The researchers Robins and Post have advanced the theory of political paranoia to deepen our understanding of the psycho-politics of personality. They outline seven elements of a paranoia syndrome. It is characterized by: a) suspiciousness; b) centrality; c) grandiosity; d) hostility; e) fear of loss of autonomy; f) projection; and e) delusional thinking.
All these can be attributed to political leaders, especially patrimonial ones, whose operational code is conservative and closed. This syndrome, very much typifies and explains Abu Mazen personality and his political behavior, as well as his approach towards the circles of activists that he operates in and interacts with: the inner circle (Palestinian), the regional (inter-Arab), the policy towards Israel.
Suspiciousness. The paranoid leader’s personality, according to Robins and Post is typified by suspiciousness of others, both relatives and strangers, and by pervasive distrust and lack of cooperation. He suspects that others are exploiting, deceiving, and conspiring against him. He is preoccupied with doubts about others’ friendship or loyalty, and he is reluctant to confide in others. To the paranoiac, things are never what they seem. He does not permit himself to be distracted by innocent facts, and searches for hidden meanings according to pre-existing ideas and conclusions reached in advance, that support his conspiratorial thesis. Events do not simply occur, they are deliberately caused. There is no room for ambiguity, and the classifications made are black and white, good/bad, friend/enemy, and have no balance among them.
Abu Mazen is chronically suspicious towards everyone, his loyalists and allies in his close environment, and enemies in distant environments. He does not rely on anyone. His paranoia is in everything and have to do even with his personal security. His decisions have always been in accord with his own judgment, while he has often changed them without warning. Like Arafat Abu Mazen is very sensitive to his place in the Palestinian history, and identifies himself as an important part of the Palestinian revolution. Therefore he will never compromise with Israel and will not allow any freedom of action to his assistants or to those who negotiate in his name.
In fact, he prevents the growth of an alternate leadership or the possibility of revolt against himself, or even a blow at his authority. He deeply believes in conspiracies, in attempts to liquidate him, hence, his tendency to create myths about him being a possible victim of his enemies’ schemes. This situation leads him to act through crisis management. He is at his best in times of crisis. Energetic and eager for battle, his face wears a smile from ear to ear, as he has great love for situations of heroism.
Centrality. The paranoid leader’s world is populated by all sorts of enemies, of whom he perceives himself to be the focus of attention. All their actions and remarks are taken as directed against himself. He is totally sure that he is the object of great interest on the part of everyone around him. At the same time, he constantly surveys his surroundings, carefully watching how he is being watched. These beliefs and behaviors lead to a dynamic sequence of close relations, intense feelings of persecution, and vindictive retaliatory rage in the paranoid leader.
Violently angry, the paranoid leader defends himself by posing as the victim of outside enemies. Being extremely sensitive to criticism, his interpersonal relationships are disturbed. The world of politics is the best source for enemies of the paranoid leader. This is the “warfare personality” which exhibits extreme traits of focusing on demonic enemies and conspiracies, and on how to defeat them. The profound feelings of persecution lead to attempts to put the blame on outside enemies in order to overcome one’s sense of inferiority, insecurity, and unlovability. He is busy with himself, so self-centered and arrogant that he shows very little concern for the needs and feelings of others. Indeed, he is not at all bothered by the wretched situation of his people, socially, economically, or educationally. He does not care about their well-being.
Abu Mazen’s style has an exceptionally centralized character which is typical of a Byzantine court as well as of patrimonial leadership. He does not grant any authority to anyone, and decides everything himself, down to the smallest details. The structure of his government is personal, hierarchical, rigid, and closed in, despite its not being alienated. He brings up subjects for discussion only as a formal gesture, without any operational meaning. And he always has the last word.
Everyone must report to him, and in very detailed form. On the other hand, he does not convey current information, nor does he share it with others, except very selectively. No one has decision-making authority, even over the smallest details, unless he has received Abu Mazen’s authorization. This is a central part of his capacity to control different environments. Patrimonial rule does not make possible creation of an institutionalized opposition. Formally, the centralized framework does not make possible any qualitative change. The opposition is always viewed as a disruptive factor “in this stage of political development.”
Abu Mazen’s leadership style is extremely centralized. He is the exclusive source of authority and makes all the decisions on all matters, through hierarchical management. This may be described as “information management to obtain control,” as he is sure that no one will dare oppose him. He controls all the information, and this control is part of his power over his people, and over all the Palestinian organizations. Together with his complete control over the finances, makes him irreplaceable and invincible.
He is one-dimensional personality. He does not spend leisure time, nor personal friends, and he is addicted chiefly to the communications media. Being a workaholic, the Palestinian case occupies his time all day long. He knows how to be affable and is the perfect host, according to the Arab tradition, but he also knows how to hurt and insult. He has a gifted ability to impress people in personal meetings, and to win hearts as the victim of the situation.
On the other hand, he is impatient and exemplifies this in his agenda. He shouts at his advisors and screams at those close to him, and at the same time, weeps over his bitter fate of not being understood. He expresses his sorrow and apologies for hurting his advisors, and then repeats what he has done. Above all, he an actor of skill, who acts out of “calculated spontaneity”. Abu Mazen is a craftsman who controls his reactions, as they are part of his exceptional theatricality. This reflects the need for personal recognition of his honor, his lack of affection and sympathy, his obsessive need for recognition and esteem.
