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Islamic Encroachment: the Western Poverty and Lack of Education Syndrome

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Western political culture concentrates on the issue of poverty, misery, economic distress, social despair and lack of education that lead to homicide bombings in particular and terrorism in general. This political-cultural perception finds out a direct link between oppression, poverty and humiliation to terrorism and homicide bombings.

This follows by the assumption that remedy is addressed from its root cause: removing poverty and hunger, and providing the population with high education will lead to economic prosperity, that in turn leads to political moderation, to a democracy and open society, and that will put an end to terrorism.

Fawaz Gerges, an Arab Christian from Lebanon residing in the US, is an example of Western apologists and appeasing approach: for him,

Muslims are politically oppressed and socially repressed in their countries of birth in the West. They face racial profiling, perceived as a plague of nihilism that must be kept in isolation. Welcome nowhere, they have become the pariahs of the twenty-first century. They do not understand why they are being punished for the crimes they have not committed.

And the utmost peak of his words

Muslims under the age of thirty make up about 60 percent of the world’s Islamic population, yet only a tiny fraction turns to violence and terrorism.

This is also the case with the prominent Norwegian journalist Sven Egil Omdal, who believes that economic factors and social exclusion of Muslim immigrants explain the radicalization of the Muslims. He condemns those “who focus on Islamic ideas or religion or culture.” Moreover, for him “Jihad is caused by European and Western xenophobia, oppression and racism, rather than the Islamic religion and culture xenophobia. Omdal compares Israel to Nazi Germany. Israel’s jihadist Muslim enemies, openly advocate its genocide, are not to be blamed.

State Department Spokesperson, Marie Harf, told MSNBC in February 2015 that the U.S. needs to focus on the root causes that leads people to join terrorist groups, such as “lack of opportunity for jobs: “We cannot win the War on Terror, nor can we win the war on ISIS by killing them. We need to find them jobs. We need to get to the root cause of terrorism and that is poverty and lack of opportunity in the terrorist community.”

There is so much delusion in Harf’s statement and in many other claims in Western governments that one could fill volumes analyzing this profound ignorance. The same misunderstanding that Harf espouses was held by Presidents Clinton and Bush and is still maintained President Obama, who said that Boko Haram terrorist group is a “byproduct of poverty and inadequate social services.”

For Secretary of State, John Kerry, Jihadists are poor and miserable. However, if Kerry were correct in his ‘poor Jihadist’ myth, and terrorism is simply a byproduct of poverty, why isn’t Haiti and Bolivia terrorist states? Why isn’t the world plagued with African suicide bombers? This gives us a look into the federal government’s inability or unwillingness to change conventional wisdom, even when confronted with facts and credible academic studies. CIA Director John Brennan said that the recruits to the Islamic State, at least 20,000 fighters from more than 90 countries join the organization because of economic reasons. That is why the U.S. has spent and will continue to spend billions of Dollars on the assumption that poverty causes Jihad terrorism, but again and again it is proven that Jihad followers are better educated and wealthier.

Unfortunately, this so nice formula, seems so simple and logical solution, so pervasively accepted in the West, is exactly the mirror image which reflects Western fallacies and misconceptions. This is totally mistaken and is perhaps the main cause why Western civilization stumbles and fail, and why Islam will occupy the world. The chronic cluelessness of the root-cause apologists of Jihad never ceases to amaze and to embarrass. Obviously, the purpose of having a job is to improve one’s family’s life, and joining a terrorist group is not exactly a promising career choice, but more death wish. However, this so deeply rooted approach must be clearly understood and totally eliminated, as it has become the highest barrier to overcome Islamic terrorism.

It is outrageous, but not surprising if one looks at the political pattern that even 9/11 and especially since the Islamic Caliphate State (ICS) burst onto the scene have not changed the conceptions. President Obama even went so far as to deny that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state; both of which it clearly is. This is what happens when you deny the existence of an ideology that people clearly see in front of their eyes.

The poverty lack of education syndrome stems mainly from the following sources:

First, culturally, Westerners cannot comprehend the ‘illogical extreme behavior’ of the Muslims, the fanatic barbarian inhumane activity, seems inconceivable to the Western mind.

