Since the downfall of long reigning President Suharto in May 1998, Indonesia has successfully, if not always without difficulty, transitioned from authoritarian rule to a functioning democracy.
Earlier concerns over Islamist ascendancy have proved largely unfounded, and a diversity of Islamic political expression is accommodated within the framework of democratic electoral politics. How was this development possible in the world’s most populous Muslim country, and can it serve as a template for the ongoing transitions in the Middle East?
Islam, Nationalism, and the Indonesian Republic
The Indonesian archipelago has a rich history of taking outside influences (especially religious ones) and adapting them to complement existing social structures, traditions, and belief systems. The first major encounters with Islam date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when the religion arrived peacefully via trading merchants from Persia and India. Spreading gradually to Sumatra, Java, and beyond over the centuries, Islamic practice including Sufi traditions amalgamated with indigenous custom and became part and parcel of many of the archipelago’s different cultural identities.
This gradual syncretic adoption is reflected in predominantly tolerant and diverse forms of religious expression across Indonesia. For instance, on Java there is a distinct difference, in terms of religiosity, between two major Islamic strands: Many nominal Javanese Muslims (abangan) identify with an indigenized syncretic form of practice, Agami Jawi, while other Javanese identify as Santri, practicing a stricter but still moderate form of Islam. Outside Java, believers in places like Aceh in northern Sumatra, parts of the Moluccas, and in central Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes) observe a stricter practice while, on the other hand, some Sasak on the island of Lombok still adhere to an Islamic animist-ancestral amalgam known as Islam Wetu Telu. In fact, one could say that in the majority of cases, a dynamic and tolerant equilibrium exists between the archipelago’s overlapping strands of national, religious, and cultural identification. Indonesians share a strong sense of national, political identity forged from a common history of anticolonial struggles, shared national language (bahasa Indonesia), and state-sponsored education. The size of Indonesia’s two major socio-religious organizations also gives one an appreciation of the influence of Islam in daily life. Both organizations boast many devout followers. The traditionalist Sunni Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, Awakening of Ulama) has about 30-35 million members and formed in 1926 in reaction to the reformist Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad). Its raison d’être is to spread and retain conservative Islamic teachings and practices through a large network of religious boarding schools. The reformist Muhammadiyah numbers approximately 29 million. Established in 1912, it focuses on social and educational activities through a promotion of ijtihad (individual interpretation of the Qur’an and sunna) rather than the uncritical acceptance (taqlid) of orthodox interpretations of tradition by ulama.
At the same time, the modern Indonesian state has not always had an easy relationship with the polity’s cultural-religious identification. Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in August 1945, but in the months leading up to it, a lively constitutional debate took place centering in part on the emerging pancasila (five principles) ideology of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. Enshrined in article 29, section 1 of the 1945 constitution, the five principles are belief in one God, national unity, humanitarianism, consensus democracy, and social justice. Originally, the first principle also contained the words “with an obligation for Muslims to implement Islamic law,” but this was soon dropped by the largely secular-nationalist minded Sukarno. This left many stricter Muslims, particularly from outside Java, with the sense that the finalized constitution marginalized Islam.
Sukarno and his nationalist allies soon successfully weakened and splintered the Islamic political party, Masjumi (an acronym for the Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations) in an attempt to reduce its political appeal. By 1958, opposition to Sukarno’s increasingly authoritarian “guided democracy” led to open rebellion under the aegis of the short-lived Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia. After the military crushed the rebellion, Sukarno jailed many of Masjumi’s leaders for their involvement and eventually outlawed the party. Erstwhile Islamic militias such as Darul Islam and Tentara Islam Indonesia, which had participated in the war of independence against the Dutch, met with similar fates. Sensing the threat they posed to his nationalist project, Sukarno banned both, and by the 1960s, they had fallen into disarray after suffering sustained attack from the Indonesian armed forces.
