The Sunni arc of in­sta­bil­ity

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

While in­ter­na­tional ob­servers fix­ate on the Sunni-Shia ri­valry’s role in shap­ing geopol­i­tics in the Is­lamic world, deep fis­sures within the Sunni arc that stretches from the Maghre­bSa­hel re­gion of North Africa to the Afghanistan-Pak­istan belt are in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent. More­over, it is Sunni com­mu­ni­ties that pro­duce the transna­tional ji­hadists who have be­come a po­tent threat to sec­u­lar, demo­cratic states near and far. What is driv­ing this frag­men­ta­tion and rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion within the ranks of Sunni Is­lam, and how can it be man­aged?

The im­por­tance of ad­dress­ing that ques­tion can­not be over­stated. The largest acts of in­ter­na­tional ter­ror, in­clud­ing the Septem­ber 11, 2001, at­tacks on New York and Wash­ing­ton, DC, and the 2008 Mumbai at­tack, were car­ried out by bru­tal transna­tional Sunni or­gan­i­sa­tions (Al Qaeda and Lashkar-eTaiba, re­spec­tively).

The Sunni mil­i­tant group Boko Haram, known in­ter­na­tion­ally for ab­duct­ing 276 school­girls in April and forc­ing them to marry its mem­bers, has been wreak­ing havoc in Nige­ria for years. And the Sunni ex­trem­ists of the Is­lamic State, whose dra­matic rise has en­tailed un­told hor­rors to Iraq and Syria, are seek­ing to es­tab­lish a caliphate, by what­ever means nec­es­sary.

The in­flu­ence of th­ese or­gan­i­sa­tions is far-reach­ing. Just last month, in­di­vid­u­als in­spired by th­ese groups’ ac­tiv­i­ties car­ried out two sep­a­rate at­tacks, one in the Cana­dian par­lia­ment and another on po­lice of­fi­cers in New York.

Po­lit­i­cal and tribal sec­tar­i­an­ism in the Sunni Mid­dle East and North Africa is both a re­flec­tion and a driver of the re­gion’s weak­en­ing po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions, with a se­ries of failed or fail­ing states be­com­ing hubs of transna­tional ter­ror­ism. A law­less Libya, for ex­am­ple, is now ex­port­ing ji­had and guns across the Sa­hel and un­der­min­ing the se­cu­rity of fel­low Maghreb coun­tries and Egypt. Sev­eral largely Sunni coun­tries – in­clud­ing Syria, Iraq, Ye­men, Libya, So­ma­lia, and Afghanistan – have be­come de facto par­ti­tioned, with lit­tle prospect of re­uni­fi­ca­tion in the near fu­ture. Jor­dan and Le­banon could be the next states to suc­cumb to Sunni ex­trem­ist vi­o­lence.

The Sunni tu­mult has un­der­scored the fragility of almost all Arab coun­tries, while di­lut­ing the cen­tral­ity of the Is­raelPales­tine con­flict. The post-Ot­toman or­der – cre­ated by the Bri­tish, with some help from the French, after World War I – is dis­in­te­grat­ing, with no vi­able al­ter­na­tive in sight.

The sec­tar­i­an­ism plagu­ing the Sunni belt is af­fect­ing even the rel­a­tively sta­ble oil sheik­doms of the Gulf, where a schism within the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil is spurring new ten­sions and proxy com­pe­ti­tion among its mem­bers. Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates view Qatar’s ef­forts to aid Is­lamists like the Mus­lim Brother­hood as an ex­is­ten­tial threat, even as their own wealth has fu­eled the spread of Salafi ji­hadism and Al Qaeda ide­ol­ogy. Both coun­tries, along with Bahrain, have re­called their am­bas­sadors from Qatar.

This rup­ture is com­pounded by a rift be­tween the Mid­dle East’s two main Sunni pow­ers, Egypt and Turkey, whose re­la­tion­ship soured last year, after the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary ousted the Mus­lim Brother­hood gov­ern­ment, backed by pro-Is­lamist Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. Egypt re­called its am­bas­sador from Ankara and ex­pelled the Turk­ish am­bas­sador from Cairo. In Septem­ber, the Egyp­tian for­eign min­istry ac­cused Er­do­gan of seek­ing to “pro­voke chaos” and “in­cite di­vi­sions in the Mid­dle East re­gion through his support for groups and ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions.”

A sim­i­lar di­vide ex­ists be­tween Afghanistan and Pak­istan over the lat­ter’s pro­vi­sion of aid and sanc­tu­ary to Afghan mil­i­tants – a di­vide that will only deepen when the United States-led NATO coali­tion ends its com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan this year. Pak­istan’s support has spawned two in­car­na­tions of the Tal­iban: the Afghan Tal­iban, spon­sored by the Pak­istani mil­i­tary, and the Pak­istani Tal­iban, the Pak­istani mil­i­tary’s neme­sis. Suc­ces­sive Afghan gov­ern­ments have re­fused to recog­nise the fron­tier with Pak­istan known as the Du­rand line, a Bri­tish-colo­nial in­ven­tion that split the large eth­nic Pash­tun pop­u­la­tion.

Such con­flicts are spurring the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Sunni states. The UAE and Qatar have al­ready in­sti­tuted com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice for adult males. And Kuwait is con­sid­er­ing fol­low­ing in Jor­dan’s foot­steps by rein­tro­duc­ing con­scrip­tion, which is al­ready in place in most Sunni states (and Iran).

Against this back­ground, ef­forts to tame the deep-seated Sunni-Shia ri­valry (by, for ex­am­ple, im­prov­ing re­la­tions be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran), though un­doubt­edly im­por­tant, should not take pri­or­ity over a strat­egy to ad­dress the sec­tar­i­an­ism plagu­ing the Sunni belt. That strat­egy must cen­ter on fed­er­al­ism.

Had fed­er­al­ism been in­tro­duced in So­ma­lia, for ex­am­ple, when the north-south rift emerged, it prob­a­bly would not have ended up as a failed state. To­day, fed­er­al­ism can al­low for the or­derly man­age­ment of key Sunni coun­tries, where a uni­tary state sim­ply is not prac­ti­cal.

The prob­lem is that fed­er­al­ism has be­come a dirty word in most Sunni coun­tries. And the emer­gence of new threats has made some gov­ern­ments, most no­tably Saudi Ara­bia’s, staunchly op­posed to change. What th­ese coun­tries do not seem to recog­nise is that it is the petrodol­lar-funded ex­port of Wah­habism – the source of mod­ern Sunni ji­had – that has grad­u­ally ex­tin­guished more lib­eral Is­lamic tra­di­tions else­where and fu­eled the in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism that now threat­ens to de­vour its spon­sors.

Stag­na­tion is not sta­bil­ity. On the con­trary, in the Sunni arc to­day, it means a vi­cious cy­cle of ex­pand­ing ex­trem­ism, rapid pop­u­la­tion growth, ris­ing un­em­ploy­ment, wors­en­ing wa­ter short­ages, and popular dis­con­tent. Po­lit­i­cal fis­sures and tribal and eth­nic sec­tar­i­an­ism add fuel to this lethal mix of vo­latil­ity and vi­o­lence.

It is time for the Sunni world to recog­nise the need for a fed­er­al­ist ap­proach to man­age the in­sta­bil­ity and con­flict that plagues it. Even the US must re­con­sider its re­gional pol­icy, which has long de­pended on al­liances with despotic Sunni rulers. In a re­gion rav­aged by con­flict, business as usual is no longer an op­tion.

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