New Frontier on Religious Schisms & Feud for the Gulf’s ‘Caliphate’

(Costantinos Berhutesfa Costantinos, PhD, Professor of Public Policy)

1. Introduction

The 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine or Great Arab Revolt was a nationalist uprising by Arabs in Mandate Palestine against British colonial rule and mass Jewish immigration (Hughes, 2009). Although the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine was unsuccessful, its consequences affected the outcome of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Initially, the conflict with Zionism helped to make Palestinian Arab society more conservative in cultural, social, religious and political affairs because people were highly motivated to preserve their distinct heritage and identity against the dual impact of British colonialism and Jewish invasion. During the 1930s new political organisations and new types of activist began to appear, marking the involvement of a far broader cross-section of the population; in particular, nationalism (Morris, 1999).

Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country has long been known as a centre of stability in a volatile region, but that masked malignant problems, which erupted in popular demonstrations against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. What happens there carries great political weight around the world, especially the Middle East. The National Democratic Party monopolised political power through a mixture of constitutional manipulation, repression and rigged elections, cronyism, and the backing of powerful foreign allies. The main drivers of the unrest have been poverty, rising prices, social exclusion, anger over corruption and personal enrichment among the political elite, and a demographic bulge of young people unable to find work. The catalyst was fellow Arabs in Tunisia successfully overthrowing their autocratic ruler, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, with a popular uprising. Popular anger was fuelled by dozens of deaths at the hands of the security forces, while protesters’ voices have been heard thanks to social media and the presence of independent news broadcasters at the scene. Their rallying cries were the people want the fall of the regime, Mubarak, go, and illegitimate, illegitimate.Figure - Countries backing and opposing military action in Yemen

Mubarak’s 30-year reign and Tunisia’s Ben Ali’s 23-year rule were certainly big factors in their unceremonious ousters. However, the data are not as well-suited to the analysis of countries with recent leadership transitions where changes in government postings do not reflect the persistence of entrenched political leadership, ideologies, and policy directions. Bahraini demonstrators have demanded a new cabinet that does not include Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office for 40 years. Moreover, years in office may not directly correspond to the degree of public discontent. One solution to these issues might involve substituting a measure of public attitude toward government leadership from opinion poll data or other sources.

Arab nationalism is an ideology celebrating the glories of Arab civilization, the language and literature of the Arabs, calling for rejuvenation and political union in the Arab world associated with Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, which came to power in Syria and Iraq for some years, and its founder Michel Aflaq. Its central premise is that the peoples of the Arab World are one nation bound together by common linguistic, cultural, religious, and historical heritage. Pan-Arabism is a related concept, in as much as it calls for supranational communalism among the Arab states. One of the primary goals of Arab nationalism was the end of the influence the West in the Arab World, seen as a nemesis of Arab strength, and the removal of Arab governments deemed to be dependent for their survival upon the West. It rose to prominence with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century and declined after the defeat of the Arab armies in the Six Day War (Sela, 2002).

Today, we have witnessed conflicts in The Gulf on several fronts. What has been an Israeli-Palestinian conflict has grown into an Arab cum Muslim vs. Israeli cum American conflict. Much more disturbing is the rise of al Qeada and The Islamic State that have complicated the Gulf’s already tattering politics with the manifestation of the Sunni-Shite divide, already pronounced by the Saudi coalition-against-Iran proxy war in Yemen. This is a very dangerous development as it may herald the most bitter and longest war in the region.

2. Saudi Arabia & Iran

The Saudi monarchy witnessed the downfall President Hosni Mubarak, its close ally, with alarm. “The Al Sauds had sought to avoid this dramatic moment of change in the Arab world, however, the conservative rulers of the biggest oil producer and the largest Arab economy are learning to adapt. The country last month became the first to host Mohamed Morsi, Mr Mubarak’s successor, even though he was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation Riyadh views with great suspicion. Driven by its customary pragmatism – and the need to keep Egypt on its side in the multiple crises facing the region – Saudi Arabia appears to be coming to terms with the new realities. “Whoever is the Egyptian president, [the Saudis] know they have to deal with Egypt and have good relations with Egypt,” says Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi commentator. “Saudi Arabia is totally pragmatic.”

