The Islamic jihad against Christians in Nigeria is proving to be the most barbaric. A new report states that 70% of Christians killed around the world in 2012 were killed in the African nation. Among some of the atrocities committed in March alone, at least 41 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack at a bus station in a predominantly Christian neighborhood.
According to the Rev. Jerome Ituah, “Out of the 52 Catholic churches in Maiduguri diocese, 50 of them have been destroyed by Boko Haram. When two Christian brothers were returning home after Sunday church service, jihadis opened fire on them with machine guns, killing the brothers, as well as three others, and injuring several more Christians.
Another 13 Christian factory workers in Kano were “gruesomely” slain. Said the local bishop: “Reports of the attack reaching us disclosed that on that fateful Saturday at about 7 p.m, Muslim faithful were conducting their prayer close to the affected compound occupied by Christian families, when two taxi cabs stopped in front of the compound and the occupants, who all concealed their arms dashed into the complex and demanded to know why the residents were not part of the 7 p.m. Muslim prayer. They responded by telling the visitors they were Christians and so could not be part of the Muslim gathering. At that point, they separated the men from their wives and children and shot them dead on the spot after ordering the women and children into their homes” to be enslaved.
The bishop added that, “government should show more concern, like it has always done when Muslims are affected; I have not seen that in the case of Christians—that 13 Christians were killed in one straight attack and nothing is heard from the government reflects selective justice because we are aware of compensation paid to Muslim families in situations of this nature.”
However, the Nigeria government recently did go on the offensive to try to contain the jihadis in northern Nigeria—only to be chastised by the Obama administration, in the person of John Kerry, who recently warned the Nigerian government not to violate the “human rights” of the jihadi mass murderers.
Categorized by theme, the rest of March’s Muslim persecution of Christians around the world includes (but is not limited to) the following accounts, listed by theme and in country alphabetical order, not necessarily according to severity:
Egypt: According to El Watan News, three Christian brothers were shot dead at their home by automatic weapons a few weeks before two were set to have their weddings. The victims’ family was earlier accused of trying to build a church on land they owned because they purchased building material to build a house on that land. The rumors about the building of a church spread during the Friday sermon at the mosque, following which 2,000 Muslims stormed the land and tried to destroy the house, car and tractor, resulting in the murder of the three Christian brothers.
Indonesia: Authorities demolished a church building with a bulldozer in West Java, even as Muslim bystanders cheered and denounced Christians as “infidels.” According to Pastor Leonard Nababan, the government is “criminalising our religion.” The congregation had gathered around the church in an effort to save it; so did Muslims, shouting, “They’re infidels and they’ve built their church without permission,” “Knock the church down now” and “Allahu Akbar.”
Iraq: According to Fox News, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there were more than 300 Christian churches. Today, a decade after the jihad was unleashed on Christians and their churches, only 57 Christian churches remain in the nation. And “The churches that remain are frequent targets of Islamic extremists, who have driven nearly a million Christians out of the land…” An Iraqi-based human rights organization said that “The last 10 years have been the worst for Iraqi Christians because they bore witness to the biggest exodus and migration in the history of Iraq…. More than two-thirds [of Christians] have emigrated.” One of the most dramatic cases of Christian persecution came in late October of 2010, when Al Qaeda members laid siege to Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad, killing 58 and wounding 78. According to an AP report “Iraq’s Catholic Christians flocked to churches to celebrate Easter Sunday [in March], praying, singing and rejoicing in the resurrection of Christ behind high blast walls and tight security cordons… [emphasis added].”
Libya: A Coptic Christian church located in Benghazi was attacked by armed Muslims. The jihadis severely beat and shaved the beard and mustache of Father Paul, the priest of the church, as a sign of humiliation. They also beat the deacon and nine attendees. Meanwhile, because Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government had done little regarding the systematic abuse of Egyptian citizens in Libya, including the murder of one under torture, Copts demonstrated in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo—prompting yet another attack on the Benghazi church, which was set on fire.
Pakistan: In response to one Christian man accused of blaspheming Islam’s prophet thousands of Muslims attacked the Christian Joseph Colony of Lahore, burning two churches, one Catholic, the other a Seventh Day Adventist, as often happens in Pakistan in the context of collectively punishing Christians.
Sudan: According to Morning Star News, Khartoum’s jihad continues to “rid the area of non-Arabs and Christianity”: the Evangelical Church in the Nuba was “reduced … to ashes” after an aerial bombardment. Days later, another bombing campaign left two dead and twelve injured, in the Christian-majority region. “These bombardments are major sources of fear among the people in South Kordofan,” said a church leader.
