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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.

Middle East

How the Guardian newspaper fulfills George Orwell’s prediction of ‘Newspeak’

Eric Zuesse

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On Sunday April 15th, Britain’s Guardian bannered “OPCW inspectors set to investigate site of Douma chemical attack” and pretended that there was no question that a chemical attack in Douma Syria on April 7th had actually occurred, and the article then went further along that same propaganda-line, to accuse Syria’s Government of having perpetrated it. This ‘news’ story opened [and clarificatory comments from me will added in brackets]:

UN chemical weapons investigators were set on Sunday to begin examining the scene of a chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma, which had prompted the joint US, French and British strikes against military installations and chemical weapons facilities near the capital, Damascus.

The arrival of the delegation from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) came as the Syrian military announced that it had “purified” [no source provided, but this — from 7 March 2018 — is the only source that existed prior to the April 14th missiles-invasion of Syria, and its meaning is very different: the region of eastern Ghouta, of which Douma is a part, after a two-month campaign that killed nearly 2,000 civilians [no source provided as regards either the number, or that all of them were ‘civilians’ and that none of them were jihadists or “terrorists”], following years of siege.

The propaganda-article continued directly: “Units of our brave armed forces, and auxiliary and allied forces, completed the purification of eastern Ghouta, including all its towns and villages, of armed terrorist organisations,” the general command statement said.

No source was provided for that, but this sentence is a sly mind-manipulation, because here is what the Syrian Government’s General Command had actually said: “Statement of the Army General Command declaring Eastern Ghouta clear of terrorism” as headlined by the Syrian Government itself.

In other words: the Guardian’s ‘journalist’ had substituted the word “clear” by the word “purify” and did this after having already asserted but not documented, that the Government had just completed “a two-month campaign that killed nearly 2,000 civilians.” When the Syrian Government announces that an area has been “cleared of terrorists (or of terrorism),” the U.S.-allied propagandist uses the word “purify,” such as “purified the region of eastern Ghouta” or “the purification of eastern Ghouta, including all its towns and villages, of armed terrorist organisations.” But by the time that the reader gets there to “purification … of armed terrorist organisations,” the reader has already been doctrinated to believe that Syria’s Government is trying to “purify” land, or perpetrate some type of ethnic-cleansing. That’s professional propaganda-writing; it is not professional journalism.

Later, the article asserts that, “The OPCW mission will arrive in Douma eight days after the chemical attack, and days after the area fell to the control of Russian military and Syrian government forces. That delay, along with the possibility of the tampering of evidence by the forces accused of perpetrating the attack, raises doubts about what the OPCW’s inspectors might be able to discover.” However, a fierce debate is being waged over whether this was not any real “chemical attack” but instead a staged event by the jihadists in order to draw Trump back into invading Syria. In other words: any journalistic reference yet, at this time, to the event as “the chemical attack” instead of as “the alleged chemical attack” is garbage, just as, prior to the guilty-verdict in a murder trial, no journalistic reference may legitimately be made to the defendant as “the murderer,” instead of as “the defendant.” That is lynch-mob ‘journalism’, which Joseph Goebbels championed.

The Joseph-Goebbels-following ‘journalist’ has thus opened by implying that the Russia-allied Syrian Government is trying to crush a democratic revolution, instead of the truth, that the U.S.-allied Governments are trying to overthrow and replace the Russia-allied Syrian Government. It’s a big difference, between the lie, and the truth.

Another story in the April 15th Guardian was “Pressure grows on Russia to stop protecting Assad as US, UK and France press for inquiry into chemical weapons stockpiles” and this one pretended that the issue is for “Russia to stop protecting Assad,” who is the democratically elected and popular President of Syria, and not to stop the invasion of Syria since 2011 by U.S. and Saudi backed foreign jihadists to overthrow him. Furthermore, as regards “press for inquiry into chemical weapons stockpiles,” the real and urgent issue right now is to allow the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into Douma to hold an independent and authoritative investigation into the evidence there. Russia pressed for it at the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. and its allies blocked it there. But the OPCW went anyway — even after the U.S.-allied invasion on April 14th — and this courageous resistance by them against the U.S. dictatorship can only be considered heroic. Now that they are there, the remaining jihadists in Douma are firing shots at them to drive them away.

