Jacob L. Shapiro: Hi everyone and welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m sorry that we missed last week but we’re back this week and I am joined once again by Kamran Bokhari, who is one of our senior analysts. Nice to have you back Kamran.
Kamran Bokhari: It’s good to be back Jacob.
JLS: And we’re going to pick up a little bit where we left off last week, or not last week, two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, we were talking about the situation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and we thought we’d just have a more general conversation this week about the Middle East, Islam, maybe some nationalism to throw in there. And but Kamran before we get started, we just noticed a report before we were recording that the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Iraq apparently has been destroyed in some kind of explosion. This mosque is important because it’s where the ISIS founder and leader al-Baghdadi actually declared the caliphate years ago. You were telling me that it kind of struck you as weird. Why was it weird to you, what’s going on do you think with this report?
KB: We’ve seen ISIS and other jihadist groups attack mosques of Muslims that they don’t deem to be “true Muslims” or from their point of view deviant Muslims. But this is anomalous in that ISIS would actually blow up a mosque that it has been using and it’s been sort of a place from where they declared their caliphate and something that they’ve used. Now, it could be that there may be things or something that’s in that mosque that they didn’t want coalition forces to get their hands on, so they decided to go ahead and destroy the facility. But it’s still very odd that they would take a risk like that because they are already on the defensive and why would they do something that could potentially cause them great backlash.
JLS: Yeah, I think one of the things I was thinking about though was according to the reports Iraqi security forces were approaching the mosque and they blew it up as sort of a way to defend themselves and not let the mosque fall into enemy hands, necessarily. But I think this is an example of how ISIS has a very pragmatic ideology. We think of them as religious fanatics, and they are religious fanatics, but they also deal with things pragmatically, especially the defense of the territories and places that they defend and it’s something that just popped into my head.
It’s also strange that fundamentalist groups like this also always seem to have an aversion to anything resembling idolatry. ISIS was famous for blowing up a lot of these antiquities in Palmyra and other places that they’ve been or taking the antiquities and selling them on the black market. They don’t really care about big beautiful structures or things like that. I think in some ways they think of structures as something that the Saudis are building. You think about the Saudis and all the stuff they are building around the Kaaba in Mecca, that sort of comes to mind. And ISIS has always been more spartan, has always been not attached to I don’t know larger images or beautiful mosques, that’s not really what it’s about. So yeah, don’t you think it could just be a symbol of their pragmatism in general?
KB: I think you are onto something here that’s important. I think that what you said in the beginning is that we tend to look at these groups as very rigid in their interpretation of religious text and whatnot, which is true on one level. But on another level, they display a great deal of, for lack of a better term, pragmatism or they make things up as they go and they change interpretations and they adopt interpretations that normally would not be the case. And I think that given the way that ISIS has evolved and grown, one of the key things in their toolkit has been that you don’t stick with necessarily the old formulations or understandings of religious texts.
As far as buildings are concerned, I think they look at it from a utilitarian point of view. And then of course, this is war, and I think that in war they tend to be a bit more casual about things and because what is at stake is being able to protect themselves as an institution and so buildings may not necessarily be of importance. And again, we’re speculating because just not a whole lot of information as to how ISIS blew this up – was it booby-trapped, were there fighters holed up there and they blew themselves up because they didn’t want to get caught or wanted to achieve “martyrdom” and especially given it being Ramadan or the tail end of Ramadan. And so there are just too many unanswered questions.
JLS: Well another report I wanted to ask you about Kamran, and I haven’t raised this with you before but we’ll see what you think about it, is that I hadn’t realized this but I read a report today that there are actually a number of polio cases in Deir el-Zour in particular but also in Raqqa and other places that the Islamic State and even in other places that the Islamic State is not controlling in Syria and in Iraq right now.
And for some reason that really struck me on sort of a symbolic level. I think there maybe is not a better symbol for Western science than vaccines. And in some ways vaccines have had a little bit of a troubled history in the Muslim world, right? There were all those allegations of CIA agents posing in Pakistan as doctors who were giving polio vaccines and that ruining trust in Pakistan for doctors. And Pakistan remains one of the places where polio still exists and – in part because of that distrust.
