Sunni-Shia War
“Iran’s history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues.”Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir

“Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and (it) attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them to the outside.”Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari.

Nigerian Muslims must lead the debate to publicly distance our country and ethos (regardless of our diverse beliefs) from the ideology of hate, hostility to one’s neighbours, division, separation, exclusion, secrecy, state and non-state terrorism, state murder, massacre, beheading and secret mass burials of victims, which characterise the practices of many Sunni and Salafi (Wahhabi) inspired organisations and institutions.

When state and religion merge as they do in most theocratic Shiite and Sunni dominant states in the Middle East and elsewhere, the line between religion and state becomes blurred and in many cases the line becomes non-existent.

This is the case with what in the popular press are called Sunni states and governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, etc. and Shiite states and governments such as Iran, the new regime in Iraq, etc.

The recent execution through beheading and other means of death of 47 people in Saudi Arabia has again brought forth the rivalry within global Islam between the Sunnis and Shiites, and between their leading guardian states – Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is because the Saudi state lumped together known terrorists and Shiites among the 47 people that it executed.

Mr. Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite cleric was one of those Saudi Arabia executed, and who Shiites claim was not a terrorist but a political dissident to the Saudi state. It is not in public global record that Mr. Nimr al-Nimr plotted terrorism. While he was not known to be violent, the Saudi government nevertheless beheaded him for “terrorism”, thus orchestrating the rivalry between Saudi/Iran and Sunnis and Shiites globally.

But if the philosophical root of terrorism is partly social, political, cultural and religious intolerance then, despite the various tendencies within Islam, empirical data shows that the social roots of terrorism traced to Islam today can be located in the exclusivist theology of the Salafi institution or sect in Saudi Arabia (what is called the Wahhabi sect outside Saudi Arabia) which takes the Salafi as the real and authentic Islam! This theological commitment of the Salafi sect to religious exceptionalism and ‘authenticity’ within global Islam commits it to exclusivist practices and ultimately to intolerance against those outside the narrow Salafi/Wahhabi sect.

In the popular press and public sphere, there is often a mix up between the Salafi sect in Saudi Arabia (the Saudi state does not call the Salafi a sect because it believes that they are the real Muslims – and others who are not Salafis are not considered as “real” Muslims!), and the Sunni, who constitute over 90 percent of the global Muslim population. Even when Saudi Arabia is Sunni-led, the Saudi Arabian theocracy is derived from the marriage between the Salafi sect or institution and the Saudi state.

Part of the complexity in the understanding of intolerance as part of the roots of terrorism is the relationship and difference between Sunni Islam and the Salafi sect. The relationship between the Saudi state/Salafi sect/Sunni Islam is often lost to the global public – outside the Middle East and the Arab world – because both the Salafi sect and Sunni Islam co-exist in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi state adopts the Salafi account of Islam or what is called Wahhabis outside Saudi Arabia, as its official view of Islam. The Salafi sect or Wahhabis, which is an austere form of Islam, insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran, and they believe that all those who don’t practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies.

A further look at global Islam shows a coincidence between the consequences of the Wahhabis’ rigidity, distortions in Islam, and the religious extremism of (for example) Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and their spin-offs in Africa such as Boko Haram, which declared western education as “haram”! Virtually all these terrorists and their organisations are Sunni-led (Al-Qaeda and its global spin offs), and even though they differ theologically they are closely linked to the exclusive Islamic theology of the Salafis. There is also a coincidence in the Wahhabis’ growth in the 1970s when Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas) and mosques from Islamabad to Culver City, California, to Nigerian cities, towns and villages and the cultivation of the social roots and growth of religious extremism, and consequently terrorism.

Finally, even when Saudi Arabia seems to be organising the Islamic Alliance Against Terrorism, it is significant in a global sense that Iran is not part of the coalition. However, any attempt to eliminate terrorism locally and globally must be welcomed and encouraged but the Sunni-led Saudi state that is forming and leading the Islamic Military Alliance ought to deal with (i) the important thing, which is the sociological and political roots of terrorism, in terms of the claim to Islamic exceptionalism and authenticity of the Salafi sect adopted by the same Saudi state; (ii) the coincidence in Wahhabis’ growth in the 1970s when Saudi charities started funding Wahhabi schools (madrassas), mosques, and the social roots and growth of religious extremism and terrorism; (iii) and the fact supported by data that the main terrorist organisations are Sunni or Sunni-led. Fighting terrorism through a military alliance, while leaving the oxygen of terrorism – the funding that Sunni states give to their charities abroad as a way of exporting their national interests and politics – needs critical re-thinking.

