The slaughter of 17 people in the past week in Paris marks a dark era in Europe in the relationship between European Muslims and the Arab world – just as it were 14 years ago when the 9/11 terror struck in the USA. These terror attacks strike at the heart of Europe. They erupt many emotions in all of us.
This violence in the name of religion penetrates the core of all European countries, the democratic parties, their governments and the general public, the freedom of the press and expression, religious freedom, cultural tolerance and respect towards each other. Ultimately, the world order of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is shaken in its core as well.
Ironically, the first victim was a Muslim. 42 year old police officer Ahmed Merabed was executed at point-blank range in public view on the sidewalk outside of Charlie Hebdo. The shocking video is available on the internet.
These murders and kidnappings were carried out by the perpetrators “in the name of Islam, with vengeance for the Prophet and because of attacks on Muslims.” They triggered massive outrage and fear of Islam and Muslims worldwide.
They provide the radical nationalists – like the Front National in France or the Pegida movement in Germany – unprecedented breeding ground, more press, more coverage, more popularity. In all EU countries the mood shifts incrementally with each rebellious act.
For many in the West, Islam has become a menace. The latest study of the German Bertelsmann Foundation in January 2015 reveals this sentiment.
57% of Germans view Islam as a threat.
61% believe Islam does not fit within western societies.
What do we do now?
This core question was already presented by Lenin at the end of each Politibuero gathering to focus on actions.
What can we, the 3 core groups do?
The 500 million Europeans in the EU
The 44 million Muslims in Europe
The 1.6 billion Muslims in the World
Our world has changed drastically in the last 20 years through globalization. This give us opportunities but these opporutnities don’t come without risks and unrest. Although we band together, we are drawn apart by ideoligies and beliefs. What world will we build, will we choose for our children to live together in harmony as Germans, as Arabs, as Westerners? What will we leave as a legacy to our children, to your children in the world?
Do we take our responsibility as leaders of the Western World serious enough? Do we understand what it means to live together in harmony, in tolerance, in peaceful co-existence? Or will we sit in desperate passivity and allow the world to crumble around us?
Will we leave a legacy of acquiescence that the radicals will feed off of, that the Radicals will profit from, in a world of fear, comfort and political correctness? Don’t we desparately need a grand strategy, a fundamental understanding, a common soul that works through our shared humanity to establish a code of tolerance?
Without a unified front and power tools, we cannot confront the misguided goals of IS and al-Qaida. We must have the courage to stand up.
Consider this double strategy:
• of the hard and soft factors of fighting for peace
• of power and diplomacy
• weaponry, police, state security, military
• education, dialogue and reconciliation and the will to promote tolerance on all sides
Today I would like to focus on the soft factors that contribute to the Codes of Tolerance. What must we do to actualize these tenants of assimiliation and understanding?
The world-wide concern about the far-reaching terrorist campaign of IS is not enough. We need actions. Similarly, acknowledging that the violent acts do not represent the entire body of Islamic believers and its doctrine, is not enough. Violence in the name of the Prophet contradicts what is written in the Qur’an.
But the radicals – like in Paris- always argue they defend the Prophet as representatives of the true religion fighting for its victory. They cherry-pick some harsh words from the Qur’an which paise fighting the unbelievers.
Tens of thousands of misguided Musims are fighting what they see as unbelievers, killing Christians and mostly Muslims alike in the name of Mohammed in a mistaken fanatical ideology. Therefore, it is the problem of Islam. It is the fight for its interpretation, the soul of the Holy Qur’an and the ownership of the religion.
This violent detour from the original tenants of Islam has now become a problem for the entire body of the Muslim people. Moderate and extemists alike. Her Royal Highness Rania, The Queen of Jordan, put her finger into the wound on November 18, 2014 in Abu Dhabi:
„The attacks of radical Islamists are an attack on the values of Islam. But the moderate Muslims are equally to blame: It is said that our silence speaks volumes.“
Egyptian President al-Sisi rightfully determined at the Al Azhar University on New Year’s Day 2015: ”It can not be that the Islamic world is perceived as a haven of danger, of killing and destruction by the rest of the world.” „We need a religious revolution in Islam“, he declared.
I had the honor to meet the 17 year old Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala in December 2014 in Oslo. I asked her about suggestions to promote tolerance.
She impressed me deeply in how clearly she defended the true Islam including the right of girls to education.
She speaks openly about risking her and the other girls’ lives while the others remained silent.
It is not embarrassing and a shame that a young Muslim girl is braver than thousands of imams, generals, princes and politicians?
There are Muslim heros, but still too few. Like Lassana Bathily. This 24 year old Muslim was an employee in the Kosher supermarket in Paris. He risked his life to hide several jewish hostages in the walk-in freezer to spare their lives from the Muslim killer.
