On the Danger of Confusing Salafists and Safavids


On the 22nd of May of 2017, it was Manchester Arena that become the target of an attack claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS). In its modus operandi this horrendous crime is reminiscent of the Bataclan massacre of November 2015 where 89, also mostly young, people lost their lives in Saint Denis - a northern suburbs of Paris. In between there have been terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, Berlin, London, Stockholm, St Petersburg and other European cities, as well as a host of imminent attacks interrupted by special services of various countries. For example, in the United Kingdom, 18 terrorist plots have been foiled since 2013 .

Of course, even more terror crimes are committed in Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries. In the most recent attack 29 Coptic Christians south of Cairo were murdered by IS. Therefore, no political leader can relegate to the back-burner the topic of fighting international terrorism. After the massacre of the Copts, Egypt attacked Islamist terror camps on the territory of Libya. Prompted partly by the Manchester suicide bombing, the newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron decided to extend the state of emergency until 1st November of this year, already in place since November 2015. And yet, for some time I have had a nagging suspicion about the adequateness of such efforts if something else is not also done. And this has nothing to do with the professionalism of counter-terrorist experts or the competence of special services and so on. This is about the inability not only of most politicians, but also of the mainstream media to clearly define the enemy and to seek potentially effective allies in the fight against terrorists and terrorism. For some it is political correctness turned frenzy, for others it is narrow special interests, that don’t let to call a spade a spade.

One may only guess what may have been in the mind of a stone-faced James Mattis, the newly confirmed US Secretary of Defence, when in February of this year he made a mind-boggling statement, calling Iran the ‘world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism’. As if 9/11, where fifteen out of nineteen terrorists that attacked the United States were Saudi nationals, hadn’t happened. Could this retired Marine Corps four-star general name a single Shi’a Muslim or an Iranian national among all the terrorists that have killed and maimed people in Europe or in his own country in the name of Islam in recent years? Or maybe he confused Safavids – the Persian (for General Mattis: Iran was officially called Persia until 1935) dynasty that in the XVI century converted the country into Shiism, with Salafists – the proponents of a extremist Sunni ideology originating in Saudi Arabia.

And as the Russians say, ‘the deeper you go into the woods, the more trees there are’. At the end of May, in Riyadh, it was Mattis’ boss – President Donald Trump, who – uncharacteristically bent over backwards to please the Saudi autocrats, including the conclusion of a 110 billion dollar Saudi funded defense contract between Washington and Riyadh. He also praised the ‘Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030’ as ‘an important and encouraging statement of tolerance, respect, empowering women, and economic development’, while his Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was particularly pleased with the absence of any protests in Saudi Arabia (in that respect he should be equally pleased when visiting North Korea). But the pleasure of their hosts would not have been complete, had President Trump not thrown a stone (rather a boulder) into the garden of the Saudi arch enemy. Mentioning correctly that to defeat terrorism it is also necessary to defeat the ideology nourishing it, the American President once again went astray: ‘But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking of course of Iran’.    

Rearticulating the French expression ‘au bon moment et au bon endroit’ (at the right time in the right place), one may say that what Donald Trump stated was not only incorrect; it was also done at the wrong place and at the wrong time. The White House’s boss spoke only a few days after the incumbent President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, who during his first term in office (2013-2017) had conducted a policy of moderation and openness to the outside world, as well as being instrumental in the conclusion of the 2015 nuclear deal with great powers whereby Iran gave up its nuclear weapon ambitions (if it had any), was democratically reelected. And though Persian-style democracy may not satisfy Scandinavian social democrats (it was Shah Reza Pahlavi, who to the mild admonitions of Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador William H. Sullivan responded that he did not have enough Swedes in order to govern as the King of Sweden did), it is light years ahead of the Saudi political system.

