Roedad Khan, quoting him as a metaphor for any Pakistani, has burnt himself out, at least proverbially. His passion remains stuck with stark disappointments as he yearns to see our ‘Quaid’s’(founding father) dreams as achieved.
Several icons from our civil society including journalists would soon be hunch-backs under the heap of scandals they expose about massive corruption, nepotism and state conspiracies, to the verge of proving the gluttons committing acts of treason. However, our federal top guns remain soaked in their unholy hobbies on the trajectory of their ill founded domains. Instead of fishing for clues for recovery from public opinion through the media, their genius is consumed by the devices to go more lethal and ambitious in wicked pursuits. In the mean time, our judiciary has been inundated with the burden of their responsibility to often act unilaterally but brilliantly when state’s institutions’ functional credibility is not characterized by their service to the people but by self-glorifying their misdeeds. Where such comparison is within the ‘corrupts’ in competition, the magnitude and tainted colossus of these monsters become immeasurable. It would be absolutely fair to exclude Army from this ominous bracket.
Federation functionaries have the tongue in their cheeks to clamor that democracy is threatened in Pakistan. Wikileaks has thoroughly exposed them as if they are hanging by a cliff and seeking rescue from the external collaborators. The dramatic irony in the whole issue is that the ‘cliff’ is their own making to provoke sympathies among our allies of war on terror. Pakistani coalition government, thoroughly vulnerable to blackmail by its own constituent allies, has devised a nefarious strategy to gobble up themselves and extend absolute impunity to their accomplices. They, amidst the volleys of mutual barbs, cling to each other because they are desperately in the need of a continuing empire to mop up their sins.
Once this humbug goes on, our foreign policy brains have been lax wittingly and unobtrusively from the public eyes on several crucial issues of international relations, which crystallize through the conduct of diplomacy, ‘as a policy instrument possibly in association with other instruments such as economic or military force to enable an international actor to achieve its objectives’ (Baylis & Smith). Thanks to globalization, we are not only an international actor but the geo-strategic location endows us with tremendous significance. If the diplomacy wizards do recognize our inherent vitality which is doubtful, one thing is sure that their recognition has not been supplemented with adequate exterior maneuvers. Our stance is mercurial and not commensurate to the challenges. We tend to buckle under the weight of national and international issues to keep ourselves well aligned to the wishes of external factors which push us to the pitfall of erroneous decisions when our indigenous failings are in no dearth.
Our government attempts to project its weight by ridiculing other pillar(s) of state despite knowing that our deeds or misdeeds are picked up by international community faster than we do, being cast in a crystal. When Army asserted that we would defend our borders employing all means available, certainly it was aimed at India with whom there have been three wars since independence in 1947. However it was not meant to negate the spirit of diplomacy and freedom of dialogues option with our eastern rival. Rather it meant reinforcing the dialogue diplomacy with military support in tandem to lend our negotiations a position of advantage. None else than our ruling party spokesperson spew out a firm denial that these were not the government views, at colossal detriment to the conduct of successful diplomacy.
Mr. Asif Ali Zardari calling Kashmiri freedom fighters as terrorists from as responsible a platform as that of ‘President’ and offering withdrawal from Siachin Glacier in 2008 and 2010 respectively, made our adversary’s stance more stubborn. Did he know the extent of damage he inflict to our foreign policy, strategic implications for India and advantages that accrue to Pakistan when we keep the bull locked by the horns in Siachin with perhaps much lesser comparative, though considerable, cost in men and material? His statements were not only antithesis to the basics of the diplomacy dynamics but also of our valiant men’s and officers’ sacrifices, literally crouching like Dr. Iqbal’s (Poet of the East) legendary ‘shaheens’ (eagles), gasping for each breath, yet resolutely perched on the rocks above 20,000 feet. On the contrary, India has not budged an inch from its reticence beyond fascinating colloquialism occasionally over Kashmir as well as Sir Creek. Instead it has launched a well orchestrated effort to encircle and isolate Pakistan from Afghanistan, the West, Japan, Russia, China, and Middle East. Recognition of India’s role in Afghanistan by U.S., European Union and Russia is a direct set back to the conduct of our foreign policy. Already India is being accused of fomenting instability in Pakistan’s south-western province, Baluchistan and funding a segment of Taliban. Some dissident leaders’ trails by our intelligence agencies are reported to have confirmed this hypothesis. Thus when India claims it stakes for having a role in Afghanistan, it is crystal clear what she exactly means.