Second, the media, which is the most important means of molding and shaping public opinion, uses again and again this view, and seemingly supports it without checking it.

Third, this view is highly connected ideologically with Marxist-Bolshevik academia members. Their ideological make up clearly fits their attitude in supporting “oppression,” “colonialism,” and other 19th century slogans.

Fourth, the mirror image, advanced by sociologists and criminologists, and is so prevalent in Western mind (‘we are all the same culturally’), brings us to believe in social deprivation as the cause of miseries, and the remedy of it will remove all troubles.

Fifth, this view fits so much Western values, attitudes and beliefs, as it seems to be the succeeding code of Western civilization, and therefore it fits everywhere.

This approach is more than ridiculous let alone cannot be substantiated and corroborated by scientific data. Moreover, data crystal clear proves the opposite. Indeed, it proves ignorance, lack of understanding and detachment from reality. It exactly exemplifies the mirror image which reflects Western twisted approach. To begin with, it is well known that persons armed with knowledge are ideologically-motivated and tend to extremism. On the contrary, persons who are poor and ignorant do not have the time, the knowledge, and the ability to organize and to fight for ideas.

It is a syndrome: a fanatic ideology, even a religious zealotry, increases directly with higher education. The causes and motivations for terrorism, violence and anarchism are an integral part of fanatic ideology and religious zealotry. It is proven time and again all along history: not only that poverty and education are not intertwined, but poverty leads to crime; never to terrorism.

Most of the Third World countries are hungry and their socio-economic reality is miserable and wretched. Nevertheless they did not create so profound an infrastructure of organized inhuman terrorism backed up by religious ideology. Africa is the poorest continent in the world and its peoples are really in deep situation of humiliation and wretchedness, but it did not nor does it establish fanatic terrorism, a state-like institutionalized terrorism as the Palestinians; not a state-sponsored terrorism like Saudi-Arabia or Iran; and not huge terrorist groups like the Muslim brotherhood organizations.

Japan must have been fanatic anti US as it was inflicted by two atomic Bombs on its cities; yet, Japan is pro-Western and an ally of the US. India, which was harshly repressed and exploited by the British colonialists, not only does it not support terrorism, it is even a thriving stable democracy. And if occupation is all about, then Egypt was under Western control for 67 years, Syria for 21 years, Iraq for only 15, and Saudi Arabia was never under Western control. Contrast this with Spain, which was under the Muslim yoke for 781 years, Greece for 381 years, and vast areas of the Middle East and Asia are still in Muslim hands. Yet, we are unaware of any Spanish or Greek or original Asian and North-Africa politics of victimhood and an ideology of terrorism against imperialist colonialist Islam. It must be bear in mind: European imperialism was here and gone; Soviet Imperialism was here and gone; American imperialism was here and gone. Only Islamic imperialism was here and still here, and it threatens to expand and to occupy the entire world.

Alexis De Tocqueville, in his research on French Revolution, discovered that violence and revolutions break out precisely with an improvement in socio-economic condition. Only when one has leisure time and education to understand and to evaluate the situation, he then has the ability and incentives to act. Indeed, when you are hungry and without education, you have no time nor knowledge, let alone ability to fight for values. You are totally preoccupied with bringing food and nourishing your family.

It was the Egyptian American, Fuad Zakariyah, who explained this so ably:

The radicalism virus of the Islamic fanaticism resembles the Nazi ideology, and it has nothing to do with poverty, wretchedness, social disorders and humiliation. Like in all ideologies, fanatic Islam flourishes among the educated and well-being economically and socially. Extreme ideology belongs to people with plenty of leisure time and higher education to execute their desires. The poor and miserable are not here.

Eli Kedourie has investigated most of the third world countries in search of independence. His book Nationalism in Asia and Africa, supports De Tocqueville’s approach: the national flag is brandished when there is food, leisure time and high education. Some arise up the post-colonial theories, pertained to the repression and exploitation experienced by the Muslims countries from the West. Yet, similar issues in Africa and Asia existed, without their harsh externalized aggressiveness.