“A similar approach characterises its policy towards Syria. Riyadh fears the civil war could lead to the replacement of President Bashar al-Assad with an Islamist – yet for almost a year it has been among the most vocal advocates of the opposition, and one of the few countries believed to be supplying rebels with money and weapons. It sees the toppling of Mr Assad as a way of weakening Iran, an ambitious regional rival with whom Mr Assad is allied. Meanwhile the most urgent regional crisis – Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear programme and its perceived desire to dominate the Gulf – has intensified. The failure of Tehran’s negotiations with world powers has heightened the prospect of Israeli attacks that would further unsettle the region. As a result, Saudi Arabia today faces one of its most difficult periods since it was founded 80 years ago. The domestic situation compounds the problems. An ageing monarchy resistant to political change must focus on appeasing a young population – increasingly connected to the outside world – concerned about transparency in government decision-making; the distribution of the country’s resources, including oil wealth and land; and a dearth of jobs” (Allam, 2012).

3. Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism

The Muslim split into two main branches, the Sunnis and Shia, derives from a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community. “The Shiats claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants to lead the Islamic community. While the great majority of Muslims are Sunnis, the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. In urban Iraq, even intermarriage between Sunnis and Shia was, until recently, quite common. The differences lie in the fields of doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organization. Their leaders often in competition, many recent conflicts have emphasized the sectarian divide, tearing communities apart. (BBC, 2014:1)

“The Battle of Karbala was fought in central Iraq in 680 AD, with most religious scholars agreeing that the violent clash went a long way to settling the question of The Prophet Muhammad‘s succession. This is important because the two opponents came to represent the Sunni and Shia elements within Islam. Until recently, the two groups seemed to co-exist within an awkward kind of avoidance, although on a few occasions, the international community has been given a glimpse of the emotions involved in the Sunni-Shia schism. Following the first Gulf War, once it became apparent that President George H. Bush was not going to force Saddam from power, Saddam fired-up what was left of his war machine and butchered thousands of Shia in south of Iraq. The Marsh Arabs, as these particular Shia were called, were rising up to possibly threaten his hold on power. Since 680 AD, the Shiats have been looking for a little respect.

“In the last fifty years, the Shia, who are the majority in only two countries, have fought fiercely for causes that they support. Following the 1979-1980revolution in Iran, which deposed the Pahlavi Dynasty, the Shia-led government threw everything but the kitchen sink at Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Since then, the Shiats seem to be more comfortable standing up for their interests. In Iraq in 2005, the Shia were quick to create militias to defend Shia communities and Holy Sites, when it became apparent that certain anti-U.S. groups were going to incite various causes to violence. The Iranians were more than happy to provide training and equipment to these militias, who are even more powerful and active today than they were during the insurgency. Iran and the Guardian Council in Qom, must be pleased by the expression of free will exhibited by the Shia Houthis of Yemen. The Houthis have been around for some time, and to their credit, they tried a number of non-violent approaches to former governments over the years, in an attempt to end discrimination against their Houthi community. Eventually they were compelled to resort to violence, and the government, already under siege from al-Qaeda, was a bit of an easy target” (Burkhart, 2015:1).

3.1. Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam

The word Sunni comes from Ahl al-Sunna, the people of the tradition. The tradition in this case refers to practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him. Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Quran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. All subsequent Muslim leaders are seen as temporal figures. In contrast to Shia, Sunni religious teachers and leaders have historically come under state control, emphasizing a codified system of Islamic law and adherence to four schools of law (BBC, Ibid).

3.2. Shiat Ali

“In early Islamic history the Shiats were a political faction – literally Shiat Al” or the party of Ali. The Shiats claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants to lead the Islamic community. Ali was killed as a result of intrigues, violence and civil wars which marred his caliphate. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to caliphate. Hassan is believed to have been poisoned by Muawiyah, the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. His brother, Hussein, was killed on the battlefield along with members of his family, after being invited by supporters to Kufa (the seat of caliphate of Ali) where they promised to swear allegiance to him. These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving. There is a distinctive messianic element to the faith and the Shiats have a hierarchy of clerics who practice independent and ongoing interpretation of Islamic texts. Estimates put the Shia at roughly a tenth of all Muslims, but are the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Yemen (BBC, Ibid).

