Khamenei is calling the Arab states and/or their Muslim citizens to unite under Islam against the West. The “and/or” part is crucial since he is not only calling on the leaders of Arab states who are already aligned with ideals of the Islamic brotherhood. The call is also meant to reach the ears of citizens of Arab states which are not aligned with Iran or its fervent Islamic government and in inciting them to rise up against their governments in the name of Islam.
That is why, on the one hand, Khamenei calls for Shiites and Sunnis to unite against the global arch enemy and “Great Satan”, the US, while at the same time, he calls to relieve Iran’s regional arch enemy, and Sunni leader, Saudi Arabia, of control over Islam’s holy sites.
This isn’t a new call: Khomeini has been calling on his Muslim brothers to do so since 1979. Khamenei picked up the call under the guise of a “Global Islamic Awakening”. But the call for creating a unified Muslim front has escalated over the past few years due to the military, economic and political developments in the Middle East and the world.
Islam vs. “the West” vs. “the East”
Although its very name implies it, this call is only nominally a religious one: Islam is not presented as an alternative to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism or any other religion. Instead, it is presented as the solution to the multitude of problems that plague the citizens of Arab states, problems that are conveniently packaged as “the West”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “arrogant powers” etc…In fact, it isn’t really a solution but a means to unite any citizen of any state who sees himself/herself as victimized by “the West” either directly or through his/her government which is friendly with the West.
Many Arab states have gone through the Arab Spring only to find themselves free from the dictators who ruled them but torn of their national identities. Iraqis, Egyptians and Libyans initially celebrated ridding themselves of Saddam, Mubarak and Ghadaffi but they were soon disillusioned by the politicians and leaders who tried to fill the vacuum. In some countries, as in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the ruling families retained their powers while in others, such as in Syria and Yemen, the revolution escalated into a prolonged civil war.
Meanwhile, the North American and the Western European states are weakening. Whether this is as a result from economic and political mismanagement or from a lack of coherent national identity brought on by an influx of immigrants and a generation of citizens who take less pride in their national identity and have more solidarity with their global identity.
The weakness of the West is highlighted by the growing success of the Eastern superpowers like China, as a world economic leader, and Russia, as the historic opposer of the West. The leaders in China and Russia are far from heeding the call of Islamic unity but they all understand that this call is aimed at hurting the West, and specifically the US, in whose downfall they have a vested interest.
Shiites vs. Sunnis vs. “the Rest”
Khamenei’s call to unify Muslims requires all Muslims to put aside their rival interpretations of Islam to fight the West. Unfortunately, the battles between the different factions of Islam echo the battles that were fought many centuries ago between the Christian states aligned under Catholicism against all the other Christian leaders who defied the Vatican. There and then in Europe, as today in the Middle East, the battles are fought not over religion but over the power that religion offers the leaders of the states.
Khamenei’s call to Islamic unity is extraordinary since Shiites represent at most 15% of the worlds’ Muslims and a unification of Islam by the Shiites would be a major victory for the minority faction. Were this call to originate from the Sunnis, as it did many centuries ago in the Islamic conquest of the Middles East and Northern Africa, the call to unity might have sounded more natural and less political.
Were the differences between Tehran and Sunni states only religious, there might have been an affinity to unite. But, much as in the case of Europe in the sixteenth century, religious differences only played a nominal part while the real reasons to heed the battle cry of a religious war could be found within the mindsets of the rulers themselves. The fight for the “ideal” form of Christianity was heavily overshadowed by England’s king Henry VIII’s wish to divorce and remarry and for his hot-cold relationships with France’s king Francis I and Spain’s emperor Charles V.
In the same manner, the Saudis are weary of Khamenei’s call not based on its religious merit but simply because Riyadh and Tehran are self-defined regional rivals. They listen to Zarif’s warnings that ISIS is an equal threat to Sunnis and Shiites with understanding, but are weary of Iran’s agenda to stir up horrified and scared Sunnis against their leaders.
The fact that the call for Islamic unity emerges from Khamenei places more emphasis on the particular interests of Iran than on the collective goal of Muslim states.