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.
The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan
As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.
China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.
Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.
As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.
Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.
However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.
In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.
With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.
In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.
Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.
Gulf security: It’s not all bad news
Gulf states are in a pickle.
They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.
The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”
Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.
The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.
The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.
From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.
Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.
Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.
Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.
Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.
That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.
Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.
The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.
In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.
“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.
There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.
Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women
Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.
The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.
The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.
Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.
That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.
The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.
A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.
The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.
The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.
The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.
Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.
The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.
Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.
In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.
Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.
To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.
Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.
It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.
The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.
It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.
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