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The Politics of Muslim Magic

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“Saudi Woman Beheaded for Witchcraft” read media headlines around the world on December 13, 2011. News reports described how a 60-year-old woman was executed after being convicted of practicing witchcraft on the basis of such evidence as books on witchcraft, veils, and glass bottles full of an “unknown liquid used for sorcery.

[1] Yet the majority of news accounts implied that the woman was a victim of persecution by the Saudi government; as one of Amnesty International’s directors declared: “The charge of sorcery has often been used in Saudi Arabia to punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion.”[2]

No Western reporters seemed to consider that the victim was actually practicing witchcraft, or why witchcraft is considered by the desert kingdom a crime punishable by death. In the West, there is a societal need to place this seemingly inexplicable incident in an understandable context such as the violation of human rights rather than examining this Islamic tradition that includes the belief, practice, and prohibition of magic.

In fact, the practice of what can be termed Islamic magic is prevalent throughout the Muslim world, manifested in the theological concept of jinn, inhabiting the entire sphere of the Muslim occult. Furthermore, magical beliefs can constitute an existential and political threat to Islamic religious leaders, provoking severe punishments and strict prohibitions of any practice not sanctioned by their authority. Conversely, political leaders, including Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, have employed magical beliefs to advance their political agendas.

Islamic Witch Hunts

Belief in witchcraft, sorcery, magic, ghosts, and demons is widespread and pervasive throughout the Muslim world. Magical beliefs are expressed in the wearing of amulets, consulting spiritual healers and fortunetellers, shrine worship, exorcisms, animal sacrifice, and numerous customs and rituals that provide protection from the evil eye, demons, and jinn. Fears associated with these beliefs range from hauntings and curses to illness, poverty, and everyday misfortunes. Supernatural practices that are intended to bring good fortune, health, increased status, honor, and power also abound. Magical beliefs are not relegated to rural or poverty-stricken areas. On the contrary, they are observable in every segment of society regardless of socioeconomic status.

One of the more popular customs is fortunetelling, which is different from the Western practice, which is usually relegated to the status of a carnival act and specific to predicting the future. Generally, the practice of fortunetelling in the Middle East focuses more on spiritual protection and family counseling than prediction and prophecy. In addition to reading cards, dice, palms, and coffee grounds, activities include selling amulets to ward off evil spirits and providing advice for marital problems. In Afghanistan, fortunetellers operate out of small shops or outside of mosques and shrines across the country but are rarely consulted to portend the future; most often their clients are women or the elderly seeking guidance for problems affecting their families. In Iran, fortunetelling has become increasingly popular, and people of all ages turn to fortunetellers in search of happiness and security.[3] In Pakistan, fortunetelling and belief in astrology is so widespread that practitioners appear on morning television shows.[4]

All magical practices are denounced as un-Islamic by clerics. Although they condemn fortunetelling, the practice is not punished as severely as witchcraft and sorcery. This is likely due to the fact that fortunetelling is viewed as using magic to acquire unseen knowledge while sorcery is viewed as intentionally practicing malevolent or black magic. Recently, in Afghanistan, Gaza, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, stricter laws, arrests, and executions have resulted in efforts to deter magical practices. In January 2008, Afghan religious elders banned dozens of traditional fortunetellers in Mazar-i-Sharif from the area near the Hazrat Ali shrine.[5] In 2010, the Islamist group Hamas, ruling the Gaza Strip, conducted a campaign against witchcraft in the area, arresting 150 women, who were then forced to sign confessions and statements renouncing the practice.[6] According to Hamas “the activities of these women represent a real social danger, also because they risk ‘breaking up families,’ causing divorce and frittering away of money. Sometimes their activities also have criminal repercussions.”[7] In addition to the arrests, Hamas placed large anti-witchcraft posters at mosques, universities, and government offices warning women against magical practices and providing information to Gaza residents wishing to accuse their neighbors of the crime.[8] In August 2010, the campaign escalated to violence when a 62-year-old woman known as a traditional healer was murdered in front of her house by unidentified men after she was accused by her neighbors of practicing witchcraft.[9] In January 2012, Hamas declared the profession of fortunetelling illegal and “forced 142 fortune-tellers to sign written statements averring that they would stop trying to predict the future and sell trinkets that are supposed to offer personal protection.”[10]

In Egypt, Khalil Fadel, a prominent Egyptian psychiatrist, claimed that many Egyptians, including the highly-educated, were spending large amounts of money on sorcery and superstition and warned that growing superstition among Egyptians was threatening the country’s national security, dependent as it was on the mental health of the nation.[11] Under current law, people alleged to be sorcerers can be arrested in Egypt for fraud, but now that the Muslim Brotherhood has come to power and is drafting new legislation, it is conceivable that soon witchcraft could be designated a crime of apostasy, punishable by death.

