A Convenient Scapegoat: Religion Isn’t Behind the Saudi-Iranian Conflict

9 thoughts on “A Convenient Scapegoat: Religion Isn’t Behind the Saudi-Iranian Conflict”

  1. All countries want enough power to secure itself. Some are ambitious enough to seek more than it needs out of greed.

    Many different justifications are used, and presented as legitimate reasons for doing whatever it is that they are doing

    It’s true the Sunni and Shia divide has existed since the 7th century and they have coexisted. Jockeying for power in the Middle Eastern region is no different than the United States and Russia or China doing the same globally.

    Adam, your article is one of interest.


  2. This is all very interesting, and I agree that sectarian narratives are a smokescreen, but do not forget that the powers involved, and particularly Saudi Arabia, resort to them to explain the conflict. Are they “Orientalist”, too? The author is guilty of the conceptual laziness he accuses others of.


    1. Thank you for your feedback. Perhaps I did not make this clear enough, but the point of the article is that the rhetoric is a way of organizing people along certain lines, not something deeper than the smokescreen we both agree on. In that manner, Saudi Arabia and Iran are operating under the same rational as other powers in IR have always done. Additionally, leaders in the Middle East are as susceptible to perpetuating Orientlaist stereotypes as Westerners. Let’s not forget about the wave of Western inspired Pan-Arab Nationalism as an antidote to Western Hegemony. Nasser, Sadat, both Shahs, and Attaturk’s policies of cultural and military development corroborate the view that Orientalism is applicable beyond Western interpretations of the Middle East. As a discourse, Orientalism can be applied to the paradigm under analysis as well.


      1. Thank you for your reply. As I said in my previous comment, I agree that sectarian differences are not at the core of the conflict, and that it’s important to point it out. However, your explanation is rather reductionist, too.

        Granted, nationalism was a Western invention exported to the rest of the world, but Saudi Arabia has been using the same rhetoric about the Shiites for over two centuries – i.e. well before Orientalism even existed -, and they adopted it from medieval authors like Ibn Taymiyya. In the current situation of uncertainty and competition, Wahhabi clerics are merely rehashing old topics to justify Saudi foreign policy and mobilise Sunni public opinion across the Muslim world – with considerable success, I might add.

        In fact, I think your suggestion that Saudi Arabia is adopting Western categories is rather Western-centric and patronising, and shows once again that Orientalism is one of those goods ideas which have been taken too far. I suspect you don’t use Arabic sources, otherwise you’d know that there is nothing Orientalist about Wahhabi propaganda.

        While we’re at it, there aren’t “over 70 sects in Islam”. You’re probably referring to a hadith which was supposed to be prophetic, and the figure mentioned (73) was clearly symbolic.


      2. Hi, I actually agree with your point, that Wahhabist rhetoric is being reutilized to mobilize a population. I’m not suggesting that Wahhabism is Orientelist, indeed we seem to be arguing roughly the same point. I’m simply arguing that instead of essentializing the religious aspect and feeding into stereotypes, we should apply standard IR theory to the conflict. In my view, power relations drive actor behavior, I don’t view that as something uniquely Western. Rather, I view it as something applicable to all states in the International System. Could you explain how that is a Western bias? I would add that if anything, this goes against Western biases by removing normativity through the analysis of state behavior. In this case, im curious as to what your explanation would be if you discount traditional IR as too Western focused, what would your explanation be?

        I would also add that the above comments about Middle Eastern leaders were not designed to suggest Saudi Arabia is acquiescing to Orientalism, but rather that everyone is susceptible to it.

        Lastly, I apologize about the Islamic Sects error, that was an editing mistake that was marked for change and should have been removed but wasn’t for whatever reason.

        Thanks again for the discussion.


      3. You’re right, we agree on the main point, which is that the Saudi-Iranian conflict can be understood using standard political theory, instead of resorting to lazy stereotypes. So I would discuss factors like regime survival or the regional balance of power, rather than pretending that Saudi Arabia is using sectarian arguments because it is susceptible to Orientalism. The chronology just doesn’t add up, nor does the content of Wahhabi (and Salafi) sectarian propaganda.

        I think it is Western bias to consider that everything that goes on in any society is somehow a result of Western actions, and to fail to hold non-Western societies or actors responsible for their actions. Someone I tend to agree with calls it “the racism of low expectations”. I’m not denying Western responsibility in much of what is wrong in the world, but that doesn’t make non-Western actors unwitting victims or puppets by default.

        I hope this comes across as the constructive criticism it’s intended to be, because it is refreshing to read people who are willing to think out of the box 🙂


      4. Yes thank you, I never took as anything other than real scholarly discussion.

        I apologize if my argument comes across as suggesting that Saudi Arabia is subscribing to Orientalism. The crux of my argument centers around these actors having total agency. Rather than submitting to cultural fatalism, they are following rule of Realism, parallelling the behavior of any other state placed in the same Great Power Politics paradigm. As I hope this article suggests, the driving force behind the conflict is regime survival and balance of power theory. In my original draft (if I remember correctly as I wrote this about a year ago), I used Mearhseimer’s China’s Unpeaceful Rise as a model for this conflict.

        I don’t believe Saudi Arabia is under the sway of Orientalist fatalism, but rather manufacturing Consent for the conflict through the use of that language. In the same way that the US did during the Red Scare. It’s simply discursive ammunition to foment hostility—normal authoritarian behavior in my view.


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