On September 2, 2015, the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose family were fleeing the Syrian civil war, washed ashore on a Turkish beach, sending shockwaves across the globe. By that point, at least tens of thousands had been killed during the Syrian civil war, with hundreds of thousands more becoming refugees.
But it’s easy to forget that the domino effect of events culminating in that tragedy and causing one of the biggest refugee crises in history was propelled in large part by the ability of ISIS to exploit sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias back in 2013.
Make no mistake, sectarian fault lines are among the most dangerous challenges to peace and stability in the Middle East, with the power to spill over borders, cause sweeping radicalization across entire communities, and unleash truly global ripple effects whose destabilising impact touches far-away regions of the world.
All this then is a surprising backdrop for a little-noticed event in Mecca earlier this month.
A gathering called “Forum of Iraqi References,” organized by Mecca based NGO the Muslim World League, convened 80 of Iraq’s leading religious scholars – both Sunni and Shia. With little fanfare and practically non-existent prior media coverage (seemingly for security reasons), the two communities used the common religious ground of Mecca to explore a roadmap towards peace and reconciliation.
The creation of powerful local national identities in the Middle East is the shrewdest, most effective route to defanging Iran’s regional power plays.
That this would happen in the heart of the Saudi Kingdom was remarkable.
Even more striking was the participation, among others, of prominent figures like Sheikh Dr Ahmed Hassan Al-Taha from the Iraqi Fiqh Academy, the Heads of both the Sunni and Shia Endowment Offices and even Dr Pashtun Sadiq Abdullah, Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.
But the event’s most remarkable feature was its outcome; an agreement to create a unique Iraqi intra-religious committee composed of the nation’s prominent cross-sectarian authorities. This new organization’s purpose? To preempt sectarian divisions from escalating into full-blown conflict, and to support a unified central Iraqi Government.
The creation of such a body could not have been more aptly timed.
Around the same time that the Mecca event was dying down, in Tehran, Iran’s new hard-line President, Ebrahim Raisi was being sworn in, no doubt signifying an upcoming acceleration in the regime’s longstanding strategy of exploiting sectarian divisions, not least in Iraq.
To raise the stakes even further, these developments came just one week after President Biden committed to ending US combat missions in Iraq.
Given the US experience in Afghanistan, where ending US combat missions has paved the way for a Taliban resurgence, there are real fears a much-reduced US military presence in Iraq will, under the menacing shadow of a Raisi government, result in an unprecedented strengthening of Iranian-backed militias across Iraq, placing the nation under the near-permanent orbit of Iranian influence.
But the success of such a strategy relies upon there being mistrust, animosity and a disintegration in cooperation between religious groups at the local level. That, combined with a weak shared national identity, is what creates the opening for the Iranian regime’s divide and conquer strategy, allowing it to expand its sphere of influence across the breadth of the Middle East.
Which is why the August 4 gathering presents such a notable symbolic shift – in arguably the most powerful way.
Disconnecting the association between the Middle East’s Shia communities and the nation of Iran, and by pursuing a strategy of direct engagement with local Shia communities across Arab countries, empowering them to establish their own structures and reconcile differences with local Sunni counterparts, fundamentally limits Iran’s single biggest interventionist opportunity in the region.
The creation of powerful local national identities in the Middle East is the shrewdest, most effective route to defanging Iran’s regional power plays. Whether it be Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Lebanon – where Hezbollah, emboldened by Iran’s new leadership, recently admitted to firing rockets into Israel – sectarian divides have, in all cases, been the oxygen that has given life to Iran’s interventionist policies, first, to gain a toehold in those countries, then to exacerbate toxic narratives, and finally to export and recruit militias that enable Tehran to operate with near impunity through proxies.
But cutting that oxygen off will require a much bigger effort, not least to strengthen national identities that encompass sectarian differences. Unsurprisingly, the “Forum of Iraqi References” in Mecca focused heavily on this precise theme, with the Muslim World League Secretary-General Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, echoing those sentiments when he said “today’s event represented the true principles of Islam.… It instructs us to embrace diversity and respect each other’s differences. It tells us to live in coexistence and harmony with all.”
Indeed, Dr. Issa is no stranger to initiatives that build bridges between religious communities, having been the most senior Islamic religious leader ever to visit Auschwitz. Such efforts towards inter and intra-religious cooperation are reflective of a more moderate, forward-looking narrative to emerge from some Arab nations in recent years, a vital part of the effort to push back against toxic Iranian inspired narratives in the region.
Ultimately, good relations between Sunnis and Shias in Iran’s neighbouring Arab countries present the most effective antidote to the regime’s geopolitical plans. In the absence of a strong US military presence and faced with the most hawkish Iranian leader in years, that is a realization regional and international powers absolutely must take on board. And it makes the kind of efforts that took place in Mecca last week, under the auspices of the Muslim World League, not merely desirable, but necessary.
Paulo Casaca is a former Member of the European Parliament where he chaired – amongst others – the delegation for relations with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. He is the author of several books and reports on economics and international politics, particularly on Iraq, which include among others, ‘The hidden invasion of Iraq’ (2008). Paulo Casaca is also founder and executive director of the “South Asia Democratic Forum” and founder of the international co-operation association registered in Brussels ARCHumankind, ‘Alliance to Renew Co-operation among Humankind’. He is currently Vice President of Portuguese Friends of Israel.
Dr. Maurizio Geri, is a former analyst on MENA/Africa at the NATO Allied Command. Dr Geri was also previously an analyst for the Italian Defence General Staff and has 20 years’ experience in research and civilian operations on peace and security, international order, democratisation, human rights, and collective defence (particularly in the Middle East & North Africa). He has delivered research for various think tanks including The Carter Centre and The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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