In April 2009, Bahrain passed strict sorcery laws after x-rays revealed packages containing hair, nails, and blood were being shipped there; witchcraft and sorcery are now criminal offences that can result in fines or prison, followed by deportation.[12]

Neighboring Saudi Arabia enforces the most severe penalties for designated magical crimes. The threat of black magic is taken so seriously there that, in May 2009, an anti-witchcraft unit was created to combat it, along with traditional healing and fortunetelling, and placed under the control of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPV), which employs Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the mutaween. “On the CPV’s website, a hotline encourages citizens across the kingdom to report cases of sorcery to local officials for immediate treatment.”[13] Nine specialized centers were set up in large cities to deal with practitioners of black magic.

A large segment of the “witches” arrested by the CPV were Africans and Indonesians as black magic is often attributed to foreign workers, particularly maids.[14] In September 2011, hundreds of Saudi women complained when the Shura Council (an advisory body) granted permission for Moroccan women, internationally reputed by Muslims as masters of black magic, to work as maids in Saudi households.[15] The wives claimed it was “tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands … the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.”[16] Foreign domestic workers in the kingdom are accused of sorcery regularly either due to their traditional practices or because Saudi men, facing charges of sexual harassment, want to discredit their accusers.[17]

Nor is prosecution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia restricted to women. In 2010, Ali Sabat, host of a Lebanese satellite television program that provided psychic advice for callers from around the Arab world, was imprisoned while on the hajj pilgrimage.[18] In a closed court hearing with no representation, he was sentenced to death “because he had practiced ‘sorcery’ publicly for several years before millions of viewers.”[19] As a result of international pressure, he received a last minute reprieve, and his sentence was eventually reduced to fifteen years in prison.

Others had no such luck. There have been several executions for similar crimes: In September 2011, a Sudanese man was beheaded for the crime of witchcraft and sorcery, having been caught in a sting operation set in motion by the religious police and then convicted in a closed trial. In April 2011, thirty officers from the CPV attended a three-day training workshop in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes. The anti-witchcraft unit’s specialized training apparently also involved learning Qur’anic healing rituals to destroy the effects of black magic. There are detailed Islamic treatises on neutralizing black magic that include entire exorcism rites and purification rituals for the destruction of amulets and other magical items. Thus the irony results that neutralizing the effects of spells also constitutes magical practices, albeit legalized ones.

In brief, there are sorcerers, fortunetellers, and traditional healers throughout the Muslim world; many are in violation of interpretations of the Shari’a (Islamic law), and in some countries, that is punishable by death. European witch hunts ended when the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment brought empirical reason to the fore, and rationality eventually replaced the West’s superstitious world-views. The Islamic view of sorcery and witchcraft is significantly different. In contemporary Islamic witch hunts, there is an accepted, long-established, theologically-sanctioned supernatural tradition. Although science was cultivated in Muslim lands during Islam’s Golden Age, witch hunts never ceased because the Enlightenment’s rationalist ideologies did not replace the Islamic magical world-view. Rather, Islamic witch hunts have evolved into a combination of primal ritual and modern technology where videos of exorcisms and beheadings are available on the Internet.[20]

Jinn and the Muslim Occult

To fully comprehend contemporary witch hunts and the prevalence of magical beliefs in the Muslim world, it is necessary to understand the concept of jinn. Jinn provide Islamic explanations for evil, illness, health, wealth, and position in society as well as all mundane and inexplicable phenomena in between. The word jinn (also written as jinnee, djinn, djinni, genii or genie) is derived from the Arabic root j-n-n meaning to hide or be hidden, similar to the Latin origins of the word “occult” (hidden).