The thundering silence in the Muslim world must end. Only those who stand up and fight for the true Islam, can win. He who is silent is lost. The roads to murder are always paved with the silence of the majorities. He who is silent carries the guilt of others. But Islam is all about a joint responsibility.
I miss the fierce Islamic courage and noble bravery that the Prophet demands of his followers. I call this bourgeois silence cowardice and convenience. Both are very dangerous. From some high-ranking representatives of the Muslims I also hear the argument: ”If we distance ourselves from the killers or the IS, we’re part of their their propaganda. We have nothing to do with them. We do not have to defend for ourselves.”
This unsetting justification is wrong and highly dangerous. We Germans know why?
In the 1920s and 1930s, the German citizens lost step-by-step the power to define what a good German should do or not, what are the German values and the German culture. The very few, yet steadily increasing number of radical Nazis then defined what was German and what was not. Just like today where the silent majority of Muslims is about to loose moral control about the values of Islam. The majority of the bourgeoise stayed silent and remained passive for too long until it was too late. After that anyone who opened his mouth or resisted, was promptly delivered up to the concentration camps or killed. Is this cowardice to be repeated in the Arab world now? Must history repeat itself ?
The Islamic world must reflect on and reclaim the roots of faith and fight for the true Quran and the peaceful wisdom of the prophet openly and actively. The green banner of true Islam must overcome the black banner of the IS-terrorist and other extremists.
Frank, courageous, everywhere. This is the new Djihad of faith.
Worldwide, probably less than half a percent of people who are prone to violence, misuse their religion as a mandate to confrontation towards believers of different faith. (Christians, Jews, depending on affiliation, but especially Schiites and Sunnies is Syria, Iraq or Pakistan). That is only two to five of a thousand violence prone people. But put that number in action this tiny minority becomes very loud and dangerous. They own the streets, they have the media’s attention.
The 99% majority of Muslims stays silent, looks away, doesn not protest openly, leaving the few radicals too much space and thus the authority to interpret their Islam. This silent majority does not understand the mechanisms of the seizure of power by resolute totalitarian leaders born out of the violent one percent at the beginning of their crusade.
Official statements, so far, have been too short and superficial. They will not succeed in stopping the wave of ideological violence and misinterpretation. One has to dig much deeper. They have to take to the streets and to the media. They have to fight for their right to peaceful existence, not cower to violence.
We need an uprising of decent Muslims and their spiritual and political leaders in all Muslim countries against extremism and violence. All true Muslims are called together in the face of this crisis of the perception of Islam to defend their God, the Holy Book and their Prophet Muhammad against the violence and sins of the IS and their deadly tools and other terrorists. This is not a choice, this is a Muslim duty.
This is the path to actively protect the true doctrine, to enlighten misguided youths, to contain the radicals and hinder the growth of distrust against Islam and hence a rupture of European societies and more so the Islamic world. It is there, where most people die at the hand of the few radicals. Islamic Extremism is pricipally a danger to Muslims.
The global media coverage about the terror in Paris somewhat overshadowed, that simultaneously 63 people in Iraq, 26 in Syria and 18 in Aghanistan were killed. I thus demand active reconciliation between Sunnies and Schiites, just like the Lutheran Church reached agreement with the Cathlic Church after centuries of bitter warfare of faith. We in the West must contain xenophobia, Islamophobia, and Neo-Nazis. 35.000 people demonstrated against xenophobia in Dresden on Sunday. In Paris, one million Christians, Muslims and Jews took to the streets. And the Muslims rose on Tuesday at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
More of that! Let’s not stand still. Let’s continue! With many actions worldwide.
Our fight for tolerance is your fight. Your fight for tolerance is our fight. We can only save the world from hate and terror if we contain the different radicals together.
We must actively educate more tolerance and respect towards other religions, ethnic minorities and races globally. We need a Jihad for tolerance.We have to spent hundreds of millions of dollars in grassroots projects, in the Muslim world and in the West. A global action plan is needed to promote the human codes of tolerance and respect and to contain the radicals. We all do too little.
We have to maintain the good human interaction as if it were a beautiful lawn. If we don’t tend to our garden, the weeds will choke out the flowers. Promoting the soft factors of peace and tolerance is like seeding plants, giving daily watering and care.
We need a credible policy of the values for the UN Charter to establish an honest global constitution without political rhetoric. We need a living soul, not just checkbooks or weapons. This includes the steady promotion of the codes of tolerance towards minorities, the poor and the disenfranchised religions and races. Specific details are described in my most current book “Codes of Tolerance.”
My book has been translated into Arabic and published by Al Arabica Publishing in Cairo. I would know like to present the first two samples to Dr Mohamad Hamed Alashmary und Professor Mohamed Khallouk.
