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The Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad Groups and International Community: the 7th Century is Back (A)

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The history of humanity is, in essence, the history of wars, peace agreements, balances of power, and cycles of wars. Every time any protagonist attempted to achieve hegemony, other protagonists strove to prevent him from reaching that objective by adopting a policy of balancing through retaliation and alliances.

In the course of these struggles over hegemony, unipolar, a bi-polar or multi-polar international system crystallized, and this was determining factor for the shaping of the existing political borders and establishment of the present-day sovereign political entities.

However, Neil Ferguson (Foreign Policy, May-June, 2004) raises an important question: can international relations move towards an era in which there are no hegemonies and there is no balance of power? Does nature acknowledge a phenomenon of imbalance? And if so, what are the operative ramifications of that reality in an era of active transnational protagonists possessing radical world perspectives, and seeking to create a different international reality, as is the case with the Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad Groups.

Why is a possibility that an era of non-hegemony liable to develop?

The Weakness of the United States. Three impending crises undermining the United States ability to lead the free world: legitimacy, economic pressures, and isolationism. Our reality is characterized with hatred of the rich and the powerful, and the United States is afflicted with both of those, which manifests itself in profound hostility from both allies and enemies.

The problem with the US is that is seeks to establish a world order based on liberal-democratic regimes and by elimination authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. This has become a belief system, almost a religion. The US deeply believes this approach will facilitate moderation, promote freedom, and prevent wars.

However, the US is faced with external economic dependency; internal pressures for isolationism; and an attrition of its military might. It possesses enormous power but lacks the legitimacy to exercise it around the world. In that respect, Rousseau was right: “The powerful will never be powerful enough to sustain its domination unless he transforms power into a right and obedience into an obligation”. The US lacks both.

Bruce Bauer, in his “To Hate America,” claims that anti-Americanism is a chronic enmity. Studies indicate that it is not significant in Asia and Africa; more significant in South America and Europe and very significant in the Islamic countries. Lee Harris (Policy Review, December, 2002), notes that hatred of America is absolute anti-Americanism. To oppose America means to be on “the right and just side of history”. Hatred of America has become the “opiate of the intellectuals”.

Fareed Zakaria (Foreign Policy, September-October, 2004) stresses that in the post-modernist, which is a post-ideological era, anti-Americanism has become an extremely powerful trend, more powerful than any other country in history and that arouses extreme antagonism against it. However, a world in which the US will not take a global role is a world lacking a unifying adhesive political stability and unable to deal with the new dangers posed by the Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad Groups, a world of outlaw nations and pervasive violence.

Fuad Ajami deals with the fallaciousness of anti-Americanism. Everyone seeks to imitate America, but at the same time hate America. The most outstanding example is Saudi Arabia. Its policy expresses harsh anti-Americanism, though it depends on the US security belt and military umbrella. Saudi-Arabia is busy with an intensive active policy to spread its Wahhabi-Hanbali version of Islam around the world, by spending many billions of dollars, and at the same time, it pays other billions of dollars as “protection” money to Islamic organizations and terrorist groups around the world.

Bernard Lewis formulated this attitude regarding to the Arab-Islamic political culture: on the one side, an admiration and the desire to imitate the progressive West, but on the other, hatred and hostility.

The Decline of Europe. Evidence show clearly that Europe is old, multinational and multicultural, and in a fast process of collapse. This is the same old Europe, assuming new dimensions of a common union seeking to achieve economic power and to establish a different cultural system. At the same time, Europe is afflicted by new problems, which are liable to lead to its decline:

a) The severe trauma of two World Wars manifests itself in an unmitigated aspiration to maintain quiet, even if it is imaginary, and reflects a policy of hedonistic pacifism, a phenomenon that symbolizes lack of willingness to fight for basic national values. Europe despises the US, which is perceived as a factor that disturbs international order and interfere with Europe’s ability to hegemony, and expresses hostility towards Israel, as if were it to disappear the Middle East would cease to be a “keg of dynamite.” Pathological hatred for Israel has become the major generator of Europe policy. It believes that the cycle of terrorism and violence in the Middle East is due to Israel, which slaughters Palestinian children at will. For Europe, the problem is not the Islamic religious ideology to occupy the world, and Europe is the forefront, but the “ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Since Europe believes that “Islam and terrorism do not go together,” Israel has become the scapegoat to all European troubles and hardships.