In the West, occult practices are marginalized and relegated to pagan traditions or the mystical aspects of religious traditions. In Islam, however, jinn are an integral part of Islamic theology. According to the Qur’an, God created humans from clay, angels from light, and jinn from smokeless fire: “Although belief in jinn is not one of the five pillars of Islam, one can’t be Muslim if he/she doesn’t have faith in their existence. … Indeed, the Qur’anic message itself is addressed to both humans and jinn, considered the only two intelligent species on earth.”[21] While frequently described as angels and demons, jinn are actually a third category—complex, intermediary beings who, similar to humans, have free will and can embrace goodness or evil.[22] Like humans, they are required to worship God and will be judged on the Day of Judgment according to their deeds.[23]

Evil jinn are referred to as shayatin, or devils, and Iblis (Satan) is their chief.[24] They can take the form of humans or animals with many of the fears associated with Islamic purification rites expressed in the symbolic attributes of the jinn. For example, in Islam, dogs, urine, feces, and blood are intrinsically impure, and jinn are known to shape-shift to dogs, accept impure animal sacrifice, and dwell in bathrooms, graveyards, and other unclean places. Muslims believe that evil jinn are spiritual entities that can enter and possess people and exercise supernatural influence over them. Women are considered to be more vulnerable to jinn because they are thought to be weaker in their faith and impure several days of the month.[25]

While jinn have been relegated to fantasy characters in the West, to countless believing Muslims, there is no doubt that they exist. An August 2009 Gallup poll, for example, found that 89 percent of Pakistanis respondents surveyed, believed in jinn.[26] Witches, sorcerers, and fortunetellers are all believed to be under the guidance of jinn and are sometimes referred to as “jinn catchers.”

Jinn are intrinsically intertwined with the practice of both licit Qur’anic magic and illicit black magic (sihir). Black magic is considered to be worked by those who have learned to summon evil jinn to serve them while Qur’anic magic invokes the guidance of God to exorcise the demons. Even spiritual healers with good intentions who do not employ Qur’anic healing methods can be designated as witches and sorcerers: In Saudi Arabia, only qualified individuals, usually natives designated by the religious authorities, are allowed to practice Qur’anic treatment methods; most of those arrested and beheaded for sorcery and witchcraft tend to be foreigners regardless of whether or not they were practicing Qur’anic medicine.

Despite regulations, an entire industry of professional exorcists who perform Qur’anic healing has arisen to meet demand throughout the Middle East and among Western Muslims with exorcists openly advertising on the Internet, using Facebook and Twitter, and posting thousands of videos on YouTube demonstrating healing techniques and publicizing actual exorcisms. Qur’anicHealers.com, a division of Spiritual Superpower Inc., for example, has a Paypal account, contact information for Qur’anic healers in twelve countries and a post office box in Artesia, California.[27]

Clerics, police, and politicians carefully negotiate the political, religious, legal, moral, and ethical issues that arise from dealing with this world of spirits with each country having its own laws to regulate various practices. For example, although exorcists are not prohibited in Gaza, Hamas considers most of them con artists, claiming to have exposed thirty cases of fraud in 2010: “We caught some suspects red-handed … using magic to separate married couples … It was all an act of deception and exploitation. Some people handed over fortunes, and one woman gave all her jewelry to one of these exorcists.”[28]

Abusive, quasi-medical practices have also been committed in the name of Qur’anic magic. Despite the fact that there are hospitals with psychiatric sections in Afghanistan, a common practice there is to chain the mentally ill to shrines for forty days to ritually exorcise the jinn “possessing” them. Patients are fed a strict diet of bread and black pepper, do not have a change of clothing, and sleep on the ground. Those who do not survive the treatments are buried in earthen mounds around the shrine. While doctors in Muslim lands recognize physical and mental illnesses, some are inclined to attribute inexplicable cases to possession. And although there are mullahs and religious scholars reportedly against these practices, the custom continues. There is no doubt that clerics believe in the powers of jinn; they would no more question the existence of jinn than they would the Qur’an.