India played Mumbai card very shrewdly, depicting Pakistan backing and actively supporting the tragic episode once its voices even feeble, are heard loud and clear for an obvious advantage of its much trumpeted democratic platform versus Pakistan. Murder of 93000 Kashmiris so far has not been able to move the world conscience that seems to be pushed by commercialism more than philosophy of pursuing peace. For the major powers, India is a prolific trade partner and worth billions dollar arms market as well. On our side is a dark picture. Pakistan run by a dictator for nine long years from 1999-2008 has been ravaged beyond repairs. Wikileaks disclosure about Israeli leadership’s continuing concern for President Musharraf’s safety and well being explains the entire myth of his millions dollar bonanza; he is now reaping under the guise of ‘enlightening’ lectures in the West. During his rule, his meetings with Israeli top functionaries are no secrets. The only country declared off limits by Pakistani passport, unfortunately, is Israel. The printed warning it carries ‘this passport is valid for all the countries of the world except Israel’ had obligated him by implication to refrain from such honey-mooning but flouting the norms and ethics had been his favorite slushy slippery ground that he has yet to answer when cold hands of justice would reach him. Not only toppling but throwing a democratically elected Prime Minister, Mr. Mian Nawaz Sharif and the bonafide Chief of Army Staff, Gen Khwaja Zia-ud-Din into black dungeon are the major charges against him, among dozens of other allegations of heinous crimes, he is not likely to wade through clean. How one would have expected such a con man to have stood for national interests? Unfortunately the successor government is also incapable and bent upon adding insult to the injury. Amidst lurking disenchantment of the masses, Pakistan failed to cash upon the vital evidence emanating from Indian sources about setting ‘Samjhauta Express’ ablaze in 2007. The complicity of Indian government officials, in firebombing Pakistan bound train near Panipat (India), with the Hindu terrorists is undeniable. Charred bodies of sixty eight Pakistanis were pulled out and fifty two were injured, most of them critically.
Analysts in India also remembered the moments of the tragedy that preceded it by five years in 2002 at Godhra railway station in Gujarat (India). No evidence could prove that fire attack was preplanned by Muslims when fifty Hindus were killed. One thing is sure that the magnitude of revenge which the majority Hindus unleashed over Muslims next morning was unprecedented. They burnt them alive and killed about 2500 of them. The state’s machinery deliberately stood by, watching the human carnage till there were ashes and stench all around. Mysterious then and later also, the candidate of extremist Hindu party, BJP, which thrives politically on the heaps of hatred towards Muslims, had clean sweep in the coming election. Many observers believe that the train massacre was stage-managed to the logical conclusion, which was consummation of BJP victory. In India such treachery, when it comes to Muslims, is never surprising. Recent comments by a senior Indian Congress leader, DigVijay Singh, likening Indian RSS and BJP hatred for Muslims to that of Nazi’s against Jews, is a stark reality and stigma, BJP carries.
Pakistanis could hope with a sense of loss from our policy wizards that these tragic events could be brought up as an effective counter-lever to parry off Mumbai scathing and consequent dent to our image among the comity of nations. While Mumbai massacre rumbles every now and then, our diplomats perhaps are not even mindful of the butchery meted out to Muslims in India, including Kashmir. Such are the short memories on our side. Absence of flurry of publicized diplomacy offensives usually means all quiet on this front to suggest that our policy pundits are gripped by inertia or inert dreams. Compromises are not welcome because we would be led to demolishing our crucial geo-political pivots. On the other hand we are clear about the hypothesis that India needs peace more than us. It does not need a genius to guess but simple arithmetic that Indian stakes in peace are much more monumental than Pakistan. Yet the reality predominates the scene for both the neighbors that peace-making is the only way through. It should be driving both sides crazy that it has remained elusive for sixty three years until now. While talking to an eastern TV channel, Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh talked of responding and readjusting to global trends towards multi-polarity and managing the regional environments in Asia in a manner which enhances peace, security and overall development of our societies. He asserted that it is incumbent on all countries of the region to build cooperative partnerships. It is a paradox that in real dynamics of international relations, he appears excluding India from ‘incumbent on all countries of the region’ clause about matters relevant to Pakistan.
