For India, wasting huge resources on joint cricket exercises, cricket matches are more important than the government budgets that are approached with usual ease.
Even while a budget is being presented in the parliament, in fact, the ministers and MPs are worried more about India’s chances for more cricket matches to “improve ranking” and bogus records by mutual consents. This explains how much the cricket mafia controls Indian government and mindset.
Even as Indian and Pakistani cricket teams were seemingly making joint efforts in Bangladesh to reach the final to let India shine eventually in T20 as part of so-called Asia cup, played in the night (5 teams are allowed to play: 4 South Asian teams India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and hopeless UAE), Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the BJP government’s Union Budget 2016 on February 29 morning, making it appear to be pro-poor.
For India cricket match is as good as budget making and the Indian finance minister Jaitley was earlier an important BCC boss. Indian FM Jaitley, pitching now for economic growth, hailed the Indian economy’s big strides.
The Modi government unveiled a fire-fighting budget that seeks to win back support among rural voters for Modi’s government and sustain growth against a grim global backdrop – all without borrowing more. Jaitley claims India’s growth has accelerated to 7.6% in 2015-16 notwithstanding contraction of global exports. He said India’s growth is extraordinarily high. “Our external situation is robust, CAD has declined to $14.4 billion this year, will be 1.4% of GDP at the end of fiscal. CPI inflation has also come down to 5.5% from 9.4% in the last three years”.
Jaitley described his three priorities as: strengthening India’s firewalls by ensuring macroeconomic stability and prudent fiscal management; driving growth through domestic demand; and reforms to boost economic opportunity. Key areas of policy focus would be farming, social reforms, infrastructure and recapitalizing India’s banking system
With state elections coming on their way this year, the Modi government feels the state governments take all credits for schemes and mega projects launched by central government and it is eager to pitch for full credit for its programs and the budget would stress that all major projects in states are in fact BJP government’s.
Arun Jaitley’s third budget marked a strategic shift by addressing rural distress in a country of 1.3 billion, where two-fifths of families rely on farming and are reeling from two years of drought. Jaitley reeled off a list of $16 billion in measures targeted at the countryside, including spending on a job creation scheme, farmers’ welfare and building of rural roads. He also targeted a total of $130 billion in credit to farmers.
Jaitley laid out plans to electrify all Indian villages by 1 May 2018 and allocated Rs 8,500 crore for rural electrification in fiscal 2017. As in every year, the agriculture credit target has been increased to Rs 9 lakh crore from Rs 8.5 lakh crore. It offered a fine blueprint of several small steps to lift India’s villages and encourage small entrepreneurs but failed to impress on NDA-government’s big challenge of taking ahead the reforms process and aggressive infrastructure spending needed to lift the economy to a high growth path. At the same time it hiked public investment in India’s woeful infrastructure by 22.5 percent, while taking further steps to revive corporate investment that Modi needs to create new jobs for India’s burgeoning workforce.
Jaitley called Asia’s third-largest economy a bright spot in a gloomy global landscape, and reiterated a false forecast that it would grow by 7.6 percent in the fiscal year that is drawing to a close. But, despite hefty commitments on rural welfare and health, Jaitley managed to stick to his fiscal deficit target of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product for the 2016/17 fiscal. Rural demand is weak, private investment is dead in the water and, of course, we have a banking crisis
Jaitley said the government wanted to ensure that the benefits of growth are more widely shared among India’s 1.3 billion people and he unveiled pro-poor budget to placate voters, pledges reforms Finance Minister Arun Jaitley unveiled a budget for the poor, announcing new rural aid and health programmes in a strategy shift that could boost his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in coming state elections.
Apparently, the Modi government has spared the common man, has not added more burdens on common masses in the budget. More taxes would certainly have meant popular crisis. At first glance, Budget 2016 is naturally more a Modi budget, than a statement of purpose from Jaitley. Packed with several small-steps initiatives but lacking major bold steps to undertake much needed reforms.