b) The advanced age of the native European population, while the birthrate is negative (1.4 children per 1000 people, as opposed to a required even minimum of 2.1). By the year 2040, one of every three European will be over the age of 65, and at the same time the uncontrolled immigration of Muslims, with a birthrate three and four times that of the Europeans, causes severe social and cultural problems, and arouses fundamental questions of national identity. A reliable forecasts agree that in 2040, there will be a Muslim majority in several Western European countries.

c) Appeasement policy and political correctness as the primary strategy to attain quiet. The fear of arousal of widespread domestic violence, especially in the Muslim neighborhoods, who have no desire to assimilate, creates a “mental paralysis” in European public opinion and policy-makers. The expanding Muslim population poses the greatest threat to pluralistic democracy of the free world.

Samuel Huntington, in his The Clash of Civilizations, claims that the most significant division between the US and Europe is cultural. The United States is a religious country, and old Europe is secular. The Americans are devoted and patriotic to their country and to their religion, and define many issues in terms of good and evil; while Europe has a very low commitment to religion and nationalism. In a series of surveys, the countries were rated according to the level of their religiosity. The US was first with a ranking of 1.7; Ireland: 4.1; Poland: 5.2; Italy: 5.9; Britain: 11.6; Germany: 12.1. For Europe, there is a strong trend that transforms secularism and pacifism into a religion.

Jean Francois Ravel, in his “Europe’s Anti-American Obsession”, Europe believes that Americans are controlled by money, and their foreign policy is characterized by isolationism, and degenerate fascist politics. But it is specifically Europe, which invented the most repulsive ideologies, in which totalitarian regimes flourished, and it was precisely the US which rescued Europe from itself. Possessed by the obsession of their hatred, the anti-American fools forget that the US acts for world peace. It is specifically the security provided by the US that enables Europe to claim, paradoxically, that military might is no longer important as if they are residents of a post-historical world.

Economic Crises in Asia. Asia is seeking to become a significant factor in the International politics, by means of economic growth. In recent decades it was Japan, by employing a policy of competition through imitation. However, in the last decade it has slowed down, and local giants have begun to challenge it. Firstly, it was Korea, which followed the Japanese model, in the shadow of the North Korean military threat. Thereafter, China began its march, with an economic policy, which poses a substantial threat to the old world markets, and India, a nuclear power, which is also threatened by a neighboring enemy – Pakistan, aligns itself, like China, in more specific economic areas. China has the best chance, as within three decades its GNP surpasses that of the United States. At the same time, researchers claim that a severe economic crisis is threatening China, which will have dire ramifications and consequences throughout the world.

The significance of these three trends – the weakening of the legitimacy of the US; the continued decline of Europe; and the possibility of economic collapse in Asia in general and in China in particular – is that the world is not progressing towards a multi-polar world, but rather is liable to be a world without hegemonic power, a world without polarity. The upshot will be an era of declining empires and religious fanaticism, which will initiate processes of multi-dimensional decline: First, severe economic crises, which are liable to lead to a world-wide collapse; second, a dreadful rise of Islamic vicious terrorist groups on a world scale; third, an era of military crises, wars which will unfold over sources and resources. The result is likely to be political anarchy, to the withdrawal of civilization into fortified enclaves where chaos reigns.

To this future reality, a world of anarchy with no stabilizing world powers to enforce order and of continued trends of aggressive, fanatical Islamic terrorism – two scientific approaches have crystallized.