India has persisted in achieving threatening posture. She has secured a base in Tajikistan and is doing thriving business in Kazakhstan in energy sector despite presence of a very tough and competitive rival, China. Ajay Patnaik rightly boasts, “Two landmarks signified India’s changing approach. In November 2003 India agreed to renovate and upgrade the Ayni air base in Tajikistan. In August 2005 Indian state-owned company ONGC combined with Mittal Industrial Group to form ONGC Mittal Energy Limited (OMEL) to acquire energy assets in Kazakhstan”. What laurels have we achieved despite our territorial contiguity with Central Asia? Dr. Azmat Hayat Khan, Vice Chancellor, University of Peshawar, is rightly bewildered to observe that in Central Asia, India is every where. While he does not deny their privilege to be there, he maintains, Pakistan is nowhere.
Potentials of the land mass, Pakistan, as a bridge to satiate Indian energy-thirsty but booming economy remain precious bargaining chips during negotiations with India. Transit trade relaxation from Afghanistan to India and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Gas Pipe Line agreement are some hasty if not ill-thought moves that have left us empty handed when we had an alternative to flaunt Gwadar outlet for the sake of diplomacy. With our hind view about the quality of Indian diplomacy that is consistent and vibrant, at some point in time, we would again be cornered by her as in Afghanistan, and now for Siachin Glacier where India has picked up ‘environments degradation’ card to force our forces pull-out on us. It also shows how India manipulates universal trends to its advantage. Indian burgeoning defense budget and attempts to ditch our economy by choking off rivers inflow prove its relentless pursuits to strike at our survival roots. On the contrary, our foreign office apathy of not launching diplomatic blitz for effective resolution of mother-of-all disputes (Kashmir) is intriguing. Our moral ascendancy has been rendered redundant at international level when poor and reluctant campaigning has resulted in our faltered stance, with emerging impression at times that we are about to ditch Kashmir issue. President Musharraf’s claim to justify Kargil misadventure that it brought Kashmir Issue to the world focus, could not have been more repulsive and loathsome. On the other hand India successfully invaded Junagadh, Goa, Hyderabad, Kashmir and clipped off our wing to the East in 1971 to become Bangla Desh. Through effective diplomacy it has not only managed to wipe off its sins of aggression but has become a standard bearer of the largest democracy in the world. Having licked off its claws after several territorial hunts, it now purrs, a stance more lethal to secure Energy Bridge to link with Central Asia in the absence of which it’s ardently perceived global role would remain a pipe-dream. Playing to Indian tunes, we are eager to oblige without ever exploring the ramifications that would accrue for Pakistan.
The bottom line of the debate is not that diplomacy doors be shut off but made more responsive with cutting edge. An edge that is not reactionary but preemptive, far sighted and to engage our adversary on forward foot. Before the two sides line up nuclear armaments for a devastating conflict in the wake of deep rooted mutual frenzy, there is a need to mobilize world opinion to avert another holocaust. UN silence on this issue, despite the existence of plebiscite-supporting resolutions in its archives, is certainly lamentable. It is also reality that diplomacy in 21st Century is far more complicated particularly when convergence of national interests of the major powers is a foregone conclusion in this region. Yet our foreign policy ‘gurus’ are perhaps not putting the diplomats stationed in our embassies abroad to the optimum utilization whose performance had been traditionally dismal, some exceptions notwithstanding. They may have been led to complacency and lavish lethargy by innate greed but the irony is that no specific goals are given to them to shoulder-push our national interests to fruition. At the same time our government has to recognize that diplomacy, though largely concentrates on international issues, draws succor from state’s internal environments. If the state remains laced with corruption, nepotism and horrible governance, diplomacy limps everywhere it tries to project itself being on fragile roots. Successive failures to plug the yawning gaps would subject us to agonizing arm-twisting by India in sync with other stake holders to squeeze more and yet more from our clattering skeleton As the word ‘Conk’ means a blow to the head, one would implore the rulers to save us from such deadly blows. Conversely ‘conk’ also means fungus growth on decaying wood. One would pray, Pakistan is not destined to such doom.
