Apparently the current row between the conservative Sunni-Saudi monarchy and the Shi’a theocracy of Iran is called a Haj-spate as the war of words between the world’s two most oppressive regimes has emanated from their dispute about the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to the holiest places and monuments of Islam.
As the Haj drew closer it became quite clear that the two countries have failed to evolve consensus on standing operating procedures for the logistics and organisation of the pilgrimage. Iranians had officially raised demands for changes in Saudi handling of Haj in view of last year’s stampede that had taken the lives of a large number of Muslims including Iranians. But the fresh tension in the relationship of the two states practically means that this year Iranians wouldn’t be able to perform Haj, which is one of the fundamental elements and institutions of Islam. The row started with a strong statement by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei with severe criticism of “incompetence of Saudi royal family” in the administration of Haj. The response to his statement came from the Saudi grand mufti who declared the Iranians to be out of Islam. As if this was not enough he also labeled Iranian leadership to be “enemies of Islam”. The gulf between the two countries was never wider than it stands today as both sides are using religion to promote their own hegemony.
Polarisation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran is not some thing new. After the Imam Khomeni-led Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, confrontation between the two regimes has become a permanent feature of their relationship as Iran has challenged the Saudi domination of the Islamic world. Iran has more than once insisted on the right of the Iranian contingent of Hajis (the ones who perform Haj) to demonstrate in Mecca against “the oppressors”. From 1988 to 1990, Iran boycotted Haj for three consecutive years when Saudi police clashed with Iranian pilgrims leaving 400 of them dead the previous year. For a rigidly conservative Saudi monarchy where political activities are strictly forbidden such demonstrations are a nightmare. To Saudi rulers the sectarian card comes very handy to isolate predominantly Shi’a Iran from Sunnis who constitute the majority of Muslims in the world.
KSA had, along with western powers, actively encouraged and supported the former Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussain to militarily attack Iran in the 1980s, leading to bloodshed and destruction. Subsequently KSA and Iran have fought a number of proxy wars in the Middle East and elsewhere in a quest for expanding their respective sphere of influence. After supporting opposite sides in prolonged military and political conflicts in Iraq and Syria, Yemen is the latest battle ground for the two rivals. In a volatile situation in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, Saudis have become extra sensitive to what they perceive as the destabilising efforts of Iranian Ayatollahs. The paranoia of the Saudi monarchy reached a higher level after the nuclear deal between Iran and the eastern powers that lead to the lifting of financial sanctions against Iran.
But the conflicts between Arabs and Persians can be traced back to the pre-Islamic past of West Asia when Arab tribes, proud of the richness and eloquence of their language Arabic, used to look down upon all the non-Arabs in general, and Persians in particular, as Ajam or deaf. Spreading Islam and building their vast empire in the later years with more worldly pursuits they started regarding themselves as a natural ruling race. They came to enjoy a certain sense of religious and racial superiority. Even the latest statement of Saudi grand mufti called Iranians “children of Magi” in a clear reference to the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion of Iran.
On their Part Iranians have been very proud of their rich and ancient civilisation. The classic epic of Persian literature ‘Shahnameh’ written by poet Firdousi one thousand years ago poignantly depicts this pride. The epic denounces the Arab conquest of Persia in 651 AD as an effort by Arab Bedouins to occupy the sacred throne of Kian (named after Kowyani, a heroic character from ancient Persian mythology).
Although Persians converted to Islam but they could never develop fondness for Arab domination and in keeping with founding tradition of the Persian empire they aspired for revival of their imperial glory and regarded Arab expansion as an encroachment on their sphere of influence. With the passage of time Iran gradually turned into a centre of Shi’a Islam competing with Arabs in its different incarnations. Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State in his famous book ‘ World Order’ writing about Iranian resilience says, “Persia retained its confidence in its cultural superiority. It bowed to its conquerors as a temporary concession but retained its independence through its world view, charting “great inner spaces” in poetry and mysticism and revering its connection with heroic ancient rulers recounted in Book of Kings. Meanwhile , Persia distilled its experience managing all manners of territories and political challenges into sophisticated canon of diplomacy placing a premium on endurance, shrewd analysis of geopolitical realities, and the psychological manipulation of adversaries.”
The present conflict between KSA and Iran is a new incarnation of the competition between the Arab and Ajam for the hegemony of West Asia. By exploiting the religious feelings of ordinary Muslims both the countries tend to polarise other Muslim countries. South Asia has also suffered from this polarisation despite the fact that Muslims in this region have mostly followed tolerant school of Islam. During the last few decades KSA has used its oil dollars to export Wahabism as an instrument of Saudi socio-political influence. The rulers of Islamic Republic of Iran are also not sitting idle. They are doing their bit. Both sides have recruited mercenaries to fight their sectarian battles in the Middle East, an example that has been efficiently emulated by the so called Islamic State. Muslims in other countries need to watch out and refrain from getting bogged down in the quagmire of the interests of exploitative powers.
Writer: Afrasiab Khattak
The writer is a regular contributor to THE PASHTUN TIMES. He is a retired senator and a leader of Awami National Party (ANP). He tweets @
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