The war for the heart of the Muslim world

Firas Modad
15 min readDec 22, 2020

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In Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington defines ‘core states’ as the states that are seen as sufficiently credible and powerful by other states in their civilization to set the rules, offer protection, and establish order within their civilizational sphere of influence. For example, Russia historically played this role for Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Serbia. The United States emerged as the core state of Western civilization, setting the trading rules and providing for defense, as well as setting the cultural tone. China is the core state of East Asia, with strong historic cultural influences over Korea and Japan, and a significant and economically prosperous Chinese diaspora in Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in the region, and with aspirations to match that cultural role with defence capability and commercial ties. Huntington also pointed out that Islam has lacked a core state since the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate. He attributes the instability of the Muslim world partially to this leaderlessness. This piece posits that the struggle between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran is a multilayered contest over which state becomes the ‘core state’ of the Muslim world. The three are competing over which Islam to export to the world, over spheres of influence in the Middle East and beyond, and over representing Muslims abroad and protecting their interests. In that sense, Iran’s export of revolutionary ideology is similar to the Saudis’ export of Wahhabism and Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood. All three states aim to convince Muslims of their values and political system, and that theirs should be the voice speaking for the Muslim world.

One layer of the struggle between the three contenders for leading the Muslim world is geopolitical, with each country trying to expand the buffer regions and populations that lay between it and its rivals’ strongholds. The second is military, with each country trying to develop its ability to project power and defend itself through the acquisition of hardware and technology and the expansion of proxy forces. The third is political, as the three vie to present Muslims with a credible governance system that responds to their needs, protects their interests and represents their will, albeit not necessarily through free and fair elections. The last and most important dimension of this struggle is religious perception, with all three states seeking to become the leader of the Muslim world by ensuring they are credibly seen as such by Muslims near and far, not least by developing an interpretation of Islam that secures Muslim territories against non-Muslims. This explains why all three compete to export different streaks of jihadism.

The layers of this struggle obviously interact and are deeply entangled: a political system can only be accepted if it has religious legitimacy. Legitimacy comes in part from the ability to defend the state’s borders and have it treated as an equal by world powers. Military might, obtained directly or through proxies, is a prerequisite to having the ear of world powers. The state that succeeds in making non-Muslims respect Islam, meeting its people’s expectations, achieving military victories against its foes, and forcing rival powers to respect its will would be seen as divinely supported. Such a state would be able to organize its neighbors, arbitrate conflicts between them, protect them from rivals in other civilizations, and speak for Muslim minorities in the non-Muslim world. It would set the tone of cultural discourse, and define the rules and practices of Islam. It would be the core state of the Muslim world.

Iranian ascendancy

Iran is arguably winning this contest. Geopolitically, its territory is defended by impermeable mountains and supportive populations in states that neighbor it. Militarily, it has rallied a number of non-Persian peoples to its defense and to help it project power, in addition to building significant missile and asymmetric capability. Indeed, Iran’s proxies have become so effective and capable that they’ve cost Iran one of the main privileges of having proxies — plausible deniability: Even if it were true, few would believe that Iran is not responsible for Hezbollah’s actions, or for Yemeni Houthi militias firing missiles at Riyadh. Moreover, Iran has access to Russian, Chinese and North Korean technology, which it has integrated into a domestic arms manufacturing capability. Iran is likely oddly flattered that Israel fears its nuclear scientists to the extent that it is willing to assassinate them. That boosts its credibility in the Muslim world.

Politically, Iran has established a modern theocracy credibly rooted in Islamic history. Its political system has checks and balances that favor the religious leadership, restricted elections that still generate high levels of participation, a judiciary governing with a modernised and, when expedient, brutal interpretation of Islamic law, and a religious leader appointed for life at the helm. The theocracy is sufficiently participatory at the bottom and controlled from the top to be both flexible and stable, despite intra-elite divisions and localised economic and political unrest. Through the 2015 nuclear deal, it demonstrated that it can effectively challenge the West and negotiate with the main world powers as an equal, and can boast of rejecting talks with President Trump. Equally importantly, it has built good political and economic relationships with China, Russia and India, the core states of the surrounding civilizations.

Iran effectively represents the interests of the Shia and expands their influence, empowering them to play a greater role in their own countries. It is the core state of the Shia Muslim world, but not the entire Muslim world. To gain that status, it has set itself the objective of restoring Muslim honor by recapturing Islam’s third holiest place, Jerusalem. This is a long-term, millenarian and sufficiently unattainable objective, the pursuit of which aids the rise of Iran.