The writer is a defense analyst and member of WSN International Advisory Board with doctorate in International Relations, ( email@example.com)
(An abridged version, of this opinion article appeared in The News International-Pakistan, 22 December 2010)
The Not-So-Missing Case of Indian Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Hitendra Singh and Gauri Noolkar-Oak*
Recently, an article published in Modern Diplomacy caught our attention. The author has cited Mr. Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and found his famous statement on Indians lacking enterprise and innovation to be ‘music to his ears’. He has then gone on to paint Indians in broad strokes – ironic, for it is something he has accused Indians of doing – and labelled them as a nation lacking entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. While his reasoning certainly has an element of truth and an instant appeal, our response looks to add nuances to his argument and provide a more realistic and complete picture of enterprise and innovation in India.
To begin with, the terms ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’ cannot be used interchangeably; not all entrepreneurs are innovators, and vice versa. There are more than 50 million medium and small businesses operating in India which contribute 37% of India’s GDP and employ around 117 million people. These numbers sufficiently prove that entrepreneurship is alive and kicking in the Indian society; Indians are running businesses not only in India but are leading and successful entrepreneurs in many countries of Asia, Africa and rest of the world. Hence, an argument that Indians lack entrepreneurship does not hold much strength.
In the case of innovation and creativity, a different story is emerging. It is slow but is happening and it is solving some of the largest social and developmental challenges in India – from grassroots, to research labs, to top-tier institutions such as ISRO and various DRDO labs. At a global level, India has not only moved up six places in its GII ranking in 2017, but is also ranked second in innovation quality. India has also won international acclaim for its innovative and cost-effective technology; such as its first mission to Mars in 2014, the Mangalyaan, was successful in the first attempt, made entirely with domestic technology, and cost less than the Hollywood movies ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Martian’. It is surprising that the author spots lack of innovation in a household broom but does not see innovation in a nation that sends a successful Mars mission on a budget that is less than that of a Hollywood movie about Mars.
At the national level, grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship are gaining more and more institutional recognition; the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) and the annual Festival of Innovation at the Rashtrapati Bhavan are perhaps the only high-level government initiatives supporting and celebrating innovation in the world. Additionally, many universities and educational institutes across the country host innovation competitions, festivals and incubators.
Several remarkable individuals are nurturing India’s growing innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.Prof. Anil K. Gupta founded SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) in 1993 and the Honey Bee Network in 1997 to connect innovators from all sections of the society to entrepreneurs, lawyers and investors. For more than 12 years, he has walked around 6000 kilometres across the country, discovering extraordinary grassroots innovations on the way. Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, an eminent chemical scientist, has led multiple scientific and technological innovations in the country, earlier as the Director-General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and now as the President of the National Innovation Foundation.
And then, there are thousands of common men and women, hailing from various walks of life, innovating continuously and creatively to solve pressing everyday problems in the Indian society. There are the famous Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a cost-effective way of manufacturing sanitary napkins, and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who invented a clay refrigerator which runs without electricity. Then there are Mallesham from Andhra Pradesh, who sped up the process of weaving Kochampalli sarees and reduced the physical pains of the weavers, and Shri Sundaram from Rajasthan, who found a way to grow a whole tree in a dry region with just a litre of water. Raghav Gowda from Karnataka designed a cost-effective and painless machine to milk cows, while Mathew K Mathews from Kerala designed a solar mosquito destroyer. Dr. Pawan Mehrotra of Haryana has developed a cost-effective version of breast prosthesis for breast cancer survivors while Harsh Songra of Madhya Pradesh has developed a mobile app to detect developmental disorders among children.
