The Islamic World’s Tectonic Plates

by Major Chad M. Pillai. He is a Strategist in the U.S. Army who received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He has published articles in Infinity Journal, War on the Rocks, Small Wars Journal, The Strategy Bridge, Military Review, and Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

20160109_woc948The Middle East and North African (MENA) and South and Central Asian (SOCA) regions of the Islamic World, despite sitting atop vast energy (oil and natural gas) resources, remain in a cycle of perpetual instability. The once hopeful Arab Spring turned into the Arab Sorrow where conflict rages, refugees pour across the borders of Europe, and where a medieval and evil form of political Islam, in the name of the Islamic State (IS), has taken root. Understanding the various causes of the region’s instability requires viewing them as a confluence of factors, best described as tectonic plates, where recent seismic activity point to a convergence and collision at a single point – the Muslims of the MENA-SOCA. As the study of geology demonstrates, when tectonic plates suddenly collide with each other, the results are destructive. The Islamic World, like our earth’s geology, is experiencing a violent transformation as three tectonic plates (sectarianism, ethnic conflict, and reaction to modernity) collide.

1st Tectonic Plate – Sectarianism (Sunni vs. Shia)
Sectarianism, like the San Andreas Fault, is the best known tectonic plate in the Islamic World. The Sunni-Shia Schism began around 680 AD and has resulted in conflict ever since. The excellent Council of Foreign Relations Info Guide on the Sunni-Shia Divide states:

An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region.

The fault line of the sectarian plate is presently manifested by the Saudi Arabian and Iranian competition and proxy conflicts across the region. Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the Sunni World, has been sponsoring Sunni groups in Syria seeking to overthrow the Shia Alawites; prevent the takeover of Yemen by Shia Houthis; and supporting the Sunni tribes against IS and the Shia led government in Iraq. Iran and the Iran Threat Network (ITN; a term also used by the U.S. Department of State) represents the counter-balance force of Shia-ism within the Islamic World. Iran sponsors Shia groups in Iraq, Yemen, Western Afghanistan, and Lebanon. The growing influence of Iran since the toppling of Saddam Hussein was dubbed by the Jordanian King Abdullah II as the Shia Crescent, symbolism for the rise of Shia power across the Islamic World at the expense of the Sunnis (“Jordan’s Abdullah concerned Iraq may tilt toward Tehran“, NBC News, 08.12.2004). Sectarianism is not the only driver of instability and conflict. Ethnic Conflicts within and between religious sects also contribute to tensions; some that predate the rise of Islam.

Distribution of Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Middle East (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

Distribution of Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Middle East (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

2nd Tectonic Plate – Ethnic Conflicts (Arabs vs. Turks vs. Kurds vs. Persians vs. Others)
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran exposes another tectonic fault line – ethnic conflict that in many cases predates the rise of Islam. Prior to Islam, the dominate powers in the MENA-SOCA were the Persians (Modern day Iranians) and Egyptians, who competed with the Greeks and Roman Empire. The rapid rise and spread of Islam can partially be contributed to the ongoing super power wars between the Eastern Roman and Persian (Sassanid) Empires. Despite their conversion, the Persians (Iranians) and other groups always maintained a sense of superiority against the Bedouin tribes of Arabia Desert. Since the split between the Sunnis and Shia, ethnic groups across the region have been divided. One could ask are all Sunni Arabs and Shia (Persian) Iranians? Are Libyans really Arabs or are they descendants of the Berbers, and are both sects represented? Do Egyptians, whose ancient civilization and contributions predate the rise of Islam, really believe they are Arabs? How do the Turks, the descendants of the Ottoman Empire and last Caliph, react when they are mistaken as Arabs? Do the Pashtu Pakistanis see themselves as their fellow Punjabi Pakistanis despite their religious commonality?

