teheran-based plot to take control of Yemen secretly. “The Iranians,” he said, “will use these converts as part of their conspiracy to rule our country from afar.”

Yemen, it seems, offers a storm-warning of what is to come: increasingly polemicized competition between Sunni and Shia ideologues for the leadership of global Islam.

David Pinault is an associate professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University. His latest book is Notes From the Fortune-Telling Parrot: Islam and the Struggle for Religious Pluralism in Pakistan (Equinox Publishing).