And I don’t think that ISIS meant for polio to sprout back up in Syria. I’m not even saying that it’s really their fault. We know that you know in a lot of these war-torn places, things like basic hygiene are some of the first things to go. We’re seeing a cholera outbreak in Yemen right now, which is affecting tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. But I just wonder how you react to that. On the one hand, ISIS is really staked some of its legitimacy on behaving like a state and on providing basic services and the Assad regime has done some of that too.
But at the same time, I think we’re really beginning to see both in Syria and some parts of Iraq and Yemen where these wars have been going on for so long, we’re beginning to really see the total breakdown of bureaucracy and some of the basics that we’ve come to expect of 21st century society. So, I just wonder what you think about all of those things that I just threw at you and whether it was as striking to you as it was striking to me.
KB: It is striking, and what’s striking to me is that wherever there’s a jihadist entity that is taking control of an ungoverned space and set up shop and declared an emirate or a caliphate – I mean the parallel with Pakistan is very apt – that we see these diseases that we thought had been largely eradicated from the rest of the world like polio and cholera, they begin to emerge. And obviously it has a lot to do with the lack of governance, sanitation being very poor quality, hygiene not being maintained. A lot of it just may be because of the lack of resources.
And it really speaks to the idea that somehow the caliphate was a place where people should migrate to in terms of the recruits of ISIS, people who were inspired by ISIS. One of the things that ISIS was saying to people all across the world was come join the caliphate, you know, you need to come to the land where the caliphate exists. And so that’s really a blow to that idea that life is so harsh and we can only speculate as to the availability of food supply and other basic services that we have taken granted for in pretty much the rest of the world. I mean even in Pakistan, even in Syria, there are places that do not have this kind of situation. In fact, these are really small pockets of territory where you have the outbreak of such diseases. In Pakistan, we did have that whole thing about the CIA and the conspiracy theory amongst the jihadists, amongst the Pakistani Taliban and their supporters that we should not allow our children to be immunized by doctors because somehow this is a CIA plot to undermine fertility or trying to gain intelligence through the dispensation of vaccines.
But at the same time, it really speaks about how really primitive society and governance becomes once jihadists take over. It speaks to the lack of facilities and the lack of resources and you know utter lack of sophistication when it comes to statecraft or just dispensing basic services – collecting garbage, dealing with cleanliness, having a place where people can be treated for you know injuries or wounds. After all, one of the major enterprises of groups like ISIS and the Taliban is warfare. You would think that they would invest in hospitals. But it seems like this is the place where they were at the very least cutting corners.
JLS: Yeah, that’s fair enough. Well that was a curve ball to start off with but I want to take us back to something that some of our readers have written in to ask us to talk about. And there’s not a better person to ask this question than you Kamran. Tell us the difference in a short group of words about what is the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, what is the big deal, why are Sunnis and Shiites always fighting each other throughout the Middle East and where does this go from here?
KB: So initially when it all started, it started right after the death of the prophet. And at the time, there was nothing called a Sunni or a Shia. These were categories that developed many, many years later – many decades later and became full-fledged sects, rival sects over centuries. But at the time, the question was, who is going to succeed the prophet because the prophet himself is reported to have said that when God sent one prophet to the children of Israel and would take him away then he would be replaced by another prophet but after me there are no more prophets.
And then his companions and his followers asked, “Well, prophet who will guide us and who will lead us?” And he said there will be caliphs and there will be many, some of whom you would love and they would love you and some of whom would despise you and you would despise you in return and that was sort of the end of that story. But the unanswered question was, well ok, who succeeds the prophet? So those who became later on Sunnis decided to go with an individual by the name of Abu Bakr who was the closest friend of the prophet and an associate and he was an individual of advanced age.
But those who later on became Shia, and much later on, said no, the cousin of the prophet and who also happened to be his son-in-law, Ali, is most deserving of the position because he spent so much time, he’s young, he’s energetic, he’s demonstrated his capability as a top aide and also on the battlefield. And eventually that whole dispute over time led to a divide and there was a very early civil war issue on this as well during the time of the third caliph, I would say in the ’50s. Eventually, jurisprudence that differed between the two sects didn’t emerge until well after, I would say 300 years after, the prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina and established the first Islamic polity.