India holds several state elections this year, including in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, with the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, going to the polls in 2017. A strong showing will be vital to Modi’s chances of a second term. Despite commanding a large majority in parliament’s lower house, Modi’s government has failed to pass several key measures since sweeping to power almost two years ago, raising doubts over the impact of its reform agenda.
After BJP’s losses in Delhi and Bihar elections, govt put emphasis on social sector, farmers and rural India. The themes– poor, farmers and women–which had been gaining accent in Modi’s speeches in recent months, resounded in the budget, blunting the blitzkrieg of the Congress led by its vice-president Rahul Gandhi calling the NDA a “suit-boot ki sarkar”.
The Union Budget 2016 bore PM Modi’s imprint rather than that of his finance minister, Arun Jaitley. Among budget highlights, FM Jaitley announced 1% excise duty to be levied on all articles of jewellery except silver. This means silver prices are going to remain unchanged. Government will increase ATMs, micro-ATMs in post offices in next three years. Government announced deduction for rent paid to be raised to Rs 60,000 to Rs 20,000 to benefit those living in rented houses. People who don’t have any houses of their own or don’t get house compensation from employers get rebate of Rs 24,000 per annum. Ceiling of tax rebate for taxpayers with up to Rs 5 lakh annual income to be raised to Rs 5000 from Rs 2000 currently; Daily working hours and weekly hours for employees of malls and small shops will be regulated. For first time home buyers will be levied for loans up to Rs 35 lakh for property not exceeding Rs 50 lakh.
The major highlight of the budget was Jaitley’s big push on agriculture and rural India. For rural development he announced a package of Rs 87,765 crore in fiscal year 2017 as against Rs 79,526 crore. That apart, Jaitley announced a subsidy scheme for BPL families for cooking gas and said the government targets to double the income of farmers by 2020 and Rs 2,000 crore for new LPG connections. Jaitley allocated Rs 35,984 crore for the farming sector, Rs 86,500 crore on irrigation for five years, and Rs 15,000 crore interest for agricultural loans.
Jaitley promised that there “won’t be compromise” on the spending side, announcing a 11 percent increase to Rs 19.78 lakh crore in fiscal 2017 from Rs 17.77 lakh crore BE year before. Of this, plan expenditure is up by 15 percent to Rs 5.5 lakh crore and non-plan expenditure increased by 9 percent to Rs 14.28 lakh crore. But the government lowered its spending on the infrastructure segment. For fiscal year 2017, Jaitley allocated Rs 55,000 crore for roads and highways.
The Economic Survey announced on a week ago, ahead of the budget, spelled out the first priority for Jaitley to deal with in the budget — ensure that growth momentum is on. This is because the current environment is fraught with risks, which threaten all the engines of India’s growth. For fiscal year 2017, Jaitley announced a fiscal deficit target of 3.5 percent and for the fiscal year 2016, the fiscal deficit target has been met at 3.9 percent. This news could make the rating agencies, investors and the RBI happier since there was immense pressure on the government to stick to the fiscal consolidation roadmap.
The BJP government has set a disinvestment target of Rs 56,500 crore for fiscal year 2017 as against Rs 69,500 crore for fiscal year 2016. Of this Rs 56,500 crore, Rs 36,000 crore is through the sale of stake in state-run companies and the rest through strategic sales. In the last year, as against the target of Rs 69,500 core, the government managed to raise only Rs 18,421 crore (from sale of stake in six PSUs) on account of lukewarm market conditions.
For fiscal year 2017, Jaitley announced a capital infusion of Rs 25,000 for government-banks, which was part of the Rs 70,000 crore announced for five years last year
However, Finance minister Jaitley has failed so far to get hold of the root of the problems that has engulfed India’s Rs 95 trillion banking industry. Jaitley’s banking sector strategy fell short of what was needed to revive state-run banks. The bad loan crisis in the banking sector has severely constrained the ability of the banks to fund long-gestation infrastructure projects.