3.3. What role has sectarianism played in recent crises?

“In countries that have been governed by Sunnis, the Shiats tend to make up the poorest sections of society. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. Some extremist Sunni doctrines have preached hatred of Shia. The Iranian revolution of 1979 launched a radical Shia Islamist agenda that was perceived as a challenge to conservative Sunni regimes, in the Gulf. Tehran’s policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders was matched by the Gulf States, which strengthened their links to Sunnis abroad. During the civil war in Lebanon, Shia gained a strong political voice (The Hezbollah). In Pakistan and Afghanistan, hardline Sunni militant groups (Taliban) have often attacked Shia places of worship. The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria have also acquired strong sectarian overtones. Sunnis in both countries have joined rebel groups, many of which echo the al-Qaeda ideology.

3.4. Children of the Caliphate

“They stand in the front row at public beheadings and crucifixions held in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria. They are used for blood transfusions when Islamic State fighters are injured. They are paid to inform on people who are disloyal or speak out against the Islamic State. They are trained to become suicide bombers. They are children as young as six years old, and they are being transformed into the Islamic State’s soldiers of the future. The Islamic State has put in place a far-reaching and well-organized system for recruiting children, indoctrinating them with the group’s extremist beliefs, and then teaching them rudimentary fighting skills. The militants are preparing for a long war against the West, and hope the young warriors being trained today will still be fighting years from now.

While there are no hard figures for how many children are involved, refugee stories and evidence collected by the UN, human rights groups and journalists suggest that the indoctrination and military training of children is widespread. Child soldiers aren’t new to war. Dozens of African armies and militias use young boys as fighters, in part because research has shown that children lack fully formed moral compasses and can easily be persuaded to commit acts of cruelty and violence. The young fighters of the Islamic State could pose a particularly dangerous long-term threat because they’re being kept away from their normal schools and instead inculcated with a steady diet of Islamist propaganda designed to dehumanize others and persuade them of the nobility of fighting and dying for their faith” (Brannene, 2014:1).

4. Discussion

Due to the alarming gains made by The Houthis in Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition of nine Arab nations is already carrying out airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Yet Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has indicated that the coalition’s mandate may be extended beyond Yemen. But what is that man­date? Post-conflict democratization cannot be the goal, given that Arab regimes lack the credentials or knowhow to craft democracies, and their militaries are neither willing nor able to assist in the process. Similarly, humanitarian intervention can be ruled out, owing not only to most Arab re­gimes’ lack of experience and inglori­ous human-rights records, but also because none of the official statements related to the founding of the joint force have remotely suggested that upholding rights was ever a concern.

“Stabilization might be an objective, but only if the relevant governments can agree on shared visions. But the rise of Arab military coali­tions raises serious concerns, not least because the history of Arab-led military interventions does not contain any promising precedent. Such interventions were usually aimed at empowering a proxy political force over its military and political rivals, instead of averting humanitarian disaster or institutionalizing a non-violent conflict-resolution mechanism.

“Egypt’s military intervention in Yemen in the 1960s is a case in point. By late 1965, Egypt had sent 70,000 troops in Yemen to support a republican coup against royalist forces. Despite using prohibited chemical weapons against Yemeni guerillas from 1963 to 1967, Egypt failed to achieve its objectives. On top of its military humiliation and financial bankruptcy, Egypt’s international reputation suffered, with the UN General Assembly condemning the use of banned chemical weapons against villages that supported the monarchy. The Syria-dominated “Arab Deterrent Force” did not fare much better when it intervened in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s, failing either to end the brutal fighting or to secure vulnerable Palestinian refugees. Brief and less complex interventions were also unsuccessful in ending violent crises – and in some cases even exacerbated them. A clear example is the recent Egyptian airstrikes in Libya, which have not only undermined the UN-led peace process in a deeply divided country, but empowered extremists (Ashour, 2015).

4.1. Proclaim the reestablishment of the caliphate

The current challenge to global security stems from a 2005 idea of Ayman al-Zawahiri, at that time deputy head of al Qaeda. The al Qaeda franchise should declare an Islamic state. In a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Zawahiri explained how it would work. The Islamic state, he wrote, would fill security vacuums around Iraq left by departing American forces. Once the Islamic state successfully fended off the attacks from neighboring countries that would undoubtedly follow, it could proclaim the reestablishment of the caliphate, the one-man institution that had ruled a vast empire in early Islamic history. For the scheme to succeed, Zawahiri warned Zarqawi, al Qaeda had to make sure that the Sunni masses supported the project (McCants, 2014:3).