But really the sect, as in full-fledged sects, they didn’t emerge – the Shia and the Sunni – in the theological sense until well into the 16th century when the Safavid Empire in Iran adopted Shia Islam as a state religion and expected people to be or subscribe to what became Shia Islam and then Shia Islam is broken down into subsects just as the Sunni side is fragmented.
JLS: How would you describe the relationship in terms of its relationship to nationalism currently right now? So there are a lot of different nation-states in the Middle East: there’s Iraq, there’s Jordan, there’s Saudi Arabia, there’s Egypt. There’s a certain level of national pride for the different groups that live in these states. But then the sectarian stuff when you overlay it doesn’t always line up exactly with it, right? Because in Iraq there’s a majority Arab population and on the one hand because of the sectarianism, they feel closer to Iran. But there are also Arabs; they’re not Persians so in that sense they feel closer to Arabs and it’s just this whole mess of things so what do you think is the relationship between nationalism and sectarianism?
KB: So I think what you’re asking is sort of the geopolitics of sectarianism because when it becomes geopolitical, when you have major states or empires as we had back in the Medieval times when Shia/Sunni – I mean the Shia/Sunni conflict is not new. It’s been raging and it has assumed different forms in different time periods so the geopolitics of sectarianism, when sectarianism becomes geopolitical, it’s no longer simply a religious divide. It is, no you pray differently, you believe in different things and you have a different view of collective history and shared memory.
It really becomes ethnic categories so it’s almost like a form of nationalism where the Shia identity becomes very primary and the Sunni identity also becomes really highly sensitized and that happens because in the here and now, especially after the late ’70s and early ’80s, it’s because of the rise of Islamism on both sides of the sectarian divide. You have Iran becaming the first Islamist regime in the Muslim world but it subscribes to Shia Islamism or it’s an Islamism or Shia variant.
At the same time, you have Islamism on the Sunni side and because of this heightened religiosity, the sectarian identity has become almost the primary identity for at least those people who are waging war against each other. So Saudi Arabia looks at Iran and says we don’t like Iran because they’re Persians but more so because they’re Shia and they want to subvert Sunni orthodoxy. And conversely when the Iranians look at the Saudis they see an entity that is trying to undermine the Shia religious creed and mind you the Shia being the minority have mostly been on the receiving end throughout the history of Islam. So there is this sense of minority status that also kicks in and therefore the Iranian identity sort of gets subdued or exists parallel to the Shia identity.
Likewise, on the Sunni side, yes we’re Saudis, we’re Arabs and people in Lebanon are Lebanese and Iraqis have their national identity but as these nation-states are in meltdown mode and there’s growing geopolitical sectarianism, it’s the sectarian identity that has become the primary thing. I mean those who are fighting the Assad regime in Syria, they’re largely driven by the fact that they see an Alawite Shiite conspiracy to destroy Sunnism in Syria and they’re defending Sunni Islam against what they deem as a form of deviants, the Alawite Shiite creed. Same thing in Yemen between the Houthis and their opponents. And so the nation-state is still in somewhere; people haven’t completely discarded it. But at the same time, because the nation-state has become weak, this sectarian identity has taken center stage.
JLS: Is it fair to say that there are less subcategories of Shiites than there are of Sunnis? Like there are more Sunnis in the Middle East than there are Shiites, but would it be fair to say that the Sunni community throughout the entire Middle East is actually much more fractured and has a number of different subsets? Whereas, because maybe there are less Shiites, that camp is more unified? Or would you say there are actually, when you actually look into the camps themselves, there’s actually a lot of subdivisions and internal rivalries that maybe don’t even bubble up to the surface or that aren’t obvious to the casual observer of news in the Middle East?
KB: You are absolutely right and you have pointed to a key characteristic of this sectarian conflict that’s brewing. So on the Sunni side, you have not just multiple subsects but you have, as I mentioned earlier, the nation-state or the national identity hasn’t completely gone away. And you have multiple claimants who represent Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia has since its founding tried to position itself as not just a leader of the Sunni world or the Arab world but the Islamic world in general.