Modi’s change of course seeks to prevent a repeat of the fate of the Vajpayee government led by his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose relentless optimism – summed up by its “India Shining” slogan – grated with voters who dispatched it after one term in 2004.
The spending package marks a radical shift from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initial focus on investing in infrastructure in a bid to kick-start private-sector investment that remains weak. Making a strategic turn in its priorities from industry to the under-privileged, the political message was lucid. The BJP, which faced humiliating defeats in the Bihar and Delhi, underlined the budget’s emphasis on social sector, farmers, rural India and poor.
The Opposition rejected the budget, dubbing it as a political budget which has nothing to give impetus to three engines of growth– agriculture, private investment and exports.
The shift in the government’s economic script was forseeable. Modi has held four farmers rallies across the country over the past month even as he has been underlining the need to focus on “antyodaya”, the last man in the queue.
In his third budget, Jaitley described the country’s 120 million farmers as the “backbone of the country’s food security” and promised to double their income in five years. He also said government would increase spending on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA), a scheme brought by the UPA regime offering 100 days of employment to villagers. He announced providing BPL families with LPG connections with subsidy, an echo of the Prime Minister’s concern about women whose eyes watered while cooking on chullahs. Announcing government’s commitment towards rural electrification, he assured 100 per cent village electrification by May, 2018.
Besides fiscal consolidation, the focus of the budget has been on infrastructure, which has even been acknowledged by the Opposition. The total outlay on the infrastructure is Rs2, 21,246 crore. For building or renting houses, there are tax benefits and for the first time home buyer the deduction for interest paid on home loan has been raised by Rs50, 000 a year.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram refuted the government’s claim that the budget was pro-farmer. “The crucial signal in agriculture sector is the price. Last year, I think the farmers were cheated.. I would have expected that the price signal is given clearly to the farmers. Immediately it is the prices signal that enthuse the farmers. One of the reasons for acute distress in rural India is that the farmers are not getting fair and remunerative prices for their produce,” he said. CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said the budget will “create greater economic inequalities, reduced purchasing power, was not growth oriented and appeased international capital more than meeting people’s requirements.”
The 2016 budget, a big test for Jaitley, was a tough balancing act between the fiscal consolidation and much-needed spending to revive growth in the economy, especially in the face of rising investor-pessimism on the rise, which has risked Modi’s task of reviving the economy. Jaitley committed to the fiscal consolidation path, but failed to impress by setting aside enough funds to push ahead the infrastructure growth and address the banking sector woes.
In the past, the delays in project implementations in India have resulted in huge cost-over runs to companies. The corporate sector will eagerly look for measures that can ease their burden, especially in the infrastructure projects.
One should note that Jaitley’s big task remains making sure the engines of economic growth aren’t failing. This year, the increase in infra spending is merely Rs 30,000 crore as against Rs 70,000 crore last year, which isn’t so encouraging at this stage of economic growth.
There are certainly ifs and buts in budgets presented by governments with a lot of predictions and lies. The parliamentarians, even while debating the budgets, are enjoying their stay in the Houses. How much of what is said in the budget would be implemented by Modi government remains to be seen.
Meanwhile one can understand why Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and even Pakistan as powers also want to serve India? How come all these big powers like UK and Australia are scared of India. Has India paid huge sums as FDI to these countries to boycott the WC t20?
At times Bangladesh plays bit seriously well, defeating both Sri Lanka and Pakistan and reaching the finals to face “mighty cricket India”. Will BD sustain the tempo against India or collapse for whatever reason?
No one knows it for sure. Big secrecy? Most cricketers today are on the payrolls of India’s some of richest IPL bosses and possibly of BCCI for their “dedicated” services in honour of India, making it shine perpetually on the field.
For India, like its neighbors Pakistan and Sri Lanka, cricket is perhaps more profitable business than foreign trade these countries conduct. Mafias make huge money both from black and white from cricket. Lankan cricketers, who cannot but play in IPL as their duty, appear to consider Indian currency too valuable.
