By Dr. Sulaiman Wasty
July 7, 2016
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s announcement last December of a Riyadh-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) received a positive response from Western policymakers. Undoubtedly, the enthusiasm was largely premised on hopes that the oil-rich Gulf Arab states will contain the spread of terrorist groups such as “Islamic State” (Daesh) and al-Shabaab across the Muslim world — from Somalia to Syria and from Libya to Afghanistan. Yet, the focus throughout has been on the manifestations and symptoms of these organizations’ global terror campaigns. Explicit acknowledgement of geopolitical, religious or ideological leanings of the major proponents of the IMAFT has been lacking within Western discourse.
Analysts must take stock of three important points. First, there has been a misdiagnosis of the IMAFT because of its sectarian dimension. Second, Saudi Arabia has made overstretched and financially unsustainable militaristic commitments. Third, Pakistan, a nuclear Islamic member of this alliance, is unlikely to actively participate in IMAFT beyond expressing platitudes of moral support.
The IMAFT’s plan for destroying Daesh has a relatively limited stated objective: to protect the Muslim countries from all terrorist groups and organizations (irrespective of their sect or name), and to fight terrorists in “Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan”. There is hardly any consensus, however, on the nature and the level of this effort among the original 34 (now 39) countries comprising the Saudi-led coalition. Essentially, due to the dominance of the states having Sunni-majority populations (with the notable absences of Iran and Iraq), IMAFT is a coalition with a sectarian agenda.
Daesh presents itself as a representative of authentic Islam, commonly known as Salafism, as practiced by the early generations of Muslims. It includes the special brand of Wahhabism adopted by Saudi Arabia, whereby many Islamic principles of the dominant Sunni and Shi’ite sects are considered polytheistic—such as philosophy, spirituality, the spirit of sharia, and use of metaphors. Until there is greater recognition of the interplay between the ideas and politics, many observers will likely continue to misperceive Daesh’s ideology. Ultimately, while most non-Arab Muslim-majority member countries such as Pakistan are unanimously in favor of preserving the sanctity of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, they are not necessarily in favor of “re-Sunnifying” both Iraq and Syria and flipping the existing power structures.
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Dr. Sulaiman Wasty is an advisor at Gulf State Analytics and the CEO of Sharakpur, Ltd, a Washington, DC-based consultancy. Dr. Wasty’s career began at the Planning Commission of Pakistan when he served as special assistant to the Minister for Finance, Planning, and Development. He previously worked for the World Bank, and was CEO of G. William Miller Financial Integrity Services, LLC.