Turkey catching up

Rather than Erdogan being an exception in Ataturk’s secular republic, Ataturk and his republic are an aberration in Ottoman history. The Turkish military had been engaged in a futile battle to check the rise of Islamists since the 1970s. The Army overthrew a coalition government in which the Islamists participated in 1980, and a fully-fledged and duly elected Islamist government in 1997. The opening to the Middle East and the Ex-Soviet Muslim states began during the reign of President Ozal in the early 1990s. Erdogan and his AK Party, the latest in a series of incarnations of Islamist parties, responded to the military’s resistance to the popular will that won them one election after the other with intensified authoritarianism. Authoritarian habits, once formed, especially in a receptive culture open to a supposedly ‘divine mission’, are difficult to discard. The result is that Erdogan is in full control of the Turkish state, and is committed to building what he terms a ‘pious generation’. This is sometimes described as a social engineering program. It is more historically accurate to describe it as a return to the norm.

By cracking down on the PKK after having initially sought to negotiate with them, Erdogan has achieved what his Turkish Islamist predecessors could not: reach common ground with an intransigent military that kept defying him despite his many purges. Even if some cannot see it, the PKK poses an existential threat to Turkey from the perspectives of both the nationalists and the Islamists. The PKK is an atheist nationalist socialist organization. Its atheism and appeal to the left threaten Turkey’s Islamic identity. Its territorial ambitions in Syria and Iraq threaten the territorial integrity of the Turkish state. And the fact that it has tolerably good relations with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and with Iran and Russia, make Turkey fear that it would be used as a proxy by rival powers, as it had been in the past. The PKK is a threat to Turkey’s bid for leading the Muslim world, as it erodes Turkey’s strategic depth and threatens to partition the country or worse, rob it of its cultural and religious identity.

As such, Turkey corralled Syrian hardline Islamists into a proxy force that it can use against the Kurds. Turkey has no ideology that can get Sunni Arab Syrians to bend to its will other than Islamism. The presence of Syrian fighters complements Turkey’s own armed forces, NATO’s second largest, allowing it to project power more effectively, as it is doing in Libya. Turkey views the energy resources of the Iraqi Kurdish region as a crucial part of its own security, and therefore needs to keep it under the control of a pliant client, if not direct control. Moreover, as Turkey sees it, it is better to lash out at the external threats rather than wait until they become internal, which explains its dispute with the US over US support for PKK-affiliated militias in Syria’s eastern regions, as well as its activities in Libya and Lebanon. Indeed, Turkish authorities have already accepted the price of destroying the historic centers of the Turkish-Kurdish cities of Cizre and Diyarbakir to deal with the threat from the PKK, have captured the PKK’s stronghold in Syria’s Afrin, and are targeting its other mountainous stronghold in Qandil in Iraq. Other than Sinjar, the PKK have no mountains left. Robbing the Kurds of their only friend is a highly effective military and political strategy, pursued ruthlessly, through a combination of advanced technology and historical understanding.

Politically, Turkey is recovering from the setback it received due to the floundering of the 2011 Middle East uprisings. Turkey’s hope had been that it would be an inspiration, and that Muslim Brotherhood governments aligned with the AK Party’s ideology would take over power in Yemen, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, and at least share in the governance of Syria. Qatari media, money and contacts were supposed to help in that objective, rallying the Arab public in those states into greater support for political Islam. However, Tunisia’s Islamists cannot control the political system there. Libya and Yemen have become failed states, albeit opportunities for Turkey to expand its influence. Egypt’s current government is now committed to uprooting the Brotherhood from Egyptian society. And, until Afrin and Operation Olive Branch, the rise of the Kurds almost turned Syria from an opportunity to install a friendly government into an existential threat. Erdogan’s ability to convince other Muslim peoples to follow his country’s example now depends on military victories and economic performance. The latter especially is vulnerable to the US, especially if the US forgets that it needs Turkey to counter Russia and Iran.

The Arabs

Thanks to the Obama -Trump double act, in which, ironically, Trump has played the good cop to Obama’s ‘let’s make a deal with Iran’ bad cop, the Saudis have become the most pliant Muslim ally the US has. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are attempting to transform Islam from a political religion to a personal religion, an endeavour which will certainly fail, as all religion is social and political. The rise of the Islamic State has enabled this attempt at re-inventing Islam, in that it showed the public the consequences of following the teachings of the clerical establishments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The US has every interest in seeing the process succeed, while knowing full well that any success will only be temporary, and that the attempt to transform Islam primarily reflects domestic and regional weakness.

