Religion as a political weapon in the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran
A new chapter has begun in the confrontation between the two main Muslim camps. For Saudi grand mufti, Iranians "are not Muslims." Iranian Foreign Minister slams Saudi Wahhabis as preachers of terrorism. A dispute over Iranian Hajj pilgrims triggered the spat with the struggle for supremacy within Islam and the Middle East in the background.
Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A new chapter in the war – and not of words alone - between Riyadh and Tehran was written today, fuelled by the ban of Iranian pilgrims from Hajj, the greater pilgrimage, as part of the broader political and religious conflict between the two major powers in the Middle East.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Saudi authorities of "bigoted extremism" after Saudi Arabia's top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, said Iranians – who are predominantly Shia – were "not Muslims."
The latest spat was triggered by a blistering attack on Monday by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, who called the Saudis infidels and blasphemers, “small and puny satans” in the hands of the US.
The Shia leader spoke a few days before the greater pilgrimage, the Hajj, which for the first time in 30 years will not see Iranian nationals because of a dispute between Tehran and Riyadh over visas and the direct flights between the two countries.
Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, the grand mufti, said that Khamenei's accusations were "not surprising" because "They [Iranians] are the sons of the Magi," a reference to Zoroastrianism, a religion that once dominated Iran.
"We must understand these are not Muslims," he was quoted as saying. "They are the son of the Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one, especially with the People of the Tradition [Sunnis]."
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reacted to the words of the Saudi grand mufti. "Indeed, no resemblance between Islam of Iranians and most Muslims, and bigoted extremism that Wahhabi top cleric and Saudi terror masters preach," Zarif tweeted.
The clash over who gets to make the greater pilgrimage plays into the deep gap between Sunnis and Shias, who don’t disdain using religion for political purposes.
Despite such competing views and positions, a recently developed common line views Wahhabism as a "deformation" of Islam that leads to extremism and terrorism.
At the same time, Iran (95 per cent Shia) and Saudi Arabia (90 per cent Sunni) are on opposite sides on many Mideast issues, from the Syrian conflict to the war in Yemen.
Making matters worse, the Saudis executed a Saudi Shia dignitary earlier this year, which was followed by the attack on the Saudi embassy in Iran and its subsequent closure.
Relations between the two Muslim powers were already at historic lows since September 2015, after a tragic incident during the last pilgrimage to Makkah.
A tragic brawl in Mina, near Makkah, killed thousands, 2,070 according to Reuters. Iran accused Saudi authorities of mismanagement and incompetence, claiming the incident was premeditated.
For Muslims, Hajj (pilgrimage) is one of the five pillars of Islam that every good Muslim should perform at least once in his or her life.
Saudi Arabia has often used its power to grant entry visas for political purposes. For example, Syrians have not been allowed to travel to the Muslim holy cities for many years.