And in recent times with Turkey moving away from a Kemalist version of secularism to a more religious version of secularism, a more religious society not necessarily a religious state, it also sees itself as the leader of the region, the Middle East and of course the wider Islamic world. And ISIS is doing the same thing; al-Qaida claims the leadership of the Islamic world, the Sunni world as well. There is no unified coherent Sunni camp if you will.
Now in contrast and in sharp contrast, because the Shia are a minority, their divisions – so the Syrians aren’t mainstream, the Syrian Alawites aren’t mainstream Shia. They’re a heterodox offshoot of mainstream Shia Islam but yet they’re close with mainstream Shiites in Iran, in Iraq and in Lebanon. Likewise, you have the Houthis who are Zaidis, who are another form of Shia Islam, which in a way from a doctrinal way is actually not so close to mainstream Shia Islam. It shares a lot more with Sunni Islam, but nonetheless, it is a form of Shia Islam, so therefore we see this alignment with Iran and that Shia camp.
And so what we’re seeing is a more coherent Shia camp because the Shia are a minority and they have this collective memory that they hark back to, when they have historically been suppressed at the hands of Sunni powers. And now that Sunni Islam has fragmented along multiple lines and one of the things that has really accelerated this fragmentation is the so-called Arab Spring phenomenon or what we call at Geopolitical Futures the hollowing out of the Arab world. You’ve written about this yourself.
And so that has exacerbated the fragmentation on the Sunni side and the Shia look at this and say this is a historic opportunity and I would go on to say that if we look at the history of sectarianism in the Muslim world, it runs on a 500-year cycle. So around 1000 when the Sunni world was fragmenting, we see the rise of Shia policies such as the Fatimid empire in North Africa extending into the Levant and the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
You had the Buyid empire in what is Mesopotamia and Persia and as time goes on other Shiite polities emerge. But then the Ottomans come back and they reclaim the Sunni center and Sunni Islam once again begins to thrive until the rise of the Safavid empire, which poses a challenge to the Ottomans, and now 500 years later today, we are once again seeing the rise of Shia Islam because Sunni Islam or Sunni Muslim territories are at war with each other.
JLS: Kamran on a practical level, is there any significant difference between a Shiite country and Sunni country? Is that going mean anything for the way that particular country acts? Or are those countries just going to act in their geopolitical interest and whatever sect that country happens to be really doesn’t play that much into it? I guess to even sharpen the question, does Iran act the way it does in some cases because it is a Shiite country or is that not really something that you can see?
KB: At a practical level, different states, different types of states, you know operate more or less the same. You know, you have interests that are material interests and it doesn’t matter whether you are Shia or whether you are al-Qaida or ISIS or Sunni or Turkey or whatever. I think that from a practicality point of view, the sect doesn’t matter. You have to pursue your imperatives and deal with your constraints like anybody else and actually you’re very similar to your rivals.
But sect does come into play in terms of behavior, so I’ll give you an example. So Iran realizes that it represents a minority sect and a minority ethnicity. They’re Persians and they’re Shiites in a Middle East that’s largely Arab and largely Sunni. And therefore, that creates limitations and so yes they want to expand into Iraq because the majority of Arabs are Shia there. It has developed and cultivated Hezbollah because a majority of Lebanese Muslims are Shia. It’s aligned with the Shia because the Alawite regime or the Alawites have dominated the Syrian regime for a long time. It’s playing into Yemen to a certain extent because of the Houthis.
But it can’t go into Saudi Arabia just yet because that’s a stronghold of very hardcore Sunni identity and ideology and they won’t find so many converts there or supporters. So the Shiite and the Sunni thing does place constraints and limitations in terms of behavior. For example, ISIS only recently, a few weeks ago, was able to stage an attack inside Iran. It’s been cultivating, I am pretty sure that it took a long time for it to cultivate the assets to pull off that attack on the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic and the Iranian Parliament.
But you don’t see the volume of attacks that you see even next door in a Shia majority country like Iraq and of course the list goes on and on. So I think that the sect does place constraints in how far a particular power can expand its tentacles and its influence.