In 1965, a failed coup ignited a bloody power struggle in which the army purged the country of President Sukarno’s communist allies and installed Gen. Suharto as head of state. With the rise of Suharto, failure to profess a recognized religion meant potential persecution as a communist, a fate the majority of Indonesians were eager to avoid as it is estimated that between 500,000-1,000,000 alleged communist sympathizers died in a brutal slaughter between 1965 and 1966. It thus comes as little surprise that between 85 to 90 percent of the Indonesian population carry identification cards identifying themselves as Muslim. Keen to stymie any challenges to his authority, Suharto also refused Masjumi a return to politics, and with his 1971 overhaul of the electoral system, he effectively de-Islamized Indonesia’s state-level political structure. The major Islamic organizations were forced to align themselves under the banner of a regime co-opted political party, the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan).
Nevertheless, Suharto was only partially successful in subsuming society’s Islamic identification to the diktats of his “New Order” ideology. In effect, his marginalization of political Islam merely precipitated a greater role on its part in fostering civil society activity. Rather than directly challenge the authorities for political power, moderate reformists such as Dawan Rahardjo, Djohan Effendi, and Nurcholish Madjid focused on building a strong and dynamic Islamic community based on education and social welfare. Their ideas on Islamic social and educational renewal emerged in close association with the Islamic Students Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam), which appealed to a younger generation of well-educated, urban, middle-class Indonesians who were enjoying some of the benefits of New Order economic development.
Democratic Transition and Political Islam
By the 1990s, Suharto himself began to encourage the restoration of Islamic issues onto the political agenda. Eager to court Islamic support as a counter to growing pro-democracy sentiment and rumbling military dissent, it became politically advantageous for Suharto to tolerate Islamic political activism. He promoted pro-Islamic officers in the army and supported the Association of Muslim Intellectuals (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia) made up largely of professionals, scientists, economists, educators, scholars, and regime supporters.
The strategy eventually backfired in the wake of the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1997. The Indonesian rupiah went into free fall against world currencies, and the banking sector collapsed under a mountain of bad loans. The prices of oil, gas, and other commodity exports plummeted as per capita gross domestic product fell by 13 percent. The crisis was exacerbated by Indonesia’s worst drought in fifty years. As inflation soared, food prices rose, and ensuing shortages led to widespread rioting. By the following year, Suharto’s grip on power had loosened in the face of the economic meltdown and pressure from the reformasi movement, the broad movement to bring down Suharto’s New Order.
Prominent Islamic leaders such as Abdurrahman Wahid, president in 1999-2001, Amien Rais, leader of Muhammadiyah, and Nurcholish Madjid along with their associated organizations played major populist roles in Suharto’s eventual downfall and its aftermath by helping to disseminate democratic values throughout society via voter education and election monitoring. Their links to Muslim activists on the frontlines of student protests and rallies against the president exemplified the compatibility of Islam with democracy, political rights, and justice. Underscoring moderation and support for Sukarno’s five principles was crucially important during the turmoil and prevented calls for the creation of an Islamic state from gaining any traction. Appeals to Indonesians’ sense of tolerance and national pride took precedence.
Suharto tried to deflect public anger by blaming Sino-Indonesians and global financial institutions for the crisis, but tensions within the military weakened his hold on power. Factional splits that had developed in the 1980s between “red and white” (secular nationalist) and “green” (Islamic) groups increased, and some began questioning Suharto’s authority. In this turbulent economic and political climate, factions within the green military began shifting their support to the Indonesian Council for Islamic Da’wa (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia) and the Indonesian Committee for Solidarity of the Islamic World (Komite Indonesia Untuk Solidaritas dengan Dunia Islam), both of which received substantial funding and donations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Eventually, key factions of the military simply abandoned the president. He had become too much of a liability.
Islamic Political Parties
Upon Suharto’s departure, pressure mounted on Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the NU, to run for office. Wahid was wary of NU’s return to politics as potentially damaging to its social mission but was eventually persuaded to head the newly-formed National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa), which combined Islam with the nationalist pancasila ideology. Notwithstanding NU’s long-time championship of an Islamic-oriented Indonesia and Wahid’s personal stature, neither it nor any of the welter of Islamic parties and groups that sprang up in the post-Suharto environment could achieve a parliamentary majority. By late 1998, the prospect of a single Islamic political voice emerging looked highly unlikely. Although forty out of eighty political parties were, to varying degrees, Islamic-oriented, this number decreased by election time in 1999 to twenty eligible groups.
