In other news … there is still a ferocious conflict in the Middle East

I’ve just finished reading a new book called “Black Wave” by Kim Ghattas.

Ghattas is a Lebanese writer and Emmy Award-winning journalist who covered the Middle East for 20 years for the BBC and the “Financial Times”. The ‘black wave’ of the title is the tsunami of Islamic fundamentalism that has flooded the Middle East and her informative and insightful book covers developments over the last 40 years in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Pakistan with references to Afghanistan, Yemen and Turkey. It is an ambitious scope with a good deal of information, but Ghattas is an accomplished writer who enlivens her narratives with stories of brave individuals seeking a more inclusive and humanistic Islam.

Too many people in the West see recent events as a clash of civilisations between the rational, democratic world and the inexpicable Islamic world and have an massively inflated fear of Islamist-inspired terrorism. In reality, as Ghattas, states: “The largest number of victims of jihadist violence are Muslims themselves within their own countries”. The theme of this book is that there is in effect a civil war within Islam itself between the majority Sunni world and the minority Shia world and, within each section of Islam, between minority fundamentalists and the majority of tolerant Muslims. In national terms, this conflict is a titantic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran who are ruled by adherents of very particular and extreme versions of respectively Sunni and Shia thought.

The schism goes back to the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. What we now call the Sunni tradition believes that the succession from the prophet should be determined by selection, commencing with the prophet’s close companion Abu Bakr, and that the prime authority should be a ruling caliph. What we now call the Shia tradition believes that succession should be through the prophet’s descendents, starting with his cousin Ali, and that the prime authority should be the local imam. 

Today, in Saudi Arabia, the controlling Al-Saud dynasty follows a particular version of Sunnism based on the teaching of the 18th century religious preacher Ibn Abdelwahhab (hence the term Wahhabism) which is part of the Hanabali school, the strictist of the four main schools of jurisprudence. Meanwhile, in Iran, almost all Muslims are Twelvers, named after the Twelfth and last Imam who lives in occultation and will reappear as the promised Mahdi, and, since the revolution of 1979, the country has had a version of Shism which merges religion and politics and places power in the Supreme Leader and the Guardianship of the Jurist.

Saudi Arabia seeks to dominate the Middle East through the use of vast sums of oil money to fund madrassas and organisations that propagate its peculiar view of Islam. For its part, Iran projects its influence through military means via use of its Revolutionary Guards in Syria, its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebabon, and its support for proxies in Iraq. Currently the two powers are indirectly locked in a brutal conflict in Yemen with the Saudis backing the Sunni government and Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels. 

This is a story of what Ghattas calls “the sectarianisation of faith”” where “despair drives people to faith” and yet, as she points out: “In all of the 6,236 verses of the Quran, there is not a single verse calling on Muslims to silence blasphemers by force”. In a short concluding chapter, Ghattas writes: “Travelling around the region to conduct my reporting for this book, I oscillated between despair and hope … Between despair and hope, I ultimately settled on hope”. It would be encouraging to learn that there is meaningful evidence for such hope, but really her hope is based on no more than a belief in the courage of selected reformers, even though the last chapter of the book is about the savage killing of her colleague and friend Jamal Khashoggi.


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