Against this background, there are many reasons Nigeria must distance herself from the state and national politics of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the use of religion to promote their countries’ national interests through all kinds of fronts and charities and their absolute control (through huge economic resources, especially petrodollars and oil) of the Sunni and Shiite state and non-state groups worldwide.

These are the reasons.

1. The failure of the Nigerian state to provide the basic needs of her people. This has led religious sects, with their own agenda, to creep in and occupy the space that the Nigerian government has disappeared from. These religious sects provide welfare services that the Nigerian federal, state, local and city governments ought to be providing. Since whoever pays the piper dictates the tune, the loyalty of vulnerable Nigerian people goes to these sects, their charities and welfare organisations, which may be fronts and which may be used for extremist and terrorist goals.

2. We have Boko Haram terrorism; and the clashes between Nigerian Shiites/their fellow residents on basic neighbourhood issues, such as traffic infraction, disruption of human and vehicular traffic, civil disputes etc. and clashes between Shiites and Nigerian state institutions such as the Nigerian army.

3. Although the clashes involving the Shiites are localised presently, they can escalate into national conflicts if the clashes are not properly handled. And meddlesome Shiite/Sunni theocratic states, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran lurk in the background and can fuel such conflagration with their fronts, charities and organisations, to the peril of our national unity.

4. Street protests are the democratic rights of citizens, in spite of their use and dangerous manipulation by religion and any ideology. Therefore in normal situations they ought to be allowed in a democracy like ours. But given the rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis and Iran and Saudi Arabia within global Islam, the Sunni and Shiite states manipulate street protests to export their brands of Islam in pursuit of their countries’ parochial national interests. In that regard, such religiously motivated street protests (which ordinarily under a democracy are legitimate democratic acts) become false “Arab Spring” with a sectarian face and theocratic backing from these states – especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and others.

5. Nigerians and Nigerian Muslims must beware of the fact that Nigeria is not the outpost of the theocratic states of Saudi Arabia, Iran and others in the Middle East. For example, it is an odd paradox that these theocratic states, their citizens and organisations demand respect for human rights in other countries – something they do not grant in their home countries. There is surely an oddity.

6. The factor of mass secret burials of those killed by the state and non-state groups, like Boko Haram and Al Qaeda. There is a similarity in the mass secret burials (i) by Boko Haram of its victims, (ii) by Nigerian state of Shiites, who the Nigerian army massacred, and (iii) by the Saudi state of those (especially the execution of those not known to be terrorists) it recently beheaded. The Nigerian state must distance itself from murderous and barbaric acts of theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia.

7. The division between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran rests on their different interpretations of Islamic theology. But the problem which should concern us as peace loving Nigerians is that given their theocracy – Saudi Arabia and Iran politicise these differences, subject them to their domestic and national interests and export these interests to other countries under the guise of religion. This is extremely dangerous, given the religious roots of terrorism in Sunni/Salafi (Wahhabi) Islam. This is where Nigerians and Nigerian Muslims must speak up.

8. The Saudis and the Iranians know one another more than anyone can know them. So, based on what the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, and the Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said of each other’s country, we could deduce the truth about their deep knowledge of one another.

Nigeria aspires to be an open modern federal morally inclined liberal democratic state and not some anachronistic, archaic, theocratic state. And our identity is Nigerian just as any Saudi Sunni and Salafi or Iranian Shiite see their Saudi-ness and Iranian-ness as their first and core identity – regardless of their outward promotion of Sunni (Salafi/Wahhabis) and Shia Islam. As Nigerians, we should not play the Sunni-Shiite game. We should not play into the hands of Sunni/Shiite countries, and their politics and interests.

Nigerian Muslims must lead the debate to publicly distance our country and ethos (regardless of our diverse beliefs) from the ideology of hate, hostility to one’s neighbours, division, separation, exclusion, secrecy, state and non-state terrorism, state murder, massacre, beheading and secret mass burials of victims, which characterise the practices of many Sunni and Salafi (Wahhabi) inspired organisations and institutions.

We must not let Sunni and Shiite states furtively and covertly turn Nigeria into another Middle East battleground.

We are Nigerians, a rainbow country, morally inclined, democratic and federal, breathing, bristling and blossoming in our loving, peaceful non-sectarian, inclusive and truly modern diversity. These are who we are and want to be – no more no less.

Adeolu Ademoyo,, is of the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.