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Iran and Saudi Arabian tension is not sectarian by Abdul Q. Kundi

It is welcome news that Prime Minister of Pakistan will be visiting Iran and Saudi Arabia to defuse tension between the two brotherly Muslim majority countries. First milestone to cross would be re-establishment of diplomatic ties. Second balancing of powers and interests of the two in all avenues of tension including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. This will be a key high profile visit by a head of state after escalation of tension. This week Foreign Minister of Indonesia visited both Iran and Saudi Arabia. I hope Pakistan foreign ministry has contacted Indonesian embassy to get briefing about this visit so that Prime Minister can build on it. It would be even better if Prime Minister pick up the phone and speak to President of Indonesia. Pakistan Prime Minister may also be preparing ground for the upcoming visit of Chinese President to the two countries expected shortly as reported by Iran Daily. China-Pakistan has been working closely to stabilize South Asia and improve its economic link with Central Asia and Middle East.

Pakistan and Turkey are neighbors of Iran but are considered close to Saudi Arabia. President Erdogan harsh criticism of Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia did not help in the matter. This dents their credibility in the eyes of Iranian’s as neutral arbiters. It would have been better if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stopped at Tehran first before proceeding to Riyadh. Malaysia and Indonesia are considered more neutral countries and should be engaged in the process. Recent terror incident in Jakarta, claimed by Islamic State, makes them stakeholders in the stability of Middle East and global fight against terrorism.

Majority of Western media and some Muslim opinion makers are labelling Saudi-Iranian tension as a sectarian feud. I do not agree with that as there is a millennium long history of struggle for cultural dominance between Persian Iran after rise of Arabs at the advent of Islam. Arabs conquered Persian Empire within first 60 years of its emergence. Even assassination of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (RATA) was considered a conspiracy of Persian slaves that came to Medina. One of the alleged co-conspirator was a former governor of a Persian province enslaved by Arabs and was killed by son of Umar in a rage. This act was condemned by Hazarat Ali (RATA) and demanded that son of Umar should be prosecuted for taking the law in his own hands. But hazart Uthman (RATA) granted him a pardon without proper legal proceedings which became cause for tension between these two and exploited fully by Persian slaves. They were the first ones to create a movement called shian of Ali (friends of Ali). Some historians view the Iranian adoption of Shia sect was also an effort to differentiate herself from Arabs, who were majority Sunni, as well as her affinity towards sufism which is a key component of its message. So it is a struggle between Persian and Arab nationalist ambitions as pointed out by the terms and symbols used by diplomats. For instance the statement of Saudi Foreign Minister when the tension escalate was to warn Iran not to interfere in Arab affairs. Iranian Foreign Minister on the other hand labelled Saudi Arabia as enemy of Shia sect. This conflict will still be there if all of Iran was Sunni because Iranians consider themselves one of the oldest original civilizations of the world along with Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians and South Americans.

Another factor to consider is the differences in Arab and Persian Shia. Not all Shia scholars, especially Arabs, believe that the early political decisions should continue to cause division. For instance there is a movement in Iraqi Shia scholars that early political decisions about caliphate should not continue dividing the ummah. Secondly doctrinal differences exist between Shafi, Maliki and Hannbali even though they are all sunni. Doctrinal differences are always present in almost all religions, for instance protestants/catholics in Christianity, and have been used by ambitious politicians to further their own agendas.

The Shia-Sunni coloring of the political struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is mostly a creation of the West in which Iran and Saudi Arabia went along because both these nations like to use political Islam for their dominance of the region. For them religion is a potent force to get recruits to sacrifice at the altar of political and strategic gains. Larger Muslim community does not believe in this sectarian conflict and is angry at both these nations.

It is important that Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) takes active role as a platform to defuse tensions among its member countries, create balance of power and interests. One of the agenda item on the visit of Prime Minister should be to explore ways and means to engage OIC in these crisis. OIC has to also take some initiative in initiating a dialogue between sects to create a better understanding and reduce misunderstandings.

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