That type of ‘news’-reporting is virtually universal in The West, among the U.S. and its allied governments, which refer to themselves as ‘democracies’ and refer to any Government that they wish to overthrow and replace by their own selected dictator, as ‘dictatorships’, such as these regimes had referred to Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria forever, and Ukraine in 2014. It’s Newspeak.

first published at strategic-culture.org

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Middle East

The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism in the Era of MbS – an Update

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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There has long been debate about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family. One major reason for doubts about the Al Sauds’ viability was the Faustian bargain they made with the Wahhabis, proponents of a puritan, intolerant, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.

It was a bargain that has produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history. Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of ultra-conservative Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations that have bought into significant, geopolitical elements of the Wahhabi worldview are ballpark. With no accurate date available, they range from $75 to $100 billion.

It was a campaign that frequently tallied nicely with the kingdom’s deep-seated anti-communism, its hostility to post-1979 Iran, and the West’s Cold War view of Islam as a useful tool against Arab nationalism and the left – a perception that at times was shared by Arab autocrats other than the Saudis.

The campaign was not simply a product of the marriage between the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis. It was long central to Saudi soft power policy and the Al Saud’s survival strategy. One reason, certainly not the only one, that the longevity of the Al Sauds was a matter of debate was the fact that the propagation of Wahhabism was having a backlash at home and in countries across the globe. More than ever before theological or ideological similarities between Wahhabism or for that matter Salafism and jihadism were since 9/11 under the spotlight.

The problem for the Al Sauds was not just that their legitimacy seemed to be wholly dependent on their identification with Wahhabism. It was that the Al Sauds since the launch of the campaign were often only nominally in control of it. They had let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life and that can’t be put back into the bottle.

That is one major reason why some have argued in the past decade that the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis were nearing a crunch point. One that would not necessarily offer solutions but could make things worse by sparking ever more militant splits that would make themselves felt across the Muslim world and in minority Muslim communities elsewhere in multiple ways including increasing sectarian and intolerant attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The rise of Mohammed bin Salman clearly challenges these assumptions. For one, it raises the question to what degree the rule of the Al Sauds remains dependent on religious legitimization as Mohammed moves de facto from consensual family to one-man rule in which he anchors his legitimacy in his role as a reformer.

It also begs the question of what would ideologically replace ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam as Saudi Arabia’s answer to perceived Iranian revolutionary zeal. The jury on all of this is out. They key lies in the degree to which Mohammed is successful in implementing social and economic reform, his yet to be clarified definition of what he envisions as moderate Islam, and what resistance to his religious redefinition and social reforms will emerge among members of the religious establishment and segments of the population.

Mohammed has so far dropped tantalizing clues, but neither said nor done anything that could be considered conclusive. In fact, what he has not done or said may be more telling, even if it would be premature to draw from that conclusions of the potential limits of change that he envisions. On the plus side, he introduced social reforms that enhance women’s opportunities and relaxed restrictions on cultural expression.

At the same time, he has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and positioned them, including key vehicles like the World Muslim League that the government used to fund and propagate ultra-conservatism, as forces against extremism and militancy and in favour of religious tolerance and dialogue. 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.

Saudi officials have spoken of a possible halt to the funding internationally of religious institutions although an apparent agreement to pump $1 billion into the building of hundreds of mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would suggest otherwise. The failure in Brussels and the fact that there is little reason to believe that the religious establishment has experienced a true change of heart or that Saudi Arabia has satisfactorily completed a revision of its text and religious books suggests that the kingdom is ill-prepared to propagate a truly moderate form of Islam in Bangladesh or anywhere else.

In some ways, the question is whether this matters as much outside the kingdom as it does domestically. The parameters have changed with Mohammed’s grip on power but the fact that the religious establishment was willing to ultimately compromise on its theological principles to accommodate the political and geopolitical needs of the Al Sauds has been a long-standing fixture of Saudi policy making.