Codes of Tolerance
This book, “Codes of Tolerance” depicts a picture of the true peace-loving Islam with many facets and hence a positive message to all: Islam is peaceful in its roots and tolerant of Christians and Jews.
The book explores 10 Golden Rules of tolerance in Islam: The dominance of goodness and mercy of God in the first sura and all suras of the Qur’an. The Muslim welcome address “Peace be with you”
The Prophet aimed at hilm, a new society of harmony and respect. Punishment on judgment day and not on earth. The state role model through reconciliation after the conquest of Mecca 630 to 632. The Prophet did not enforce a totalitarian theocracy, but left the political system as it was, forced nobody to concert to Islam and and pardoned his enemies.
There are many references of the ancient sacred text of the Jews and the Christians, who share 14 prophets with the Muslims. At least 27 verses in the Qur’an call on Muslims to practice tolerance and patience to Christians and Jews as other believers to the same God and children of Abraham. The clear restriction of the use of force only in self-defense in the Quar’an and only as long as the attacker poses an immediate danger. Violence should never be practiced against innocent civilians.
The Prophet and later the first two caliphs signed 14 tolerance contracts with Christian communities for eternity, protecting the free exercise of religion.There is a strong tolerance tradition with the Christians. Documented by the close alliances of the first 100 Muslims Mohammad sent from hostile Mecca in exile to the Christian Kingdom of the Negus in Abyssinia 615 to 622, as well as in the Golden Age of Islam in the 9th century.
The obligation to comply with all rules of the UN Charter by Sura 17.34 as applicable law in Islamic countries. The radical Muslims misunderstand or ignore these messages of tolerance and the model of Prophet Muhammad. They cherry-pick only six sentences of the 6236 suras of the Koran in order to ignore 99.99 percent. Thus they put the Islam upside down.
Opposite to the propaganda of the extremists, the true message of the Qur’an and the Prophet are of mercy, the virtue of serenity, harmony (hilm) and for peace (salam). The position of women in Islam casts Islam in a light of mistrust and disdain in Western countries. I have therefore highlighted the relationship between the Prophet and women in the chapter: “Muhammad: ’I am the best to women.’ “
Central to its comprehension is the description of Khadidjah bint Khuwaylid (ca. 555-620), the first wife of the Prophet. She was an emancipated and very successful businesswoman in Mecca. She employed the younger Muhammad and asked for marriage. Only one world religion was funded by a woman: Islam. Not a man, but a woman was “the first Muslim.” A woman was the most important counselor and supporter of the Prophet.
She should be the role model for all Muslim women, because God chose an emancipated business woman on purpose. The extremists never heard of her importance and style, but they should. Khadidjah is the opposite of Muslim teaching today as is propagated by the IS and Boko Haram which restrict and abuse women who neither go to school nor are emancipated “in the name of the Prophet.”
The Prophet encouraged the emancipation of women in the tribal society of the 7th century. This was a groundbreaking societal right for the female citizen. The rules of the Quar’an protected the women with not less but six more significant rights: Inheritance, personal property, consent to marriage, and prohibiting the killing of female offspring. The Qu’ran never said: do not give them more rights. It does not limit women rights, but guides towards emancipation.
The Prophet fostered the emancipation of women. The tribal communities of the 7th century did not allow for more. Hence, an important part of the Codes of Tolerace ist the propagation of women in the Islamic world. I appeal to every responsible citizen to become personally involved in the development of this common global village. The codes of tolerance are our common ground, our global ethos we share.
The Codes of Tolerance include 60 rules and paths towards a world policy of human kindness, combined with 79 best practices for the most important groups: All of us in general, parents, religious leaders, the media, politicians, sport and culture. We can successfully follow the path of tolerance with many good deeds. The world can silence their haters and nuture their flowers within the spectrum of love for our children of all faiths. Peaceful cohabitance through tolerance towards other religions, minorities and races is attainable.
An active and fortified tolerance policy is not naïve. It is not the dream of do-gooders. It is absolutely essential.
Our world needs a positive vision. A hawk alone cannot bring peace. Only 0.01 percent of our national budgts are spent on reconciliation projects, but 99.99 percent is used for internal security and defense.
We need a readjustment and an active tolerance policy, which is financed with a least one percent of all expenditures for foreign affairs, development and defense.
We also need zero tolerance towards the intolerant. We must actively oppose the poison of hate.There is the very real threat of a vacuum, of soft politics, that invites the radicals the fill the void. It can also be deadly for Qatar – as for Berlin in 1933.
In future, only those rebels and states should receive support, who abide by the global order rooted in the UN-Chart, include its resolutions and implement them. This is true for any kind of support – currently as in Syria, Egypt, Gaza, Libya or Pakistan.
