The wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya, the campaigns of terror in Nigeria, the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Xinjiang, all together accounting for most of the turmoil spanning the globe are centered in the Islamic world.
One would not be far off the mark if one suggests that the world faces its greatest crisis due to this turmoil.
Islam is the world’s second-largest religion after Christianity. According to a 2010 study, Islam has 1.62 billion adherents, making up over 23 per cent of the world population. Islam is the predominant religion in West Asia, in Sahel, in the Horn of Africa and northern Africa, and in some parts of Asia.
Large communities of Muslims are also found in China, the Balkans, and Russia. Other parts of the world too host large Muslim immigrant communities; in western Europe, for instance, Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity, where it represents six per cent of the total population. There 49 Muslim-majority countries. Around 62 per cent of the world’s Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia, with over 1 billion adherents.
The largest Muslim country is Indonesia, home to 12.7 per cent of the world’s Muslims, followed by Pakistan (11.0 per cent), India (10.9 per cent), and Bangladesh (9.2 per cent). About 20 per cent of Muslims live in Arab countries. In West Asia, the non-Arab countries of Turkey and Iran are the largest Muslim-majority countries; in Africa, Egypt and Nigeria have the most populous Muslim communities.
The Islamic crescent is a wide arc from Pakistan in the east to Morocco in the west. There are four broad socio-cultural and two deep sectarian divides that characterise the region. The second-biggest country in the world that Muhammad created, Pakistan, and the current epicentre of the jihadi terror that has been unleashed on the rest of the world is the only South Asian country in this tumultuous world. The other broad region consist of the Turkic countries of Central Asia and Turkey itself, then the Arab countries and Iran — all by itself.
The other major divide, and this is a horizontal one, is the Shia/Sunni divide. There are far more Muslims in all in other regions such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, North Africa, but it is the Islamic crescent that is the motherland of the theological and political anger that keeps the Islamic world in continuous tumult and angry with the world. This area, excluding Pakistan and Afghanistan, is also known as West Asia and North Africa (WANA) or Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in government dovecotes world over.
The population of Western Asia is over 300 million. The most populous countries in the region are Iran and Turkey, each with around 75 million people, followed by Iraq with around 32 million people. The major languages are Arabic, which is an official language in 14 regional countries, followed by Turkish, and Persian.
The economy of Western Asia is diverse and the region experiences high economic growth. Turkey has the largest economy in the region, followed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. Petroleum is the major industry in the regional economy, as more than half of the world’s oil reserves and around 40 per cent of the world’s natural gas reserves are located in the region.
Islam began as an Arab religion and all its folklore and mythology is set in the deserts of Arabia. It is this subscription to a uniquely regional dogma that gives the Arab world its dominant influence on the bigger world of Sunni Islam.
Sunnis are a majority in most Muslim communities in Southeast Asia, China, South Asia, Africa, most of the Arab world, and among Muslims in the United States (of which 85-90 per cent are Sunnis). Shia’s make up the majority of the Muslim population in Iran (around 90-95 per cent), Azerbaijan (around 85 per cent), Iraq (around 60-65 per cent) and Bahrain (around 65 per cent).
Minority Shia communities are also found in Yemen, around 30 per cent of the Muslim population (mostly of the Zaydi sect), and about 10-15 per cent of Turkey are of the Alevi sect. The Shia constitute around 20 per cent of Kuwait, 45-55 per cent of the Muslim population in Lebanon, 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia, 15 per cent of Syria, and 10-15 per cent of Pakistan. Around 10-15 per cent of Afghanistan, less than five per cent of the Muslims in Nigeria, and around 3 per cent of population of Tajikistan are Shia.
Iran challenges this supremacy being the largest Shia country in the world, the home of Shia theology study and with a comparable oil wealth. While the Arab countries, with the possible exception of Egypt, have all been relatively poor and backward till the oil boom of the early 1970s, Iran has traditionally been a more westernised and developed region in WANA.
The Shia/Sunni divide almost equally divides WANA in terms of numbers, because there are sizeable Shia populations in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon and more importantly in the scattered Palestinian communities in the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon.
The Shia/Sunni competition that has its roots in the succession struggles after the death of its founder Muhammad is now exacerbated by a competitive militancy over Israel and its political patron — the US. Iran has sought to extend its influence in the largely Sunni Arab world by espousing a more trenchant anti-Israeli and anti-American activism. It seems to have served it well so far and has given it much influence in neighbouring countries.
Shia’s control Iraq and the Alawites control Syria. The Iranian supported Hezbollah commands good support in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. Henry Kissinger once said in the context of Israel that it was not possible to have war without Syria just as it was not possible to have peace without it. Syria is now not in a position to make war let alone be at peace. It would seem that Kissinger’s postulate now applies to Iran.
Needless to say this vast area is a cauldron of passions and the most Byzantine politics. With the exception of Turkey, which now has a well-settled democratic system in place, none of these West Asian countries can qualify to be a democracy in the known sense of the term. After the so-called Arab Spring many new governments sprang up in deference to the wishes of the people who took to the street.
Tunisia and Egypt have had transitions to slightly more freely elected governments, but stability eludes them. Libya has lapsed into disorder and Iraq has its traditional deep divides more exacerbated. The big question is how will this region settle down?
(This is the first part of a two-part series)
The writer held senior positions in government and industry and is a policy analyst studying economics and security issues. He also specialises on the Chinese economy.