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Muslim States and the Syria Question

Interviewee: Ed Husain, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
August 14, 2012

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The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is meeting today in Mecca for a high-level emergency discussion on Islamic solidarity. The two-day conference may have been prompted by the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar, but it is likely to focus on the conflict in Syria and its suspension from the OIC, which CFR Senior Fellow Ed Husain says, "ultimately has no real bearing on the ground." For Husain, other regional dynamics will also be in play. "[T]here's been a regional cold war that's been playing out in terms of who leads the Muslim streets, hearts, and minds; and Iran's claim is being challenged," he says. "Saudi Arabia is saying, 'Look, we still lead the vast majority of the world's Sunni nations.'" He also says the OIC may be outshined as Islamist regimes continue to win power. "[T]he problem is that all the [Islamist] organizations [are] committed to delivering results on the ground, and they've all come up through heavy struggle, revolution, and elections. The OIC doesn't reflect any of that."

Why do you think this meeting was called, and what issues are going to be on the table?

The final point to all of this is to raise the question: can Muslims do anything together as Muslims, or must they lean on international organizations that are, at least in the eyes of the Saudis, seen as somewhat incompetent?

The timing is interesting and important. The meeting will be happening during the last three days of the holy month of Ramadan, so there's a heightened feeling of religious awareness in the world. These meetings in the past have been held in Islamabad or other Arab-Muslim capitals but this time around it is being held in Mecca, where only the Saudi government can hold a meeting of that level. This helps reinstate Saudi Arabia's regional--and by extension international--prominence among Muslim-majority nations. [As for] Iran and Saudi Arabia, there's been regional cold war that's been playing out in terms of who leads the Muslim streets, hearts, and minds; and Iran's claim is being challenged. Saudi Arabia is saying, "Look, we still lead the vast majority of the world's Sunni nations."

The crisis in Syria is generally and sincerely felt among most Saudis to be a case of Sunnis being persecuted by what they consider a non-Muslim Alawite regime. Many Saudis also have tribal connections to Syria; so the Saudi-Syria relationship is very personal. [But] I think perhaps the trigger for [the meeting] might have been the ethnic tensions in Burma. Again, large numbers of Burmese Muslims live in Saudi Arabia, and one of the imams of the holy mosque in Mecca has Burmese ancestry. Unlike any other Muslim-majority nation, Saudi Arabia has already given $50 million in aid to the Burmese Muslims.

The final point to all of this is to raise the question: can Muslims do anything together, or must they lean on international organizations that are, at least in the eyes of the Saudis, seen as [somewhat] incompetent in stopping the situations unfolding in both Syria and, much less, in Myanmar?

Iran's President Ahmadinejad is expected to be in attendance. How do you think he's going to respond if Syria is dismissed suspended from the body?

The executive council within the OIC has already approved that and wants to put it to the OIC general body. And you're right to identify the tensions between Iran and other countries opposing it. Iran would be right to identify the fact that other perpetrators of [humanitarian] crimes, whether it be Iraq on Iran previously, or Sudan in the long path since 1969, [have not been] suspended. So the question is why should Syria be suspended? I also think that Syria may have other allies there--when the Iranians had a similar meeting last week, there were several other Muslim nations present there [in support of Syria]. Pakistan comes to mind immediately; Iraq comes to mind.

The motion will be debated, [but] ultimately has no real bearing on the ground. The Arab League has suspended Syria as a member. It hasn't really had any ramifications on the ground.

Given the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, how dangerous of a time is it for the region? Do you see any potential flashpoints outside of Syria?

The first [potential flashpoint] is Lebanon, where we've already seen some sparks fly because the ethnic and sectarian composition of Syria is broadly reflected inside Lebanon. We've already seen gunfights in the parts of Lebanon where Christians and others who have been pro-Assad, and the Sunni communities that have been anti-Assad [coexist].

Then there's Hezbollah, of course, which comes into the mix, which is very pro-Assad. As a result, Lebanon will be the first flashpoint, [followed by] Iraq. [But we shouldn't overlook] the border tensions between Iran and Syria, or dismiss the overspill into Israel and Jordan (to some extent), and possibly Turkey. But I think the most immediate flashpoint will be Lebanon.

How much does sectarianism play a role within the OIC, particularly with Sufis?

In the eyes of [Islamist] organizations, the OIC is an interesting talking shop. There is a real chance that the OIC might be more than a talking shop [one day] but not under the current leadership.

The OIC, with all its faults, does reflect the composition of Muslim governments across the world, and the [governing body], with three or four exceptions, does reflect the sectarian make-up of [member] countries. Therefore, by default, the OIC does reflect the fact that the vast majority of the world's Muslims are Sunnis, which is an important reminder to Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah, who would like to play the sectarian card.

Sufis cut across both Sunni and Shiite theology. The vast majority of the Muslims in Pakistan, Indonesia, and even Somalia are Sufi by inclination. There's no doubting that the vast majority of Muslims in the world embrace the Sunni creed--but many of them have [also embraced] Sufi practices; in Egypt and Indonesia, [many] belong to Sufi orders. So the Sufi issue isn't really part of the sectarian mix as much--it's the Sunni-Shiite divide that's [vital] to the politics of the Middle East.

What kind of effect do you think the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential victory in Egypt is having on the internal politics of the OIC?

The entire region is undergoing some form of Islamist [transformation]. This is not an Islamic presence, because the religious presence was always there and remains there, but is a new form of modernist, political, confrontational, identity-based Islam, i.e. Islamism. It is trending from Tunisia to Egypt down through large parts of Yemen. The question is [whether] the OIC will feel emboldened by this.

Turkey's government represents, at least nominally, the most progressive and most secular form of Islamism. I know that sounds contradictory, but they are emotionally and strategically in that entire Islamist camp.

Now, this [speaks] to the OIC theme, but the problem is that all the [Islamist] organizations -- whether it's the Brotherhood, Hamas, the Turkish AKP Party, or the Tunisian Ennahda party -- they're all committed to delivering results on the ground, and they've all come up through heavy struggle, revolution, and elections. The OIC doesn't reflect any of that. It's an old body left over from 1969. It's failed to do anything significant on the ground in relation to rights of Palestinians. And every major conflict that's played out in the region since 1969, the OIC has been a sideshow. So in the eyes of these organizations, the OIC is an interesting talking shop. There is a real chance that the OIC might be more than a talking shop [one day] but not under the current leadership.

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