He who refuses must be isolated. No funding for extremists any more. Let us leave our world not to the haters and evil. We cannot wait – we have to start now. Local, creative, active. We all can start with our small puzzel piece of peace as the first stone in the mosaic of seven billion people. We can create together as Europeans and as Arabs a new harmonious world of togetherness with more respect and love of humanity in our global village. Our children are our greatest commodity and their future is their right to inherit in a state of peace and security.
Qatar could become the role model in the Islamic world for this new policy. With its creative and flexible foreign policy, Qatar should play a leading role in this policy and the promotion of codes of tolerance in finding projects funded by $1 billion dollars of humanitarian funds. This money may be well spent. It will change the Arabic countries and the world in a positive fashion – in accordance with the wishes of the Prophet. The Qatari television station Al Jazeera and the Qatar Foundation should address these vital issues about promoting peace more now that ever before.
Qatar could lead the way as a very important role model in moral and political leadership for the Arab world. Qatar can silence their critics by shouldering the essential moral responsibility of spreading the word of peace from the Prophet. This country can then fill a moral vacuum and fulfill the dreams of millions of young Arabs. With an initiative to prompt the human codes of tolerance and respect globally, Qatar shines even brighter as a beacon of light . As a moral and Islamic Lighthouse.
Stepped up US military posture in the Gulf threatens Indian hopes for Iran’s Chabahar port
The arrival of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group in the Gulf to deter Iran from further testing ballistic missiles is likely to dampen Indian hopes that the Trump administration’s exemption of the port of Chabahar from sanctions against the Islamic republic would help it tighten economic relations with Central Asia and further regional integration.
The group’s presence in the Gulf, the first by a US aircraft carrier in eight months, came amid mounting tension between the United States and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the imposition of harsh sanctions against the Islamic republic. It raised the spectre of a potential military conflagration.
The deployment for a period of two months coincided with a suicide attack on a Revolutionary Guards headquarters in Chabahar that killed two people and wounded 40 others.
Saudi and Iranian media reported that Ansar al-Furqan, a shadowy Iranian Sunni jihadi group that Iran claims is supported by the kingdom as well as the United States and Israel, had claimed responsibility for the attack.
Saudi pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat asserted that the attack “reflects the anger harboured by the (city’s Baloch) minority against the government.” The paper said the Iranian government had expelled thousands of Baloch families from Chabahar and replaced them with Persians in a bid to change its demography. It asserted that Iran was granting nationality to Afghan Shiites who had fought in Syria and Iraq and was moving them to Chabahar.
The paper went on to say that “anti-regime Baloch movements have recently intensified their operations against Tehran in an attempt to deter it from carrying out its plan to expel and marginalize the Baloch from their ancestral regions.”
Saudi Arabia, a staunch supporter of the US’s confrontational approach towards Iran, has pumped large amounts of money into militant, ultraconservative Sunni Muslim anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian religious seminaries along the border between the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan that is home to Chabahar, according to militants.
The funding was designed to create the building blocks for a potential covert effort to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.
The deployment was, according to US officials in response to Iran’s test-firing of a ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads. The US sanctions are in part designed to force Iran to drop its development of ballistic missiles. Iranian officials insist the missiles program is defensive in nature.
“We are accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to restore deterrence,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The spectre of increased military tension in the Gulf with the arrival of the aircraft carrier group and of potentially Saudi and US-backed political violence in Iran, and a troubling security situation in Afghanistan threatened to diminish the impact of Washington’s granting Indian investment in Chabahar an exemption from its economic sanctions against Iran.
Indian and Iranian officials fear that the United States’ stepped up military posture and heightened tensions could undermine their efforts to turn Chabahar, which sits at the top of the Arabian Sea, into a hub for trade between India and Central Asia rendering the US waiver worthless.
The officials have their hopes pinned on efforts to engineer a peace process in Afghanistan. US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad alongside representatives of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan met this week with the Taliban. The talks are intended to negotiate an end to Afghanistan’s 17-year old war.
An Afghan government delegation, in what diplomats saw as a sign of progress, hovered in the corridors but did not take part in the meeting because of the Taliban’s insistence that it will only talk to the United States. Talks with the Taliban have so far stalled because of the group’s insistence on a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan.
US officials said the aircraft carrier group, beyond seeking to deter Iran, would also support the US war effort in Afghanistan where the United States has ramped up airstrikes in an effort to press the Taliban into peace talks.
The talks were an opportunity, particularly for Saudi Arabia, whose utility as an ally is being questioned by the US Congress in the wake of the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Pakistan, which the United States accuses of supporting the Taliban, to demonstrate their utility.
While Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have an interest in using their close ties to the Taliban to help forge an end to the Afghan war, its not immediately clear that they want to see reduced tensions facilitate the emergence of Chabahar as an Indian-backed hub.
A Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) renamed the International Institute of Iranian Studies that is believed to be backed by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, argued in a study last year that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”
Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, identified as an Iranian political researcher, the study warned that Chabahar posed a threat because it would enable Iran to increase greater market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic, increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Noting the vast expanses of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province, Mr. Husseinbor went on to say that “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure Chabahar in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers.”
Similarly, Pakistan is heavily invested in Gwadar, the Chinese-backed port in Balochistan that is a crown jewel of the US$45 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a pillar of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative. Gwadar is a mere 70 kilometres up the coast from Chabahar.
“Pakistan sees India as an existential threat and the idea of India being in any way present on Pakistan’s western flank in Afghanistan will always raise alarm bells in Islamabad,” said South Asia scholar Michael Kugelman.
If the arrival of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group in the Gulf heralds heightened tension, Pakistan may have less reason to worry.
Gulf rivalries spill onto the soccer pitch
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia behind it, the soccer world’s focus shifts to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. Politics and the Gulf’s internecine political and legal battles have already shaped debate about FIFA’s controversial awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Qatar. The battles highlight not only the sport’s dominance in the Middle East by autocratic leaders but also the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that is at the root of multiple scandals that have rocked the sports world for much of this decade and compromised good governance in international sports.
Three men symbolize the importance of soccer to Gulf autocrats who see the sport as a way to project their countries in a positive light on the international stage, harness its popular appeal in their cultural and public diplomacy campaigns, and leverage it as a pillar of their efforts to garner soft power: Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and his nemeses, United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi sports czar, Turki al-Sheikh, one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s closest associates.
To be sure, tension between Qatar and its Gulf detractors was spilling onto the soccer pitch long before the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt took their opposition to Qatari policies to a new level with the imposition in June 2017 of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. Since then, debate about the Qatari World Cup has been further politicized with the Gulf crisis driving efforts to deprive Qatar of economic and soft power benefits it derives from its hosting of the tournament, if not of the right to host the mega-sports event.
The UAE-Saudi efforts took on added significance as Qatar and its detractors settled in for the long haul. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt will likely face difficult choices if the Gulf crisis persists when the World Cup, the first such mega-tournament to be held in the Middle East, kicks off in Doha in late 2022.
The choice would involve potential political risk. It would be between maintaining the boycott that has cut off all air, sea and land links between Qatar and its detractors at the expense of fans in a soccer-crazy part of the world in which little evokes the deep-seated emotions associated with religion and football or effectively breaching the embargo to evade political backlash and ensure that supporters have access to a sports milestone in the region’s history. The starkness of the boycotting states’ dilemma would be magnified if any one of them were to qualify for the Qatar World Cup and would be enhanced if they were to play the host country or, for example, Iran.
The issue of ability to attend is magnified by expectations that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well be a different from that at past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a far greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as Africa and Asia. The Asian Football Confederation’s Competition Committee has already urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans and would almost certainly do the same for fans.
As a result, the UAE-Saudi effort to undermine the Qatar World Cup is about more than seeking to deliver a body blow to Qatar. It is also about avoiding being further tied up into knots in an anti-Qatari campaign that has so far failed to break the Gulf state’s resolve, force it to concede, and garner international support. The campaign is multi-pronged and doesn’t shy away from violating laws as is evident in Saudi bootlegging to deprive beIN, the sports franchise of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network, of the fruits of acquired rights to broadcast World Cup tournaments and European competitions at the risk of being penalized and/or taken to court by the likes of FIFA and the English Premier League. Saudi media reports that the government has launched an anti-piracy campaign, confiscating more than 4,000 illegal receivers that hacked beIN failed to put an end to the bootlegging.
Signalling the political importance that men like the crown princes and Sheikh Tamim attribute to sports, a former top UAE security official, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, suggested that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis would be for Qatar to surrender its World Cup hosting rights. “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, Qatar’s crisis will be over … because the crisis is created to get away from it,” Mr. Khalfan said.
Mr. Khalfan spoke at a time that leaked documents from the email account of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington and a close associate of the country’s crown prince, revealed a UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency by manipulating the value of bonds and derivatives. If successfully executed, the plan would have allowed Qatar’s distractors to argue that the Gulf state’s financial problems called into question its ability to organize the World Cup.
Serving national interests
Mr. Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the kingdom’s General Sport Authority, makes no bones about harnessing sports to serve the kingdom’s interests. With a career in security rather than sports, he was unequivocal in his assertion on the eve of Saudi Arabia’s debut in the 2018 World Cup in Russia that he made decisions based on what he deemed “Saudi Arabia’s best interest,” reaffirming the inextricable relationship between sports and politics.