The outcome of this proliferation of parties was ultimately unsatisfying for all contenders. Megawati Sukarnoputri (Sukarno’s daughter) led the secular-nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan) to 37.4 percent of the vote (153 seats in parliament) while Wahid’s National Awakening Party only garnered 12.6 percent of the vote for 51 seats. Despite this, behind-the-scenes jockeying for power and horse-trading maneuvers by Islamic groups produced a coalition that backed Wahid for the presidency.
Wahid, however, was simply unable to hold together a broad coalition of competing interests. Notwithstanding the increased Islamic influence that led to his elevation, the confusion that reigned during Wahid’s presidency (and his eventual impeachment in mid-2001) indicated a process still very much in transition. But rather than impeachment signaling a return to authoritarian ways, it became the first big test of Indonesia’s new democratic credentials. Parliament followed constitutional protocol by replacing Wahid with then-vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who went on to complete the remainder of Wahid’s five-year presidential term. Ironically, the Islamic groups who had pushed so hard for Wahid to serve were now left with the unpalatable option of the secularist Megawati as the next constitutionally mandated president. They duly accepted the appointment, nonetheless.
Political machinations aside, developments in the post-Suharto party system introduced political players with stricter forms of Muslim identity politics capable of appealing to major Muslim constituencies. Islamic-oriented political parties appeal to sections of more conservative-minded, urban middle classes with an interest in promoting social decency, political moderation, and piety based on Islam as an ethical reference. The moral concerns of these constituencies combined with feelings of uncertainty toward social change in the face of rapid development have no doubt helped bolster the appeal.
Yet, while the number of Islamic parties is more prevalent than at any time in Indonesia’s past, most of their involvement is of a moderate kind and very far from being associated with the institution of an Islamist theocracy. Moreover, the results of the 1999 election indicated clearly that Indonesians en masse favored a democratic polity over an Islamic state, giving the secularist-nationalist parties of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle and the Golkar party 58.3 percent of the vote while the various Islamic parties amassed less than 42 percent. True, the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or PKS), whose leaders claim it does not seek to impose Shari’a (despite links to the Muslim Brotherhood), increased its vote from 1.5 percent in 1999 to 7.45 percent in 2004. But this success was largely a result of its image as a relatively new and untainted party, as well as the stagnation and subsequent unraveling of Megawati’s tenure. The PKS leadership skillfully exploited the situation to cast itself as a “clean” Islamic party committed to an anti-corruption platform, rather than to the imposition of Shari’a rule. Although the public’s perception of it has tarnished somewhat over the years, especially recently, it marginally increased its share in the People’s Representative Council (the Indonesian version of the House of Representatives) in the 2009 elections to almost 8 percent but made less significant inroads in many of the regions.
Most significantly, the PKS and other Islamic-oriented groups represent only 169 out of 560 seats in parliament—a mere 30 percent. The stunning electoral triumph of the secular-nationalist Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat) in 2009 with 148 seats alongside the more established Golkar and Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle groups (106 and 94 seats respectively) indicates that Islam does not necessarily trump other interests or issues in Indonesia. Still, there is a growing concern that not enough is being done to combat radicalism, intolerance, and increasing intimidation of local religious minorities by hard-line Islamist vigilantes such as Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front).
Lessons to Learn
The Indonesian experience shows that countries do not emerge in a straightforward transition from authoritarian rule to multiparty democracy overnight: The challenges of transition are multiple. Success depends on translating momentum for change into meaningful reform and improvements over a sustained period of time. This involves redressing past injustices, economic stabilization, popular legitimization, judicial reform, diffusion of democratic values, marginalization of anti-system actors, ensuring greater civilian rule over the military, party system development, and the routinization of politics. What also needs to be recognized is that democratization is not the same as democracy; one is a process, the other a political system. Democracy can become the “only game in town” if and when change occurs incrementally on the behavioral, attitudinal, and constitutional levels.
Indonesia’s transformation, in common with other democratizations, has been anything but easy. There continue to be corruption issues, ongoing policy ineffectiveness, judicial problems, institutional frictions, and personality politics but what is clear is that there has been substantive reform. The political system is now a functioning democracy with all its benefits and shortcomings. Reviewing the steps taken to get there may help in producing applicable measures for steering the turbulent Middle Eastern societies toward a more democratic future.
