One of the ironies of being a Pakistani living abroad, especially in the West, is having to pose as Indian. According to Asghar Choudhri, the chairman of Brooklyn’s Pakistani American Merchant Association, a lot of Pakistanis can’t get jobs after 9/11 and after the botched Times Square bombing of 2010, it’s even worse. “They are now pretending they are Indian so they can get a job,” he told a US wire service.
That is because while Indians are highly integrated immigrants – besides being the highest educated and best paid of all ethnic groups in the US – Pakistanis have taken part in terrorist activities in the very lands that gave them shelter.
From Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 (8 years before Bin Laden) and is now serving a 240-year prison sentence to Mir Aimal Kansi, who shot dead CIA agents and was later executed by lethal injection, to Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square “Idiot Bomber”, there is a long line of Pakistanis who have left a trail of terror.
The San Bernardino, California, attack of December 2015 by a Pakistani American couple was the most spectacular in recent times. The husband was American-born raised and yet he chose to launch a terror act against the people of the United States.
But while Pakistanis wear an Indian mask for Western consumption, back home it’s business as usual.
Two incidents amply demonstrate that Pakistanis have learnt nothing. One was the widespread outrage across the country over Osama Bin Laden’s killing by American commandos. In response to America’s exposure of Bin Laden’s hiding place, Pakistan moved to shut down the informant network that lead the Americans there.
The other was the unholy fracas over CIA shooter Kansi’s execution. The day after Kansi was sentenced to death by an American court, four Americans were shot dead on the streets of Pakistan. His funeral was attended by the entire civilian administration in his hometown Quetta, the local Pakistani Corps Commander, and the then Pakistani ambassador to the United States.
Thousands of mourners turned out as Quetta city shuttered down. Kansi’s coffin, draped in black cloth with verses from the Koran embroidered on it in gold, was carried on the shoulders of young men some 10 miles from the airport to his family’s home in Quetta. In Islamabad, the capital city, lawyers and university students poured out on the streets.
The irony of outpourings of support for hardened terrorists is that Pakistan is seriously impacted by terrorism. A global study by the London-based Institute for Economics and Peace ranks Pakistan fourth on the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) list, behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
According to the study, “Terrorism remains highly concentrated with most (58 per cent) of the activity occurring in just five countries — Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.”
It mentions the most fatal terrorist attack in Pakistan, of 2014: “Assailants detonated an explosives-laden vehicle and then stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar city, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan. At least 150 students and staff were killed and 131 were wounded in the attack. All seven assailants were either killed by security forces or detonated their explosives-laden vests.”
The gunmen belonged to the terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is also known as the Pakistani Taliban because it is based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is an offshoot of the original Taliban which was created by Pakistan as a weapon to be used against Afghanistan and India.
State sponsored terror
That Pakistan is a state sponsor of terror is well known. In Hillary Clinton’s words to Islamabad, if you harbour snakes in your backyard, don’t expect them to only bite your neighbour.
It was Pakistan’s demagogue dictator General Zia-ul-Haq who declared that “we will bleed India with a thousand cuts”. The reckoning was that since Pakistan can never hope to win a war against India, then India must be hit with terrorism. To this effect, Pakistan first supported Kashmiri and Sikh separatists, armed them and provided them safe bases on its territory.
When both these terror campaigns failed, Pakistan created an alphabet soup of home grown terror groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami. These two were complemented by the Haqqani network and the original Taliban, which has now split into dozens of splinter groups, some of which are still controlled by the Pakistan military and its chief intelligence agency, the ISI.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of US, Mike Mullen has described the Haqqani Network as the “veritable arm of Pakistan’s ISI”. Mullen said the ISI was supporting the Haqqani network, which attacked the US embassy in Kabul in September 2011 and also the September 2011 NATO truck bombing which injured 77 coalition soldiers and killed five Afghan civilians.
In a November 2014 interview to the BBC, the adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz said Pakistan should not target militants like the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, which do not threaten Pakistan’s security.
Indeed, Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world which believes in good terrorists (who attack the West, India and Israel) and bad terrorists (who target Pakistan). An example of a ‘good’ terrorist group is the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which regularly conducts mass rallies and congregation, advocating jihad in Kashmir. For its December 2014 rally, Pakistan ran two special trains to carry the crowd to Lahore. India’s foreign ministry termed this as “nothing short of mainstreaming of terrorism”. The congregation was held near Pakistan’s national monument, the Minar-e-Pakistan, where 4000 policemen provided security.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is the group responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which led to the deaths of 156 innocent people. On December 3, 2008 Indian officials named Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhavi, a top leader of the Lashkar, as one of four possible major planners behind the attacks. Four days later, Pakistani armed forces arrested Lakhvi in a raid on a training camp near Muzafarabad in Pakistani Kashmir.
Pakistan doesn’t want to bring terrorists like Lakhavi to justice because that would expose its sponsorship of terror groups. After India produced evidence of the Lashkar’s hand in the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan did the predictable. In order to claim that none of these guys were technically within Pakistan, the ISI asked the terrorists involved in the attack to leave the country.
