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Pulpit politics: how Saudi clerics complicated the Gulf crisis

Muslim Hajj pilgrims try to touch Kaaba stone as they circumambulate around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, located in the center of the Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on 22 August, 2017 [Fırat Yurdakul/Anadolu Agency]
Muslim Hajj pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, located in the centre of the Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on 22 August, 2017 [Fırat Yurdakul/Anadolu Agency]

One of the lesser known fallouts from the Gulf crisis, sparked by the blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, is how Islam has been used as a lever to score points and discredit the other side. The Gulf, the theatre of this crisis being played out with a ferocious virulence, also happens to be the birthplace of Islam, and so the role of the clerics and its religious angle need to be examined with the same seriousness as its geopolitical dynamics. Such an analysis would lead us to the obvious conclusion that Islam lies bruised in this crisis.

As I write this, Muslims from all over the world are flocking to Makkah for Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage), but not Qataris. Due to the ongoing, high-octane campaign against Qatar in the Saudi social and mainstream media, Qataris are afraid to travel to the Kingdom for fear of their safety. Expatriate Muslims in Qatar are also unable to perform the rites unless they are ready to go through circuitous, alternative ways of getting visas as the Saudi embassy in Doha remains shuttered. A blatant example of how religion has spilled into politics.

As a journalist in Qatar and a non-Arab Muslim, I have watched the crisis with an unholy mixture of dismay and disbelief. Foreigners in the Gulf are accustomed to state-sponsored spiel about the deep bonds of friendship and brotherliness between countries and people of this region, which is blessed with a homogeneity in culture, language, religion and values. Brotherly countries and sisterly relations or sisterly countries with brotherly relations are terms we are showered with, and are used as commonly in newspapers as khubs (bread) in our daily diet. The severity and suddenness of the embargo tore off these artificial layers, exposing the shallowness and hollowness within.

Read more: Differences between Saudi, UAE may fracture their alliance

The biggest shock for us was that Riyadh chose the holy month of Ramadan (its tenth day, 5 June) to impose the blockade and close the Abu Samra border, the only land border which Qatar shares with the outside world, through which a major share of Qatar's food flowed in. Et tu, Brute? Why during Ramadan? Why this hurry? were some angry questions hurled at the Saudis. This was a month whose importance is not lost even to non-Muslims and atheists, the month in which, as Robert Lacey says in "Inside the Kingdom," a prayer said "is worth double the prayer said at any other time… So in terms of storing up credits for heaven, this is bumper bargain time – multiple mileage-point upgrades".

During the rest of the month, precious holy hours were spent worrying about an impending war instead of praying. The border closure dealt a special, personal blow to every fasting Muslim stomach in the country as food supplies were hit, the severest blow being the disappearance of milk from shelves as Almarai, the Saudi Arabian dairy giant which monopolised the Qatari market, couldn't continue supplies leaving supermarket shelves empty. Hundreds of Almarai trucks used to stream into Qatar every day. Instead, Turkish dairy products filled the shelves in bottles strikingly similar but stunningly strange as the labels were all in Turkish, arousing a crude curiosity. I saw customers fiddling with the bottles as if they were toys, trying to crack the Ottoman script. The authorities promptly released an essential Turkish guide. I can now teach you that Sut in Turkish means milk, Ayran means buttermilk, plus words for full fat, less fat, production, expiry, et al.

Protesters hold placards during a protest against the Saudi-UAE led aggression on Qatar on 17 June 2017 [Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency]

Protesters hold placards during a protest against the Saudi-UAE led aggression on Qatar on 17 June 2017 [Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency]

If the Ramadan blockade displayed Saudi's wanton disregard for Islamic sensibilities (ironically, from a state that should be the most sensitive), its clerics proved that the worldly fruits of siding with Sheikhs were far tastier than the distant, afterlife rewards of impartiality. They spilled vitriol against Qatar. Influential Saudi scholar and preacher Mohamad Al-Arefe, who has 17.7 million Twitter followers, threw the need for impartiality in this crisis to the wind, tweeting:

"There is no space for impartiality when it comes to those who conspire against the kingdom which God has honoured by making it the direction which Muslims stand towards in prayer."

Ayed Al-Qarni, another Saudi scholar with 12 million followers, declared that "our religion, our nation, our leaders and our people are a red line that cannot be crossed; gambling with those things is not acceptable," as if Qataris belonged to an alien religion.

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Ali Gomaa, a former grand mufti of Egypt, dropped an Islamic bombshell by predicting the destruction of Qatar within two years, as Middle East Eye reports "using a bizarre historical reference as proof and comparing modern Qataris to an early Islamic sect that was massacred by its rivals. Gomaa claimed the Khawarij, led by an ancestor of the modern Qatari royal family, was exterminated 1,000 years ago by a tribe now in control of the UAE, and predicted the same would happen again."

The most ludicrous depth of clerical collusion with rulers was achieved when around 200 descendants of Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Wahab, Wahhabism's founder, issued a statement in the Saudi newspaper Okaz asking Qatari rulers to drop the name of Abdul Wahab from Qatar's main mosque. A ridiculous demand, considering that the mosque was opened in 2011 and they hadn't objected to the decision then.

Islam stands diminished and demeaned with the presence of so many preachers in this battlefield. This is a religion whose affairs are perennially governed by divine and prophetic decrees, whose clerics are ordained to confine themselves to a divinely-drawn circle. Saudi and Egyptian scholars occupy the centre of this circle and, therefore, are the most revered across the Islamic world. But they squandered the trust, crossed the boundaries, drawing the sword against their own brethren.

Even if they genuinely thought Qatar has erred, they should have acted as catalysts of hope and reconciliation, not as matchsticks. Not only Qur'an, this is the spirit of all scriptures which they can turn to for additional inspiration. I would recommend drawing a lesson from Hindu epic Mahabharata, which, incidentally, narrates the tale of the battle of brothers, in which Krishna exhorts that "if you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred".

#QatarGate

There is another bizarre, though consequential, twist to the crisis. A major cause of the Saudi-led combine's fury, which led to the blockade, was Qatar's cooperation with Iran. If economic and political relations underpinned Doha-Tehran ties in the past, the crisis has broadened it to the religious realm. Like Iran, Qatar now accuses Saudi of politicising the Haj after alleged discrimination and mistreatment of its citizens. This represents a revolt from within, because, while Iran is considered an ideological outlier with its Shia brand of Islam, which is considered a hellishly deviant sect by Sunnis, Qatar is a close insider, and a part of the Wahhabi clan. Doha's accusation will create more ripples in the Sunni world, thus questioning Saudi rulers' ability to manage its holy sites impartially and independently without tying them up with their political and strategic pursuits.

If the line-up of recent events proves anything, it's the dire need to disentangle Islam from the Gulf crisis. In "Inside the Kingdom," the first part is called Kingdom of God. Is the title a blessing or burden? The latter, it seems. In this fractious, rancorous world, countries will be called upon to take decisions where national interests sometimes will have to take precedence over moral dilemmas. The holy status of Saudi Arabia places a huge hurdle in responding to this necessity, which is further complicated by the Saudi King designating himself the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Shedding this holy status will benefit both Muslims and the Kingdom – first, because the world's billion plus Muslims don't have to look at Saudi as an undesirable extension of their faith, and second, the King, too, will be free to take decisions concerning his state without leaving space to accommodate the collective feelings of the Muslim ummah.

It will give the Kingdom the additional benefit of being able to commit all the mistakes a nation is prone to commit, without inviting divine wrath.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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