Once the idea was slacken off into the arena of jihadists, this decades-old brainchild of the house of Saud and religious outgrowths of Wahab was too compelling for any self-respecting jihadist not to entertain.

By 2006, long before the American withdrawal and far too early to have built up much popular backing; al Qaeda had established Zawahiri’s Islamic state. The new head of al Qaeda after Zarqawi’s death, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, dissolved his organization and pledged his allegiance to a new ‘commander of the faithful’, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who purportedly controlled the Dawlat al Iraq al Islamiyya, or the Islamic State (Ibid).

4.2. The Islamic State Reshapes the Middle East

Nuclear talks with Iran have failed to yield an agreement, but the deadline for a deal has been extended without a hitch. What would have been a significant crisis a year ago, replete with threats and anxiety, has been handled without drama or difficulty. This new response to yet another failure to reach an accord marks a shift in the relationship between the United States and Iran, a shift that can’t be understood without first considering the massive geopolitical shifts that have taken place in the Middle East, redefining the urgency of the nuclear issue. These shifts are rooted in the emergence of the Islamic State. Ideologically, there is little difference between the Islamic State and other radical Islamic jihadist movements. But in terms of geographical presence, the Islamic State has set itself apart from the rest. While al Qaeda might have longed to take control of a significant nation-state, it primarily remained a sparse, if widespread, terrorist organization. It held no significant territory permanently; it was a movement, not a place. But the Islamic State, sees itself as the kernel from which a transnational Islamic state should grow, and it has established itself in Syria and Iraq as a geographical entity. It controls a roughly defined region and it has something of a conventional military, designed to defend and expand the state’s control.

While the group certainly funnels a substantial portion of its power into dispersed guerrilla formations and retains a significant regional terrorist apparatus, it remains something rather new for the region — an Islamist movement acting as a regional state. It is unclear whether the Islamic State can survive or whether the group can expand. The Islamic State appears to have reached its limits in Kurdistan, and the Iraqi army is showing signs of counteroffensives” (Friedman, 2015).

On the other hand, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president in an NYT OP-ED (2012) underscores the fact that religion is not a driving force behind much of the Arab Spring.

The violent demonstrations that have spread across the Muslim world have convinced many that the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010 are now over and that the democratic project has failed. Bitterness and a sense of impending catastrophe are replacing the enthusiasm that followed the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Now there is ominous talk of a “Salafi Winter” after a supposedly failed Arab Spring. To these skeptics, religion is the driving force in Arab politics, and hateful anti-Western slogans are evidence of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. While these fears are understandable, such alarmism is misplaced. The Arab revolutions have not turned anti-Western. Nor are they pro-Western. They are simply not about the West. They remain fundamentally about social justice and democracy — not about religion or establishing Sha’ria law. The democratization move has allowed a number of extremist free riders into the political system. Islamists are political actors like others. They are no more pure, more united or immune from criticism than anyone else is.

Whatever the balance in the chemistry of the genesis of the protest – ideology (the quest for democracy) vs. religion fanaticism, conservatism has become the rule of thumb in leftist response to these protest movements. Ensemble, these protest movements of the 21st century represent the bulwark of the challenges to global security.

4.3. Democratic regime change and institutions:

4.3.1. Institutionalisation of rules:

While history may not be relevant in this case; “an Arab-led intervention today could turn out very differently, because there is little to indicate that it will. Indeed, despite hundreds of Saudi airstrikes on Houthi-controlled military bases and seaports, the rebels continue to advance. If emerging Arab military coalitions are to avoid the mistakes of past interventions, they must reconsider their approach, including the structural deficiencies that contributed to past failures. Many factors affect the outcome of a military intervention in a civil war, especially if it involves a ground offensive. In particular, Arab leaders should focus on revising the processes by which national-security policy is formulated, improving civil-military relations, providing the relevant training in peacekeeping and peace-building, reforming the political culture, and addressing socio-psychological complexes. If Arab leaders fail to overcome these deficiencies, this Arab force could become the Middle East’s newest source of anti-democratic, sectarian-based instability, potentially intensifying the Sunni-Shia conflict, which is the last thing the region, needs (Ashour, 2015).

