Saudi-Iran rivalry rooted in politics, says scholar


PETALING JAYA: A sociologist has criticised public figures who speak of the animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran as being caused by religious differences.

Syed Farid Alatas, who teaches at the National University of Singapore, said it was important for the Muslim public to realise that political differences were at the root of the quarrel between the two countries.

He told FMT he found it unfortunate that the political rivalry had been interpreted and expressed as a rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam.

Syed Farid’s remarks followed statements made during the recent Khayr Ummah Conference in Kuala Lumpur about the alleged dangers that Shia Islam posed to the Muslim world.

International Islamic University College Selangor lecturer Hafiz Basir, speaking to the press during a break in the conference, said he considered Shia Islam to be more dangerous than the Islamic State (IS) militant group because of its association with Iran, a major international power, and Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party and military group.

Senior Umno leader Mohd Puad Zarkashi told the conference Shia Islam and IS were equally dangerous.

Hitting out at both Hafiz and Puad, Syed Farid said it was fundamentally wrong to compare IS with Shia Islam.

“IS is a network of extremist groups whereas Shi’ism is a school of thought within Islam,” he said. “It would be more correct to compare IS with certain extremist Shi’ite groups.”

A political scientist from Iran, Seyed Mohamad Sadegh Emamian, said research had shown that radicalisation was brought about by environmental influences and not religious belief.

“It’s about the economy, political isolation and polarisation within societies, among other things,” he told FMT.

Emamian, who heads the Governance and Policy Think Tank at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology, cited studies done by King’s College in London, which pointed to contextual situations rather than ideologies as causes of radicalisation.

“It’s mainly a political phenomenon coming out from contextual situations in vulnerable countries and vulnerable societies,” he said.

Emamian also said data collected over recent years had shown that the Salafi-based school of thought, which is Sunni, was more vulnerable to radicalisation than any Shia school of thought.

“I don’t think Salafism teaches Muslims to become radicals per se, but it’s more vulnerable because of how it contextualises Islam,” he said. “It has an aggressive way of thinking about Islam.”