SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s declaration that he is Caliph of the world’s Sunni Muslims is a direct threat to the Saudi King, who claims to be the Protector of Muslims everywhere. So far, it does not directly challenge the authority of Ayatollahs over Shia Muslims.
This Islamic State assault is the latest in wars that have caused numerous border and regime changes in 1500 years of enmities among Muslim tribes and kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula and Levant.
President Barack Obama called the Islamic State a cancer that needs “rooting out” and said the fight “won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.” He also admitted that he does not yet have a strategy to do the rooting out.
However, the question remains whether getting deeply involved will drop Obama into the centuries-old inextricable trap of intra-Arabian enmities, despite the best intentions of his motives.
Does anyone in America really know how Arabians think and why they have been fighting one another for so long? Does anyone know why American youth — even just special “advisors” — should die in barbaric Arabian Peninsula wars involving how local Muslim believers should live and be governed?
If the need is for oil, Americans and others can just buy it. They do not have to step into local wars or provoke regime changes.
As the new face of intra-Arabian enmities, Al-Baghdadi’s chief goal is winning power over people in the Arabian Peninsula and their main religion – Sunni Islam — by war, terrorism and ruse. Destabilizing the US or Europe is not his central motive although he will retaliate in the West by any means if it tries to thwart him.
Unlike Al Qaeda terrorists, he is especially ominous for his local prey because he is a pragmatic military and political strategist, not just a zealot blinkered by dogma.
For instance, he has allied with Baath Socialist professionals from the army and air force of the late Saddam Hussein despite deep ideological differences. He is also taking advantage of the disillusionment of Sunni tribal Sheikhs with the Shia-led government in Baghdad although he disapproves of their softer versions of Sunni Islam.
As self-appointed Caliph, he places Shias alongside Christians, Jews and other religions to be converted to his version of “pure” Islam after the three rallying points of Arab Islam – Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem — are brought under his control.
He is not yet planning wars against the Saudis but expects that the local Muslim faithful will turn against the corrupt Saudi establishment when they witness the purity of his nearby Caliphate. He may leave Jerusalem unmolested for some time since that means directly facing Israel and the US.
If they wished, the Saudi King and his Gulf Emirate allies and could take on al-Baghdadi’s fighters because they have very powerful military and air forces, thoroughly equipped and trained by the US. They would also get Israeli intelligence help in Syria.
In addition, they have intimate knowledge of the terrain in the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria, experienced local spies and long-standing influence over the region’s tribal Sheikhs.
But the Saudi King may avoid fighting his own battles because the extensive civilian deaths would be Muslim on Muslim and he would get the blame. He may again try to outsource the sacrifice and opprobrium to Americans.
Some argue that Obama is morally obliged to fight the Islamic State because its rise is an unintended consequence of American blunders in Iraq or his neglect of the viper’s nest in Syria.
More accurately, it is an outcome of authoritarian rule, sectarian obscurantism and civil strife among tribes, sheikdoms, factions and rulers from Syria to Iraq, including Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Fortunately, the White House is waking up to the cynicism of its Arab allies and US interventions are being limited so far to protecting American lives and preventing large humanitarian disasters. For the moment, not much else is doable.
The religious barbarity and sectarian bigotry of the Islamic State is not a result of Sykes-Picot imperialism or American mistakes of governance in Iraq since 2003. It emerges from the peculiarities of Islamic doctrines practiced only in the Arabian Peninsula and Levant.
The 900 million Muslims outside Arabia, both Sunni and Shia, practice more humane and peaceful versions of Islam. They are the world’s so far silent Muslim majority.
Perhaps, they are the ones who will reject Arab al-Baghdadi’s sequestering of their religion and dethrone Saudi Wahhabism by simply ignoring its strictures. That could help to bring the Islamic State to naught by causing it to collapse from within.
None of al-Baghdadi’s local allies likes his totalitarian barbaric style but the Sunni Baathists hate the US for ousting them and letting their Shia subjects seize political power. The Sunni Sheikhs feel Washington broke promises to obtain significant influence for them in Shia-led Baghdad as reward for the Sunni Awakening that drove Al Qaeda out of Iraq.
Both blame Americans but their various angers stem from changes in the local Sunni-Shia power balance and the internal power balance among local Sunni tribes.
Washington’s inclusive state mantra is out of touch with Arabian Sunni believers in particular, who have steadfastly resisted Western-style modernism and globalization despite the rapidly changing world around them.
Other less religious Arabs, such as the Baath Socialists, tried to enter the new world but only to expand their power rather than living as orderly world citizens. Even they were too steeped in local culture to promote Western-style democracy, however limited.
Now the tribal Sheikhs who never accepted Baath secularism are reluctant to fight the IS just to satisfy Washington’s desire to protect Americans against IS-inspired terrorism in the US homeland, among other things, by creating an inclusive Iraq. They may also refuse to continue supplying spotters for US air strikes against IS in Iraq or near the Syrian border to prevent humanitarian disasters or genocide.
To strike a new bargain with Washington against al-Baghdadi, they too might want considerable autonomy like the Kurdish region or even independence as a separate Sunni Union.
In fact, the more Obama tries to prevent humanitarian disasters and genocide, the higher their price since they know that Washington is ineffective without them because it will not put US boots on the ground.
Such attitudes are extremely cynical since the Baathists and Sheikhs have almost nothing in common with IS warriors. They loath al-Baghdadi’s craving for a “pure” Islamic State to force the entire human race to submit to his fevered version of God.
Al-Baghdadi’s warriors are enemies of the Saudi King because they see him as a vassal of Washington, thus undeserving of his official title as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina.
They expect the IS example to be so inspiring that the King will no longer be able to buy off citizens motivated by extremist dogma, as he has in the past.
After consolidating the IS in Syria and Iraq, al-Baghdadi will be more focused on fomenting terrorism to depose the Saudi King than starting a major war against the Shias in Iraq or Iran.
He is battling to restore “purity” to Sunni Islam, as he sees it. Conquering Shia Islam’s 90 million people in Iraq and Iran, and converting the world’s 214 million Shias is not yet a priority.
The Sunni vs Shia troubles he is trying to foment in Iraq are a tactic to gain time to consolidate his hold over the territories he wants for his special “kingdom”. He wants to prevent Iraq’s Shia from making common cause against him with the Sunni tribes he wants to dispossess.
For him, purity is meaningful only in the context of Sunni Islam since he sees Shias as apostates. Not being Muslim in his sense, they do not deserve his immediate attention even in Iraq.
Starting with Iraq’s Sunnis, he prefers control over the world’s 1.4 billion Sunnis, projected to grow to 2 billion by 2030.
He and his warriors believe that they win either way. If they die, they are guaranteed praise in Islamic heaven; if they win, they purify Islam and Muslims attracted by Western style “decadence”. All other people, including non-practicing Muslims are expendable.
In his view, scripture commands pitiless destruction of obstacles to “pure Islam”, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, unless they pledge to live by his version. Thus, the barbarity.
In line with his medieval beliefs, cutting off heads ensures that the impure will wander forever in damnation so he chooses that over the bullets people in the West find more civilized.
The process of killing is always ghastly. Making it medieval is his way of instilling shock and awe into the people he wants to subdue. It used to be the practice in conflicts in the Arabian Peninsula and Levant for centuries until the US used a different style of shock and awe during its 1990-1991 campaign in Iraq.
As yet, medieval fighting methods seem to have the upper hand over America’s modern styles of war. So it is worth asking whether getting deeply involved again will change much, whatever the good or human freedoms Americans may desire to bring to the region’s people.