Barely 24 hours before the World Cup’s opening match, Saudi Arabia made good on Mr. Al-Sheikh’s assertion that the kingdom’s international sports policy would be driven by former US President George W. Bush’s post 9/11 principle of “you are either with us or against us.”
With Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup in mind, Mr. Al-Sheikh had warned that “to be in the grey area is no longer acceptable to us. There are those who were mistaken in their direction … If you want support, it’ll be in Riyadh. What you’re doing is a waste of time…,” Mr. Al-Sheikh said. Mr. Al-Sheikh was referring to Morocco’s refusal to join the anti-Qatari campaign. Adopting a Saudi Arabia First approach, Mr. Al-Sheikh noted that the United States “is our biggest and strongest ally.” He recalled that when the World Cup was played in 1994 in nine American cities, the US “was one of our favourites. The fans were numerous, and the Saudi team achieved good results.”
Mr. Al-Sheikh was manoeuvring at the same time to ensure that the kingdom has greater say in international soccer governance, including issues such as the fate of the Qatari World Cup and a push to extend international isolation of Iran to the realm of sports. To do so, Saudi Arabia backed a proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, which is scheduled to kick off in 2026, by making it already applicable to the 2022 World Cup. Saudi Arabia hopes that the expansion would significantly complicate Qatari preparations for the event. Implementing the expansion in 2022 would strengthen UAE and Saudi efforts to petition FIFA to force Qatar to agree to co-hosting of the World Cup by other Gulf states, a proposal that was incorporated in the UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency.
In an indication of things to come, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in early 2018 thwarted a UAE-Saudi attempt to get Asian tournament matches that were scheduled to be hosted by Qatar moved to a neutral venue. The AFC warned the two countries that they would be penalized if they failed to play in Doha or host Qatari teams.
Mr. Al-Sheikh’s moves were part of a two-pronged Saudi-UAE effort. Global tech investor Softbank, which counts Saudi Arabia and the UAE among its largest investors, is believed to be behind a $25 billion proposal embraced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to revamp the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament. If approved, the proposal would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global soccer governance.
Complimenting the Saudi FIFA bid is an effort to expand the kingdom’s influence in the 47-nation AFC, the largest of the world soccer body’s constituent regional elements. To do so, Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to create a new regional bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), a potential violation of FIFA and AFC rules. The federation would have been made up of members of both the AFC and the Amman-based West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups all Middle Eastern nations except for Israel and is headed by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a prominent advocate of soccer governance reform.
The initiative fell apart when the Asian members of SWAFF walked out in October 2018 in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing could also jeopardize Saudi efforts to gain control of the AFC with the Al-Sheikh-backed candidacy of Saudi Football Federation chief Adel Ezzat, who resigned in August 2018 to run for the office..
Benefits outstrip reputational risk
Mr. Al-Sheikh and his boss, Prince Mohammed, share with the crown prince’s UAE counterpart and namesake, a belief that the public diplomacy and soft power fruits of harnessing sports outstrip reputational risks. Simon Pearce, Abu Dhabi’s director of strategic communications and a director of Manchester City, the British club bought by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed’s brother but controlled by the de facto Emirati ruler’s men, said as much in leaked emails to Mr. Al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador in Washington.
The emails discussed the UAE’s registration of a new soccer club, New York City Football Club, as the United States’ Major League Soccer newest franchise. Mr. Pearce argued that Abu Dhabi’s interests in the US political environment are best served by associating New York City FC with City Football Group, the Abu Dhabi government’s soccer investment vehicle, rather than the government itself to evade criticism stemming from the Emirates’ criminalization of homosexuality, its less than stellar record on women’s rights and its refusal to formally recognize Israel despite maintaining close security and commercial relations with the Jewish state.
The UAE’s sports-related investments, guided by the crown prince, much like the acquisition of important Qatari sports stakes on the behest of Sheikh Tamim also give Gulf states political leverage and create additional commercial opportunity. The investments constitute the flip side of large amounts of Gulf money being channelled to influential think tanks, particularly in Washington. In a series of notes in 2012, Mr. Pearce advised Prince Mohammed, a man obsessed with perceived threats posed by any form of political Islam and a driving force in the campaign against Qatar, to tempt than British prime minister David Cameron to counter what he described as Islamist infiltration of the BBC’s Arabic service in exchange for lucrative arms and oil deals.
To illustrate the UAE and Qatar’s sway in European soccer, Nicholas McGeehan, an independent researcher and former Human Rights Watch executive focussed on the region, looked at recent bookies odds for the Champions League. Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City was the favourite followed by Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain. Third up was Bayern Munich, whose shirts are sponsored by Qatar, fourth was Barcelona, which recently ended a seven-year sponsorship deal with Qatar, and fifth Real Madrid that sold the naming rights to its new stadium to Abu Dhabi.