No matter how the budget is prepared and presented in the parliament, mafias and middlemen continue to thrive.
The budget would be forgotten by the government and people sooner than later, but not the cricket matches, because budget does not enjoy the importance the cricket does. Budget or no budget, India can go on but without cricket dramas it appears India simply cannot exist. One can’t say so sure about other countries if they are also so innocently emotional….
The Not-So-Missing Case of Indian Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Hitendra Singh and Gauri Noolkar-Oak*
Recently, an article published in Modern Diplomacy caught our attention. The author has cited Mr. Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and found his famous statement on Indians lacking enterprise and innovation to be ‘music to his ears’. He has then gone on to paint Indians in broad strokes – ironic, for it is something he has accused Indians of doing – and labelled them as a nation lacking entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. While his reasoning certainly has an element of truth and an instant appeal, our response looks to add nuances to his argument and provide a more realistic and complete picture of enterprise and innovation in India.
To begin with, the terms ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’ cannot be used interchangeably; not all entrepreneurs are innovative, and vice versa. There are more than 50 million medium and small businesses operating in India which contribute 37% of India’s GDP and employ around 117 million people. These numbers sufficiently prove that entrepreneurship is alive and kicking in the Indian society; Indians are running businesses not only in India but are leading and successful entrepreneurs in many countries of Asia, Africa and rest of the world. Hence, an argument that Indians lack entrepreneurship does not hold much strength.
In the case of innovation and creativity, a different story is emerging. It is slow but is happening and it is solving some of the largest social and developmental challenges in India – from grassroots, to research labs, to top-tier institutions such as ISRO and various DRDO labs. At a global level, India has not only moved up six places in its GII ranking in 2017, but is also ranked second in innovation quality. India has also won international acclaim for its innovative and cost-effective technology; such as its first mission to Mars in 2014, the Mangalyaan, was successful in the first attempt, made entirely with domestic technology, and cost less than the Hollywood movies ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Martian’. It is surprising that the author spots lack of innovation in a household broom but does not see innovation in a nation that sends a successful Mars mission on a budget that is less than that of a Hollywood movie about Mars.
At the national level, grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship are gaining more and more institutional recognition; the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) and the annual Festival of Innovation at the Rashtrapati Bhavan are perhaps the only high-level government initiatives supporting and celebrating innovation in the world. Additionally, many universities and educational institutes across the country host innovation competitions, festivals and incubators.
Several remarkable individuals are nurturing India’s growing innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.Prof. Anil K. Gupta founded SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) in 1993 and the Honey Bee Network in 1997 to connect innovators from all sections of the society to entrepreneurs, lawyers and investors. For more than 12 years, he has walked around 6000 kilometres across the country, discovering extraordinary grassroots innovations on the way. Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, an eminent chemical scientist has gone from driving innovative research in Reliance Industries to chairing and leading the then newly founded National Innovation Foundation in 1999.
And then, there are thousands of common men and women, hailing from various walks of life, innovating continuously and creatively to solve pressing everyday problems in the Indian society. There are the famous Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a cost-effective way of manufacturing sanitary napkins, and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who invented a clay refrigerator which runs without electricity. Then there are Mallesham from Andhra Pradesh, who sped up the process of weaving Kochampalli sarees and reduced the physical pains of the weavers, and Shri Sundaram from Rajasthan, who found a way to grow a whole tree in a dry region with just a litre of water. Raghav Gowda from Karnataka designed a cost-effective and painless machine to milk cows, while Mathew K Mathews from Kerala designed a solar mosquito destroyer. Dr. Pawan Mehrotra of Haryana has developed a cost-effective version of breast prosthesis for breast cancer survivors while Harsh Songra of Madhya Pradesh has developed a mobile app to detect developmental disorders among children.
