Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s announcement that the Kingdom would return to a “moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world” did not go over well at the pro-Erdogan Turkish paper Yeni Safak, where columnist Ibrahim Karagul accused the Saudis of joining a U.S.-Israeli plot to water down Islam and divide the Muslim world.
Karagul writes that Prince Salman is playing a “very dangerous game” by attempting to make the Sunni Arab world part of the “U.S.-Israel” axis of power.
“The Muslim-Arab region is being taken hostage through the UAE and Israel and the marketing aspect of it all is being carried out through Saudi Arabia,” he charges.
According to Karagul, the goal of Saudi Arabia’s game is to hold Iran responsible for radicalizing Islam and turning it against the Western world. He is remarkably blasé about Iran’s desire to export its revolutionary ideology across the globe, although he admits the Saudis are right to fear Iran’s strategy of sowing division in Sunni nations by agitating their Shiite populations.
In essence, Karagul sees the Saudis trying to do the same thing by equating authentic Sunni Islam with Arab nationalism, which would make Arab Muslims suspicious of non-Arab Iran and its Shiite theology. He worries this strategy might also have dire implications for Turkey, which is increasingly less interested in “moderate” Islam or secularism.
“There is a project being implemented by the hand of the U.S., Israel and the UAE,” Karagul charges, returning to his sinister Jewish conspiracy theme. “It has been designed in accordance with Israel’s regional security interests, and has been planned on prioritizing the threatening of every country that moves away from the U.S. axis. It is in relation to a new front line being established further south and further west in response to the U.S. losing the region spanning Turkey and the Chinese border.”
As for Turkey, he insists it has firmly rejected “moderate Islam” or “American Islam,” which was “implemented by the U.S./Israel extreme right-wing and their partners on the inside.”
Longtime observers of the Erdogan regime will have no difficulty guessing who those seditious Turkish partners are before Karagul drops a dime on them: “The Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) is the product of such a project and the Dec. 17/25 and July 15 attacks were made for this very reason. They were all aimed at trapping Turkey within the U.S./Israel axis.”
Karagul thinks Saudi Arabia’s program of moderation is doomed to failure because of “the regime’s character and its social structure,” and because there will be no takers for moderate Islam outside the Kingdom once faithful Muslims get a whiff of the “Israel/U.S. sauce” mixed into Saudi Arabia’s new religious ideology.
Ominously, he warns that Saudi Arabia is risking “suicide” by throwing in with the United States and Israel, and may soon prompt a great Muslim debate over “the state of Mecca and Medina,” which are currently part of Saudi Arabia but maybe not for much longer, if one catches Karagul’s drift.
The interesting thing about this editorial is that it follows Iranian propaganda beat-for-beat: the Saudis are willing tools of the Great and Little Satan, i.e. America and Israel; the Saudis are no longer fit stewards for Mecca and Medina; Islamic solidarity is more important than Arab national identity; “moderate Islam” is a Western plot to dilute true Islamic teaching; and Iran must establish a power axis in the Middle East to counter malign American influence.
Karagul is not the first observer to suggest Saudi Arabia is modernizing, liberalizing, working more closely with the West, and tugging on the heartstrings of pan-Arab nationalism to counter Iran’s bid for global hegemony.
Strip away Karagul’s dismissal of moderate Islam as a U.S.-Israeli-Gulenist plot to water down the true faith and render Muslims docile, and his analysis is not too far from that of Foreign Policy, which praises U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for some “surprisingly aggressive diplomacy” in thawing the Saudi-Iraqi relationship:
The meeting, and the broader thawing it seems to signal, was at heart about two things. First, Saudi Arabia wants to lead a strong group of Arab states to counter what it sees as Iran’s malign influence; burying the hatchet with Baghdad is a way to create a bigger bloc. And second, Iraq, stung by nearly three years of cheap oil prices and warfare, is eager for help with oil and gas development and foreign assistance rebuilding after the defeat of the Islamic State.
For Saudi Arabia, the standard-bearer of Sunni pushback against Shiite Iran, the mini-summit marks a shift in policy to create an even broader group of like-minded states, said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group.
“On the part of the crown prince [Mohammad bin Salman], there is a shift toward the utilization of ‘Arab identity,’ rather than Sunni identity, to gain regional leverage over the Iranians,” Fantappie said.
This suits Abadi, a Shiite who has sought to portray himself as an Arab nationalist leader in a sea of sectarian alternatives, counterbalancing links with Iran, for example, with deeper ties to Egypt. This gives the Saudis a way to embrace Iraq and play the Arab card at the same time.
“They can enter Iraq in a way that leverages not just sect but Arabism and nationalism,” Fantappie said.
He is also not the first to express distrust at the idea of a watered-down version of Islam. Erdogan himself once alarmed observers by rejecting the idea of “moderate” Islam in its entirety, saying, “There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”
Other observers suggest Crown Prince Salman’s modernization and moderation program is influenced by such basic realities as Saudi Arabia’s youthful demographic and a desire for more Western investment, which is made inescapably necessary by cratering oil prices—a phenomenon partly driven by Iran’s resurgence in the world oil market after the lifting of sanctions, in a nice bit of irony.
No conspiracy theorizing is necessary to see that interrelated forces in the Middle East are shifting, a battle line is forming up between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and other powers are running out of time to decide which side of that line they wish to be on.