One approach, by Samuel Huntington, in his July 1993 article and his 1995 book, regarding the clash of civilizations. He proves that seven or eight civilizations exist in the world and Islam is at odds and antagonistic conflict with all of them throughout the world. Huntington claim, that “the Arab borders are blood borders” and this has brought The Economist to identify 32 major conflicts conducted in the world in the year 2000. 70% involved Muslims against others. Bernard Lewis in his April 1990 Atlantic Monthly article, determined that this was not a religious cold war between the Third World and the secular world, as Juergensmeyer claimed, but rather a genuine clash of cultures and was the first to coin the phrase “clash of civilizations”.

The second approach, is that of a “clash within Islam”, as expressed by Emanuel Sivan (A Confrontation within Islam), Moshe Maoz (YI, January 13, 2002), and other Israeli orientalists and Political Scientists, who claim that the primary, substantive clash is within Islam, between the moderate branch of Islam, who are the majority, and the extreme branch, who are the minority and will fail.

However, though all evidence clearly show that Huntington is by all means right, still, one can view these two approaches along the same continuum: In the first stage, the motto is activity within Arab-Islamic society. Fanatic Islam seeks to overthrow the existing Arab and Muslim regimes, which it refers to as the “New Jahiliyah, being the near enemy (al-‘Aduw al-Qarib), and in the second stage, it aspires to challenge the Western infidels, which it refers to as the “New Crusaders” or the far enemy (al-‘Aduw al-Ba’id).

This is the position of the religious exegetes of fanatic Islam, like Abu al-A’la al Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and many others, and this is the essence of the Islamic struggle: the genuine Islam according to the exegesis against both the New Jahiliyah (Arab-Muslim) and the New Crusaderism. In between they play a mix-operative terrorist strategy – against the West and Arab-Islamic countries.

When do empires decline? Quigley’s raises three trends: a) when they begin to squander their internal resources and do not turn to create new ones. b) When the mutual bond between the components of society weakens and the internal gaps increase. c) When ignorance spreads and the masses are drawn towards extreme religious fanaticism.

Huntington in the summary chapter of his Clash of civilizations, characterizes it as “cultural suicide”. The manifestations: a) an increase in the levels of crime, drugs and violence, which create a turbulent society with deep cleavages. b) A sharp decline in the institution of marriage and an increase in the rates of divorce and one-parent households. c) A decrease in interpersonal trust, with a rise in social alienation and anomic society. d) A slackening in the work ethic and in collective giving and enhancement of the trends of personal satisfaction. e) A decrease in the commitment to scientific intellectual activity for the continuation of progress and modernity. f) Absence of a unifying consensus and a decrease in national identification and loyalty. Multi-nationalism and Multiculturalism.

On the basis of understanding these dimensions one can assert that scientific and technological superiority does not override moral decay and political collapse of states. It was Jan Maserik, former Czech Foreign Minister who claimed: for a nation whose back is broken, it will be of no avail that each citizen has a tank in his yard and a warplane on his roof.” Indeed, a National strength can never persist without national honor, patriotism; commitment and determination to defend national interests, and adhesive common grounds. Defeatism, Douglas MacArthur stated, engenders a much more difficult and cruel war. There is not even one case in history in which defeatism has produced peace.

It is frightening to observe that the reactions in the free world today and the absence of a joint vision and common strategy regarding the threats stemming from the challenges posed by Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad Groups, reflect, in an astounding way, the international situation on the eve of World War II, and the absence of a uniform policy regarding Nazi Germany.

In May 1939, when it was clear that the clouds over Europe are leading to an all-out war, the influential British newspaper, The Times of London, published a harsh editorial, criticizing Churchill and his “belligerent, war-mongering” government, which was leading Britain into war, while a successful alternative exists, the “Munich Agreement”, which proves that it is possible to bring peace to Europe by means of diplomatic agreements. However, it was Churchill who was remarkably on target, in reacting to Chamberlain’s defeatist policy: “You have chosen shame out of fear of war and you have received both the shame and the war”. Indeed, these words are tantamount to the political situation today regarding Islamic onslaught to occupy the Free World.