Three women from Manipur, OinamIbetombi Devi, SarangthenDasumati Devi and Nameirakpam Sanahambi Devi invented an herbal medicine that is proven to promote poultry health. Priyanka Sharma from Punjab developed a low-cost biochip to detect environmental pollutants, while Dr. Seema Prakash from Karnataka revolutionised eco-agriculture by inventing a cost-effective plant cloning technique. AshniBiyani, the daughter of Future Group CEO Kishore Biyani, leads the Khoj Lab, which collaborates with the NIF to help commercialise grassroots innovations and ideas.
These and thousands of such examples present a very encouraging picture of the creativity and innovation of Indians. The innovation that the author admires are rooted in a context. Apple and Google (or Lyft or Uber or Spotify) could be created because there was an end consumer who was looking to pay for their products. There are many India innovator-entrepreneurs, such as those mentioned above, who have created products for a necessarily less glamorous but useful India context. Products like brooms and packaged food add convenience to the time-stretched urban and middle and upper middle classes; with a large unskilled and semiskilled workforce competing vigorously for such jobs, does the Indian society have an incentive to invest in innovating them?
Having said that, it is true that innovation outbreak in India is relatively recent, i.e. about two to three decades old. It is also true that the Indian society has been experiencing socio-economic affluence on such a broad scale only for the past three decades, since the market reforms of 1991. It has been 70 years since Indians have gained sovereignty and control over their resources. The top five innovative countries according to the GII – Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, USA and UK – have been sovereign states for about at least two and a half centuries. It would perhaps then be more accurate to compare India’s current innovation scenario with, for instance, the USA’s innovation scenario in the mid-19th century.
Further, given the economic and resource drain faced by the Indian society over centuries, Indian innovation was geared more towards surviving rather than thriving. This explains the ‘group mentality’ strongly rooted in mainstream Indian society; staying and cooperating in a group increased one’s capacity to cope with and survive through all kinds of adversity. Individualistic aspirations, beliefs and actions were then a price to be paid for the security blanket it offered. And yet, once relative stability and affluence began to set in, the innovative and creative instincts of Indians lost no time in bursting forth.
Long story short, both innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving in India. They might not be as “macro” or glamourous as Apple or Uber, but they are solving fundamental problems for the Indian masses. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of room for improvement and growth – India has a long way to go to be recognised as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. However, the scenario is not by any means bleak, as these many examples point out. The trajectory of enterprises and innovation in India is only upward. The future is promising.
* Gauri Noolkar-Oak is Policy Research Associate at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India.
Changing Perceptions: How Pakistan should use Public Diplomacy
Traditionally in International Relations the concept of “hard power” remained the basic focus for states so as to achieve power and dominance in international anarchic system but with the changing scenarios in the age of globalization, economic interdependency and rapid spreading of information through various tools, “Soft Power” concept emerged which had great impact on states’ foreign policies. This term of soft power was first coined by Joseph Nye in mid-1960’s which could be defined as the ability of the state to influence others without coercion and this soft power technique basically revolves around three major instruments such as Culture, political values, and foreign policies. Apart from soft power concept, there is another basic concept called as “Public Diplomacy”. This could be described as the further dimension of soft power because by practicing Public Diplomacy state can initiate their soft power policies and can achieve the desired outcomes by winning the hearts and minds of foreign audience and non-governmental entities because by doing so it will enable government and decision making bodies of foreign states to act accordingly.
In context of South Asia particularly taking into consideration the important developing state Pakistan whose basic concern is to maintain friendly and neutral relations with other states Public diplomacy could, however, help it to maintain its relations in the regional complex structure where India is seen as the dominant power and alongside India the powerful rise of China as an external actor in South Asia. By efficient usage of Public diplomacy, Pakistan can improve its bilateral ties with the neighboring states.