Theories of criminology and social psychology prove that motives of security and group affiliation precede hunger and misery. Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and a forensic psychiatrist, had conducted an analysis of 500 members of the Islamic terror organization al-Qaeda, “Understanding Terror Networks,” which revealed that the majority of them were well-educated, upwardly mobile men in their twenties from a middle-class background. “Two-thirds of them had a university education.” The recruits came from solid, middle-class backgrounds; their leadership hailed from the upper middle class, and they also tended to come from the wealthier Arab countries. The common stereotype of Islamic terrorism as a product of poor men is clearly wrong, he concluded his research.

Muslims make up a vastly disproportionate number of the inmates in many Western jails. The psychologist Nicolai Sennels, who worked with Muslims in Denmark that had been convicted of serious crimes, reports how these inmates rarely feel any personal responsibility for what they have done. For them, Islam is the utmost to expand, by immigration, by diplomacy of deceit, even by coercion. At the same time, out of cultural tendencies they usually see themselves as innocent victims of outside forces. They are oppressed and discriminated. In their own minds, they never do anything wrong, but many wrongs are imposed upon them by others. They are a malicious phenomenon of people lacking humanity and to whom human life has no value.

Ibn Warraq has repeatedly stated, the root cause of Islamic terrorism is Islam’s teachings and the example of Muhammad in the Sharī‘ah, and his companions as described in traditional sources. Therefore, those who claim that Islamic terrorism is caused by poverty and oppression are ignorant, stupid, and Bolsheviks that parrot Marxist dogma, as if violence is caused by ‘oppression’ or ‘racism’ or ‘colonialism.’ Islam is an exemplification of the centrality of religion and ideology as the basis of political operational behavior.

Islamic terrorism and fanaticism is part of the religion and culture. The reality is clear: there is no one nation in the world that does not suffer Arab-Islamic rage, violence and terrorism. The statistics is unfortunately very sad: every minute there is at least one victim around the world from the Muslims. Most of them Muslims, but still they are also victims of Islamic religion. More than 70 percent of world violence, and more than 90 percent of world terrorism are clearly Islamic. In 2015 there were 452 cases of homicide bombings. All of them are Islamic origin and operation (one case is doubtful). This data clearly brings to one conclusion.

Another angle to look at the situation is the following: most if not all world states have minorities. The US is the best example for a nation that is represented by so many minorities. However, most of them have been so deeply accommodated and integrated, literally blessing their new states and actively become loyal and contributing citizens. They do not want to impose their culture on their new countries; they do not want to change its constitution and to coerce their way of life. More important and relevant, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Jews, for example, neither do not intend nor do not want to impose their religion on their new states. However, unfortunately, this is not the situation with Islam. Only Muslims are outrageously rebelling aggressively and violently demand to change Western societies’ way of life, culture and religion. This is something never happened before in history: a small minority penetrates to an established progressive modernized society that generously accepted it, and act to totally change its construct.

This is exactly how Muslims act, and Western societies have lost their ability to defend themselves. Moreover, by using their thrice mutual offensive strategy of Jihad, Da’wah, and Hijrah, Western societies are in deep visual agnosia as to look at the situation and understand its logic and its consequences. In fact, Western societies even change their language as to describe the situation. Now Islam is a religion of peace and compassion, and the Muslim terrorist organization not only do not represent Islam but in fact are not Muslim at all. Indeed, the strategy of using religious deception by smiling at the infidels and promising mountains of living together promises while plotting to kill them, is a common feature of many would-be Jihadists in Western countries.

All surveys clearly prove: the leaders and activists of Islamic World Jihad groups are members of the middle and even the upper classes. Most have a high university education and many of them have doctoral, medical or engineering. They have never asserted in their declarations that the reasons for their activity were poverty, ignorance and hunger. They speak of Western crusaders, whom they are attempting to expel from Arab-Islamic lands and to overturn in the Dar al-Harb territories; of Israeli aggression, they wish to destroy as a national entity and as a sovereign state; of Arab regimes, which they struggle to overthrow; and of the future apocalypse when Islam fights all other religions and overcome to control the world. They have no plans for social advancement and economic well-being. They have no intention to provide employment, education or welfare to the masses. They consider themselves revolutionary elite, the vanguard. They are the Islamic elite who deserve to rule and to subdue.