But it turned out to be a big mistake as one of these terrorists was caught in Saudi Arabia, which presented him on a platter to India. During his interrogation by Indian investigators, the terrorist revealed he was one of the key people tasked with training the 10 Mumbai attackers. He said he was in the control room near the international airport in Karachi from where Lakhavi was directing the attackers. He also said that after Lakhvi’s arrest in December 2008, the Pakistanis destroyed the control room in Karachi.
The January 2016 attack on an air force base in Pathankot, India, in which seven Indian security guards and six terrorists were killed, will give you an idea of how Pakistan continues to deny links with terror groups on its own soil.
After the Indians allowed a Pakistani investigation team to visit the air base, the Pakistanis raised the outrageous claim that the attack was carried out by India to defame Islamabad. This has a parallel in 9/11 deniers in Muslim countries where everyone seems to be convinced that Israel and the US were behind the Twin Tower attacks.
According to the Indian Express newspaper, the Pakistani investigators were given a full transcript of the telephonic conversations between the terrorists and their Pakistani handlers along with their identity. The Indian side gave the Pakistanis “the links of Pakistani officials, believed to be ISI personnel, with the handlers of the terrorists”. They were provided with “electronic and forensic evidence regarding the slain terrorists’ Pakistani links, name of the terrorists and several other critical evidence after an exhaustive probe conducted” by India.
The Pakistani team was given concrete proof that a senior terrorist leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed was in constant touch with the terrorists and giving them necessary instructions during the three-day carnage.
And yet Pakistan claims it was a stage managed attack by India.
The stark reality is that Pakistan has now become synonymous with terror. An unfortunate fallout of the country’s long association with terror is that ordinary Pakistanis worldwide appear tainted. A broad survey released on June 27, 2012 by the United States-based Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes says that in a number countries, including China, as well as several Muslim countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, the majority populations negatively view Pakistanis.
Pakistan is not only a universally disliked country but the Pakistanis themselves have learnt nothing from their history, continuing to support the very actors who are responsible for Pakistan’s negative image.
It is a measure of Pakistan’s penchant for exporting terrorists, counterfeit currency and drugs that India has constructed a 1400 km long steel fence across its border with its wayward western neighbour. The floodlit fence, which is patrolled 24/7, can be seen from space as a bright orange line snaking from the coast to Kashmir.
Iran is also building a 700 km steel and concrete security fence along its border with Pakistan “to prevent border crossing by terrorists and drug traffickers”. When complete it will make Pakistan the most fenced-in country in the world.
In four of the five predominantly Muslim nations covered by the survey, over half gave Pakistan negative ratings. Jordan (57 percent), Lebanon (56 percent), Tunisia (54 percent) and Egypt (53 percent) had an unfavourable opinion of Pakistan. The only exception was Turkey, where attitudes were divided (43 percent negative and 37 percent favourable).
In East Asia, 52 percent of Chinese saw Pakistan unfavourably, as did 59 percent in Japan and 59 percent in India. The Chinese statistic is not surprising as Pakistan-trained Chinese Uighur Muslims have launched terror strikes in their remote province in China. Japan deported around 15,000 Pakistanis after 9/11.
Beaten, corrupt military most loved
Every country has an army but the Pakistan Army has a country. The Pakistani military is the most corrupt institution in the land, with a finger in every national pie. Army officers get prime plots of land post-retirement at a third of the market price. It is certainly a case of generals fattening at the expense of an increasingly poor population.
The Pakistani military has lost fours against India. After every war, Pakistan has lost territory, face and the credibility of its fighting forces. And yet Pakistanis rate this military very highly.As many as 77 percent said the military has a good influence on the country.
The media came next with a 68 percent rating, followed by religious leaders at 66 percent.
With religious zealots getting a solid two-thirds rating, is it any surprise that support for using the Pakistani military to fight extremist groups has declined over the last three years? Opposition to using the army to fight extremist organisations is especially high in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (where 54 percent opposed) and Baluchistan (50 percent).
Biting the hand that feeds
India does not get any aid from the United States and yet among all 21 nations Pew surveyed, Indians seemed most favourably disposed towards it. Only 12 percent said they had unfavourable opinion of the United States. On the other hand, 80 percent of Pakistanis had a negative opinion of America, with 74 percent regarding it as an enemy country.
American aid efforts were seen in a negative light by Pakistanis although the country continues to get billions of dollars of US aid. Around four-in-ten (38 percent) said US economic aid was having a mostly negative impact on Pakistan, while just 12 percent believed it was mostly positive. Similarly, 40 percent thought American military aid was having a mostly negative effect, while only 8 percent said it was largely positive.
This is a snapshot of Pakistan, where the arrow of time is travelling backwards, taking them into a cycle of medieval madness. Where the death of a terrorist merely means he will be instantly replaced by a hundred clones.
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 innovators, 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 led multiple scientific and technological innovations in the country, earlier as the Director-General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and now as the President of the National Innovation Foundation.
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 upsurge of innovation 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 Analyst at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India.
Views expressed by the authors are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.
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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