West Asia faces faith-based politics

The turn of events involving Iran’s cross-border missile attack on January 16 on the camps of Jaish-al Adl
West Asia faces faith-based politics

 DC Pathak

(The writer is a former Director of the

Intelligence Bureau. Views are personal)

The turn of events involving Iran’s cross-border missile attack on January 16 on the camps of Jaish-al Adl, a Sunni extremist organization working out of Baluchistan demanding an independent Baluch nation, and a retaliatory action of the same kind carried out by Pakistan on January 18 in the adjoining area of Iran—on the ground that supporters of the Salafi outfit operated from Iran as well—have, more than anything else, unravelled the rapidly rising militancy attributable to the growth of extremism in the Muslim world on one hand and the inevitable outbreak of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites resulting from it on the other.

This has to be seen in the historical background of the basic divide within the faith that was traceable to the Kharijite revolt against Ali. The fourth Caliph, the Kharijites, were the precursors of Sunnism, and their criticism of Caliph Ali was that the latter had started following his own Sharia practices in violation of the Quran and the Hadis. What Sunnis found totally unacceptable was that Ali claimed to be the Imam of Muslims who had inherited ‘divine power’ too in addition to the temporal authority of the Caliph; this was, in the eyes of the Kharijites, the biggest ‘Shirk’ that ‘true’ Muslims could imagine. Those who stood by Ali were called Shiites.

It is not a surprise that ‘radicalization’ pushed extremism further in the direction of advocacy of a return to ‘the golden period’ of Islam as it existed in its first fifty years with rigorous compliance with the fundamentals of the religion and even called for Jehad to restore the ‘political glory of Islam’. This has rekindled the hatred for Shiites, who were looked at by Sunni extremists as the ‘deviants’ of the faith.

In Islam, there is no distinction between religion and politics, and it is therefore not difficult to understand that the recent political developments in the Middle East are impelled substantially by the dictates of faith.

Sunni extremists, particularly the Islamic radicals, have been targeting Shiites in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, further destabilizing the entire West Asia region that had already been in the midst of an ongoing conflict between the US-led West and the radical Islamic outfits like the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), not to mention West Africa’s Boko Haram.

In the US-led ‘war on terror’ that followed 9/11, the first target of Americans was Afghanistan, and then Iraq was attacked in 2003.

The first ultimately resulted in the expansion of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while the attack on Iraq contributed to the emergence of ISIS and its competitive rise in the Iraq-Syria region. ISIS earned notoriety for its determined attacks on Shiites, who commanded a good hold in the region. In Pakistan, meanwhile, the ISI had lost no time in reaching out to the radical outfits on the quiet and manoeuvring them in order to get them to join in the cross-border terror offensive against India in Kashmir and elsewhere.

Pakistan knew it well that Islamic radicals looked upon the US as their first enemy—because of the historical legacy of the anti-British Wahhabi revolt of the 19th century—but in all likelihood, it drew strength from the fact that the US had given full credit to Pakistan for the success of the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan and would therefore not mind Pak links with the radical outfits so long as this did not harm American interests. The US had also raised no opposition to the India-specific terror outfits like Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM), Saudi-funded Lashkare Toiba (LeT), and Jaishe Mohammad (JeM), all fostered and controlled by the Pakistan ISI.

In the context of Iran-Pakistan relations, it is a fact that Iran accused Pakistan's ISI as well as Saudi Arabia of supporting Jaish al-Adl's terror attacks on Iran’s security forces for their own vested political interests.

As India is fully aware of Pakistan using terror outfits as instruments of state policy, its response of aloofness towards the Iran-Pakistan conflict was rightly based on an understanding that a country like Iran had to ‘defend’ itself against any terror attack from across its borders.

Crosscurrents within the Islamic world are affecting the entire geopolitics of the present time. They feature the rise of radical Islam in the Muslim world, political alignments enjoyed by the US there, the resurgence of the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites, Chinese interactions with Islamic countries, and the impact of the developing new Cold War between the US and China on the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

The US-led ‘war on terror’ resulted in the Taliban and Al-Qaeda carving out the Pak-Afghan belt as their home ground and ISIS doing the same in the Iraq-Syria region. There was a competitive militancy between the two, with ISIS becoming more known for its determined attacks on Shiites in general and the Alawite regimes in Syria and Iraq in particular, with the Alawite sect being an offshoot of Shiism.

Sunni radicals and fundamentalist Shiites like the Ayatollahs of Iran are totally inimical to each other, but both are ideologically hostile to the US-led West as well and therefore prone to drifting towards China politically.