These are some of the difficult questions one encounters in the Islamic World. Iraq is a microcosm of this conflict. Both Sunni and Shia Arabs, despite their mutual hostility, view the Kurds with suspicion. And the Kurds themselves are divided between the Sunni and Shia sect, something the Iranians and Turks both use to their advantage as they compete for influence. And the Turks view the Kurds in Syria and Northern Iraq, despite being fellow Sunni Muslims, as a threat. Likewise, Iraqi Arab Shia views the Iranian Shia with suspicion despite accommodating them for near-term gains against their Arab Sunni enemies. Some groups, like IS are willing to attempt genocide to purge ethnic groups, despite being fellow Muslims, they view as inferior. The convergence of the Sectarian and Ethnic Tectonic Plates colliding is known as Ethno-Sectarian Conflict.

Ethnic groups of the Middle East -- traditional Western view (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

Ethnic groups of the Middle East — traditional Western view (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

3rd Tectonic Plate – Modernity (Secularism vs. the Faithful)
The third tectonic plate is modernity, or the struggle with modernity, within the Islamic World. Fouad Ajami, a former scholar at the Hoover Institute and at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), provided the most concise summary of this fault line in his 2014 Hoover Digest article where he wrote:

In the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and North Africa, mainstream Sunni Islam is ascendant. The fault line that bedevils those lands is between secularists, who want to keep the faith at bay, and Islamists, who have stepped forth in recent decades to assert the hegemony of the sacred over the political.

Since the end of European Colonialism at the end of World War II, the nations of the MENA-SOCA have been ruled by Autocrats (Secularists or Monarchists). As a result, a generation of potential wealth was squandered as the people of the region remain poor, highly uneducated (or highly educated but underutilized), and outside of energy, are increasingly disconnected from the globalized economy.

The ranks of the secular autocratic rulers range from Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and currently Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Qaddafi and Mubarak were swept from power during the Arab Spring; however, the aftermath in both Libya and Egypt has been less than euphoric. Assad appeared near imminent collapse until the Russian intervention in Syria strengthened his position against the opposition.

The monarchists consist of the Gulf Kingdoms (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirate), Jordan, and Morocco in Northern Africa. Saudi Arabia, like its fellow Gulf Kingdoms, has lived off its oil wealth to pay off its people, and made a bargain with the devil by accommodating the Wahhabist. The Wahhabist not only enforce conservative Islamic rule domestically, but have exported their harsh brand of Islamic throughout the MENA-SOCA as seen in Madrassas in Pakistan.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, represented the Shia Monarchist model until his overthrow by the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini and his theocratic Shia regime – the first modern fundamentalist regime in the Islamic World. Ironically, the Iranian theocratic government faced a major threat in 2009 when it appeared the pendulum was swinging in the opposite direction as the Green Movement challenged its authority.

Muslim majority countries classified by constitutional role for religion (Graphic by NuclearVacuum, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

Muslim majority countries classified by constitutional role for religion (Graphic by NuclearVacuum, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

The Autocrats face an existential threat at the hands of the fundamentalist. This group consists of various elements ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, and most recently IS. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban are Fundamentalist Insurgencies seeking to overthrow a government or occupying power. The Muslim Brotherhood has been attempting to overthrown the Egyptian Government for decades and has recently faced a crackdown by the el-Sisi regime. The Taliban defeated the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan, was removed in 2001 and has fought an insurgency primarily against the United States (The Government of Afghanistan is viewed simply as a puppet state of the U.S.) ever since to regain control of Afghanistan.

On the extreme end are Al-Qaeda and, its main rival, the Islamic State. Both groups are revolutionary movements with affiliates across the MENA-SOCA seeking to upend the existing order in the Islamic World by forcing a complete withdrawal of the West and a return of the Caliphate. Both have sought and expressed a willingness to use Weapons of Mass Destruction to achieve their aims. The major differences between the two are their strategic approaches to waging global Jihad, and the Islamic States’ apocalyptic prophetic belief that its objective is to bring about the end of times.