The Politics of Magic

Jinn can represent an existential and political threat to religious leaders. Religious clerics condemn or actively ban illicit spiritual healing not because of the atrocities that have been committed, or because people are being defrauded, or even out of a conviction to save people’s souls from evil but out of fear that jinn exist and can be induced to subvert their authority.

At the same time, some leaders have used the belief in jinn to further their political agendas. Sheikh Ahmed Namir, a cleric and Hamas leader, perpetuates anti-Semitic tropes, claiming that economic hardship and psychological traumas in the Gaza Strip have encouraged evil Christian and Jewish jinn to possess Palestinians.[29] Palestinian stories of jinn possession are full of classic anti-Semitic propaganda and symbolism; in one case of “possession,” for example, the attempted murder of a child by her mother was blamed on “sixty-seven Jewish jinn,” transforming the ancient blood libel accusation into a new and bizarre form.[30] Not surprisingly, exorcizing Jewish jinn has become a growing business in Gaza:

Sheikh Abu Khaled, a Palestinian exorcist, said the number of possessed Muslims has more than tripled: “I suspect that Jewish magicians send jinns to us here in Gaza. In fact, most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”[31]

Some leaders allude to possessing supernatural powers in order to self-aggrandize but this can also backfire. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told followers in 2005 that he “was surrounded by a halo of light during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, in which the foreign leaders in the hall were transfixed, unable to blink for a half hour.”[32] But in May 2011, Ahmadinejad’s supernatural “powers” resulted in the arrests of two dozen of his aides, charged by opposing religious clerics with practicing black magic and invoking jinn. While most Western reporters scoffed at the story of imprisoned exorcists, The Wall Street Journal interviewed a renowned Iranian sorcerer, Seyed Sadigh, who claimed that dozens of Iran’s top government officials consult him on matters of national security and that he used jinn to infiltrate Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies: “Mr. Sadigh says he doesn’t waste jinn powers on trivial matters such as love and money. Rather, he contacts jinn who can help out on matters of national security and the regime’s political stability. His regular roll call includes jinn who work for … the Mossad, and for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.”[33]

It would appear that the accusations of sorcery were the result of a power struggle between the president and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, making this both an actual and political witch hunt. The primary target of the arrests was Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei whose “alternative Messianic version of Islam … includes aspects of the occult and a more limited role for clerics.”[34] Not surprisingly, Sadigh reinforced this notion, declaring, “I have information that Ahmadinejad is under a spell, and they are now trying to cast one on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamene’i to obey them blindly.”[35] Sadigh the sorcerer negotiates the politics of magic like a pro, changing allegiances to align himself with whoever seems to be on top and selling his services to him. Perhaps the real power behind the Iranian government resides with the jinn catchers.

Mullah Omar, the Pashtun founder of the Taliban, is widely perceived as magically protected.[36] Laying claim to the Afghan tradition of charismatic mullahs with supernatural powers, Omar adopted the same strategy, removing a cloak, believed by many Afghans to having been worn by the prophet Muhammad, from a shrine in Kandahar and wearing it openly.[37] Since legend decreed that the chest holding the cloak could only be opened when touched by a true leader of the Muslims, wearing it gave him the status of an Afghan hero endowed with extraordinary mystical powers. When Kabul fell to his forces, his supernatural status was confirmed.

Knowing that the Pashtun emphasize dreams as a form of revelation, Omar cultivated the idea that God spoke to him through his dreams and claimed that he based his most crucial policy decisions on them.

Conclusions

Whether to appease a superstitious people or out of sincerely-held belief, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari sacrifices a black goat nearly every day to ward off the evil eye and provide protection from black magic.[38] He, along with Ahmadinejad and Mullah Omar, understands that knowledge of local customs, jinn, and magical practices has significant political value. A superstitious population presents numerous opportunities to communicate fear, apprehension, or awe and to exert influence.

Knowledge of local myths, customs, and magical beliefs can present unique opportunities for diplomacy as well as warfare, but Westerners do not know how to deal with belief in supernatural phenomena, continually applying a rational, scientific approach to cultures that engage in magical thinking and refusing to acknowledge the political significance of these beliefs. Currently, U.S. policymakers cannot even publicly acknowledge that acts of terrorism are based on Islamist religious ideologies, much less give credence to jinn.

