The fight against militants of the Islamic State group may have an unintended consequence: further widening the Shia-Sunni divide.
Aware of this possibility, the United States has formed a coalition of Middle Eastern nations to combat IS, which includes key states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and the only Arab Sha majority country of Iraq.
The United States also has distanced itself from the Syrian government, which is headed by a leader strongly opposed by Syrian Sunnis, President Bashar al-Assad.
Instead of helping the Syrian government to eliminate the Sunni-dominate IS, the United States wants to raise a force of moderate Sunni opposition fighters to replace the militants.
The purpose behind this exercise is to convince the Syrian Sunnis that the proposed US-led military offensive is being launched only to eliminate IS. There is no plan to subdue the country’s largest sectarian group, the Sunnis.
By including Iraq, the United States is also trying to convince the dominant Alawite minority that their interests will also be protected.
If the United States succeeds in achieving its targets, the plan will have a very positive impact on the entire region.
The Syrian people will be the immediate beneficiary of this success, as it would allow them to live peacefully in a multi-sect state where interests of each group can be protected.
It can also allay the concerns of Shias in Lebanon and Iraq who fear that a Syria run by Sunni religious extremists can create many problems for them.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt will also benefit from this situation.
Both have Sunni militants within their ranks and understand that an increase in militants’ influence in Syria can tilt the balance of power against them as well. Saudi Arabia will also be able to protect its religious and tribal interests in Syria without strengthening the militants.
But this win-win situation for all is too good to happen. What’s more likely is that this fight may degenerate into an ending war with no clear winner.
If this happens, it will create new fragmentations within the Arab world, pitching various religious sects and ethnic groups against each other.
The region’s non-Arab actors, such Turkey, Iran and the Kurds, may also be sucked into this conflict.
The Kurds may take advantage of this situation and establish a sovereign Kurdish state, which will be opposed by all three major ethnic groups in the region, Arabs, Iranians and Turks.
This divide will have huge impact on the entire Muslim world where Sunni and Shia groups may line up each other. And for the first time in modern history, we may actually see Shia and Sunni armies fighting each other.
To avoid this extremely dangerous situation, the US-led coalition needs to go beyond a military offensive and work out a comprehensive plan for winning over hearts and minds.
To do this, they will first have to offer a counter-narrative to the concept of an Islamic state.
The Islamists’ desire to create an Islamic state is not new. But what distinguishes the group that calls itself the Islamic State is its total rejection of existing state borders.
Religious movements in the greater Muslim world – which stretches from North Africa to the Far East – have long desired such a state. But groups like Jamaat-e-Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood have tried to establish this state within the boundaries of the country they are based in.
The Islamic State group is different.
It first declared its intention to establish this state in Syria and the Levant, which also includes Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and part of Turkey.
Then, it expanded the boundaries of the Islamic state to include the entire Muslim world and also changed its name from the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant to simply the Islamic State.
The Muslims have always believed in a religious utopia, a state in which all Muslims will be able to lead a peaceful and prosperous life under the guidance of the Shariah. But the concept received a boost in the 20th century when major Islamist scholars – like Maulana Maududi and Syed Qutb – gave a new definition to this concept.
They also formed political parties to implement this concept.
In Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami opted for parliamentary politics for creating an Islamic state. Although it never went beyond single digits in gathering votes, the Jamaat has had a major impact on the educated middle class, particularly students.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood opted out of politics after the Egyptian government killed its key leaders and supporters. It returned to the arena during the Arab uprising and won the 2012 elections but was forced out of power by the Egyptian military in July 2013.
Unlike the Islamic State group, the Brotherhood and Jamaat also produced literature, defining what their proposed Islamic state would look like and how they want to achieve this target.
The Islamic state they want to create will be controlled and run exclusively by Muslims. The head of such a state must also be a Muslim, an adult male who has not actively sought the post.
The ruler should be “the best among the believers,” both in piety and competence, and will be tasked with implementing the Shariah. Non-Muslims may hold non-sensitive posts in this state, but must be "rigorously excluded from influencing policy decisions."
The ruler is to be selected, appointed, or elected through a consultative process and should run the affairs of the state in consultation with a body called the Majlis-e-Shura.
The Islamists argue that Islam does not favor any particular method for selecting such a leader except that the candidate should not seek the post.
Although the proposed Majlis-e-Shura will have the powers to legislate, it cannot make laws that contradict the Shariah. The ruler will have the power to accept or reject the Shura’s opinions and judgments.
The Shura will deal with four kinds of legislation: interpreting Shariah, making laws where the Shariah is silent, making laws based on ‘qiyas’ and making inferences from general principles.
The Islamic State will also be responsible for establishing an interest free economic system.
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The concept, however, never received popular support among Muslims and is vigorously opposed in the West as well, where it is seen as a challenge to the existing world order.
Unlike the old Islamists, the Islamic State group lacks an intellectual narrative and that’s why its appeal among the Muslims is even smaller than that of the Islamists.
The movement is a direct product of the half-hearted, and half-successful US military campaign in Iraq and also of America’s reluctant attempt to change the present regime in Syria. Washington abandoned this plan when it realised that Muslim militants dominate the groups battling the government.
Saddam Hussein’s removal allowed Iraq’s Shia minority to claim governance but it also disenfranchised the country’s Sunni minority. In Syria, where the Sunnis are a majority, the groups battling the Assad regime felt betrayed.
This allowed al Qaeda affiliates, including the IS, to recruit thousands of volunteers, willing to fight Syrian and Iraqi militaries, as well as the United States.
The IS is the most violent among this group.
The methods it used against its opponents, such as beheadings, generated much fear in those two countries but remained unnoticed by the rest of the world until the IS militants captured a large piece of land in Iraq. After seizing the Sunni-dominated areas in Iraq, the group moved to the country’s Kurdish region and made major gains against the Kurds as well.
The victories forced the United States to have a closer look at this new threat and Washington used airstrikes to push back the militants.
The group’s violent nature has also been noticed outside the United States, particularly in the Middle East, forcing old foes to make new alliances to combat this threat.
In the Middle East, two such enemies, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are now backing a new government in Iraq that might unite Sunnis and Shias to battle the Islamic State movement.
Recently, Saudi and Iranian diplomats also held a rare meeting to coordinate their efforts.
Turkey ignored its long opposition to Kurdish separatists and allowed Kurdish fighters to combat IS militants in Iraq.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Jordan have also joined the US-led alliance against the IS militants.
Russia too appears willing to back any militant operation the United States may launch against these religious extremists.
The IS also has annoyed other militant groups working under al Qaeda’s umbrella, such as the Nusra Front, which is now combating IS militants in Syria.
All these developments show that it is not difficult to unite both Shia and Sunni sects against the militants if the newly formed coalition succeeds in offering a counter-narrative to the Islamists’ concept of a Muslim state.
A military defeat of the militants is possible even without a counter-narrative but such a victory will be impermanent. The militants may re-emerge with more vengeance.