Saudi and UAE public relations efforts to generate public pressure for a deprival of Qatari hosting rights were at times mired in controversy. The launch in May of the Foundation for Sports Integrity by Jamie Fuller, a prominent Australian campaigner for a clean-up of global soccer governance, backfired amid allegations of Saudi and UAE financial backing and Mr. Fuller’s refusal to disclose his source of funding.
Saudi and UAE media together with UK tabloid The Sun heralded the launch in a poche London hotel that involved a reiteration of assertions of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid. Media like Abu Dhabi’s The National and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya projected the launch as pressure on FIFA to deprive Qatar of its hosting rights. “It is no secret that football’s governing body is rotten to the core. (FIFA) will rightly come under renewed pressure to strip Qatar of the competition and carry out an internal investigation in the wake of the most recent allegations. The millions of fans eagerly anticipating 2022’s festival of football deserve better,” The National said. Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al Awsat newspaper reported that a June 2018 FIFA Congress would hold a re-vote of the Qatari hosting. The Congress didn’t.
Qatar remains vulnerable
Despite so far successfully having defeated efforts to deprive it of its hosting rights, Qatar remains vulnerable when it comes to the integrity of its winning bid. The bid’s integrity and Sheikh Tamim’s emphasis on sports as a pillar of Qatari soft power is at stake in legal proceedings in New York and Zurich involving corruption in FIFA and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of past World Cups. Qatar has suffered reputational damage as a result of the question marks even if the Gulf crisis has allowed it to enhance its image as an underdog being bullied by the big boys on the block.
To Qatar’s credit, it has introduced reforms of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system that could become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 World Cup as one of the few mega-events with a real potential of leaving a legacy of change. Qatar started laying the foundations for that change by early on becoming the first and only Gulf state to engage with its critics, international human rights groups and trade unions.
Even so, Qatar initially suffered reputational damage on the labour front because it was relatively slow in embracing and implementing the reforms. Qatar’s handling of the Gulf crisis suggests that it has learnt from the failure of its initial response to criticism of its winning 2022 bid when it acted like an ostrich that puts its head in the sand, hoping that the storm will pass only to find that by the time it rears its head the wound has festered, and it has lost strategic advantage.
The integrity issue remains Qatar’s weak point. For activist critics of the awarding of hosting rights to Qatar, there are two questions. One is, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hardly have stellar human and labour rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow.
The second question critics have to ask themselves is how best to leverage the World Cup, irrespective of whether the Qatari bid was compromised or not. On the assumption that it may have been compromised, the question is less how to exact retribution for a wrong doing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve a fundamental reform of global sports governance that has yet to emerge eight years into a crisis that was in part sparked by the Qatar World Cup. This goes to the heart of the fact that untouched in efforts to address the governance crisis is the corrupting, ungoverned, and incestuous relationship between sports and politics.
Siamese twins: sports and politics
The future of the Qatar World Cup and the Gulf crisis speaks to the pervasiveness of politics in sports. The World Cup is political by definition. Retaining Qatar’s hosting rights or depriving the Gulf state of the right to host the tournament is ultimately a choice with political consequences. As long as the crisis continues, retaining rights is a testimony to Qatar’s resilience, deprival would be a victory for its detractors.
As a result, the real yardstick in the debate about the Qatari World Cup should be how the sport and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even then, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, instinctively, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity. The answer is that the potential legacy of social and economic change that is already evident with the Qatar World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or the notion of setting an example. Add to that the fact that in current circumstances, a withdrawal of hosting rights would likely be interpreted as a victory of one side over the other, further divide the Arab and Muslim world, and enhance a sense among many Muslims of being on the defensive and under attack.
The silver lining in the Gulf crisis may be the fact that it has showed up the fiction of a separation of sports and politics. FIFA, the AFC, and the Confederation of African Football (CAF), seeking to police the ban on a mixing of sports and politics, have discovered that it amounts to banging their heads against a wall. Despite their attempts to halt politics from subverting Asian tournaments, domestic and regional politics seeped into the game via different avenues.
As a result, FIFA and its regional confederations have been tying themselves up in knots. In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events at the outset of the Gulf crisis, FIFA president Infantino rejected involving the group in the dispute by saying that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics.” Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Mr. Infantino waded into the crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism, no pun intended.