U.S. leaders tend to attribute the root causes of violence to secular, social, and economic factors such as poverty, illness, illiteracy, and hunger. This has resulted in a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people by providing food, shelter, education, and medicine. These operations have consistently failed because Islamic religious and political leaders understand that their people primarily view the root cause of their difficulties as a spiritual problem. Instead of freedom, they foster faith. The Islamic strategy is to win souls by providing supernatural protection, via God or jinn. Hearts and minds will then follow.

Dawn Perlmutter is director and founder of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and a leading expert on religious terrorism and ritualistic crimes. She trains and advises law enforcement and defense agency personnel.

[1] The New York Times, Dec. 12, 2011; ABC News, Dec. 13, 2011; CNN, Dec. 13, 2011; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Dec. 13, 2011.
[2] Amnesty International, Dec. 12, 2011; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Dec. 13, 2011; The Telegraph (London), Dec. 13, 2011.
[3] Reuters, Nov. 25, 2007.
[4] Chowrangi blog, May 18, 2011.
[5] Reuters, Jan. 27, 2008.
[6] International Mediterranean News Service (ANSAmed), Jan. 15, 2011.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ma’an News Agency (Bethlehem), Aug. 19, 2010.
[10] Arutz Sheva (Beit El and Petah Tikva), Jan. 3, 2012.
[11] The Huffington Post (New York), Sept. 6, 2009.
[12] Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain), Apr. 1, 2009; Muslim Media Network, May 13, 2010.
[13] The Jerusalem Post, July 20, 2011.
[14] Arab News (Riyadh), Apr. 4, 2011.
[15] Morocco Board News (Washington, D.C.), Oct. 1, 2011; The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 22, 2011.
[16] The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 22, 2011.
[17] Ibid., July 20, 2011; Uri Friedman, “How Do You Prove Someone’s a Witch in Saudi Arabia?Foreign Policy, Dec. 13, 2011.
[18] Emirates 24/7 (Dubai), Apr. 23, 2011.
[19] The New York Times, Apr. 2, 2010.
[20] All videos accessed Jan. 4, 2013, YouTube: “Islamic Exorcism,” June 7, 2006, “Exorcism in Islam,” July 29, 2007, “Ruyati Binti Sapubi—An Indonesian Maid in Saudi Arabia Beheaded,” June 18, 2011, “Man beheaded in carpark as per Muslim Shariah law.”
[21] Amira El-Zein, Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent World of the Jinn (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009), p. x.
[22] Ibid., p. xi.
[23] Reinhold Loeffler, Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 46.
[24] Sam Shamoun, “Qur’an Incoherence and Contradiction: Is Satan an Angel or a Jinn?” Answering-islam.org, accessed Dec. 28, 2012; “Jinn According to Quran and Sunnah,” Muttaqun.com, accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
[25] Gerda Sengers, Women and Demons: Cult Healing in Islamic Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 2003), p. 163.
[26]Pakistanis’ Belief in Super Natural Beings,” Gilani Poll-Gallup Pakistan, Islamabad, Aug. 31, 2009.
[27] Qur’anicHealers.com , accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
[28] Reuters, Mar. 11, 2011.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Celia E. Rothenberg, Spirits of Palestine: Gender, Society and Stories of the Jinn (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004), pp. 77-8.
[31] Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 56.
[32] ABC News, May 9, 2011.
[33] The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
[34] ABC News, May 9, 2011; ibid., June 10, 2011.
[35] The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
[36] Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “Understanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan,” Orbis, Winter 2007.
[37] Ibid.
[38] The Guardian (London), Jan. 27, 2010; ABC News, Jan. 29, 2010.

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Middle East

Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.

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Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.

Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.

“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.

According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.

Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.

Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.

Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal.  What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.

A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.

It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons

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Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.

The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.

The Defectors

The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.

The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.

One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.

There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.

The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.

Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid

The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.

Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.

Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.

Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.

One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.

Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.

Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.

Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.

The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.

Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.

The Al-Bustan Association

An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.

Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.

The Father of the Desert Hawks

One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.

An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.

Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.

The Old Guard and the Special Services

Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.

Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.

Elements of Matriarchy

Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.

Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.

On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.

On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.

The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.

First published in our partner RIAC

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