Occasionally there are certain political events in the Middle East that are the prelude to a strategic point of inflection due to the impact that they present for the future. One of the most significant event of the 2016 summer was the Islamic conference that was held in Grozny, the capital of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, where Salafism and Wahhabism were excluded from moderate Sunni Islam, and Saudi Arabia was blamed for the deterioration of the global perception of Islam. It was a conference that reinforced the instrumentalization of religion in the Middle East
The theme of the conference, held from the 24 – 27 August 2016, focused on questions around “Who is part of the Sunni family and al Jamaa?”. The primary objective of this meeting was to clearly define just who Sunnis are. The recommendations and conclusions of this meeting limit Sunnism to the Ash’ariyyah and Maturidiyyah schools and to the four Madahib schools of Islamic law, which are: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali. The conference then named four Islamic universities as the main reference for Sunnism across the Islamic world, these being Kayrawan in the Moroccan city of Fez, the Egyptian Institution El Azhar, the University of Zaytuna in Tunisia and Hadramaut in Yemen.
Although this was a religious conference, politics marked the agenda, especially in a region of the world where religious and military activity are historically synonymous with political activity. In its defence of Sunni Islam, the conference excommunicated Wahhabism from the Sunni family, accusing this movement, along with Salafism, of contributing to the deterioration of the image of Islam and Muslims across the globe, as well as of provoking hatred, war and acts of terrorism.
As a result, we saw a geostrategic conference that had a well defined political agenda, which included denouncing Saudi Arabia, looking to isolate it internationally. Wahhabism is a basic pillar of political power in Saudi Arabia.
That the conference was held in the Russian Republic of Chechnya should not surprise anyone. Firstly, the Kremlin is well aware of the crucial role that Islam holds in regard to world geopolitics, most especially in the Middle East. This is why President Vladimir Putin himself inaugurated Europe’s largest mosque in Moscow in September 2015. Following in the footsteps of America’s CIA, Russia’s secret services have, for years, engaged in relations with the movements of political Islam in the Arab world. And the Grozny Conference is the result of this dialogue.
Russia is once again facing a cold war whose most visible aspect is, besides Syria, Crimea. Aware of Islam’s role as a political actor, Russia does not want to see Wahhabism and Salafism thrive in those Russian Republics in the south of the country, given that the area’s population is mostly Muslim, as in the case of Chechnya.
The Kremlin does not forget the role Saudi Arabia played during the war in Afghanistan and Chechnya, when it supported and financed Wahhabi and Salafi guerrillas. Two wars that cost the Soviet Union, and later Russia, considerable human, political and economic losses.
The conference aimed to isolate Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and the Muslim world, labelling it a source of evil that is afflicting the Muslim world because of its policy to spread Wahhabism, and its funding of extremists and terrorists. For this reason, the Ulema circle from Saudi Arabia (Scholars of Islam) accused participants at the conference in Grozny of being enemies of Islam and of Saudi Arabia.
Isolating Saudi Arabia is no longer as difficult as it had been previously. On the one hand, this country has lost its main ally, the USA, because Washington has a different view to that of the Saudis about the future of the Middle East. In addition, Saudi Arabia is, for the moment, unable to gain the confidence of any world power to act as an ally, except for their coordination with France on international affairs. The French are seeking to establish trade agreements for arms rather than to establish a strategic relationship with Riyadh; in fact, in the last two years, France has managed to sign significant arms trade agreements with Saudi Arabia.
The social context surrounding the conference was quite particular, with public opinion across the Arab world becoming increasingly hostile toward Saudi Arabia. Arab politicians and intellectuals blame this country of contributing to the failure of the Arab Spring, in its support of the return of dictatorial regimes as in the case of Egypt, and with their financing of the Salafi movement that is contrary to principles of democracy.
In addition, several Arab voices criticize Saudi Arabia for further complicating the situation in the Arab world by declaring war on a country as poor as Yemen, causing terrible suffering amongst the population.
Iran, leaders of Shi’ism across the Arab world and a country in a strategic war with Saudi Arabia, was another of the conference’s winners. Tehran are in favour of excluding Wahhabism from Sunni movements -given Wahhabism is a basic pillar of authority in Saudi Arabia-, from moderate Islam.
The Grozny Conference is the prelude to a movement in the field of Sunni Islam to isolate a country accused of fomenting extremism and of being one of the indirect supporters of Al Qaeda and Daech, two movements that adopt Wahhabism and Salafism. Therefore, it is a conference with substantial strategical relevance to the future of political Islam.