The image of Pakistan in foreign media is portrayed as the state which is full of many internal and external challenges and it is also not portrayed as the safe country to travel into. In order to improve the image, Pakistan firstly needs to improve its relations with states within the region and for that India which is considered as hostile neighbor Pakistan should effectively use its public diplomacy tool it should introduce exchange programs because by educating youth and by deploying positive image in their minds Pakistan can influence them which could bring change in the coming years and also by increasing tourism activities. This would make foreigners aware of the fact that Pakistan is a secure state. Similarly, cultural activities, sports diplomacy, literature, art, and media could also have a great impact so as to change the perceptions.
Hence it could be suggested that for the development of state it is important for Pakistan to improve its public diplomacy by changing perceptions of public and elite of neighboring states it should take basic steps which could change the negative image which is in limelight since 9/11. Pakistan by enhancing the public diplomacy in other states as the tool to implement its soft power policies would, however, be able to economically, culturally and politically improve its stance in the International arena.
Rolling back militancy: Bangladesh looks to Saudi Arabia in a twist of irony
Bangladesh, in a twist of irony, is looking to Saudi Arabia to fund a $ 1 billion plan to build hundreds of mosques and religious centres to counter militant Islam that for much of the past decade traced its roots to ultra-conservative strands of the faith promoted by a multi-billion dollar Saudi campaign.
The Bangladeshi plan constitutes the first effort by a Muslim country to enlist the kingdom whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam,’ in reverse engineering.
The plan would attempt to roll back the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s global investment of up to $100 billion over a period of four decades in support of ultra-conservative mosques, religious centres, and groups as an antidote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.
Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and various countries, including Malaysia, has focused until now on countering extremism in cooperation with defense and security authorities rather than as a religious initiative.
Saudi religious authorities and Islamic scholars have long issued fatwas or religious opinions condemning political violence and extremism and accused jihadists of deviating from the true path of Islam.
The Saudi campaign, the largest public diplomacy effort in history, was, nevertheless, long abetted by opportunistic governments who played politics with religion as well as widespread discontent fuelled by the failure of governments to deliver public goods and services.
The Bangladeshi plan raises multiple questions, including whether the counter-narrative industry can produce results in the absence of effective government policies that address social, economic and political grievances.
It also begs the question whether change in Saudi Arabia has advanced to a stage in which the kingdom can claim that it has put its ultra-conservative and militant roots truly behind it. The answer to both questions is probably no.
In many ways, Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and militancy, violent and non-violent, despite sharing common roots with the kingdom’s long-standing theological thinking and benefitting directly or indirectly from Saudi financial largess, has created a life of its own that no longer looks to the kingdom for guidance and support and is critical of the path on which Prince Mohammed has embarked.
The fallout of the Saudi campaign is evident in Asia not only in the rise of militancy in Bangladesh but also the degree to which concepts of supremacism and intolerance have taken root in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Those concepts are often expressed in discrimination, if not persecution of minorities like Shia Muslims and Ahmadis, and draconic anti-blasphemy measures by authorities, militants and vigilantes.
Bangladesh in past years witnessed a series of brutal killings of bloggers and intellectuals whom jihadists accused of atheism.
Moreover, basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s secular constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. Saudi Arabia withheld recognition of the new state as well as financial support until the amendment was adopted four years after Bangladeshi independence.
In Indonesia, hard-line Islamic groups, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), earlier this month filed a blasphemy complaint against politician Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno and the younger sister of Megawati Sukarnoputri, who leads President Joko Widodo’s ruling party. The hardliners accuse Ms. Sukarnoputri of reciting a poem that allegedly insults Islam.
The groups last year accused Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka Ahok, Jakarta’s former Christian governor, of blasphemy and spearheaded mass rallies that led to his ouster and jailing, a ruling that many believed was politicized and unjust.
Pakistan’s draconic anti-blasphemy law has created an environment that has allowed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives and powerful political forces to whip up popular emotion in pursuit of political objectives. The environment is symbolized by graffiti in the corridor of a courthouse In Islamabad that demanded that blasphemers be beheaded.