Saudi Arabia would like to lead the Arab camp. It sees itself as a key contender for Islamic leadership thanks to its control of Mecca and Medina, forcing Iran and Turkey to publicly treat it with respect. Whatever is preached from Mecca has the attention of the entire Muslim world. However, Saudi Arabia’s allies refuse to bend to its will, and its enemies are formidable. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been at odds over which proxies to pick in Yemen, stuck in a terrain that better armies have failed to conquer. Egypt has refused to send a single soldier to fight there, not oblivious to its own disastrous performance there in the 1960s.

Iran can probably destabilize Bahrain more seriously, and can likely do more damage in Saudi’s oil rich Eastern Province, which abuts Bahrain, were it not for the threat of massive US retaliation. While Iran has not yet won in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia has all but lost in large part due to its competition with Turkey. Its influence in Lebanon has never been lower. Saudi Arabia’s weak geopolitical position is the main reason why it must escalate against Iran and Turkey. It needs to recover some grounds, by any means necessary, to improve its bargaining position if nothing else. This is what underlies the rushed escalations that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has engaged in. The results are another matter, however: much of the Sunnis losses in Iraq and Syria are due to infighting between the Sunni powers.

Moreover, as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia fight against domestic Islamists and renounce support for transnational Islamists, Saudi Arabia finds itself having lost its main means of power projection: Sunni jihadists that had served it well in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The technological military edge Saudi Arabia has through its access to advanced US technology has shown its limits in Yemen, but would be more significant in a state-on-state conflict. Saudi Arabia is increasingly forced to rely on its own national forces, given that it has relinquished its traditional proxies — at least for now.

To assure themselves of continued access to US hardware, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are humoring the US’ attempt to sponsor a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, in the hope that pulling this thorn from their sides would allow them to focus their energies against Iran and Turkey more effectively. However, the conventional wisdom, to which I subscribed, states that this severely underestimates the extent of Muslim hostility to Zionism, and the impact that embracing the Jewish state would have on stability in countries like Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia itself. It is quite possible this is true. It seems more likely that the Arabs have grown accustomed to Zionism — after all, an Arab in Israel has far more rights than an Arab in the Muslim world.

The absolutism of the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian political models is hardly appealing, especially given their intolerance of the mildest of dissent. The appeal of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE is to authoritarianism and economic development, rather than to any democratic process — though one must admit that the UAE manages to be participatory within limits. Given that Muslim societies in the Middle East have no recent experience with the precursors of democratic institutions, authoritarianism stands a chance of becoming more appealing and credible, if it can deliver economically and in terms of international prestige. Meanwhile, the social opening up that Saudi Arabia is undertaking risks undermining its religious credibility. Decades of indoctrination and tradition will not be easily shed, and people in the Middle East do not fight for liberalism, but for God or pay.

US Delusions

The US has viewed the problems in the Middle East as discreet policy questions, not as a power struggle for the domination of Islam. President Bill Clinton focused mainly on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and saving Bosnia. After 9/11, the US first focused on spreading democracy in the Middle East, during the administration of George W Bush. The neoconservatives that dominated US policy-making at the time had hoped that the invasion of Iraq would make the country into a democratic ally of the West, and that Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria would be next on the list for coerced democratization. However, the US-led occupation of Iraq resulted in an expansion of Iranian power and in increased hostility to the US from both the Sunni and Shia communities. It was always delusional to think that respecting the popular will of the Muslim world would result in countries that have friendlier ties to Christian or liberal Europe and the US. The delusion stems from modern Westerners viewing themselves as post-Christian. It is clear that most Muslims are very far from viewing themselves as post-Islam. In any event, US policy in Iraq has proven a failure. Even while the US was deployed there fully, Iran was gradually taking over Iraqi security forces, with the Badr Organization expanding from a small amalgamation of hit squads in 2003 into the main power in the Iraqi interior ministry by the time the US withdrew in 2011. Now, no cabinet that Iran does not approve of can take power in Baghdad.

Under President Obama, who returned to Iraq on the assumption that the Islamic State was a bigger threat to US interests than Iran, the US then chose to tackle the question of Iran’s nuclear program. His administration misunderstood the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program. Several intelligence agencies had said for the better part of two decades that Iran was one or two years away from building a nuclear weapon. That Iran never did indicated that building a weapon was not the priority; the priority was legitimizing the nuclear program, and obtaining the credibility and negotiating power that came with it. Obama made a deal that permitted Iran to continue improving its enrichment processes and its missile capability, as well as continuing to expand its regional influence, in exchange for forgoing a nuclear weapon — for a time — and opening up Iran’s market to Western firms. Obama accepted Iran’s terms. He recognised Iran’s regional influence in exchange for Iran surrendering a weapon that could never give it victory.