In the wake of the Iranian revolution, Iran severed all diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel, reversing the situation that existed in the earlier pro-West Pahalavi regime.

The Israel-Hamas war, sparked off by the terrorist attack of Hamas on Israel on October 7, has further queered the pitch for divisions in West Asia. Iran funded Hezbollah of Lebanon and supported Houthis of Yemen, both joining on the Hamas side in this conflict, possibly because Israel was completely identified with the US and also because there was a history of Israel’s support for Baluchistan-based Zundallah that was known to be indulging in covert attacks on Iran. Jaish al Adl is Zundullah’s successor.

Further, Iran supports the Syrian government, while Israel is backing the opposition in Syria. In Yemen, Israel also supports the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebel Houthis.

The drone attack said to have been launched by Shiite militants from Syria on Jordan-based US troops on January 28, resulting in the deaths of three American soldiers and injuries to many others, would further draw in the US in the Israel-Hamas conflict and particularly intensify the Iran-US confrontation because of the involvement of Iran-sponsored Shiite outfits in favour of Hamas.

A nuclear Israel and Iran, with their ‘enrichment’ programmes and the potential for going nuclear, are the two major players in West Asia, and the discord between them affects the geopolitical scene in the region and beyond, particularly in a situation where the rival influences of the US and China are beginning to create a new Cold War on the horizon.

Indo-Pak relations have an important bearing on the geopolitics revolving around the Muslim world and even on the developments taking place elsewhere.

Pakistan, though in acute economic difficulty, has politically managed to gain from the spread of ‘radicalization’ in the Muslim world and the consequent rise of anti-US voices there. Pakistan knows that this leaves it as a key country besides Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrein to be considered an ally by the Americans, notwithstanding its dubious role in reinstalling the Taliban Emirate in Kabul in 2021 and providing shelter to radical outfits that regard the US as their first adversary.

Pakistan, however, has also deftly developed a strategic partnership with China for political and financial support and also to counter the influence of India, which is a growing world power enjoying a very close friendship with the US.

Pakistan presently distrusts Iran as the latter was under the sway of Shiite fundamentalists but would not like to precipitate a conflict with it; the reconciliatory stand taken by Pakistan after its half-hearted 'retaliation' of the Iranian air attack on Jaish al Adl bases in Baluchistan seemed to suggest that.

Pakistan is also quiet on the conflict between Israel and the radicalised Hamas, as it would like to be on the right side of the US on this issue.

Islamic radicals are against the closest of the allies of the US in the Muslim world—Saudi Arabia and the UAE—who were, in turn, inclined, because of the American initiative, to reach an understanding with Israel for dealing with the radicalised forces.

China, on its part, has used Pakistan to reach an adjustment with the Taliban in Afghanistan on the one hand and has advised Iran and Pakistan not to precipitate a crisis on the Jaish al-Adl matter on the other. In a sense, it was the US-China rivalry that was playing out in West Asia too.

India is playing its cards on the developments in the Islamic world with a deep understanding of what lies behind them. The Pak-Afghan belt remains a prime source of the threat of faith-based terror for India, and the Sino-Pak axis adds to that.

Pakistan is cleverly trying to be with countries like Turkey and Malaysia, which chose not to condemn the radical forces just because the latter were against the US, and is at the same time keeping up its traditional friendship with Saudi Arabia, a country that chaired the OIC and remained in a firm alliance with the US.

India is rightly following the line that its deep friendship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE should continue without necessarily opposing Iran, that the threat of terrorism emanating from Wahhabi Islamic radicals, including the radicalised Hamas, must be denounced, and that in the US-China conflict at the global level, India will remain with the US to enable the two largest democracies to uphold the democratic order against Marxist and fundamentalist dictatorships coming together in the form of the Sino-Pak axis.

India, which houses the second-largest Muslim population in the world, will overcome the machinations of Pakistan by creating an arch of friendship in the Islamic world from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Bangladesh and playing its rightful role as a rising world power.

On the Palestinian issue, the leadership of the Muslim minority in India was not condemning the terror attack by Hamas on Israel and only finding fault with the Israeli retaliation. The credentials of India as an emerging global counsel on issues of war and peace have, however, been strengthened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s principled stand on both the Ukraine-Russia military confrontation and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

India had called for the halting of military confrontation between Ukraine and Russia and, on the Israel-Hamas conflict, supported the Egypt-sponsored resolution in UNGA calling for an immediate ceasefire and unconditional release of all hostages—the Indian representative acknowledging the enormous humanitarian crisis and a large-scale loss of civilian lives in Gaza and reiterating India’s support for a two-state solution in Palestine. (IANS)

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