To begin with, there is the need to organize free and fair elections though elections in themselves can hardly be expected to channel contests peacefully among political rivals or accord public legitimacy. There also has to be corresponding reform of state institutions, policymaking procedures, and an attendant recovery of civil liberties. Inclusive suffrage, the right to run for office, enhanced freedom of expression, and access to alternative information are some of the necessary building blocks. Indonesia’s first two elections in 1999 and 2004 were the freest in more than forty years with huge amounts of political activity and media coverage. The lifting of press restrictions, the release of political prisoners, and the formation of new political parties all bore witness to its climate of reform.
Dismantling the most repressive structures of an authoritarian regime and removing the military gradually from politics are also major tasks of reform. In Indonesia, political leaders moved quickly to separate the police from the military. Turning the military into an asset rather than a threat to the process is a challenge but not insurmountable. Persuading the generals to “return to the barracks” involves investment in their professionalism, an appeal to their sense of honor, and realistically, an appeal to their wallets.
To prevent a reactionary backlash, allowing the military to retain substantial economic interests may be a prudent move if a difficult pill to swallow in the short term. However, one must be exceptionally wary of grand bargains being struck, whereby political hegemony is transferred on the assurance that the military unconditionally retains its reserved economic domains and privileged status. Rather, the aim must be to create enough time and space to institute some step-by-step reforms and gradually phase out military embeddedness in the body politic, something that the recent Middle Eastern revolutions have thus far failed to do.
Indonesia managed to reduce the sociopolitical role of its armed forces by allowing it to retain its substantial economic interests in the short term, and there have even been attempts to phase this out completely although very incrementally. This paved the way for constitutional reform of the army’s dual role in politics and the economy in 2002 and the formal removal of its allocated seats in parliament in 2004. All of this brought improved civilian rule of the military over time.
This, in turn, can help in the provision of transitional justice. A society often needs to allow some of its open wounds to heal so that it can move on. It is an incredibly fraught and thorny process, but one way to do this is to give them a good “airing.” This may involve the establishment of some form of truth and reconciliation commission as in South Africa or East Timor, depending on circumstance. South Africa provides a better template for reconciliatory justice than the attempts in East Timor. The 2002 Ad-Hoc Court for Human Rights Violations in East Timor convicted only a small number of lower-ranking military officers. Indonesia’s military (especially its top commanders at the time) have largely avoided recriminations. Syria represents a perfect example of where such an undertaking will be critical, but this process may also be applied in such countries as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia where long-standing authoritarian regimes were swept from power. The scale of the Assad regime’s violence and the country’s crosscutting sectarian rivalries make the potential for wide-scale retribution and bloodletting a very real prospect. Future prosecutions at the International Criminal Court or a similar tribunal for the worst offenders of the Syrian regime should be contemplated. Such steps are important in post-conflict situations as they provide mortar to rebuild respect for state institutions and the rule of law. Restoring pride and trust in institutions such as the judiciary, law enforcement, and security services is a massive task of reform that will take time and substantial effort.
A third critical factor, major constitutional and decentralization reform, brought improved representation and accountability to Indonesia, albeit by degrees. Although far from perfect, the restructured People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat) now consists entirely of popularly elected members sitting in the People’s Representative Council and a new Regional Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah). In fact, Indonesia’s 2004 elections bore witness to a meaningful and extensive number of permitted political parties, stabilized election rules, amendments to decentralization legislation, and constitutional limitations on the power of the executive. The president is elected directly and can only serve one renewable five-year term. Parliament has also gained more power in the legislative process, which encourages the president to maintain broad support in the legislature.
The success of Indonesia’s 2009 elections further attests to real stabilization and routinization. A diverse media remains open and vigorous, and civil society activity continues to flourish with an array of nongovernmental organizations and pressure groups. This is not to say things are all smooth sailing, but most important is the fact that the new democratic framework is accepted. Current president Yudhoyono may be ex-military, but he is unconditionally committed to, and readily submits his interests to, the new rules of the game—something that new Middle Eastern leaders have yet to learn.