JLS: The follow-up question to that is I mean really this sectarian battle is focused in the Middle East mainly around the Levant, maybe extending a little bit outwards. But once you get into North Africa or once you get more to South Asia, countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, you don’t have the same type of sectarian rivalry and we see IS trying to expand outwards into these regions especially as it comes under so much pressure in the caliphate itself. Do you think that IS will have trouble finding the same type of equation that allowed it to rise in Syria and Iraq because there isn’t that sectarian divide to join on or is there enough subdivision within Sunni Islam and some of these other countries that those are de facto sects already, if that question makes sense?
KB: No absolutely and again this is another important point that you raise. What really made ISIS into the jihadist regime it has become, and controlling territory, having a very sophisticated military force and intelligence service and wreaking havoc all across the region and beyond even in the West, is the fact that it was able to consolidate itself in Iraq and Syria because of the sectarian divide. It exploited heavily the Shia/Sunni anxieties on both sides and created space for itself and essentially took over the leadership of first the Sunnis of Iraq because they’re a minority in their country and they were disenfranchised after regime change in 2003 that toppled the Saddam regime. And then in the wake of the civil war and uprising against Assad, it tried to take over the leadership of the Sunnis who were trying to battle the Assad regime and trying to topple it. And it really gave them a boost, and exponentially, we saw the growth of ISIS.
Now those things as you just mentioned do not exist in North Africa, those conditions. There aren’t that many Shia beyond the Levant and beyond the Arabian Peninsula and that sort of heart of the Middle East, no matter which direction you go. You can even go into Central Asia and you won’t find the same sectarian polarization, much less Southeast Asia like Indonesia and the Philippines. But I think that having said that, it may not see a major boost; it may take longer for ISIS to develop itself in a place like Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are already a saturated jihadist market if you will. Much less Bangladesh and Indonesia and Malaysia and the Philippines, but there is sufficient chaos in these other countries and internal divides within Sunni Islam and the question of who speaks for the religion.
I was speaking to a journalist who’s been doing a lot of work in Indonesia and she was telling me about how a version of Wahhabi Islam or Salafi Islam is really growing by leaps and bounds in a country like Indonesia, which was insulated from this ideology for the longest time. And I think that political conditions, the growing religiosity in Muslim societies across the world, these provide for that fertile ground or these are the conditions with which ISIS can latch onto and then begin to expand. So the scale may be different, the timeframe may be different, but I think that there are enough conditions on the ground in these various areas where there aren’t any Shiites that will allow and become enablers for ISIS or other groups to expand.
JLS: I want to ask you one more question Kamran before we wrap up and it might be an involved question but I think that it’s an important one and it’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot. The sort of smaller version of this question is: Is it possible for nationalism and Islam to coexist? Are those two ideas that can actually be held at the same time in a person’s mind and that they make sense or are they mutually exclusive?
And if you zoom out a little bit, I would ask that question of all religions. Do you think it’s possible for all religions and nationalism to really work in the same type of way or is it that nationalism is sort of at its core, I don’t want to say atheistic because it’s not that nationalism is going to say that there is no God, but nationalism is going to say that the nation is the most important thing. The defense of the nation, protection of the national interest is the most important all abiding thing that a state must provide for, whereas religion, if you really get down to it and if you want to be ideologically consistent, religion is not going to tolerate anything being the most important thing besides God.
They might be willing to have the nation as a subset of that or a caliphate or something like that as a subset of that, but the most important thing is going to be God and if there is a disjuncture between what is interpreted as what God wants versus what is best for the nation, you know usually what God wants is going to win out or what God wants is going to be reinterpreted such that it is in the best interest of the nation. So we started with this strange report of ISIS potentially blowing up one of their own mosques and we’ve danced around the subject but I wonder if you could sort of speculate for a second about whether nationalism and religion just can’t actually fit together or if they can?
KB: Well I mean first of all, any religion emanates from a core text or texts that are considered sacred by the believers and those texts are simply texts collecting dust unless the believers operationalize them and it depends on the context, so there is text without context. And those contexts vary over time and we’ve seen historically – take the case of Islam. Islam has manifested itself in very, very diverse ways and this is not in the here and now, it all goes back to the very earliest centuries of Islam and you see rival groups practicing Islam in very different ways. Yes, there is a core belief that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his last messenger and there is something called a prayer and fasting and charity and pilgrimage and the list can continue depending on what your sectarian persuasion is.