Three women from Manipur, OinamIbetombi Devi, SarangthenDasumati Devi and Nameirakpam Sanahambi Devi invented an herbal medicine that is proven to promote poultry health. Priyanka Sharma from Punjab developed a low-cost biochip to detect environmental pollutants, while Dr. Seema Prakash from Karnataka revolutionised eco-agriculture by inventing a cost-effective plant cloning technique. AshniBiyani, the daughter of Future Group CEO Kishore Biyani, leads the Khoj Lab, which collaborates with the NIF to help commercialise grassroots innovations and ideas.
These and thousands of such examples present a very encouraging picture of the creativity and innovation of Indians. The innovation that the author admires are rooted in a context. Apple and Google (or Lyft or Uber or Spotify) could be created because there was an end consumer who was looking to pay for their products. There are many India innovator-entrepreneurs, such as those mentioned above, who have created products for a necessarily less glamorous but useful India context. Products like brooms and packaged food add convenience to the time-stretched urban and middle and upper middle classes; with a large unskilled and semiskilled workforce competing vigorously for such jobs, does the Indian society have an incentive to invest in innovating them?
Having said that, it is true that upsurge of innovation in India is relatively recent, i.e. about two to three decades old. It is also true that the Indian society has been experiencing socio-economic affluence on such a broad scale only for the past three decades, since the market reforms of 1991. It has been 70 years since Indians have gained sovereignty and control over their resources. The top five innovative countries according to the GII – Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, USA and UK – have been sovereign states for about at least two and a half centuries. It would perhaps then be more accurate to compare India’s current innovation scenario with, for instance, the USA’s innovation scenario in the mid-19th century.
Further, given the economic and resource drain faced by the Indian society over centuries, Indian innovation was geared more towards surviving rather than thriving. This explains the ‘group mentality’ strongly rooted in mainstream Indian society; staying and cooperating in a group increased one’s capacity to cope with and survive through all kinds of adversity. Individualistic aspirations, beliefs and actions were then a price to be paid for the security blanket it offered. And yet, once relative stability and affluence began to set in, the innovative and creative instincts of Indians lost no time in bursting forth.
Long story short, both innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving in India. They might not be as “macro” or glamourous as Apple or Uber, but they are solving fundamental problems for the Indian masses. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of room for improvement and growth – India has a long way to go to be recognised as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. However, the scenario is not by any means bleak, as these many examples point out. The trajectory of enterprises and innovation in India is only upward. The future is promising.
* Gauri Noolkar-Oak is Policy Research Analyst at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India.
Views expressed by the authors are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.
Changing Perceptions: How Pakistan should use Public Diplomacy
Traditionally in International Relations the concept of “hard power” remained the basic focus for states so as to achieve power and dominance in international anarchic system but with the changing scenarios in the age of globalization, economic interdependency and rapid spreading of information through various tools, “Soft Power” concept emerged which had great impact on states’ foreign policies. This term of soft power was first coined by Joseph Nye in mid-1960’s which could be defined as the ability of the state to influence others without coercion and this soft power technique basically revolves around three major instruments such as Culture, political values, and foreign policies. Apart from soft power concept, there is another basic concept called as “Public Diplomacy”. This could be described as the further dimension of soft power because by practicing Public Diplomacy state can initiate their soft power policies and can achieve the desired outcomes by winning the hearts and minds of foreign audience and non-governmental entities because by doing so it will enable government and decision making bodies of foreign states to act accordingly.
In context of South Asia particularly taking into consideration the important developing state Pakistan whose basic concern is to maintain friendly and neutral relations with other states Public diplomacy could, however, help it to maintain its relations in the regional complex structure where India is seen as the dominant power and alongside India the powerful rise of China as an external actor in South Asia. By efficient usage of Public diplomacy, Pakistan can improve its bilateral ties with the neighboring states.