The recent Islamist electoral successes in Tunisia and Egypt suggest a different political dynamic than Indonesia. Yet the tenor of the uprisings, at least in their initial phases, as well as subsequent reactions to authoritarian behavior by elected Islamist officials, indicate that a substantial number of people in these countries, as in Indonesia, will expect parties to respect the rule of law and address their countries’ economic and corruption problems. As evidenced by the public backlash to Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s recent power grab and the assassination of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaïd, attempts at a coercive institutionalization of Islamist theocracy may well be met with continued protests and uprisings.
The real issue for the Middle East is not whether it will be secular or Islamic. In many ways, this is a false dichotomy and a distraction from much greater concerns. What one is witnessing in the region is a simultaneous convergence of multiple social, economic, and political vectors bringing things into sharp relief. Looking at the conditions in these countries, there were clear indications that storms were brewing. Despite the substantial wealth that narrow self-serving elites enjoyed (some of which trickled down to the middle classes), economic stagnation was rife; combined with rising prices for basic foodstuffs and high unemployment among educated, tech-savvy but disenfranchised youth this created an extremely volatile mix. What the people of the region now have to do is find ways to strike a different social contract by translating the popular momentum for greater political freedoms, effective rule of law, and better living conditions that brought down their autocrats into representative capacity. And if the Indonesian example teaches anything, it is that moderate Islam and democratic development are not incompatible bedfellows.
Paul J. Carnegie is senior lecturer in political economy at the Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. He is the author of The Road from Authoritarianism to Democratization in Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and taught previously in both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
 See, for example, Thomas Carothers, “Egypt and Indonesia,” The New Republic, Feb. 2, 2011; Jay Solomon, “In Indonesia, a model for Egypt’s transition,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2011.
 Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960), pp. 121-31.
 Fauzan Saleh, Modern Trends in Islamic Theological Discourse in 20th Century Indonesia: A Critical Survey (Leiden: Brill 2001), pp. 17-29.
 Robert Cribb, ed., The Indonesian Killings of 1965–1966: Studies from Java and Bali (Clayton: Monash University Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, 1990), p. 12; idem, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965-1966,” Journal of Genocide Research, June 3, 2001, pp. 219-39.
 Suzaina Kadir, “The Islamic factor in Indonesia’s political transition,” Asian Journal of Political Science, 2 (1999), pp. 21-44.
 Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh, “Islam and the Current Transition to Democracy in Indonesia,” in Arief Budiman, Barbara Hatley, and Damien Kingsbury, eds., Reformasi: Crisis and Change in Indonesia (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute 1999), pp. 201-12; Robert Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 189-200.
 Ken Young, “The national picture: A victory for reform?” in Susan Blackburn, ed. Pemilu: The 1999 Indonesian Election (Melbourne: Monash Asia Institute, 1999), pp. 3-11.
 Komisi Pemilihan Umum, “Indonesian elections with figures and facts 1955-1999,” General Elections Commission, Jakarta, 2000.
 Sadanand Dhume, “Indonesian Democracy’s Enemy Within,” Yale Global, Dec. 1, 2005.
 See, for example, “Indonesia: ‘Christianization’ and Intolerance,” Asia Briefing, no. 114, International Crisis Group, Jakarta/Brussels, Nov. 24, 2010, p. 17; “Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia,” Human Rights Watch, New York, 2013, pp. 60-6, 71-86.
 Andreas Schedler, “What Is Democratic Consolidation?” Journal of Democracy, Apr. 1998, pp. 91-107.
 Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post-communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 5-14.
 Paige Johnson Tan, “Indonesia Seven Years after Soeharto: Party System Institutionalization in a New Democracy,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, 1 (2006), pp. 88-114; Douglas Webber, “A Consolidated Patrimonial Democracy? Democratization in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” Democratization, 3 (2006), pp. 396-420; Marcus Mietzner and Edward Aspinall, “Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: An Overview,” in Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner, eds., Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: Elections, Institutions and Society (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), pp. 1-20.
 Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 26.
Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit
The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.
The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.
In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.
It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.
The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.
Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.
Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.
The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.
Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations
Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.
Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.
Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.
How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.
Consider three recent instances.
First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.
Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”
Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.
Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.
Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.
Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.
For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.
In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.
Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.
Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.
In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”
Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.
These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.
The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.
China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate
By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.
The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.
By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.
It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.
Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.
To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.
China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.
Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.
That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.
China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.
Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?
The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.
Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.
A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.
There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.
This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.
To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.
China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.
Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.
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