The circumstances are that the world witness a violent aggressiveness of Islamic Bolshevism, according to Huntington, which will manifest itself in pressure to bring about changes in regimes and politics, massive immigration, but primarily attempts to gain control, first of the Dar al-Islam lands, from China to Spain, and after succeeding, to expand at the expense of the Dar al-Harb. World terrorism is primarily Islamic. More than 90 percent of world terrorism and more than 70 percent of world violence are Islamic. This religious fanaticism flourishes in societies that do not aspire to modernization and progress, which reject the basic values of democracy, pluralism, freedoms, open criticism, and equal rights.

The dominant idea in Islam, as defined by Islam itself, is absolute submissiveness and devotion to Allah and that humanity must respect the laws of the Islamic religion, while they have neither respect nor appreciation for other religions. Everything is perceived as legitimate self-defense, “the soul, religion, the land and Arabism”.

This phenomenon manifests itself in the syndrome: he hits me and he cried-out, he overtook me and grumbled (Darabni wa-Baka Sabaqni wa-Shtaqa). Aggression is perceived in the Arab-Islamic political culture as a routine and consensual phenomenon, while in contrast, any defensive action taken by its opponents in response to its acts of aggression evokes a severe reaction: “What did I do”? “Why am I being attacked”? “I, the miserable, the exploited one, who has done nothing, am standing against brutal belligerency and aggressiveness” Indeed, this is a deeply rooted cultural phenomenon: “the victimhood Syndrome.” They sincerely wholeheartedly believe that they are the pure victim and that all of their horrific vicious inhumane actions are merely justified acts of retaliation, in order to preserve their honor, their soul and their lands.

In contrast, Western culture acts as if it bears responsibility for being the victim. Everyone continues to declare that it is not a war against Islam in order to underscore his political tolerance. For Western leaders, in ignorance or cowardice, Islam is a religion of peace and there are only few extremist Muslims who hijacked the religion. It is even forbidden to put together “Islamic” and Terrorism.” For them, poverty and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the true cause, but not Islamic aggressiveness, terrorism, supremacism and brutality. No wonder the Free World is in a so deep mired situation, due to this shameless behavior.

However the truth is that the Apocalyptic Islamic Global Jihad groups have declared war against the Free World in the name of Allah. From their vantage point, it is their duty to control and occupy the world; that their religion is the only legitimate religion to impose on the entire humanity; and that it is a religious war and they are pretty sure Allah’s religion will prevail. This is the reason why we must stop apologizing and appeasing, and paying protection money, because we are fighting for our own lives, for our own existence. We fight to defend the Free World and all what have achieved against the epitome of evil and primitiveness. This is the “just war”, ever in history, as much as the Free World waged against Nazism and Communism.

However, the problem lies precisely in the cultural dimension, in the profound differences in cultural values, in the externalization of guilt syndrome. The Middle East is a greenhouse, unprecedented in its intensity, of authoritarianism, despotism, patrimonialism, corruption and incitement of hatred by the ruling political elite, while at the same time of poverty, exploitation and the misery of the masses.

The connection line between these two trends is in externalizing the guilt towards colonialism and imperialism, exploitation and racism against Western culture, which is hostile to Islam and the Arabs. However, Arab-Islamic political culture has no feelings of guilt or remorse; a culture that has no guilt conscience toward the other, and is unwilling to assume responsibility and self-criticism. This is a culture with the deep feeling that it is always right, and for that it externalizes the guilt and blames the “other” for that which transpires. It is essential to appreciate the significance of the phenomenon.

Jews and Christians internalize guilt. Jews turn one cheek in the sense of “we have sinned, we have transgressed, and we have committed crimes”; and the Christians turn the other cheek in the sense of “mea culpa”. In contrast, Arabs externalize guilt: “do I have a problem? You are guilty!” You will not find among them the phenomenon so characteristic to the Judeo-Christian culture: Doubts, guilt feelings and remorse, the agonizing conceptions perhaps we are not right, perhaps we should have acted or reacted differently? And what is our share of the blame? Western culture attempts to understand the other side; to learn his misery, to see the logic behind his actions and understand why he did what he did. All these are contrary to the Arab-Islamic political culture.