For the Wahhabi and Salafi ulema, the public diplomacy campaign was about proselytization, the spreading of their specific interpretation of the faith. For the government, it was about soft power. At times the interests of the government and the ulema coincided, and at times they diverged.

Yet, more often than not the requirements of the government and the family took precedence. While contacts between Wahhabi and Deobandi scholars from the Indian sub-continent go back to the 1930s, if not earlier, Saudi scholars were willing to put their differences aside as Deobandis emerged as a powerful force among the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s and subsequent anti-Shiite strife in Pakistan.

The problem in mapping the financial flows of the campaign is that the sources were multiple and the lines between the funding streams often blurred. No doubt, the government was the major funding source but even than the picture is messy. For one, who constitutes the government? Were senior princes who occupied powerful government positions officials or private persons when they donated from their personal accounts in a country in which it was long difficult to distinguish between the budget of the government and of the family?

On top of that, the government had multiple funding streams that included the foreign ministry using its network of diplomatic missions abroad, the multiple well-endowed governmental non-governmental organizations such as the Muslim World League that often were run with little if any oversight by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood with their own agenda, institutions in the kingdom like the Islamic University of Medina and its counterparts in Pakistan and Malaysia, as well as funds distributed by Islamic scholars and wealthy individuals.

Adding to the complexity was the fact that there was no overview of what private donors were doing and who was a private donor and who wasn’t. This pertains not only to the blurred lines between the government and the ruling family but also to Saudis of specific ethnic heritage, for example Pakistanis or Baloch, as well as Saudi intelligence. At times members of ethnic communities potentially served as government proxies for relationships with militant anti-Shiite groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Taiba and their successors and offshoots in Pakistan.

Further complicating a financial assessment is the lack of transparency on the receiver’s end. In some cases, like Malaysia the flow of funds was controlled by authorities and/or a political party in government. In others like Indonesia, money often came in suitcases. Customs officials at airports were instructed to take their cut and allow the money in with no registration.

In other words, while the Saudis donated they seldom prior to 9/11 and the 2003/2004 Al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom exercised control over what was done with the funds. The National Commercial Bank when it was Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institution had a department of numbered accounts. These were largely accounts belonging to members of the ruling family. Only three people had access to those accounts, one of them was the majority owner of the bank, Khaled Bin Mahfouz. Khaled would get a phone call from a senior member of the family who would instruct him to transfer money to a specific country, leaving it up to Khaled where precisely that money would go.

In one instance, Khaled was instructed by Prince Sultan, the then defense minister, to wire $5 million to Bosnia. Sultan did not indicate the beneficiary. Khaled sent the money to a charity in Sarajevo that in the wake of 9/11 was raided by US law enforcement and Bosnian security agents. The hard disks of the foundation revealed the degree to which the institution was controlled by jihadists.

At one point, the Saudis suspected one of the foundation’s operatives of being a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad. They sent someone to Sarajevo to investigate. The investigator confronted the man saying: ‘We hear that you have these connections and if that is true we need to part ways.’ The man put his hand on his heart and denied the allegation. As far as the Saudis were concerned the issue was settled until the man later in court testimony described how easy it had been to fool the Saudis.

The measure of success of the Saudi campaign is not exclusively the degree to which it was able to embed religious ultra-conservatism in communities across the globe. From the perspective of the government and the family, far more important was ultra-conservatism’s geopolitical component, its anti-Shiite and resulting anti-Iranian attitude.

The man who was until a couple of years ago deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema, one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that professes to be anti-Wahhabi, symbolizes the campaign’s success in those terms. He is a fluent Arabic speaker. He spent 12 years in the Middle East representing Indonesian intelligence, eight of those in Saudi Arabia. He professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and at the same time warns that Shiites, who constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population and that includes the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years, are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. This man is not instinctively anti-Shiite but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel.