The image of Pakistan in foreign media is portrayed as the state which is full of many internal and external challenges and it is also not portrayed as the safe country to travel into. In order to improve the image, Pakistan firstly needs to improve its relations with states within the region and for that India which is considered as hostile neighbor Pakistan should effectively use its public diplomacy tool it should introduce exchange programs because by educating youth and by deploying positive image in their minds Pakistan can influence them which could bring change in the coming years and also by increasing tourism activities. This would make foreigners aware of the fact that Pakistan is a secure state. Similarly, cultural activities, sports diplomacy, literature, art, and media could also have a great impact so as to change the perceptions.
Hence it could be suggested that for the development of state it is important for Pakistan to improve its public diplomacy by changing perceptions of public and elite of neighboring states it should take basic steps which could change the negative image which is in limelight since 9/11. Pakistan by enhancing the public diplomacy in other states as the tool to implement its soft power policies would, however, be able to economically, culturally and politically improve its stance in the International arena.
Rolling back militancy: Bangladesh looks to Saudi Arabia in a twist of irony
Bangladesh, in a twist of irony, is looking to Saudi Arabia to fund a $ 1 billion plan to build hundreds of mosques and religious centres to counter militant Islam that for much of the past decade traced its roots to ultra-conservative strands of the faith promoted by a multi-billion dollar Saudi campaign.
The Bangladeshi plan constitutes the first effort by a Muslim country to enlist the kingdom whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam,’ in reverse engineering.
The plan would attempt to roll back the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s global investment of up to $100 billion over a period of four decades in support of ultra-conservative mosques, religious centres, and groups as an antidote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.
Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and various countries, including Malaysia, has focused until now on countering extremism in cooperation with defense and security authorities rather than as a religious initiative.
Saudi religious authorities and Islamic scholars have long issued fatwas or religious opinions condemning political violence and extremism and accused jihadists of deviating from the true path of Islam.
The Saudi campaign, the largest public diplomacy effort in history, was, nevertheless, long abetted by opportunistic governments who played politics with religion as well as widespread discontent fuelled by the failure of governments to deliver public goods and services.
The Bangladeshi plan raises multiple questions, including whether the counter-narrative industry can produce results in the absence of effective government policies that address social, economic and political grievances.
It also begs the question whether change in Saudi Arabia has advanced to a stage in which the kingdom can claim that it has put its ultra-conservative and militant roots truly behind it. The answer to both questions is probably no.
In many ways, Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and militancy, violent and non-violent, despite sharing common roots with the kingdom’s long-standing theological thinking and benefitting directly or indirectly from Saudi financial largess, has created a life of its own that no longer looks to the kingdom for guidance and support and is critical of the path on which Prince Mohammed has embarked.
The fallout of the Saudi campaign is evident in Asia not only in the rise of militancy in Bangladesh but also the degree to which concepts of supremacism and intolerance have taken root in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Those concepts are often expressed in discrimination, if not persecution of minorities like Shia Muslims and Ahmadis, and draconic anti-blasphemy measures by authorities, militants and vigilantes.
Bangladesh in past years witnessed a series of brutal killings of bloggers and intellectuals whom jihadists accused of atheism.
Moreover, basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s secular constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. Saudi Arabia withheld recognition of the new state as well as financial support until the amendment was adopted four years after Bangladeshi independence.
In Indonesia, hard-line Islamic groups, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), earlier this month filed a blasphemy complaint against politician Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno and the younger sister of Megawati Sukarnoputri, who leads President Joko Widodo’s ruling party. The hardliners accuse Ms. Sukarnoputri of reciting a poem that allegedly insults Islam.
The groups last year accused Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka Ahok, Jakarta’s former Christian governor, of blasphemy and spearheaded mass rallies that led to his ouster and jailing, a ruling that many believed was politicized and unjust.
Pakistan’s draconic anti-blasphemy law has created an environment that has allowed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives and powerful political forces to whip up popular emotion in pursuit of political objectives. The environment is symbolized by graffiti in the corridor of a courthouse In Islamabad that demanded that blasphemers be beheaded.