The Egyptian intellectual, residing in the US, Nonie Darwish has put it directly:

‘Arab’ means never having to say you are sorry. To expect Arab and Muslim leadership to apologize is a reflection of the West naïve and wrong expectations of Arab culture. In the Arab world to take responsibility and say sorry is taken as unmanly sign of weakness that may get a person into more trouble. Those who admit guilt, even it is accidental are given no mercy and may end up taking all the blame and being brutally punished.

It is a norm for the Arabs to deny a fact and to blame the other rather than admit to the wrongdoing and apologize. Honesty is not rewarded. Any admission of guilt is a sign of weakness. Yet, how can we expect them to apologize, when most of Arabs blame Israel for all the world wrong-doings, even September-Eleven? How can we expect the Arab countries to sincerely cooperate to end terror and its barbaric brutality. American should stop judging other cultures with American value system, and especially stop expecting Arab-Muslim culture to respond rationally according to Western standards.        

Herewith the explanation of the Egyptian ‘Amr Ismail (Ilaf, October 30, 2004):

Why do we not see things the way the rest of the world sees them? Why do we always feel that someone is plotting and conspiring against us, and that they are the cause of our social and economic problems and our cultural backwardness? Why are we not capable of criticizing ourselves and we consider everyone who tries to do so a resolute enemy of our people and their principles? Why do we speak by means of rifles, bombs and car bombs and hurry to accuse all of our critics from within of treason and of being influenced by the West? Why are we the only nations in the world still using Islam as a religion in all aspects of life? Why are we slitting throats and detonating cars in the name of Allah, while at the same time protest when Muslims are described as terrorists? Why our brain is incapable of comprehending that democracy is the best regime and that it brought those who adopted it advancement and comfort?

The Egyptian writer, Sayyid al-Qimi (Roz al-Yusuf, May 5, 2005) blames that the responsibility for terrorism in Egypt lies with those who create a cultural atmosphere conductive to terrorism. The fight against terrorism requires combating extremist trends among Muslim clerics and in the Arab media. For him, a barrier separates the Muslim’s mind from the rest of the world around him, making him loose the capacity to distinguish Good from Evil. He only recognizes the values of Halal and Haram, permissible vs. prohibited. Muslims are burdened with many repressive restrictions. Freedom of thought and expression are fenced in by Islamic restrictions. He brings many day by day examples of Arab behavior and activity to prove his claims, declaring that terrorism had grown when the Arabs allowed Islamist thought to infiltrate Media and Schools. This is the legitimacy to kill and terrorize innocent people.  

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Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be friends again

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Eventually the ice-cold relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia began to melt. The two countries sat at the negotiating table shortly after Biden came to power. The results of that discussion are finally being seen. Trade relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have already begun to move. Although there has been no diplomatic relationship between the two countries since 2016, trade relations have been tense. But trade between Iran and the two countries was zero from last fiscal year until March 20 this year. Iran recently released a report on trade with neighboring countries over the past six months. The report also mentions the name of Saudi Arabia. This means that the rivalry between the two countries is slowly normalizing.

Historically, Shia-dominated Iran was opposed to the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids of Persia have been at war with the Ottomans for a long time, However, after the fall of the Ottomans, when the Middle East was divided like monkey bread, the newly created Saudi Arabia did not have much of a problem with Iran. Business trade between the two countries was normal. This is because the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Iran at the time were Western-backed. That is why there was not much of a problem between them. But when a revolution was organized in Iran in 1979 and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established by overthrowing the Shah, Iran’s relations with the West as well as with Saudi Arabia deteriorated. During the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the ouster of Western-backed rulers from the Middle East. After this announcement, naturally the Arab rulers went against Iran.

Saddam Hussein later invaded Iran with US support and Saudi financial support. After that, as long as Khomeini was alive, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran were bad. After Khomeini’s death, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi tried to mend fences again. But they didn’t get much of an advantage.

When the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s influence in Shiite-majority Iraq continued to grow. Since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s influence in the region has grown. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a series of shadow wars to reduce its influence. It can be said that Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in the Cold War just like the United States and the Soviet Union. Behind that war was a conflict of religious ideology and political interests. Diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came to a complete standstill in 2016. Iranians attack the Saudi embassy in Tehran after executing Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimar al-Nimar.  Since then, the two countries have not had diplomatic relations.