Caught in the middle between the autocrats and fundamentalists are the reformers. Ayaan Hirsi Ali eloquently stated in hers 2015 Foreign Affairs article that “a battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win.”

Consequences of Seismic Activity
All three tectonic plates are colliding and causing violent struggles in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and even in Pakistan. The U.S. and its western allies can partially contain the problem within the region and attrite the elements that directly threaten their interests. However, only the leaders and people within the MENA-SOCA can solve the consequences of the seismic activity whether through a reformation or some other mechanism of reform. Without reform, the Islamic World may find itself a victim of another seismic event similar to the European Age of Sail. The period when the Europeans to bypassed the Middle East using sea routes to the markets of India and China leading to the gradual decline in economic vitality and competitiveness. The new seismic event led by the likes the U.S. fracking industry will be energy independence as the U.S. and other global powers transition to more renewable forms of energy and greater transition to ever greater energy efficiency that will once again leave the Islamic World behind. Unless the Islamic World addresses its instability and creates a reason for the world to stay engaged, it will find itself facing an earthquake it will not recover from – the end of oil.

This entry was posted in Chad M. Pillai, English, Security Policy.

6 Responses to The Islamic World’s Tectonic Plates

  1. Kristian Grønseth says:

    Interesting article, good read! But shouldn’t there be a fourth “plate” signifying income disparity? After all, that is a factor known to foment instability.

    • Chad M. Pillai says:

      Kristian, great point — and you are absolutely correct. Income disparity, along with other factors, where the Middle East trails the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, such as gender inequality, are to consider. I tried to focus initially on some of the big and deeply ingrained ones.

  2. Ed Power (Facebook) says:

    Caught in the middle between the autocrats and fundamentalists are the reformers. Ayaan Hirsi Ali eloquently stated in hers 2015 Foreign Affairs article that “a battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win.

    Interesting, but I can’t help but notice that the role the USA played in creating this morass isn’t mentioned. No reference to the tens of thousands of secular leftist politicians, intellectuals, labour leaders and students murdered before, during and after US-instigated coups across the region. No mention of the dozens of dictators, Dear Leaders and monarchs that the USA has imposed upon the people of the countries of the region and then deposed when they outlived their usefullness.

    The revisionist history (or more accurately, the amnesiac history) of the article was one thing, but it was Ms. Ali’s assertion that “The United States needs to start helping the right side win.” that really caused the coffee to come snorting out of my nose.

    • Evan Lawrence (Facebook) says:

      With respect to the quote: “a battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win.”, her line of thought may not be to bring up past transgressions, but simply to point out that the reformists need more backing by powers outside the regional sphere of influence rather than the people who ARE in charge.

      Trouble is that it’s always supporting the lesser evil or the person (people) who you would rather deal with if they are not perfectly aligned with your ideals and beliefs. It’s hard to imagine that the horrific actions that you speak of mightn’t have happened if the US Gov’t wasn’t involved. You could even suggest the opposite – that if the US/West didn’t have a hand in there then things could have been much worse. So what is “revisionist” anyway? It’s just how you see the truth in it… Obviously you have the US to blame.

      Certain Governments and leaders are going to exist whether we ally/partner ourselves to them or not. You may try to make a claim of guilty by association, but it’s not easy to qualify the US or West to be guilty of the deed in any or all of the acts that you are referencing.

  3. Matt Weilbacher says:

    Major Pillai,

    Informative and thought-provoking article. I was curious if you felt that western influence could be another plate that influences/impacts the region today. Whether discussing Britain-Egpyt in the late 19th/20th century, the mandate period, or US interactions and support for Regimes like Pahlavi, Saddam, or Mubarak. Thanks for the article.

    Matt

    • Chad M. Pillai says:

      Matt, western influence has been a major component of Middle Eastern history. I tried to focus on the dynamics that have always driven the dynamics of the Islamic World that predate Western influence and continue to this day. Additionally, Asia has shown that they can recover and grow after western influence that the Islamic World has not.

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