The consolidation of democracy in the region involves the institutionalisation of rules for the political game that fully guarantee political participation and political competition (O’Donnell and Schmitter, 1986). The approach builds on the observation that democracy requires the permanent construction of an array of countervailing political institutions within both state and society. It also draws directly on formulation of participation and competition as the defining characteristics of regimes, characteristics that are jointly maximised only under polyarchy, a real world analogue of the democratic ideal. Thus, political rules and institutions that simultaneously promote participation and competition are democratic. Elections, which empower citizens to choose among contestants for political office, clearly meet its dual standard (Diamond, Yuan-han Chu & Hung, 1997).

Impartial and independent electoral bodies are vital to cement good governance. The Bill of Rights must be firmly entrenched in the Constitution. The judiciary is said to be the last hope against tyranny. Hence, the judiciary must be independent of the Legislature and Executive, in theory and practice. Political parties are vehicles through which democracy is practised. In readopting the multi-party pluralist system, protesters have vowed against the one party system and underscored that democracy is best practised where power is not concentrated in the ruling party or under the one-party state. Hence, it is necessary to evolve the political culture required by rules and institutions of democracy in the Afro-Arab world.

4.3.2. Political rules and institutions:

Democracy will survive as long as multiparty elections continue to be held in which voters are free to exercise meaningful choices. One should not underestimate the difficulty of democratic consolidation. So far, only a few have satisfied even the most minimal conditions set by the two turnover test. In all political regimes, the meaning of incumbent victories is more difficult to interpret than the meaning of historic voter realignments. Where the influence of big men continues to loom large over electoral and other political processes, it is rarely clear whether the re-election of an incumbent constitutes the extension of a leader’s mandate or the resignation of the electorate to an inevitable dominance.

When all is said and done, the fact that intense political struggles are being waged is proof positive that the institution of elections is beginning to matter to confront head on fake elections, greed and corruption and exporting terror. The central hypothesis is therefore that (Costantinos, 1997)

The relative strength of political organisations determines the rules of the political game that are installed. Democratisation requires a plural set of political organisations which promote and protect rules of peaceful political participation and competition. Together, democratic institutions (plural organisations plus rules of accountability) ensure control of the executive.

All told, it is people, not only the temperamental young and labour, but women, mothers, girls; who had never seen a protest, that were pouring into the streets. Amal Sharaf, a 36-year-old mother, handed out fliers in the days leading up to the first major protests on Jan. 25, when people filled Tahrir Square and history changed its course not only in the Middle East but elsewhere where tyranny prevails, especially in Africa (Newsweek, 2011).



* Allam, Abeer. Regional turmoil & problems at home are plaguing the world’s biggest oil producer, Financial Times.

* Ashour, Omar. What Good Is an Arab Military Alliance? (Project Syndicate, 2015)

* BBC, Sunnis and Shia Islam’s ancient schism, 20 June 2014

* Brannen, Kate, Children of the Caliphate: (Foreign Policy, The IS State raising an army of child soldiers, 2014)

* Burkhart, Eric, Is Yemen, 2015, a renewal of the Battle of Karbala, 680 AD? Mukhabarat, Baby!

* Diamond, Larry, Marc Plattner, Yuan-han Chu & Hung Mao Tien (eds) Consolidating Third Wave Democracies: Themes & Perspectives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997)

* Fox News, ISIS releases video purportedly showing killing of Ethiopian Christians in Libya, (The Associated Press)

* Friedman, George. The Islamic State Reshapes the Middle East, (Stratfor Global Intelligence, 2014)

* Hughes, M. The banality of brutality: British armed forces and the repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936–39, (English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV No. 507, 2009) 314–354

* Marzouki, Moncef, The Arab Spring Still Blooms, (NYT Op ED, 2014)

* McCants, William, State of Confusion: ISIS’ Strategy and How to Counter It (Foreign Affairs, September 10, 2014)

* Morris, Benny Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–1999. (John Murray, 1999)

* Newsweek The Keystroke Revolution, Rage Against the Regime, accessed March 28, 2011

* O’Donnell, G and Philippe Schmitter, (1986) Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p.57

* Sela, Avraham, Arab Nationalism. (The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. Ed. Sela. New York: Continuum, 2002. pp. 151–155


* The author Costantinos Berhutesfa Costantinos, PhD, is Professor of Public Policy at School of Graduate Studies, College of Business and Economics, AAU. The article was presented in a Public lecture on the “Turmoil in the Gulf” at ESA, African Union Hall, Addis Ababa, , April 20, 2015

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