Pakistan last month designated Islamabad as a pilot project to regulate Friday prayer sermons in the city’s 1,003 mosques, of which only 86 are state-controlled, in a bid to curb hate speech, extremism and demonization of religions and communities.
The government has drafted a list of subjects that should be the focus of weekly Friday prayer sermons in a bid to prevent mosques being abused “to stir up sectarian hatred, demonise other religions and communities and promote extremism.” The subjects include women rights; Islamic principles of trade, cleanliness and health; and the importance of hard work, tolerance, and honesty.
However, they do not address legally enshrined discrimination of minorities like Ahmadis, who are viewed as heretics by orthodox Muslims. The list risked reinforcing supremacist and intolerant militancy by including the concept of the finality of the Prophet Mohammed that is often used as a whip to discriminate against minorities.
Raising questions about the degree of moderation that Saudi-funded mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would propagate, Prince Mohammed, in his effort to saw off the rough edges of Saudi ultra-conservatism, has given no indication that he intends to repeal a law that defines atheists as terrorists.
A Saudi court last year condemned a man to death on charges of blasphemy and atheism. Another Saudi was a year earlier sentenced to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing atheist sentiments on social media.
Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations have long lobbied for the criminalization of blasphemy in international law in moves that would legitimize curbs on free speech and growing Muslim intolerance towards any open discussion of their faith.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia cannot be held directly liable for much of the expression of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism in the Muslim world. Yet, by the same token there is little doubt that Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism frequently contributed to an enabling environment.
Prince Mohammed is at the beginning of his effort to moderate Saudi Islam and has yet to spell out in detail his vision of religious change. Beyond the issue of defining atheism as terrorism, Saudi Arabia also has yet to put an end to multiple ultra-conservative practices, including the principle of male guardianship that forces women to get the approval of a male relative for major decisions in their life.
Prince Mohammed has so far forced the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment into subservience. That raises the question whether there has been real change in the establishment’s thinking or whether it is kowtowing to an autocratic leader.
In December, King Salman fired a government official for organizing a mixed gender fashion show after ultra-conservatives criticized the event on Twitter. The kingdom this week hosted its first ever Arab Fashion Week, for women only. Designers were obliged to adhere to strict dress codes banning transparent fabrics and the display of cleavages or clothing that bared knees.
In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.
Efforts to moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state that traces its ultra-conservatism to the teachings of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, but has long interpreted them more liberally than the kingdom, have proven to be easier said than done.
Saudi King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, positioned himself as a champion of interfaith dialogue and reached out to various groups in society including Shiites and women.
Yet, more than a decade of Saudi efforts to cleanse textbooks used at home and abroad have made significant progress but have yet to completely erase descriptions of alternative strands of Islam such as Shiism and Sufism in derogatory terms or eliminate advise to Muslims not to associate with Jews and Christians who are labelled kaffirs or unbelievers.
Raising questions about Saudi involvement in the Bangladeshi plan, a Human Rights Watch survey of religion textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for the 2016-2017 school year concluded that “as early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle noted that Prince Mohammed has remained conspicuously silent about hate speech in textbooks as well as its use by officials and Islamic scholars connected to the government.
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League last year documented hate speech in Qatari mosques that was disseminated in Qatari media despite Qatar’s propagation of religious tolerance and outreach to American Jews as part of its effort to counter a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.
In one instance in December, Qatari preacher Muhammed al-Muraikhi described Jews in a sermon in Doha’s Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque as “your deceitful, lying, treacherous, fornicating, intransigent enemy” who have “despoiled, corrupted, ruined, and killed, and will not stop.”
No doubt, Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, which much earlier moved away from puritan and literal Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, is sincere in its intention to adopt more tolerant and pluralistic worldviews.
Getting from A to B, however, is a lengthy process. The question remains whether the kingdom has progressed to a degree that it can credibly help countries like Bangladesh deal with their demons even before having successfully put its own house in order.
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