A few days ago, the whole world witnessed the epitome of political hypocrisy when the chief propagandist of a Muslim travel ban was warmly welcomed by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Islam. As a result, the Saudi-government invited taunts on social media for allegedly honouring Islamophobia and betraying the Muslim community by giving Trump the highest civilian honour. But this sentiment of betrayal stems from something that is quickly becoming irrelevant in the current context of affairs, the notion of one Ummah.
Although, in the bid to improve their defence and economic capacities, Saudi Arabia might have gone a bit overboard with the staged drama, but to the most extent, it was rightly conceived if examined through the lens of nation-states, which always seek to put national interests above a universal ideology. At present, the notion of one Ummah is in tatters because its universally binding ideology that has historically been subjected to pluralistic interpretations is now being met with increasingly severe sectarian hostility, which, in a nationalist world has further enabled the Muslim states to prioritise national interests.
One such instance is the sectarian hostility, which has produced violent undertakings between Baghdad and Tehran, Riyadh and Yemen. Even the recent US-Arab Islamic summit mirrored the same sectarian dismissal, where two extremely important predominant Islamic countries, Iran and Syria were found absent. Therefore, invocation of such sentiment of betrayal against supposed Muslim solidarity seems to be rooted in an obsolete ideology that does not relate well to the present actions of both religious and national leaders of Muslim states.
Even when sectarian hostility is set aside, the way transnational Muslims are treated by the GCC countries tears this notion of one Ummah in pieces. For instance, let’s talk about how transnational Muslim labour is treated in most Gulf states: they cannot get citizenship no matter how long they stay and work there, they cannot start a business or even open a bank account without having an Arab kafeel or sponsor, they cannot buy property and they cannot marry an Arab woman. So, exactly how this aforementioned sentiment can find legitimacy in the notion of one Ummah when the ground realities are so different.
It might irritate many to say that the West has been more kind to Muslim labour, in the sense that all of the rights shunned by Gulf states are actively welcomed by Western countries. It is definitely a hard truth and some might argue that it is a Western scheme of strengthening sectarian divide. Well, even if it is, firstly it had seen the day only because of the enablers that slipped out of cracks existing within the weak Muslim community and secondly, the West cannot really be logically blamed for working to further its national interests.
Currently, more than 50 Muslim countries are registered with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that stretch across four continents and form an essential aorta for international trade via meaningful land and maritime presence. With the global population share of more than 22 per cent, OIC countries have 70 per cent of world’s energy resources and 40 per cent of the global raw materials. Therefore, the concept of one Ummah can be forged as an extremely useful tool to maximise the leverage on the numerous bargaining chips possessed by the Muslim states collectively.
But a return to this notion remains a long shot, especially if conceived through the lens of pan-Islamism which envisioned one Muslim caliphate, because it breeds all sort of structural complications in the face of such sectarian divide. A short shot effort came in the form of OIC, established in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on al Aqsa Mosque. It was a step in the right direction. It reflected a unified determination of the Ummah to safeguard its collective interests. But it failed to be effective in stopping not only instances of foreign aggression like dismemberment of Pakistan through Indian intervention, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, Israel invasion of Lebanon, but also in preventing hostilities within its own member states.
It lacks the bite to intervene instrumentally because it is putting the donkey before the cart, as it seeks to formulate a meaningful structural integration of Muslims without solving the ideological crisis of sectarian non-acceptance. Surely it is a mammoth task, but it is definitely and more readily achievable by top to bottom approach, which means that the most important role has to be played by all-sect religious and national leaders by becoming the embodiment of tolerance in order to affect their respective mandates of millions.
Furthermore, if such structural integration do effectively finds its feet, even the shoddy treatment of transnational Muslims caused by the overarching sentiments of nationalism can be abated, because it would then correspond more to the collective nationalism of Muslim states. Although it is a really tough proposition also because of the possible free-rider issues, better ideological connectivity through sectarian acceptance can help solve such dilemmas.
So in the face of increasing tensions, Muslim states cannot even afford to have weak embankments let alone bearing visible cracks, because foreign forces do not only hit when the iron is hot, in fact, they keep on hitting until the iron is hot. Therefore, the need of the unification of Muslim states is grave and it can not only serve to bolster collective safety, but can also further their national economic interests in the long run.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 15th, 2017.