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(From left) Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
(From left) Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Diplomatic challenges from the Muslim world

  • Powered by Iran, Turkey and Malaysia, a new doctrinal and political alignment has big implications for India
  • India’s ability to bank on the ‘silence’ of Saudi Arabia and the UAE will get diluted. If the communal divide widens at home, India may find the list of its friends has got much smaller

NEW DELHI : The last few weeks have witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon—strident criticisms from foreign governments of certain policy measures taken by the Indian government. While these sharp rebukes have come from a variety of international sources, what has been surprising are the remarks of leaders of three major Muslim countries—Iran, Turkey and Malaysia.

The criticisms began in August last year, soon after the Indian government announced new constitutional and administrative arrangements in Jammu and Kashmir. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on India to follow a “just policy" towards the “noble" people of Kashmir. The Iranian criticism became more strident after the communal violence in Delhi in February. Khamenei condemned the “massacre" of Indian Muslims, and called on the government to control “extremist Hindus and their parties" and avoid India’s “isolation from the world of Islam".

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan also criticized the “massacres" of Indian Muslims. Separately, he saw the “struggle" of the Kashmiri people as comparable to the Turks’ own struggle against foreign domination in World War I. In his remarks at the UN General Assembly in September last year, Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad accused India of “invading and occupying the country" of Jammu and Kashmir. Later, in December, he criticized the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) for depriving Muslims in India of their citizenship.

In response to the censures from Turkey and Malaysia, India has taken quick retaliatory action. The government has said that it will cut imports of oil and steel from Turkey, and has placed imports of palm oil from Malaysia on the “restricted" list, thus curtailing imports of 4.4 million tonnes of Malaysia’s major export item.

These brickbats from Muslim leaders contradict the massive efforts made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally to cultivate ties with the Islamic world. In his high profile outreach to Islamic nations, Modi has always had domestic interests in mind. Affirming this, last December, when there were protests across India against the CAA, Modi had said: “Congress … feels if the world’s Muslim countries love Modi so much, how will we create fear about him among Indian Muslims."

The Kuala Lumpur summit

These interventions in what India sees as its domestic concerns reflect significant shifts in the Muslim world—doctrinal and political—that have brought these countries, along with Qatar (that has not joined the anti-India chorus), into an alignment founded on Islamist affinity. This could upend existing equations of power and influence in West Asia and the Islamic realm.

The nascent connectivity between these four nations was publicly proclaimed at the “Muslim 5 Summit", convened in Kuala Lumpur by the then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on 19-21 December last year. Mahathir had initially envisaged a five-nation Islamic summit that would bring together Malaysia, Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan and Indonesia.

This initiative was viewed as a rival to the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Hence, the summit lost two of its “founders"—Pakistan and Indonesia: Pakistan was pressurised by Saudi Arabia not to attend, and Indonesia declined the invitation for fear of alienating the kingdom. Malaysia then invited Iran to fill the gap.

Mohamad, 94 years old and prime minister after a long gap, shaped the summit to promote his vision of a rejuvenated, modern and successful Muslim civilization that would overcome its backwardness, extremism, and internecine conflicts that have exposed it to western machinations.

The Kuala Lumpur summit reflects a clear schism at the heart of the Muslim world, with these four countries —Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Malaysia—uniting against the Saudi-led Islamic order that has defined Muslim affairs over the last several decades. The thread binding the four nations is their affiliation with Islamism, and specifically its most influential organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The bond of Islamism

Islamism" describes the efforts of a political movement to influence and ultimately shape government and society on the basis of the rules and traditions of Islam. While its adherents derive these ideas and principles from pristine Islam dating back to the holy prophet, there is no consensus among Muslim scholars and movements about the meaning and application of such principles in modern times.

Today, Islamism has three expressions: one, Wahhabiyya in Saudi Arabia that provides the monarch with full authority in the political area, giving him responsibility for his peoples’ security and welfare in return for their loyalty and obedience.

The second expression is jihad, where its adherents believe that Islam and the Muslim community are under attack from the West (in alliance with regional leaders) and hence they have divine sanction to resort to violence to defend their faith.

The third expression finds in principles of pristine Islam the sanction for grassroots politics that enjoins pluralism, human rights and liberties, constitution-based democratic systems, and flexibility in the understanding and application of Shariah, alongside acceptance of secular laws.

The Muslim Brotherhood, set up in Egypt in 1928, is the first modern Islamist movement. Concerned about the cultural encroachments of western materialism and secularism, it advocated a “return to Islam". By the end of the last century, its scholars had derived the principles of democratic governance from Islamic norms, calling for a national constitution, parties, free elections, responsible government, and rights of citizens. These principles have never been implemented fully in any Arab polity due to the pervasive authoritarian order.

The Saudi view

Today, in West Asia, the Muslim Brotherhood is most influential in Turkey and Qatar, while it has been declared a “terrorist" organization by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Egypt’s military dictatorship overthrew the democratically-elected Brotherhood government in a coup d’etat in 2013.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE view the Brotherhood as their principal threat; they fear that the activist democratic politics advocated by it could be more alluring to their young population than their 19th century ruler-led paternalism that provides no scope for popular participation in governance.

Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi doctrine is firmly anchored in Islam; this has legitimized its “guardianship" of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Madinah and given it a natural claim to lead the Muslim world in doctrinal and political areas. It has solidified support for itself across the Muslim realm through a network of well-funded institutions, domestic and transnational. The most important among them is the OIC. Set up in 1969, headquartered at Jeddah and largely funded from Saudi coffers, this 57-member conclave of Muslim nations serves to garner support for its positions against challenges from other Muslim countries.

In recent years, ties between India and the Gulf sheikhdoms have expanded exponentially due to: very significant Indian demand for the region’s oil and gas; the substantial trade and investment ties, and the presence of the eight million-strong Indian community. These ties have been strengthened with Prime Minister Modi’s frequent interactions with the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with the two countries promising to invest $70 billion and $100 billion, respectively, in India.

Besides energy and economic considerations, they also see India as a partner in the battle against extremism. Hence, taking a pragmatic approach, they did not join other Muslim nations in criticizing India in response to recent domestic developments; they probably also hope that India’s ties with them could over time dilute its links with Iran.

While the kingdom is confronting a strategic challenge from Iran in its geographical space, the bigger threat it faces is to its leadership of the Muslim ummah (community) from the emerging Islamist alignment of Turkey, Qatar and Iran.

Brotherhood affiliation

Turkey under Erdogan has substantially severed its ties with its Kemalist secular order. What we witness now is a Brotherhood-influenced “Islamic nationalism", an approach that combines backing for Islamism with aspirations to revive Ottoman power and influence and ultimately replace Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Muslim world.

Iran describes its revolution as “Islamic", but its neighbours and its own constitution view it as Shia. Iran has repeatedly sought to overcome this stigma by reaching out to Sunni Islamism as represented by the Brotherhood. During former president Mohammed Morsi’s short reign in Egypt, the two Islamist nations attempted to bridge the sectarian divide with the over-arching doctrinal and political affiliations they share. After Morsi’s fall, Iran’s leaders have communicated with Brotherhood leaders in exile to build an anti-Saudi front.

Qatar has for long been an outlier in the family of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sheikhdoms, mainly on account of its backing for the Brotherhood and its advocacy of normal ties with Iran. Islamist advocacy is at the heart of its foreign policy. This has fed the paranoia in the Gulf relating to the threat from the Brotherhood and led to Saudi Arabia, allied with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, initiating in June 2017 the “siege" of Qatar, a comprehensive political, economic and logistical blockade of the tiny peninsula nation.

This seems to have been a miscalculation, since Turkey and Iran rushed to Qatar’s assistance.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s ties with Iran are more complex. Though divided by the sectarian cleavage, they are today brought together by shared doctrinal and political interests.

The Prognosis

After the departure of Mahathir Mohamad, even if Malaysia becomes more low-key in Islamic matters, the alignment of Turkey, Iran and Qatar on Islamist basis is a major development in regional politics. Given that it is being shaped at a time when the regional scenario is divided and conflictual and the global order uncertain, it is difficult to forecast the assured resilience of the grouping and its effectiveness in regional affairs.

With this caveat, the following prognosis is offered:

One, the triumvirate will offer a serious challenge to Saudi leadership of the Muslim realm. This has largely been facilitated by Saudi Arabia’s own recent self-goals: the futile war in Yemen; the siege of Qatar; the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and the arrest, incarceration and mistreatment of royal family members in November 2017, followed by the detention of other senior royals this month to pave the way for the crown prince to ascend the throne. These developments, coupled with the crown prince’s close ties with US President Donald Trump and Israel have discredited the kingdom and its crown prince and called into question their fitness to lead the Islamic ummah.

Two, while the unity of the nascent alignment will face serious tests, the three partners will make every effort to make it work. Their ideological commitment to Islamism is that of true believers rather than that of pragmatics or opportunists. They are also joined together by their visceral hostility towards Saudi Arabia.

Three, while Qatar will seek to maintain close ties with the US, the other two partners see a far greater strategic affinity and clarity of purpose with Russia. Again, China, with its Belt and Road Initiative, is also deeply interested in regional stability and, in time, could abandon its caution in regional affairs in favour of a more proactive approach to regional security, in tandem with Turkey and Iran. This will facilitate the shaping of a new global order.

What does this mean for India? As long as Modi’s government pursues its current domestic agenda, the criticism will remain strident. Modi’s ability to bank on the “silence" of his Muslim friends—Saudi Arabia and the UAE—to flaunt his links with the Islamic world will get further diluted, as will his leadership persona globally. In fact, if the communal divide widens at home, India may find that the list of its friends has got much smaller.

Thus, India, that has so far viewed itself as a global role-player and shaper of the new world order, may find its influence confined to the borders of Bharat Mata.

The author is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

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