Omid Safi, an accomplished scholar of Islam, has written an excellent article about the current tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have already have widespread repercussions on the Middle East as a whole. Many news outlets have described the conflict as rooted in Sunni-Shi’a rivalry, which is simplistic and not-totally-accurate, and Safi argues for a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Below are some of my favorite excerpts from the article.
“One. In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”
The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates.
There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.”
“Two. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both modern nation states. Yes, they are places steeped in history, but like all nation states they have been carved out of early modern empires, often tinged through painful encounters with colonialism, nationalist movements, and anti-colonial revolts. To make sense of both states, one has to look into geopolitical competition among post-colonial nation states trying to legitimize themselves by claiming the mantle of normativity. There is indeed a competition between both Saudi Arabia and Iran to claim a place of hegemony among Muslim-majority states.”
“Six. Context, context, context. We cannot make sense of the strife of the modern world without dealing with nationalism, colonialism, and the oppressive apparatus of modern states. Watch the always amazing Mehdi Hasan to see similar points.
So why are we so hesitant to engage in a discussion of context? Because to discuss the history of the Middle East in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have to discuss colonialism, first of the British and the French, and then of U.S. support for autocratic and dictatorial regimes (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, etc.) In short, we cannot tell the real story of the destabilization of Middle East without accounting for our own complicity.”
“Eight. Clearly, it is Iran and Saudi Arabia who bear the brunt of the blame for escalating these hostilities. However, we in the United States should do some long and hard looking into our own culpability. It is the United States that is the largest producer and seller of military arms, and Saudi Arabia is one of the largest purchasers of weaponry worldwide (close to 60 billion dollars during the Obama presidency alone). The United States has a long-standing policy of friendship with Saudi Arabia, over and above the human rights violations of Saudi Arabia. Somehow we have to make the obvious point: we cannot serve the cause of world peace by continuing to arm the most volatile region in the world. In many cases, as in Syria, these arms end up in the hands of violent, terrorist organizations. In others, like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt, they are used on civilian populations.”
“Let’s be clear. No one is suggesting that this conflict has nothing to do with sectarian conflicts. Of course it does, partially.
What I am saying is that Sunnis and Shi‘a have not always hated each other, and have certainly not always killed each other. Like the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, this is not an “ancient and eternal enmity.” It is an earthly, historical conflict, which at times uses the language of religion to justify a political conflict. It has an earthly beginning, and God-willing, it will have an earthly resolution. The lives in Iran, Saudi Arabia — but also in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere — depend on it.”