Some states in the Islamic world are theocracies and identify themselves as such based on their adherence in matters of governance to Islamic scripture and theology. Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular proclaim themselves Islamic and have intentionally used their Islamic credentials to further both their domestic legitimacy and their foreign policy goals. Both, on occasion, have also used their Islamic credentials to claim the authority to speak for Islam.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the legitimacy of the hereditary monarchy that gives its name to the country rests on the alliance between the House of Saud and the Wahabi religious establishment. The Saudi state has used its Islamic identity to promote its interests abroad both by setting up international governmental and nongovernmental Muslim organizations and funding religious groups, educational institutions, and the construction of mosques in foreign countries. This dimension of its foreign policy became especially salient in the 1980s and 1990s following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that challenged the Saudi hereditary order by terming it un–Islamic. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the same year, however, provided the Saudis the opportunity to buttress their Islamic legitimacy by supporting the (American–backed) mujahedin engaged in fighting Soviet occupation.
In the meantime, the Saudi regime came face–to–face with a new, serious challenge at home: the emergence of a radical Wahabi movement, influenced by the extremist thought of the Egyptian Islamist Sayid Qutb. The Wahabi radicals broke ranks with the religious establishment allied to the House of Saud, denounced the regime as un–Islamic, and staged the 1979 takeover of the Ka’aba, the holiest Muslim shrine. Osama Bin Laden and his followers are ideological descendants of the neo–Wahabis and their leader, Juhaiman al–Utaibi.15
The neo–Wahabis turned violently against the Saudi regime for a number of reasons, including their perception that the regime had deviated from the austere Islamic principles of the Wahabi theologians. The Saudi monarchy’s dependence on the United States for its security and economic well–being sparked further hostility among Islamists. Consequently, Saudi Arabia, the “kingdom in the middle,” as the political scientist Gregory Gause has called it, has seen rising tensions between two different Islamist tendencies.16 This situation hamstrings the Saudi regime’s capacity to speak on behalf of Islam.
A similar situation exists in Iran. The shah’s repression of all forms of political opposition in the 1970s created the vacuum filled by Islamist forces, in this case a faction of the Shia ulama. Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise as the primary vehicle for Islamists in Iran is explained in part by the fact that the Shia ulama maintained financial independence from the Iranian state, in contrast to Sunni clerics’ dependence on state patronage. Shia clerics’ independence was achieved to a large extent through the payment of khums, or one–fifth of a person’s income, by the religious laity to their marja, or preferred senior cleric.
The robust Shia tradition of ijtihad17 enabled the politically activist faction of the Iranian clergy inspired by Khomeini to adapt its strategy to the concerns of the 1960s and 1970s. The same Shia predilection for innovation provided Khomeini the opportunity to advocate his theory of Islamic government as guided by the Supreme Jurist, with the Shia ulama the ultimate repositories of both moral and political rectitude.
Lay Islamist radicals were not, however, absent from the Iranian scene. The writings and speeches of activists such as Ali Shariati contributed significantly to the shah’s downfall. Nevertheless, nonclerical forces could not compete with the ulama for control of postrevolution Iran. The ulama were better organized, had much greater financial resources, and were more united than their nonclerical counterparts.18
Despite the pan–Islamic rhetoric of the early years of the revolution, the postrevolution Iranian political elite, still led by Khomeini, came to view the defense of Iranian interests as their primary (Islamic) duty. The Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 reinforced Iran’s position that the defense of Iran was an essential prerequisite for the defense of Islam. In January 1988, Khomeini went even further by declaring that the state’s actions based on expediency could take precedence even over the requirements of the shari‘a.19
Raison d’état continues to be the driving force as far as Iranian foreign policy is concerned. This was demonstrated most recently by Tehran’s neutral posture during the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the regime’s covert collaboration with the United States during the war against the Taliban, as widely reported by the media.20 These policies reflected the Iranian regime’s antipathy toward both Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Baathists, as well as the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban. All in all, Iran’s focus on national interest, just like Saudi Arabia’s, compromises its capacity to speak either on behalf of Islam or the Muslim world at large.
Another instance of national interest superseding pan–Islamic rhetoric is the “Sulawesi Sea Crisis” that nearly brought Southeast Asian neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia to blows in February of 2005. The Malaysian state oil company Petronas sparked an international row by awarding oil exploration rights in a disputed, resource–rich region of the Sulawesi Sea that is claimed by both Indonesia and Malaysia. First Indonesia, then Malaysia, responded with a show of gunboat diplomacy, sending fighter jets and warships to the contested area. Although both countries’ leaders eventually resolved the dispute through diplomatic means, harsh words were exchanged, such as Indonesian House Speaker Agung Laksono’s statement that “the government should take stern action without hesitation, including military force if necessary.”21 The dispute engendered strong nationalist feelings, particularly in Indonesia, where protesters across the country burned Malaysian flags and hackers vandalized Malaysian government Web sites with defiant slogans and symbols.
Despite this confrontation, both nations insisted that their relationship remained strong, echoed by the statement of Indonesian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yuri Thamrin that “we are both after all countries, which not only have good bilateral ties but are Muslim nations.”22