The result of all of this is that four decades of funding has created an ultra-conservative world that lives its own life, in many ways is independent of Saudi Arabia, and parts of which have turned on its original benefactor. A study of Pakistani madrassas published earlier this year concluded that foreign funding accounted for only seven percent of the finances of the country’s thousands of religious seminaries.

The fact that ultra-conservatives are no longer wholly dependent on Saudi funding is a testimony to the campaign’s success. This realization comes at a crucial moment. Post 9/11 and even more so in the wake of Al Qaeda attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia in 2003/2004, Saudi Arabia has introduced strict controls on charitable donations to ensure that funds do not flow to jihadist groups.

There is moreover no doubt that Saudi funding in the era of Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to revert to what it once was. The Saudi-funded Bangladeshi plan to build moderate mosques, the relinquishing of control of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, and the World Muslim League’s newly found propagation of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue as well as its effort to reach out to Jewish communities would suggest that Saudi money may be invested in attempting to curb the impact of the kingdom’s decades-long funding of ultra-conservatism.

Yet, there are also indications that Mohammed bin Salman is not averse to funding militants when it suits his geopolitical purpose. The US Treasury last year designated Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist on the very day that he was in the kingdom to raise funds. Abu Turab is a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan descent who serves on a government-appointed religious board, maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s border with Iran and Afghanistan and is a major fund raiser for militant groups.

Abu Turab’s visit to the kingdom came at a time that Saudi and UAE nationals of Baloch heritage were funnelling large amounts to militant anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian Islamic scholars in Balochistan. It is unclear whether the funds were being donated with Mohammed bin Salman’s tacit blessing.

What is clear, however, is that the funding and Abu Turab’s visit coincided with the drafting of plans to destabilize Iran by exploiting grievances and stirring unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch. Those plans have not left the drawing board and may never do so. The funding nevertheless raises the question how clean a break with support of ultra-conservatism Mohammed bin Salman is contemplating.

Edited remarks at The Middle East and the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University and the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC 18-19 April 2018

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Middle East

Where will the proxy war in the Middle East last?

Sajad Abedi

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A direct US strike on one of the Syrian Army bases is a new development in the terrorist war that began six years ago against Syria. The attack, which took place after accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in the region of Khan Sheikhon in the Syrian Arab Republic, raised several questions, among which are the most prominent:

What are the realities and purposes of using chemical weapons in the current situation? Why did the Western countries accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons without any documents and opposed the Russian request to form a neutral truth-clarifying committee to clarify the facts? Why the US government headed by Donald Trump did does not pay attention to Russia’s request for unilateral action to ignore international law and interference in other domestic affairs? What does it mean to handle this attack? What are the likely outcomes and consequences of this attack?

1- Syria after the use of chemical weapons in arid groups in the East Hemisphere region in 2013 and tensions in the area after the threat of a massive attack on Syria by former US President Barack Obama by mediating Russia he agreed to destroy his chemical weapons in order to prevent any excuse and accusations from the United States and Western countries. As a result, the United Nations Monitoring Committee (UNSC) announced that it was carrying out its mission in full cooperation with the Syrian government, under the supervision of the United Nations, the Syrian Chemical Weapons Depot.

The purpose of the Syrian disarmament was to prevent Syria from attacking bases of armed groups in the eastern submersion. The goal was also to create space for Syria, and to intervene in the United States to shift the balance of power in favor of armed groups. The Zionist regime, the Zionist lobby in the United States, the warlords and anti-Syrian states, were pushing for such an approach to force Obama to engage in a frantic war in Syria.

Now under the conditions of the Jabhat al-Nusra in Khan Sheikhon region, a chemical strike has taken place that the Syrian army has managed to defeat the attacking armed groups in the suburbs of Hamma and remove the areas under the control of this group. The army also plans to continue fighting in other areas of armed groups and to launch attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra bases in the province of Idlib. With the support of the allied army on all fronts and the achievements of many, as well as the removal by the White House, the Department of State and the United States Mission to the United Nations, that the US government’s priority is the defeat of ISIS, Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian people should determine the fate of Assad. These issues have led to the outrage of the terrorist armed groups and their supporting countries and the American warlords. Hence, they have taken measures to use chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhon and have accused the Syrian army of using this type of weapon to achieve the following objectives.