One of the causes of the current turmoil in the Middle East is the reawakening of the once dormant Sunni–Shi'a conflict, most prominently manifested in the struggle for dominance in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The current exacerbation of this cosmic stand-off is one of the reasons for the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, which, in turn, are fanning the flames in all the current as well as potential conflicts in the region. This stand-off is also one of the main obstacles to finding solutions to them. Up until now, the West had clearly chosen the Sunnis as their allies, since they have provided oil and gas, invested petro-dollars into the Western world and have bought Western-made weapons. However, the recent book Nos très chers émirs (Our Dearest Emirs) by French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot well chronicles how the Sunni monarchies - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - had contributed to the rise of Islamist terrorism in the region.[1] And there is more to it than that. Angelo Codevilla, Professor emeritus of Boston University and a former Foreign Service officer, observes that ‘all presidents since Jimmy Carter have searched the Sunni Arab world for counterweights to Iran’.[2] Such an attitude for the United States and the West as a whole to take is understandable, but this does not make it justifiable. Taking sides in this murky Sunni–Shi'a conflict, which very few in the West (and certainly not among the political class) understand, may provide temporary and opportunistic advantages and benefits, but it is both morally wrong and politically short-sighted. It is morally wrong because those who have been oppressed and persecuted most in the Middle Easter have been Shias, be it in Bahrain where they constitute the oppressed  majority, or in Saudi Arabia, where they constitute a sizable minority. Of course, one may also  point out that when Iraq had a Shi'a Prime Minister in Nouri al-Maliki, he was also little concerned about the well-being of the Sunni minority under his care, a policy that contributed to IS’s recruitment in the Sunni heartlands of Iraq. However, this was rather an exception. The general rule is that Shi'as are oppressed in countries where Sunnis hold power. As a longer-term strategy, such side-taking is wrought with foreseeable boomerang effects. As Angelo Codevilla explains: ‘Daesh/ISIS stands on three legs, without any of which it falls: the Sunni people in former Syria and Iraq over which it rules, the Sunni states from which it receives money and supplies, and the Sunni “fan boys“ (and girls) around the globe who come to join it or who strike at the infidel where they are’.[3]

On the morning of 22 March 2016, just hours before the terrorist attacks in Brussels, in his interview to Le Figaro, Professor of Sciences Po Gilles Kepel had said: ‘It is very important today to think about the link between jihadism and the Salafism since during dozens of years the Salafist narrative has acquired hegemonic dimensions among the French Muslims’.[4]  It is not only necessary to use effective military or law enforcement measures to fight terrorism, but also to openly recognise and counter ideologies that nourish and encourage extremist behaviour. To do that, there is no need to become an islamophobe. At the same time, the danger of being accused of islamophobia, a tactic that is used not only by Salafists themselves but unfortunately also by some human rights organisations, should not prevent rational thinking and talk. It is one of those situations when it is impossible to at the same time be accurate and remain polite, to think rationally and be politically correct, and try to please everybody at once. Political correctness and doublespeak, which if not a Soviet invention then at least a perfection, today has engulfed the West.

Reacting to President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his speech before the Arab and Muslim leaders French columnist Renaud Girard wrote: ’This is an occassion for France distance itself from its American ally and become a leader of Western countries that would reestablish cultural, political and economic bridges between Europe and Persia. Let’s join moderate Iranians in their efforts. There are two weighty reasons for such new diplomacy. Firstly, Iran, Turkey and Egypt are genuine Middle Eastern nations. Secondly, the Iranians vaccinated against the Islamists in power are most favourable for Western values. Let’s leave for the Americans their Wahhabite protectorate and let us – the Europeans – re-engage with this great Eastern civilisation’. Indeed.  

[1]   C. Chesnot and G. Malbrunot, Nos très chers émirs : Sont-ils vraiment nos amis ?, Michel Lafon, 2016.

[2]  A. Codevilla, 'Romancing the Sunni: A US policy tragedy in three acts; Act I', Asia Times, 21 December 2015 (http://atimes.com/2015/12/romancing-the-sunni-a-us-policy-tragedy-in-three-acts-act-i/).

[3]  Ibid., 'Act II', 23 December 2015 (http://atimes.com/2015/12/romancing-the-sunni-a-us-policy-tragedy-in-three-acts-act-ii/).

[4]  G. Kepel, ‘Il faut contrer la salafisation des esprit’, Le Figaro, 22 March 2016.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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