It is well proven that poverty does not motivate people to extreme violence, but ideology and religion. Research investigated terrorist organizations in the world shows that members of Bader-Meinhoff in Germany; Red Brigades in Italy; even the Tupamaros, Montanerros and the Light Path in Latin-America; let alone Hezbollah, Hamas, Fath and Taliban organizations come from economically advantaged families with a proven high level of education.

Palestinian uprisings and violence, the 1936, 1987 and 2000 erupted precisely during periods of economic growth, when the economy was prosperous and the standard of living of the population was proportionately good. If one compares the Palestinian economic and social situation to that in some Arab states let alone African, Asian and south American states, it is much higher and better, and their rate of education is the highest in the Arab world proportionately. The year 2000 was the best in the Palestinian economic history with GNP of 2600 dollars, and yet the Palestinians are the leading front of regional and international terrorism.

Indeed, Palestinian terrorism of homicide bombings and vicious violence prove this reality. It is not stemmed from poverty and lack of education, but motivated by political and ideological reasons and religious total demands. Since Oslo agreements in September 1993, up till the end of September 2000, 63 homicide bombers were counted. From September 2000 until 2010, 267 homicide bombers were sent on suicide actions, among them 35 women. Of all the 155 successful suicide bombers, more than 50% had university education; and most of them 50% came from al-Najah University in Nablus. Indeed, the homicide bombers are not hungry or miserable. They are in total repulsion of Jews and Zionism, and motivated by Islamic fanaticism of dehumanization of Israeli-Zionist existence.

The terrorists of September 11 lived in the West, were economically prosperous with a higher education. They were not poor and wretched. 14 of them were from Saudi Arabia, a very wealthy oil country which has never been under European colonial rule but is itself the cradle of one of the world’s most brutal religiously fanatic imperial traditions. “Jihadi John,” the Muslim British executioner of ISIS snuff videos, Muhammad Emwazi was a highly educated young man from a middle class background. Many Islamist terrorists are physicians: Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter) and al Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. “Lady al-Qaeda” Aafia Siddiqui was a scientist. Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 crew, was an engineer and the son of a middle class family. Another engineer: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber, who is the son of a wealthy Nigerian businessman. Most of the Palestinian terrorist organization excel in this, being engineers and physicians, and this is also the pattern with all Muslim terrorists.

Indeed, what motivated them is not poverty and social misery, rather a profound hatred to all that Western culture stands for: permissiveness, secularism, liberalism, and above all logic and reason and believing in human responsibility. What furious them is placing man at the center and focusing on sovereignty of the mind, rather than submissiveness and devotion to Allah. All terrorist groups, when their ideology analyzed, there is no attention to social and economic miseries and conditions.

Studies have documented time and again that Islamic jihadist terrorists have above average education and income. This was the conclusion of a survey of 400 Al-Qaeda members all the way back in 2004. In 2011, a secret MI5 file indicated that ‘two-thirds of the U.K’s jihad suspects came from middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds, showing no relationship between poverty and involvement in Islamist extremism,’ most of them are with high education. The report contradicts commonly held stereotypes of terrorists and suicide bombers being ‘mad,’ ‘loners,’ and ‘psychopaths,’ as 90% can be categorized as ‘sociable,’ ‘rational,’ and have high number of friends. ‘It also challenges the theory that individuals who turn to radical or extremist networks are those who are unable to make friends in normal life.’ The study says that the ‘mean age’ at which a Muslim becomes radicalized is 21.6 years, while anyone between the ages of 16 and 32 is regarded as vulnerable. Moreover, half of the suspects were married and had children. ‘This indicates that having commitments to a spouse and children did not necessarily restrain these individuals from becoming involved in terrorist activities.’

Reviews of empirical evidence proves, as the RAND Corporation has reported, that “terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated or afflicted by mental disease. Terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”

Muhammad Mahfouz claims:

The only way to end violence and terrorism is to fight a cultural and ideological battle. Terrorism is one of the most dangerous problems encountered in recent times, for it undermines the stability and security of human societies. The relationship between the phenomenon of terrorism in Islamic society and culture is like the relationship between the cause and consequence. This may explain why youths belonging to rich families and from well position in society are implicated in terrorist crimes.