But at the end of the day, if we look at the period of the Umayyads, the first dynasty to rule over the Muslim lands and this dynasty took power very early on in 661 and they ruled until the mid-700s and then beyond that in the Iberian Peninsula. That was a dynasty that was built around a clan and it never really – yes it behaved in a religious way, it was motivated by religion but what was dominate was the power of the dynasty, the ruling clan. You had to be from the Umayyad clan. It was father, son and grandson and so on and so forth and it became an imperial dominion and therefore it became a nationalistic entity in some respect. This is obviously pre-nationalism as we understand in a modern world, post enlightenment. But nonetheless, it was not very religious as we understand religion. It wasn’t solely religious.
And you move through history. You have the various polities that existed. They were geographic and we had multiple competing caliphates. Some of them didn’t even call themselves caliphates; they were sultanates. So the Ottomans never really referred to them on a day-to-day basis; the Ottoman emperors referred to them as Sultans. They called themselves the Ottoman Empire; there was an Ottoman identity and Islam was there but it wasn’t really in the forefront. And you had divisions, so there is this sort of understanding that somehow the Middle East and the wider Muslim world has adopted nationalism because of the import-export of European thought and through the vehicle of colonialism and then decolonization. Well that’s true, but it’s not as if the Muslim world was united on the basis of religion. I mean you had multiple competing entities, all throughout history.
So I think that nationalism exists in various forms. In the contemporary world, it exists; it manifests itself as the nation-state. The nation-state is the biggest sort of or the most profound expression of nationalism as we understand it. But nationalism has evolved over time so I don’t think that Islam is somehow separate or cannot exist. I think that Islam is operationalized in different spatial, temporal settings and they can vary so who is to say which one is pure Islam and which one is veering towards more nationalism. I think it’s a hodge-podge and a complex mixture.
JLS: I agree with you, although I think just the last thought that I’ll close on which came to me as you were talking was that, and you sort of talked in the beginning about how the main split between Sunni and Shiite really happens after the prophet passes away and some people want Abu Bakr to take over as caliph but then others want Ali to take over as caliph and one of the main reasons for Ali was that he was in the family of the prophet, right?
So in some ways we might say that for the Shiites the blood has always been a little bit more important than it was in the Sunnis. I know the Umayyads were also – I mean they were a Sunni type of regime if we can even talk about Sunnis existing back then. But they were on that side of the split, right? They believed the chain went through Abu Bakr and that was the legitimate right of succession. But the Shiites think that there is something about being in the prophet’s family that is very important, and there is this aspect of blood tied into the religion that maybe isn’t there in Sunni Islam.
KB: You are absolutely right. I would just sort of modify that quickly and say that for the Shia, leadership of the faith and the community and the Muslim community, the ummah is divinely ordained, so the imams, they are divinely ordained and they follow from the family of the prophet. Whereas Sunnis believe that this is a political position that comes about through political ways and in many ways it could be, some would argue it could be democratic, some could argue it comes with the power of who has the stronger military force. But ultimately, it’s a political position for the Sunnis and a more religious position for the Shia.
JLS: Yeah so if we were going to grossly over simplify, we might say something along the lines of Sunni Islam is more democratic whereas Shiite Islam tends to more nationalistic principles.
KB: The Iranian government would beg to differ with us [laughs]. They would say that we have achieved a hybrid between religion and politics. We have elected officials, even our clerics have been popularly elected. I mean, they would make that assertion.
JLS: Yes, but not the supreme leader, correct?
KB: Not the supreme leader. Although they would argue that he could be removed by the Assembly of Experts, which is a body of popularly elected leaders or clerics.
JLS: Well when they do that, we can talk about it. But in the meantime, Kamran thanks for joining us. It’s always a pleasure. For listeners out there, thank you for listening. We’re sorry we missed last week but we’re back on and we are going to keep doing these once a week and maybe even increase them more.
As always, if you have comments and critiques: email@example.com or just leave comments here on Sound Cloud or whatever your medium you’re listening to us through and we’ll see you out there. Thanks.