Similarly, the AFC was less principled in its stand towards matches pitting Saudi Arabia and Iran against one another. Iranian club Traktor Sazi was forced in February to play its home match against Al Ahli of Jeddah in Oman. It wasn’t clear why the AFC did not uphold the principle it imposed on Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the case of Iran. “Saudi teams have been able to select host stadiums and cities, and Saudi teams will host two Iranian football representatives in the UAE and Kuwait. In return, Iranian football representatives should be able to use their own rights to choose neutral venues,” said Mohammad Reza Saket, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Football Federation in a letter to the AFC.
Soccer governance bodies have long struggled to maintain the fiction of a separation in a trade-off that gave regulators greater autonomy and created the breeding ground for widespread corruption while allowing governments and politicians to manipulate the sport to their advantage as long as they were not too blatant about it. The limits of that deal are currently being defined in the Middle East, a region wracked by conflict where virtually everything is politicized.
The Success of Iranian Activism Shows the Way to Correct European Policies
Western policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran would almost certainly be more assertive and ambitious if the international community was more broadly aware of the power and organization of Iranian activism both inside the country and throughout the global expatriate community.
Fortunately, a growing number of Western policymakers do recognize the influence wielded by Iran’s pro-democratic resistance movement, as led by Maryam Rajavi the President elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its main constituent group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK). Dozens of high-profile political figures and experts in Middle Eastern affairs have taken to participating in the NCRI’s Free Iran rally, which is held near Paris each summer and attended by tens of thousands of ethnic Iranians from throughout the world.
This past June, those participants put their lives on the line by attending at a time when Iran’s domestic affairs are increasingly explosive, with growing consequences for the world at large. On the day of the Free Iran gathering, European authorities arrested two would-be bombers as they attempted to gain access to the event on the orders of a high-ranking Iranian diplomat based in Vienna.
The foiled plot underscored the Iranian regime’s flailing attempts to undermine the Iranian opposition. And it was not the only one of its kind. Months earlier, Iranian operatives were caught plotting an attack on the residence of over 2,000 MEK activists who had relocated to Albania from their former headquarters in Iraq. At the same time, federal investigators in the United States were monitoring two agents of the Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. The subsequent criminal indictment noted that their spying would have surely resulted in attacks on US-based opposition activists if they had been left unchecked.
Finally, in October, another Iranian operative was arrested in Denmark for plotting the assassination of Iranian dissidents. This finally sparked a serious push for collective measures to confront and contain Iranian terror treats. A call to action had already emerged from France following an investigation that concluded there was no doubt about Tehran’s responsibility for the Paris plot. But in the wake of the Danish arrest and a subsequent meeting of European Union foreign ministers, the stage was seemingly set for the entire EU to adopt economic sanctions that France had already imposed on the Ministry of Intelligence and its agents.
This is, of course, an appropriate response to serious Iranian terror threats. It is made all the more sensible and potentially effective because those threats and their underlying causes are still apparent, and because it follows upon a shift toward much more assertive policies by the US government. But the EU has been notably cautious about making that shift.
The desire for continued access to Iranian markets is surely part of the reason for this. But it might also be said that the US administration is much more aware of the existence of powerful allies inside Iranian society and the expatriate population. After all, some White House officials and close confidants of the US president have been regular attendees at NCRI rallies, including the one that was nearly bombed in June.
European hesitancy is fading now that such threats have come to light and have been shown to not be isolated incidents. That hesitancy might evaporate altogether if more European policymakers were made aware of the organizational capabilities of the MEK, including its contribution to the nationwide uprising that began last December and spawned countless other protests featuring the same anti-government slogans.
Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the MEK’s role in January, when the uprising was still in full swing. In a speech to his officials, he declared that the resistance group had spent months planning for the rapid spread of protests and the promotion of a clear message of regime change. This was a significant break from the regime’s decades-long policy of downplaying the strength and social influence of the MEK and its affiliates.
In case this is not reason enough for global policymakers to conclude that regime change is actually within reach for Iran’s pro-democratic population, the Iranian opposition foreign supporters all throughout the world are working tirelessly to highlight the success of recent and ongoing protests. As one example, Iranian communities in 50 locations throughout Europe, North America, and Australia will be hosting simultaneous conferences on Saturday 15 December to demonstrate both the threats and the opportunities that support adoption of a firm, collective Iran strategy by all Western powers.
As well as keeping a spotlight trained squarely on Iran’s recent foreign terror threats, this global teleconference will provide details about many of the protests and labor strikes that have sprung up and, in some cases, continued for months at a time, in the wake of last year’s nationwide uprising. The persistence of those demonstrations is a clear sign of the activist community’s strength and the very real prospects for the popular overthrow of the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
The Iranian terror threat is reason enough for the international community to abandon the conciliatory policies that have been prevalent for so long. Proper recognition of the Iranian democratic opposition will prove once and for all that a firm alternative is not only justified but imperative for the triumph of democracy in the Middle East.
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