Rifts in the Middle East have gone global

Where the Muslim Middle East dwarfs the rest of the Muslim world is in the political headlines it generates in Western media sites.

FLAGS OF Arab states are seen along the Nile River ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo (photo credit: REUTERS)
FLAGS OF Arab states are seen along the Nile River ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Middle East is not the Islamic world. Its overwhelmingly Muslim population accounts for only one third of the world’s Muslim population. The Muslim populations of India (200 million), Pakistan (over 200 million), Indonesia (more than 200 million), and Bangladesh (more than 100 million) dwarf the Muslim populations of Egypt (100 million), Turkey (90 million), and Iran (80 million), the most populous countries of the Middle East.
Where the Muslim Middle East dwarfs the rest of the Muslim world is in the political headlines it generates in Western media sites.
Western media sites render the Saudi Arabia-Iranian rift known to all. The battlegrounds where this rift is played out in Yemen, Lebanon and until recently in Syria has been widely reported.
So have the Western media followed in extensive detail the finer-tuned struggle between Saudi Arabia and its allies, the UAE and Egypt against Qatar, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, either directly in the attempted siege of Qatar, or in the proxy battlegrounds of Libya where Turkey and Qatar support the government in Tripoli and the former support the government in Tobruk in the East? The latter still hope that their general, Khalifa Haftar, will destroy the government in Tripoli, unite Libya and rid the country of Turkish influence.
Similarly, the interested layman has probably a good sense how foreign powers feed into these regional conflicts: that the United States supports Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states against Iranian hegemony in Yemen; that Russia is trying to contain the United States and Turkey in Syria and even hedging against Iran; and how Russia has intervened against Turkey in Libya.
Lesser known is how these tensions are creating rifts among Islamic states and populations outside the Middle East.
The conference in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, sponsored by a state known for its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, is a reflection of how these conflicts have fed into the relationship between states with large Islamic populations outside the Middle East.
Noticeable to all was the total absence of Saudi Arabian scholars at the event, against the rich representation of scholars from Turkey, Iran and Qatar. Even more glaring was the failure of the Pakistani and Indonesian scholars to come to the Malaysian capital as a result of pressure Saudi Arabia brought to bear on Pakistan as a major underwriter of this massive but poor country’s debts, and on Indonesia, where Saudi Arabian petrodollars are heavily invested.
Grave matters of dispute between these countries explain the record of attendance. Saudi Arabia perceives the conference as an attempt to weaken the Council of Islamic Cooperation, which consists of the 57 states in the world where Muslims form the majority of the country’s population. Saudi Arabia has traditionally played a dominant role in this organization, as lackluster and relatively unimportant as it has been since its establishment in 1969.
INDEED, THE central theme of the conference – the attack on Muslim minorities – was designed to embarrass Saudi Arabia, which especially since 9/11 has maintained a foreign policy that privileges good relationships between states based on pragmatic grounds, independent of the religious character of the state in question. The long-standing relationship between theocratic and monarchic Saudi Arabia and the United States, a republic wedded to the idea of the separation between church and state, was always a reflection of the conservative nature of the Saudi monarchy.
For Saudi Arabia, this means above all maintaining good relations with the two power houses of Asia – India and China – both of which are large consumers of Saudi oil.
Yet these were the two leading countries which were targeted (between the lines) for discriminating against Muslim minorities. India, under a Hindu nationalist government, has been under criticism for abrogating Kashmir’s autonomous status in the Indian federation, and more recently for changing an immigration law, which though worded in neutral terms, has the effect, Muslims claim, of restricting immigration from Muslim Bangladesh into India.
Demonstrations have erupted over both issues. China is also castigated in the Muslim world for oppressing the Uyghur Sunni minority in northwestern China.
As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, the conference is one more venue in which three countries fiercely intent on undermining neighbor states come together: Iran, which principally supported the conference because Saudi Arabia opposed it; Turkey, which in Saudi eyes has attempted to undermine Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule in Egypt; and Qatar, which has long supported the Muslim Brotherhood and unleashed its media site Al Jazeera against Saudi Arabia and its allies in the service of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.
Though Israel is not directly involved, the ramifications of this wider rift in the Muslim world affect Israel as well.
Obviously, Israel sides with Saudi Arabia, India and China rather than with Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Malaysia, all of which support Hamas; Erdogan’s Turkey, which until recently was the organizational center of terrorist planning; Iran, which has trained and armed Hamas terrorists; and Malaysia, which has harbored Hamas terrorists and Qatar, whose Al Jazeera in Arabic is clearly a mouthpiece of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and stridently anti-Israeli.
The inter-Islamic standoff also has implications for Israel’s relationship with the United States and Russia by highlighting to both the increased danger of Iran and Turkey, whose negative role is not limited to the Middle East but through the Muslim connection, to other important areas around the globe, most noticeably a risen Asia. The common danger to both the United States and China helps mitigate a tense relationship between Israel’s staunch ally and China, a major market. Israeli diplomats would do well to emphasize these aspects to Israel’s advantage.
The writer is a professor in the Departments of Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University.