Finally, in April this year, representatives of the two countries met behind closed doors in Baghdad. And through this, the two countries started the process of normalizing diplomatic relations again. The last direct meeting between the two countries was held on September 21.

Now why are these two countries interested in normalizing relations? At one point, Mohammed bin Salman said they had no chance of negotiating with Iran. And Khomeini, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, called Mohammed bin Salman the new Hitler. But there is no such thing as a permanent enemy ally in politics or foreign policy. That is why it has brought Saudi Arabia and Iran back to the negotiating table. Prince Salman once refused to negotiate with Iran, but now he says Iran is our neighbor, we all want good and special relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has realized that its Western allies are short-lived. But Iran is their permanent neighbor. They have to live with Iran. The United States will not return to fight against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. That is why it is logical for Iran and Saudi Arabia to have their ideological differences and different interests at the negotiating table. Saudi Arabia has been at the negotiating table with Iran for a number of reasons. The first reason is that Saudi Arabia wants to reduce its oil dependence. Prince Salman has announced Vision 2030. In order to implement Vision 2030 and get out of the oil dependent economy, we need to have good relations with our neighbors. It is not possible to achieve such goals without regional stability, He said.

Saudi Arabia also wants to emerge from the ongoing shadow war with Iran in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon to achieve regional stability. The war in Yemen in particular is now a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are unable to get out of this war, nor are they able to achieve the desired goal. Saudi Arabia must normalize relations with Iran if it is to emerge from the war in Yemen. Without a mutual understanding with Iran, Yemen will not be able to end the war. That is why Saudi Arabia wants to end the war through a peace deal with the Houthis by improving relations with Iran.

Drone strikes could also have an impact on the Saudi Aramco oil field to bring Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. Because after the drone attack, the oil supply was cut in half. The Saudis do not want Aramco to be attacked again. Also, since the Biden administration has no eye on the Middle East, it would be wise to improve relations with Iran in its own interests.

Iran will benefit the most if relations with Saudi Arabia improve. Their economy has been shaken by long-standing US sanctions on Iran. As Saudi Arabia is the largest and most powerful country in the Middle East, Iran has the potential to benefit politically as well as economically if relations with them are normal.

While Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Iran, its allies will also improve relations with Iran. As a result, Iran’s political and trade relations with all the countries of the Saudi alliance will be better. This will give them a chance to turn their economy around again. The development of Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia will also send a positive message to the Biden administration. It could lead to a renewed nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran.

Another reason is that when Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Iran, it will receive formal recognition of Iran’s power in the Middle East. The message will be conveyed that it is not possible to turn the stick in the Middle East by bypassing Iran. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be normalized for peace and stability in the Middle East.

But in this case, the United Arab Emirates and Israel may be an obstacle. The closeness that Saudi Arabia had with the UAE will no longer exist. The UAE now relies much more on Israel. There will also be some conflict of interest between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Prince Salman wants to turn Saudi into a full-fledged tourism and business hub that could pose a major threat to the UAE’s economy and make the two countries compete.

Furthermore, in order to sell arms to the Middle East, Iran must show something special. Why would Middle Eastern countries buy weapons if the Iranian offensive was stopped? During the Cold War, arms dealers forced NATO allies to buy large quantities of weapons out of fear of the Soviet Union. So it is in the Middle East. But if the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is normal, it will be positive for the Muslim world, but it will lead to a recession in the arms market.

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Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power

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The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.

The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.

The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.

Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.

That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.

In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.

Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.

More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.

A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.

Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.

Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr.  Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.

FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets,  and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.

Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.

A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.

In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.

In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.

A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”

Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.

In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.

Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.

Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.

“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.

It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.

Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.

One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.

Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.

Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.

With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”

He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.

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Middle East

Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week

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The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.

Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.

The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday. 

Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.

“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.

“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”

The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.

An important contribution

The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.

This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.

For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning. 

He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”

Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”

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