Turkey: The 5th century Studios Monastery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is set to go from being a branch of the Hagia Sophia—Christianity’s grandest cathedral, which was transformed into a mosque, after the Islamic conquest and is currently a museum—to being an active mosque. Many Turkish Muslims continue calling for the return of the Hagia Sophia itself to a mosque.
Apostasy, Blasphemy, Proselytism
Holland: A 43-year-old Iranian Muslim convert to Christianity was found murdered. According to the Farsi Christian News Network, the victim went to church the afternoon he was killed: “The shocking news of this senseless murder has brought grief and sorrow to the local Christians, Iranian-Christian community, and asylum seekers across the country.” Christians constitute a large percentage of the Iranians seeking asylum in Holland. (Islamic Sharia law calls for the killing of apostates, and converts to Christianity are regularly targeted in the Islamic world.)
Iran: During a major conference, a Shi’ite leader claimed that Islam was under attack by Christianity in Iran: “Christian booklets and brochures are being sent to people’s doors for free in many areas… Christianity is being preached in many shops in the Islamic city of Mashhad. Also Christian booklets are sent to people’s addresses without restrictions.” But a Mohabat News spokesperson said “Of course, the Islamic cleric did not provide any supporting evidence for his claim. However, it seems their sole purpose in bringing up and repeating these claims is to provoke security authorities against, and provide the means for increased pressure on Iranian Christians converts.”
Kazakhstan: Vyacheslav Cherkasov , a Christian street evangelist, was detained for offering Christian literature to passersby and fined the equivalent of one month’s wages on charges of “violating the rules” regarding “importing, publishing and distribution of religious literature” which came into force in 2011. The court ordered the destruction of his 121 pieces of Christian literature, including Bibles and children’s Bibles, in the first such ruling since the nation gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Local Council of Churches Baptists said in published remarks: “We were shocked—this is sacrilege and illegality.”
Pakistan: The blasphemy case against Rimsha Masih, the 14-year-old Christian girl who was earlier arrested for “blasphemy” when a Muslim cleric falsely claimed that she burned a Koran, has been reopened. According to a BosNewsLife report, “A police investigator asked the Supreme Court in Islamabad to reopen the case” against the Christian girl, “saying he was pressured by the government to drop charges against her after an international outcry.” She and her family are currently in hiding. A court is also considering a death sentence against 47-year-old Martha Bibi, a Christian and mother, due to alleged “derogatory remarks” about Muslim prophet Muhammad. Another Christian man was arrested after a Muslim accused him of blasphemy. But his arrest was not enough to appease the 3000 strong mob that went on to collectively punish the nation’s Christians, burning two churches, some 200 Christian homes, and stealing their property.
Somalia: Muslim militants murdered yet another Christian. Ahmed Ali Jimale, 42, was killed by two men as he stood outside his house, near a police station. Among other things, the man was accused of apostasy—on the widespread assumption that all Somalis are born Muslims—and, because he worked as a teacher, of “introducing the children to foreign Christian religion”; Muslim militants had warned him that “we shall come for your head.” A friend of the slain said “Jimale was a good man who helped our community. His widow is very scared and afraid, not knowing what will happen.” He also leaves behind four children, ages 10, 8, 6, and 4.
[General Abuse and Suppression of Non-Muslims as “Tolerated” Citizens]
Egypt: Muslim rioters in town of Kom Ombo threw firebombs and rocks at police after Friday mosque prayers in an effort to storm a church where they claimed a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity was hiding. Violence began when a 36 year-old Muslim woman, who had been missing for five days, was allegedly seen outside the church with a female Christian friend. Days later, hundreds of Muslims marched in the town of al-Wasta, to protest the disappearance of another young Muslim girl and accuse the priest of St. George’s Church of using “black magic” to lure her to Christianity. They hurled stones at the church; Coptic shops were forced to close down; Salfis threatened to kidnap a Christian girl if their Muslim girl did not return. However, Watani newspaper had already reported that the Muslim girl sent an open letter to her family, posted on the Internet, saying that she ran away because she was sexually abused by her uncles, was forced to marry a man she did not want, and that she had left Egypt and was married to a Muslim man. Unrelatedly a Fox News report states that “Islamic hard-liners stormed a mosque in suburban Cairo, turning it into [a] torture chamber for Christians who had been demonstrating against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in the latest case of violent persecution that experts fear will only get worse.” And according to a Voice of Russia report, “up to 100,000 Christians have left Egypt since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. Some of those have arrived in Moscow.”