This means that financial and economic factors cannot be associated with this fanatic ideology and terrorism. It is cultural and religious factors that motivate to murder innocent people. The only way to put an end to the wave of violence and terrorism is to fight ideological cultural battle against terrorism carried out by a group of brain-washed youth, influenced by glamorous slogans. Any delay in fighting this ideological cultural battle will drag us to the abyss of instability. We need more than ever to dismantle the cultural and ideological incubators which feed this phenomenon and mold it socially and culturally.

Abdallah Rashid, an Arab liberal, asserts:

The greatest mistake is to attribute the causes of terrorism to the lack of social justice; the situation of poverty; and the harsh social conditions in most of the Arab and Islamic countries. The socio-economic situation of most of the terrorists is very good. They are from well-off families, with high education and good jobs. 61% of the volunteers to fight in Iraq are from Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States. They come from families that are not poor and from a social environment that does not suffer from economic problems and wretchedness. They are brainwashed at the hands of ‘religious clerics,’ the media, the educational system. They are nourished with various kinds of racist views, destructive fanatic principles, and with hostility, hatred, and resentment towards the others.

Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari states that

There were those who said that it was out of ignorance. But can the Shuyukh teaching the creed of the faith in distinguished universities be ignorant? There were those who said that it was due to oppression and lack of freedom. But these people are not interested in human freedoms. There were those who said that it was due to few work opportunities and high unemployment. But how does this correspond with the fact that those who carried out the operations had money and weapons, besides living in rich societies? There were those who said it was due to America’s pro-Israel bias. But the Jihad organizations have only recently begun to wave the banner of Palestine. However, the explanation for terrorism and violence lies in an examination of the educational system, and in the religious, cultural, and media discourse.

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Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in NATO

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Image source: NATO

Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this week, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favour by the organisation’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army. 

The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month.

A potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.

Mr. Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Mr. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rejected US requests to raise oil production in an effort to lower prices and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

The two Gulf states appear to have since sought to quietly backtrack on their refusal.

In late April, France’s TotalEnergies chartered a tanker to load Abu Dhabi crude in early May for Europe, the first such shipment in two years.

Saudi Arabia has quietly used its regional pricing mechanisms to redirect from Asia to Europe Arab “medium,” the Saudi crude that is the closest substitute for the main Russian export blend, Urals, for which European refineries are configured.

Mr. Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s 84 million population.

Turkey has recently pounded PKK positions in northern Iraq in a military operation named Operation Claw Lock

Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey opposes a US decision this week to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“This is a selective and discriminatory move,” Mr. Cavusoglu said, noting that the exemption did not include Kurdish areas of Syria controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.

Referring to the NATO membership applications, Mr. Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”

Mr. Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.

Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team that empathises with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.

Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point. “Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Mr. Eissenstat tweeted.

The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.

Middle Eastern states walk a fine line when using their potential to disrupt to achieve political goals of their own. The cautious backtracking on Ukraine-related oil supplies demonstrates the limits and/or risks of Middle Eastern brinkmanship.

So does the fact that Ukraine has moved NATO’s center of gravity to northern Europe and away from its southern flank, which Turkey anchors.

Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.

Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes and discuss selling it newer, advanced  F-16 models even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.

Some analysts suggest Turkey may use its objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled in 2019 a sale of the jet to Turkey after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defence system.

Mr. Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.

A top aide to Mr. Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Mr. Foggo’s analysis.

“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Mr. Kalin said, referring to the Turkish leader’s NATO remarks. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”

Spelling out Turkish demands, Mr. Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.”

Mr. Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that one ignores the Middle East at one’s peril.

However, engaging Middle Eastern autocrats does not necessarily mean ignoring their rampant violations of human rights and repression of freedoms.

For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’, at times, disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values amid a struggle over whose values will underwrite a 21st-century world order.

However, that would require a degree of creative policymaking and diplomacy that seems to be a rare commodity.

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