They are struggling against the Syrian government by accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons that were sacrificed by a number of citizens. They demanded that they undermine the status of the Syrian government in international circles and any negotiation.

They are also pushing for the Syrian government to squeeze on the military front to force the army to attack terrorists at various fronts to prevent the terrorists from defeating and collapsing. The goal is to give the terrorists fresh breath and to rebuild their queues once again.

The warlords have called on Trump’s positions to change their position on Assad and the fight against terrorism to attack Syrian military bases, especially military airports. This is a topic that the Washington Research Center has been reporting on. French Foreign Minister Marc Ayro said the chemical test was a testament to the new US administration after its position on Assad’s fate.

2- Accordingly, Western countries quickly accused Assad of using chemical weapons and opposed Russia’s request for a neutral truth-clarification committee to determine the facts. They tried to achieve the stated goals and mislead public opinion and cover the realities and exonerate the Nusra Front. They also demanded that chemical weapons remain in the hands of the terrorist groups if they continue to use it and continue their erosion wars in Syria.

3- The US government’s move to launch a missile attack on the Syrian airspace appears to be in contrast to the Tramp position. He has surrendered to warlords. He wants to align with the warlords, in order to reduce the opposition that the supporters of the supporters of the terrorist groups inside Syria have taken to take action. He also wants to show off with Obama, who hesitated to attack Syria in 2013.

But the US invasion showed that Washington is attacking the government, the Syrian people and the Syrian army with the help of the terrorists, and that the terrorists are instrumental in serving US plans to occupy Syria. America is the largest terrorist country in the world and a terrorist organization. It does not fail to ignore international law and the sovereignty of other countries, and always plays the role of police in the implementation of forest law. It has a right to charge, convict and enforce justice.

4.Consequences of probability

Indeed, the US invasion of Syria has shown that America is directly involved in the terrorist war against Syria. The move came after the West realized that the terrorists were on the brink of destruction, and that the victory of the Syrian national government and the axis of resistance were decisive. The role of the United States will prove this to the people of Syria, the Arab countries and the world’s public opinion that what is happening in Syria is the plan of America, the West, Zionism and the reactionary Arab state aimed at destroying Syria and destroying its national system.  This has led the Syrian people to support more than their leader, and his legitimacy and his unique role in confronting colonial forces, terrorism and Western-affiliated institutions are strengthened.

The US attack on Syria has led Russia to end its air coordination with the United States in the Syrian heavens. This is a practical measure against the ignorance of international law by the United States and its neglect of Russia’s position. Russia emphasized that the Syrian army did not carry out a chemical attack, and the army had no chemical weapons, and these were terrorist groups that possessed chemical weapons. Hence, it is better not to accuse the Syrian government of any reason and evidence. There is no doubt that Russia’s reaction to the developments in Syria will be great. This does not allow US fighters to cover the Russian missile defense coverage. In addition, it is likely that Moscow will provide advanced weapons to the Syrian army to defend against any attack on missiles and fighter jets. It is not possible for Russia to neglect this attack that ignores Russian red lines in the Syrian territories. This is particularly the case when US attacks on Syria and its attempt to rid the terrorists of failure to Russia’s strategic goals of sending its troops to Syria.

US action on the Syrian army’s attack will not only lead to a conflict with the Syrian army and its allies. But there is also the possibility of a conflict with Russia. This is the issue Moscow and Washington are trying to avoid. Because of this will lead to a world-wide destruction of devastation.

Hence, it is likely that the US invasion would be to reduce domestic opposition that Tramp has faced since coming to power in the United States. He has called for this attack to strengthen his position against his enemies without rejecting his opposition to a new and more costly war than the Iraq war.

Trump has said he wants to get the US economy out of recession and solve the US unemployment crisis, and to repair US infrastructure that needs a trillion dollars.

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