Obama’s identification of transnational terrorism as the only concern of the US in Syria, and his dependence on the Marxist ethnic one-party model of the PKK offshoot, the YPG, have undermined US-Turkish ties. The Obama and Trump administrations’ decision to sweep aside the Islamic State regardless of who replaced it enabled Iran to connect the Shia stronghold in southern Iraq to the Alawite stronghold on coastal Syria, despite the presence of a large Sunni community sitting as a buffer between the two. Aside from allowing Iran to achieve a historic strategic objective that dramatically expanded its strategic depth, this policy achieved the almost unthinkable. Instead of having Iran and Turkey compete for domination of the Muslim world, the rise of the Kurds is making them increasingly cooperate, as they did against the KRG’s independence referendum. It is unclear what the US’ endgame with the Syrian Kurds is. Given their hostility to Turkey, they need to work with the Syrian government, that is, Iran’s dependency, to trade with the outside world. And the Syrian government will not accept their autonomy. Even if it did, it is unclear how that serves US interests. The most common argument is that the Kurds need to hold ground to prevent the emergence of the Islamic State. However, the problem of groups like al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Islamic State and Islamic terrorism more broadly is not a geographic one. It is a deeper cultural and civilizational problem, driven largely by Islam’s perception of itself as a religion of power and government. Using the Kurds as the foot soldiers in this campaign made no sense when the policy was concocted. It will make less sense still as jihadists shift their focus to new geographies like the Great Sahara, and Islamic State resumes its insurgency in Iraq.

A friendlier Islam may be emerging in Saudi Arabia, albeit not through the effectiveness of US policymakers. There, the new leadership is implementing reforms that the US had demanded since 2001 to little avail. The leadership is turning its back on the thinking that underpins the Saudi state, and, according to Saudi Arabia’s own religious establishment, Islam itself. The government is allowing musical concerts outside religious police headquarters. The education minister was vilified on social media because of his attempts at reforming school textbooks that encourage hatred of Jews and Christians. However, there is little realistic prospect of political reform in Saudi Arabia. And it is far from certain that political reform, in the form of greater democratization and freedom of expression, would bring about a Saudi Arabia friendlier to the West.

Going forward

By leaning on Egypt and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the US is trying to get the historic power centers of the Arab world to openly ally with Israel, regardless of the Palestinians, to face the Iranians and potentially the Turks. The Levant is the natural scene of the struggle between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US remaining in Iraq and Syria serves as the main unifying factor for jihadists of all stripes, to the extent that it enabled Shia Iran and its allies to use the Sunni Wahhabi radicals of al-Qaeda and Islamic State as useful idiots, if not outright proxies.

There is no point in the US remaining in Iraq and Syria to prop up the Iraqi government or support the YPG; an indefinite deployment is not a strategy, and Shia and Sunni jihadists have managed to expand their influence right under the US’ nose. If the US pulls out, the regional powers will intensify their conflict, and the US can play a balancing role as it sees fit. If the Turks and the Iranians are eventually drawn into a conflict, as their history shows they are prone to do, the US should let them have at it, and simply keep Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states from joining the fight directly in a manner that would force the US to step in to protect oil flows. This would meet the US’ minimum strategic objectives while respecting the repeatedly expressed will of the US public to disengage from the Middle East. If Turkey and Iran accomodate one another, the US should support Russia, to ensure it is not vulnerable to encroachment from Muslim powers, and to help protect ancient Christian communities, like the Armenians, Maronites, Copts and Levantine Orthodox. Russia should be an ally in containing the impact of this civil war.

All the while, the US should not forget how precarious Saudi Arabia’s religious reform process is, and how contrary to the founding ideas of Saudi Arabia it is, and to Islam itself. Just as Turkey and Iran returned to the Islamic norm, such a time will come to Saudi Arabia, with or without the Al Saud.

Finally, the ability of outside powers to influence a war over the heart of a rival civilization is limited, and trying to influence it is dangerous. The US has shown that it is capable of removing regimes in the Muslim world. It has yet to demonstrate that it can install friendly regimes in their place. Remaining in Iraq and Syria only serves to delay an inevitable conflict between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, all while strengthening Iran’s hand and bringing Turkey closer to it. It is time to stop doing the West’s civilisational enemies this favour. The US can afford to step back from this struggle for now, and focus its attention on managing the conflict, rather than direct involvement. This is a conflict in which Russia is a partner, not a rival.

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