Iran: According to Fox News, a UN report indicates that “Iran’s hard-line regime has intensified its violent crackdown on Christians and other religious minorities, even imprisoning nursing mothers for practicing their faith…” The March report provides a “rare, detailed view into the shocking treatment of Christians in Iran, where American Pastor Saeed Abedini is serving an eight-year sentence for his alleged work with Christians.” According to a UN expert on human rights in Iran, “The persecution of Christians has increased. It seems to target new converts and those who run house churches…. more than 300 Christians have been arrested since June 2010, according to the report.” Most recently, Five members of the Church of Iran denomination appeared before a judge and “charged with disturbing public order, evangelizing, action against national security and an internet activity against the system.”
Pakistan: After 3,000 Muslims attacked a Christian village—burning two churches and some 200 homes—the government punished Christians for protesting. According to the Daily Times, “Christians around the country are incensed by the recurring theme of blasphemy allegation followed by attacks and burning down of their vulnerable communities. They have held protests across the country in a concerted effort to vent their disgust at the recent incident and to show solidarity with the victims… Lahore police used the opportunity to beat the innocent Christian protesters. They shot tear gas shells at them and beat them with sticks. Yet when the Muslim attack took place they stood back and watched till the town had been razed to the ground…Muslims of Jhelum city have threatened to burn Christians home in response to the protests. Now the community is living in fear of reprisals for their simple act of condemning violence and the blasphemy laws of Pakistan.”
Sweden: According to Charisma News, “Christians in Iran face arrest, torture, even death. But that doesn’t seem to matter to Swedish immigration officials. Sweden wants to send Iranian Christian asylum seekers, who left Islam, back to Iran where they could be killed. Iran is one of the most dangerous places in the world for Christians. As apostates from Islam, they face grave danger in this country. But their requests for asylum status that could save their lives have been denied.”
Syria: According to a Catholic leader, up to 30,000 Christians have fled the city of Aleppo, and two priests were abducted and held for a ransom of 15 million Syrian pounds each. Christians are regularly kidnapped and beheaded by jihadi rebels. Also, a short English-language video appeared where Fr. Fadi al-Hamzi told of how his uncle was recently murdered: “They killed him because he is Christian, they refuse to have any Christians in Syria. … I’m not afraid; my uncle died, he’s immortal now. I can be like him.” When asked if he was worried if Christians would be massacred if the U.S.-supported jihadis overthrew the government, the priest said , “Yes, yes, this will be… they don’t want us here.” Christians were in Syria 600 years before Islam conquered the nation.
About this Series
Because the persecution of Christians in the Islamic world is on its way to reaching pandemic proportions, “Muslim Persecution of Christians” was developed to collate some—by no means all—of the instances of persecution that surface each month. It serves two purposes:
1) Intrinsically, to document that which the mainstream media does not: the habitual, increasingly chronic, Muslim persecution of Christians.
2) Instrumentally, to show that such persecution is not “random,” but systematic and interrelated—that it is rooted in a worldview inspired by Sharia.
Accordingly, whatever the anecdote of persecution, it typically fits under a specific theme, including hatred for churches and other Christian symbols; apostasy and blasphemy laws; sexual abuse of Christian women; forced conversions to Islam; theft and plunder in lieu of jizya (tribute); overall expectations for Christians to behave like cowed “dhimmis” (barely tolerated citizens); and simple violence and murder. Oftentimes it is a combination thereof.
Because these accounts of persecution span different ethnicities, languages, and locales—from Morocco in the west, to India in the east, and throughout the West, wherever there are Muslims—it should be clear that one thing alone binds them: Islam—whether the strict application of Islamic Sharia law, or the supremacist culture born of it.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days
These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.
Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.
Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.
Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.
The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.
Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.
His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.
Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.
Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.
Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.
The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.
Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”
Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”
Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”
The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.
Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.
Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.
In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.
Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.
Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.
Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.
Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.
In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message
When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.
Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.
The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”
Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.
Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.
Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.
However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.
The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.
Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.
Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”
The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.
The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.
Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”
Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”
Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.
The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.
The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.
It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.
Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.
The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”
Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.
The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.
However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.
Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.
The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.
In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.
The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.
Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.
That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.
Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.
Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.
Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers
Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.
For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.
Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.
Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.
This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.
To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.
Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders, the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.
Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.
A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.
And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.
Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.
Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.
Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.
Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.
In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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Indian authorities said on April 30 that they discovered Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Group had made illegal remittances to foreign...
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