Many do not agree with the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory of Samuel P Huntington but there can hardly be a doubt about the fact that there has been a churn within the Islamic world since 1979. The defeat of the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan at the hands of the US-Saudi-Pakistan combine through 1979-89 contributed to the end of the Cold War. The revolution in Iran in 1979 also had a profound telling effect within the faith. The events that followed after 1989 began an unspecified and hard-to-peg vision of the Islamic world: on the one hand, reformation in the faith and potential steps towards modernisation, and on the other, obscurantism or a return to the origins of the faith.
A competition to lead the faith and take the Ummah to a position of dominance in international power politics was also triggered. The combination of these trends is what the churn has been all about—an internal process of conflicts between numerous sects and subsects and between Islamic nations. However, when these trends mire into geopolitical issues, they create far greater turbulence. Palestine-Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria have been just a few.
The progressive emergence and persistent presence of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Al Shabab and Boko Haram have added a different dimension. Arab nations, more specifically those of the Gulf Cooperation Council, financially dominated the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has led the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the 57-nation club of Islamic nations that addresses many of their affairs but without great unity and even lesser vision.
In the last two years and more, specifically after the onset of the Covid pandemic, the churn within the Islamic bloc appears to be changing course. It will take several analyses to specify the effect this is likely to have on different important nations and regions, as also the geopolitics involved there. However, the most critical part is to ascertain how these changes are occurring, thereby creating a new strategic environment that will enable fresh alignments or reinforce existing conflicts.
The prime area of change is the Middle East that is in much less turmoil and undergoing a process of transition. The Arab-Israeli conflict, which dominated Middle East geopolitics for many years, is giving way to the emerging sectarian conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have changed tack and are in the process of making peace with Israel, although formalisation is awaited. Israel is no longer outcast to a segment of the Middle East nations.
The recent flurry of Abraham Accords appears to set the tone for many more nations to normalise relations with Israel, facilitated by the US. Nations such as Syria and even Lebanon may not follow suit but the potential for stability will increase if discord with Israel reduces. In the same light, Qatar’s de-isolation is in process under US nudging; this too will contribute towards stability. The energy-related significance of the Middle East has been only partially reduced with the US no longer dependent on the region. China, Japan and India continue to remain so for their future economic growth.
The US is looking to shift focus to the Indo-Pacific but its continued presence in the Middle East will also ensure some control over resources and events at the strategic confluence of the world. The Islamic world’s energy-linked significance, which rose in 1973, could remain intact for some more time. Terror has been on the blink ever since the defeat of the Islamic State. The potential for resurgence always remains due to the existence of proxies of Iran and core elements of the non-state terror groups. The sectarian conflict cannot be won on any conventional battlefield.
It will be a fight that will exploit every facet of hybrid war with irregular strikes against assets, population and leadership—prime potential for high turbulence. The end of Israel’s outcast status may somewhat contribute towards neatening the lines of conflict after the complexities witnessed during the Syrian civil war, when it was difficult to determine who was in conflict with whom. Yet, whatever is achieved, there is further setback due to the more energetic involvement of Turkey in the affairs of the Islamic world and the Middle East in particular after a clear fallout with Europe; Mustafa Kemal’s dream lies shattered and with that has arisen Turkey’s Ottoman ambition.
Ostensibly, Turkey is with Iran and Pakistan in an attempt to challenge Arab and specifically Saudi hegemony of the OIC. Yet, Turkey, after assisting in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh, is now giving indicators of hardening its stance against Iran and attempting to show a softer approach towards Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is probably setting the stage to welcome the new US administration in the hope of having sanctions imposed by the Trump administration lifted.
Such dynamic changes by key players in the Islamic world will be a frequent phenomenon as lines yet remain blurred and loyalties are still for sale. Pakistan, for instance, sits on the fence of whether to go with Turkey and Iran or return to the traditional Saudi club. Contending with US-Saudi soft pedalling on Kashmir will be a difficult decision but its economic plight gives it few options. The Af-Pak area will continue to attract attention due to conflicts that Pakistan is involved in, on both its flanks.
One area that remains in contention is the ideological nerve centre of the future. Will Saudi Arabia’s high position as the custodian of the holy shrines be challenged? Although Islam is linked to the Saudi territories and the Arabic language that spell the emotions of the faith, a contestation for leadership could yet occur.
A few random issues at stake will be whether an Arab Spring 2.0 will occur anytime in the near future, how Iran handles conflicts around it, whether the non-state terror groups attempt a major resurgence, how successful efforts to reduce Islamophobia are, and finally how Europe responds to immigrant communities. On the final manifestation from the churn of these trends will the Islamic world contend with future international geopolitics. Expect to hear more on this from my keyboard.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) (email@example.com)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir