Is the Islamic world in the 21st Century entering where the Christian world was during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Catholic Church, spearheaded by the Vatican, began to face a string of challenges from within? Just as what came to be called the Protestant Reformation survived, with Lutheranism and Calvinism planting roots that have since helped Christian countries rise to the pedestal globally, is there any such ray of hope or glimmer of light the Islamic world may do likewise after its own internecine clashes concurrently?
Overwhelming the question is the rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reminiscent of the original Muslim divide following the passing of the Holy Prophet, when Shi'ism gravitated in the Persian direction to challenge the Arab-dominated Sunnis, this nationalistic flavouring of religion is what dominated Europe's 16th and 17th centuries. When Sunni Islam began its purification crusade under Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in mid-18th Century, one consequence was his 1744 marriage of convenience with the Muhammad ibn Saud, founder of the first Saudi state. Not only was a state founded, but built upon fundamentalist Islam, it has stoically descended to the present century in more or less identical garb. New Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, seeks to modify it: not at all to water down the role and influence of Islam, but to adapt it to the 21st Century when Saudi Arabia must not only adjust to a post-petroleum economy, but also survive in the vicious world of economic competition and Internet inter-penetration. Iran haunts this transition as much as serving as causation.
Saudi Arabia's 21st Century reforms must be eye-raising. The first steps to give women a more active social role, catalysed by easing restrictive rules, have been launched, as too other tectonic steps to open beach-fronts, and thereby more open-ended foreign, especially western, tourism, and giving cinemas and theatres the green signal. Apparently the clerics have been negotiated down to insignificance or completely ignored; and to cap matters off globally, the fundamentalist platform the clerics had insisted be imposed in every mosque abroad must now be quickly relaxed to suit a 21st Century audience. Whether this lies behind Bangladesh's mosque-building controversy last year, when questions arose if Saudi assistance to recreate 560 mosques was actual or hypothetical, clearly mixed messages have been crossing global Islamic pathways since the Saudi reform measures began.
If Saudi fundamentalist-reformist divide is one strand to keep an eye on throughout the rest of the century, the other is Iran's similar steps. Here the domestic context speaks far louder than for Saudi Arabia, though in both local reverberations will quite likely ripple more resoundingly across the world than one expects. The reasons may be too obvious to retell: it was in Iran that the Khomeini revolution overturned an entire dynasty and briefly threatened the rest of the Muslim world, particularly in and around Saudi Arabia. The world was briefly brought to its knees before Iran, with US hostages being held hostage for 444 days, while an excruciating decade-long war with Iraq almost altered the local balance of power.
Among other reasons, Iran has few other countries it can significantly influence: Bahrain, Lebanon, Qatar, Syria, and perhaps Yemen, just about exhaust the list. Although each one of these today seem to be embroiled in some sort of a conflict or Saudi-imposed sanction, in better times, they have shown impressive economic acumen, suggesting the reform seeds just happen to be there should anyone dare to activate them. If so, any conflict-mindedness would be expensive and unnecessary; but ending it cannot automatically happen if Iran alone boasts a nuclear weapon in the region.
The emergent Iran-Saudi conflict holds every domestic reform hostage to its solution. Iran has slowly, sometime surreptitiously, extended its control-range into Iraq, and thereby consolidated its position in Syria and Lebanon, while also finding Russia and Turkey to latch on to accidentally. Saudi Arabia has taken some aggressive external actions, especially in Yemen and with Qatar; but how it is also turning to the Kurds and Israel might invoke those fiery Islamic groups whose embers may not have been fully quenched once Islamic State was uprooted. By hook or by crook, Islamic jihadis may make the consummation of Islamic reforms a bitter pill for any Islamic country brave enough to follow in Iranian or Saudi steps.
Many of them will have to undergo domestic restructuration of sorts. Those that sent workers to either or both these countries and depended heavily on remittances, may find reforms in these two principal countries corroding their own foreign-exchange balances; and when Saudi Arabia steps in to recreate mosques worldwide through largesse or gifts, those who had previously received jihadi instructions from Riyadh may find themselves marooned enough to make local noise noisier. Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan better keep these possibilities high on their attention-span given the beast set to be unleashed.
Jihadi forces no longer have what it takes to go the distance. Yet that is what is so disturbing. Like populists in Western countries today, they may be making their last desperate attempt to impose or retain an old, rejected lifestyle, even as it is being abandoned by vox populi, but most concertedly through a new wave of leaders. Islamic countries know only too well that leaders of this particular stripe in the past were precisely the ones burned on the cross. What they should get to know is that the avalanche is too strong this time to be denied.
Nevertheless, the reform machine in both Saudi Arabia and Iran can only start roaring when the two countries pull back from the war-front. Otherwise, what may be set to become a successful Islamic reformation may be sidelined by a historic antagonism that even Islam has no answer for.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.