Pakistan last month designated Islamabad as a pilot project to regulate Friday prayer sermons in the city’s 1,003 mosques, of which only 86 are state-controlled, in a bid to curb hate speech, extremism and demonization of religions and communities.
The government has drafted a list of subjects that should be the focus of weekly Friday prayer sermons in a bid to prevent mosques being abused “to stir up sectarian hatred, demonise other religions and communities and promote extremism.” The subjects include women rights; Islamic principles of trade, cleanliness and health; and the importance of hard work, tolerance, and honesty.
However, they do not address legally enshrined discrimination of minorities like Ahmadis, who are viewed as heretics by orthodox Muslims. The list risked reinforcing supremacist and intolerant militancy by including the concept of the finality of the Prophet Mohammed that is often used as a whip to discriminate against minorities.
Raising questions about the degree of moderation that Saudi-funded mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would propagate, Prince Mohammed, in his effort to saw off the rough edges of Saudi ultra-conservatism, has given no indication that he intends to repeal a law that defines atheists as terrorists.
A Saudi court last year condemned a man to death on charges of blasphemy and atheism. Another Saudi was a year earlier sentenced to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing atheist sentiments on social media.
Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations have long lobbied for the criminalization of blasphemy in international law in moves that would legitimize curbs on free speech and growing Muslim intolerance towards any open discussion of their faith.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia cannot be held directly liable for much of the expression of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism in the Muslim world. Yet, by the same token there is little doubt that Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism frequently contributed to an enabling environment.
Prince Mohammed is at the beginning of his effort to moderate Saudi Islam and has yet to spell out in detail his vision of religious change. Beyond the issue of defining atheism as terrorism, Saudi Arabia also has yet to put an end to multiple ultra-conservative practices, including the principle of male guardianship that forces women to get the approval of a male relative for major decisions in their life.
Prince Mohammed has so far forced the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment into subservience. That raises the question whether there has been real change in the establishment’s thinking or whether it is kowtowing to an autocratic leader.
In December, King Salman fired a government official for organizing a mixed gender fashion show after ultra-conservatives criticized the event on Twitter. The kingdom this week hosted its first ever Arab Fashion Week, for women only. Designers were obliged to adhere to strict dress codes banning transparent fabrics and the display of cleavages or clothing that bared knees.
In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.
Efforts to moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state that traces its ultra-conservatism to the teachings of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, but has long interpreted them more liberally than the kingdom, have proven to be easier said than done.
Saudi King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, positioned himself as a champion of interfaith dialogue and reached out to various groups in society including Shiites and women.
Yet, more than a decade of Saudi efforts to cleanse textbooks used at home and abroad have made significant progress but have yet to completely erase descriptions of alternative strands of Islam such as Shiism and Sufism in derogatory terms or eliminate advise to Muslims not to associate with Jews and Christians who are labelled kaffirs or unbelievers.
Raising questions about Saudi involvement in the Bangladeshi plan, a Human Rights Watch survey of religion textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for the 2016-2017 school year concluded that “as early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle noted that Prince Mohammed has remained conspicuously silent about hate speech in textbooks as well as its use by officials and Islamic scholars connected to the government.
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League last year documented hate speech in Qatari mosques that was disseminated in Qatari media despite Qatar’s propagation of religious tolerance and outreach to American Jews as part of its effort to counter a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.
In one instance in December, Qatari preacher Muhammed al-Muraikhi described Jews in a sermon in Doha’s Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque as “your deceitful, lying, treacherous, fornicating, intransigent enemy” who have “despoiled, corrupted, ruined, and killed, and will not stop.”
No doubt, Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, which much earlier moved away from puritan and literal Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, is sincere in its intention to adopt more tolerant and pluralistic worldviews.
Getting from A to B, however, is a lengthy process. The question remains whether the kingdom has progressed to a degree that it can credibly help countries like Bangladesh deal with their demons even before having successfully put its own house in order.
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