Source: The Economist
SAUDI ARABIA’S most senior cleric has bluntly said that that Iranian Shias are not Muslim at all. The kingdom’s grand mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, was responding to a blistering attack on the Saudi authorities by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over the handling of pilgrimage to Mecca. Because of a breakdown in Saudi-Iranian relations, triggered in part by a fatal stampede in Mecca a year ago, this will be the first year in three decades that Iranians have not taken part in the annual Haj or sacred journey to Islam’s Arabian birthplace, which started on September 10th. Ayatollah Khamenei said in the aftermath of the 2015 stampede that Saudi incompetence, including “locking up the injured with the dead”, had led to unnecessary deaths. At least 464 Iranians are believe to have perished. Negotiations on arrangements for this year’s pilgrimage broke down and Iran has said it is not safe for its citizens to go.
Vali Nasr, the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at America’s Johns Hopkins University, called it the worst crisis in Sunni-Shia and Saudi-Iranian relations in “quite a number of years” and a reminder that apart from all the strategic quarrels between the Sunni kingdom and the Shia republic, purely religious differences had a momentum of their own. For example, if devout Iranians felt the Saudis had needlessly delayed the burial of bodies after the stampede, violating Islam’s requirement for a quick interment, that would cause genuine anger. Meanwhile the Saudi cleric’s denunciation of the Iranians as non-Muslims could stir Sunni-Shia tensions everywhere from West Africa to Malaysia.
Theology can infect geopolitics, and vice-versa. As Mr Nasr points out, plenty of worldly factors are keeping the theological temperature high. They include the civil wars in Syria and Yemen where Saudis and Iranians actively back different sides; deep Saudi insecurity over America’s nuclear deal with Tehran and the prospect of an internationally respectable Iran; and the Iranians’ alarm over the rise of Islamic State which they see as one among many Sunni forces ranged them against them.
In the past, the Saudis had at times reacted stoically to Iranian challenges over issues to do with pilgrimage and the kingdom’s stewardship of holy places. Now the kingdom is lashing out, perhaps even goading Iran.