Changes in the Muslim world

Published August 23, 2020
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

MOST Muslim-majority nations are enduring yet another phase of the ‘politics of ummah’. However, heedful of their domestic challenges, they are also striving to readjust their geopolitical priorities in accordance with their own economic and political realities. The concept of ummah has always remained central to the Muslim world, mainly as a religious ethos of unity. At the same time, it has been undergoing a process of deconstruction, where the states as well as non-state actors have been shaping its new contours.

Recent developments in the Middle East, especially the agreement between Israel and the UAE for normalisation of bilateral relations, and the reported tensions between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are merely the undercurrents of the brewing political crisis in the Muslim world. Apparently, it seems the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, have already made some hard decisions linked to their geostrategic realignment which could entail their desertion of the custodianship of the Muslim world or ummah. Many would argue that fast-changing geopolitical realities, growing economic upheavals, increasing sociopolitical disquiet, and mounting grievances of the youth in these countries are forcing the Gulf leaders to transform their geostrategic and political approaches.

Still, it is hard to presume that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have lost their belief in the concept and the politics of ummah. Leadership of the ummah confers huge political and strategic value in regional and global politics, which will make it hard for these countries to withdraw their claim to it. Rather, they are worried on account of the other contenders to leadership, mainly an alternative bloc led by Turkey, Iran, Qatar and to some extent Malaysia.

However, religious institutions and clergy have nurtured an altogether different worldview among ordinary Muslims in many parts of the Muslim world, which, though it may not be compatible with the narratives promoted by their respective states, usually resonates with the sentiments of non-state actors of violent and non-violent shades.

For the ordinary Muslim, visualising politics separately from religion is not an easy task.

The ‘ummah’ is a religious concept, used to describe the worldwide community of Muslims. The pan-Islamist and brotherhood movements had constructed a political delusion around the concept, and the Muslim world (states and societies) have been fantasising about the concept for decades. They have tried to build a political community of Muslims: the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is one such manifestation. The Gulf states have effectively manoeuvred the notion: they blended it with Arab nationalism during the socioeconomic transition period from the 1960s to the last decade. Many Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia narrowed the scope of the ummah to Wahabi Islam and made a huge investment in exporting it across the Muslim world and Muslim diaspora communities, and extracted political support for their regimes.

The Saudis are not going to abandon the idea of leading the ummah because that would mean losing enormous strategic value in their international relations. While the ‘influence’ they wield by being leaders of the ummah makes them an important global player, their strong alliance with the US makes them ‘potent’ among Muslim countries. To further consolidate this two-pronged strength, Saudi Arabia formed an alliance of 40 Muslim countries called the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Coalition. Many would argue the Saudis’ real aim in doing so was to raise troops for Yemen and counter Iran in the region. Of course, Saudi Arabia was not doing this as a religious service or to serve the ummah’s collective interests, yet many small Muslim countries joined the Saudi-led ‘Muslim Nato’ for their own economic interests. However, the alliance was bound to fail because it had a very narrow focus and revolved around the interests of a particular state.

For the ordinary Muslim, visualising politics separately from religion is not an easy task: the pan-Islamist and Brotherhood movements have changed the worldview of many Muslim societies. By targeting the education sector, they have transformed Muslim societies’ political views to the extent that it will take a long time to rediscover the lost religious value of the concept of ummah.

The Palestinian issue has remained on top of the OIC agenda. While the Gulf states have maintained solidarity with the Palestinians, non-state actors have developed their narratives around the Palestinian-Israel issue and their allegedly corrupt regimes who they believe are not taking the issue seriously. Interestingly, the public has largely consumed the narrative of ‘corrupt regimes’ that is promoted by non-state actors and like-minded religious leaders, but the educated classes still refuse to borrow the idea of an alternative state system which undermines democracy and associated freedoms. Non-state actors also failed to sell their models of alternative state systems after the Arab Spring uprisings. But they still remain relevant in political and religious discourses of their societies.

Non-state actors could exploit the emerging political developments to their advantage. The major violent groups Al Qaeda and Islamic State have not reacted to the UAE-Israel deal yet. Both groups have been significantly weakened and might not be able to launch big attacks immediately, but they could use the situation in support of their argument against the Muslim regimes and Israel.

Destruction of Israel and opposing ‘apostate’ regimes in the Muslim world remains at the top of Al Qaeda’s agenda. IS and Al Qaeda differ on the strategic and tactical level but both share certain political objectives. They are desperately trying to make a comeback but their political compulsions have made them weak. For instance, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is hamstrung because it is an ally of the Afghan Taliban who have successfully made a deal with the US and entered into negotiations with the Afghan government and civil society. This is the scenario unless Al Qaeda breaks ties with the Taliban.

However, other non-violent religious groups and leaders have become vocal critics of the recent development in the Middle East. This is dangerous turf for Muslim countries like Pakistan with has diverse sectarian landscapes. The Saudi and Iranian blocs have made huge investments in their respective religious communities and the time has come to reap the dividends. Pro-Saudi religious leaders are faced with a major dilemma over how to stand firm on their anti-Semitism while supporting their Arab mentors.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2020

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