Sectarian violence in war-torn Yemen escalated last week when a suicide bomber entered a Shi’a mosque in Sanaa, detonating his explosives belt as local worshipers gathered for prayer. Six minutes later, a car bomb exploded at the site, targeting those who had gathered to aid the victims at the mosque. Islamic State’s (IS) Yemeni affiliate claimed responsibility for the dual bombing, the latest in a spate of anti-Shia attacks across the region.
This is the face of contemporary jihad. Muslims, not Westerners, make up the vast majority of its victims. Yet, the sectarian nature of today’s holy struggle is a relatively recent phenomenon: for most of Islam’s history, internal war was generally waged with the pen, not the sword. What changed?
IS’ anti-Shia crusade – and indeed the modern jihadi concept of the ‘near enemy’ – harks back to the 18th century with the arrival of Sunni Scholar al-Wahhab on the religious scene. Wahhabism, his ultra-conservative Sunni movement, diverged from the mainstream by denouncing all derivatives of Sufism and Shi’ism as apostasy, a crime for which the Quran reserves the most severe punishment. Prior to this, charges of apostasy were rare and rigorous debates over religious interpretation were generally tolerated.
Al-Wahhab joined forces with the power hungry Muhammed Ibn Saud, founder of the first Saudi State who saw in Wahhabism means of cementing his family’s rule. When the Ottomans reclaimed Saudi territory in the early 19th century, however, it seemed as though Wahhabism’s death knell had sounded. After all, the oppression it engendered did little to win the hearts and minds of everyday Muslims. Yet, after more than a century of irrelevance, it experienced a revival upon the establishment of the modern Saudi State (Saudi Arabia), where it remains the official religion. Wahhabism’s puritanical message has profoundly influenced contemporary extremist movements, and IS is no exception.
For Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism is a political tool. Just as governments exploit national security to boost their standing in the polls, the al-Sauds take advantage of the “metaphysical threat” of minority sects to bolster their regime. Riyadh’s legitimacy is contingent on its self-proclaimed custodianship of the Muslim faith.
Despite their hard-line religious rhetoric, the al-Saud’s are pragmatic foreign policy-makers. Certainly, the Saudi Arabia–Iran “cold war” is sectarian in nature, but its proxy conflicts are grounded in traditional geopolitical concerns. Further proof lies in Riyadh’s marriage of convenience with Washington: al-Wahhab would turn in his grave if he caught wind of such an unholy alliance.
IS, on the other hand, does not display the same “status quo” tendencies as Saudi Arabia, whose rulers benefit from their position in the current international system. The Wahhabi interpretation of jihad conveniently legitimises its territorial conquests in Shia dominated Iraq and beyond.
The fundamentally different geopolitical goals of IS and Saudi Arabia will ensure that a common religious heritage provides no platform for bilateral cooperation. IS has its sights on Mecca and Medina and will not spare the House of Saud, which it denounces as an imperial puppet. For Riyadh, the problem of confronting IS is urgent as an increasing number of disaffected Saudi youth respond to the jihadi call.
This places Saudi Arabia in quite a bind. Wahhabism has bolstered the regime by fostering a cultural narrative based on religious division. Therefore, when IS speaks of purging the Middle East of Shia apostates, young Saudi men are already somewhat primed. In light of this dilemma, progressive Saudi commentator Khaled Almaeena has called for an end to official sectarian rhetoric: “we should not have remained silent and passive allowing their [extremists’] hatred to continue giving them the opportunity to manipulate the minds of many.”
To preach tolerance will undoubtedly be challenging for a regime whose very existence relies on its claim to religious authority. This time, however, the threat of home-grown terror is more than just an unfortunate footnote to a sectarian success story. Saudi Arabia has some serious decisions to make.
Isabella Borshoff is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image Credit: Rod Waddington (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons) - Man praying, Yemen.