Abu Mazen rules the whole financial structure, and everything is done through his decisions. By that he confirms the old saying: He who controls the money holds the power. He purchases everyone, enemies and friends alike, enabling them to have a life of corruption so that they will not intervene in his activities. The PLO is the greatest and richest terrorist organization in history. Its capital is estimated in billions of dollars. Its sources of money are: “protection” funds paid by Arab oil states; pan-Arab and international monetary aid. All these funds are under his control and expenditure.
The huge amount of money the Palestinians get is by no means the greatest sinful act in the record of human beings. To make it very short:
According to the United Nations data, there are more than one billion people around the world that earn less than two dollars a day. You will not find even one Palestinian among them.
According to the United Nations data, at least 25 percent of world population, that is almost two billion, are in severe shortage of water to drink, and the drink water the highly risk their health, to the brink of death. You will not find even one Palestinian among them.
According to the United Nations data, 35 percent of world population have no toilets and other basic hygienic means at home, and they do it outdoor or in the field. Very few if any can be found among the Palestinians.
Most of the third world countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, including some Arab states, would have been extremely happy and satisfied to have the Palestinian standard of living, Gross National Product and monthly income.
Only in the Philippines, there are, according to the UN data, four million children, almost the size of all the Palestinian people that live in horrible inhuman conditions, in hunger and misery, with terrifying health conditions that is a disgrace to any human being. Yet, the Palestinians continue to get billions of dollars every year and huge assistance from the donating states.
Above all, the Palestinians are the only gifted among world population to have a monthly economic parcel of existence. The UN gives to 4.25 million Palestinians a monthly assistance of food products, the only ones on a regular basis from 1950 to the end of history. That is why they continue with the victimology strategy, to get more and more, at the expense of those billion of people in the world that really need it.
One has to personally visit and investigate the real situation of the Palestinians in the PA territories and in Gaza, and then to go to most of African, Asian and South American states to make the comparison. He will be embarrassed, astonished, bewildered, and at the same time with the highest guilt and shame of the injustices done by world hypocrisy and evildoing injustices. Yet, the international money donations continue to flow heavily. This is a shame, a huge black hollow on the conscience of humanity.
Grandiosity. The paranoid leader is notorious for his arrogant grandiosity through which he boasts of his feats and triumphs. The paranoid leader relies on the primitive psychological defenses of denial and distortion. They are his tools for looking at the world. Through them, he assumes great importance. The grandiosity acts as a shield for a fragile ego, highly sensitive and insecure. The result of his unbearable shame is outside rage and aggressiveness. He knows the real and only truth, and this leads to a high likelihood of exaggeration and falsification.
Abu Mazen identifies himself with the Palestinian revolution, being busy with national symbols. From his viewpoint, the world must understand the situation of the Palestinians, and must compensate and support them without asking questions and really investigating their real situation. He is very sensitive about his honor and takes pains to ensure that he is treated as a world esteemed leader.
He does not accept dictates made in public, even at a high price, since he feels that it means that someone is trying to humiliate him. Personal gestures influence his mood to gain honor and recognition. He is capable of breaking the rules of the game if he feels that he is not getting due respect. He always reacts very angrily and goes on the attack if he is not treated as President of Palestine, though he is the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.
Abu Mazen is an absolute liar who believes in his own words, and presents false data as solid facts. He makes frequent use of exaggerate detached from reality declarations, and utilizes all the features of the Arabic language: overemphasis (Tawqid), through repeating words and sentences; verbal exaggeration (Mubalaghah); and boasting of deeds and successes (Mufakharah). Being a professional liar, Abu Mazen has declared that the map of Greater Israel is inscribed on the Israeli 10 agora coin, and turned it into a symbol as if the Israeli scheme was already being discussed in a concrete way.
He is capable of lying without blinking his eye, without outward or inward signs, and without changing the line of his emotions. Very often he slides into megalomania and the mythical self-image. Above all, he is anti-Semite, a holocaust denier, an extremist that will never give up any part of the entire territory of Palestine, “from the sea to the River,” in fact including Jordan.
Even if his deceitful accusations are groundless and ridiculous, Abu Mazen uses them without any problem, persistently. He has a dramatic talent which he makes frequent use of, in speech and in body language, in code terms and in allusions. He is an actor who suits his style and messages to fit his target audience. In meetings with the Israeli and international publics, he appears as a sensitive moderate man, capable of accepting a “logical political arrangements,” who pleads to reach diplomatic arrangements.
At the same time, he refuses to accept any proposal, even those that give him almost all the 1967 borders. See his extreme stand in Camp David II, with Barak and Arafat; his refusal to accept Israeli proposal in January 2001 (made to Arafat) and his refusal of Olmart proposal in 2009 and to the Israeli Minister, Zipi Livni, in 2012.
In hundreds of blunt declarations he utterly said that he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also refuses to accept the American proposal of Jewish and Palestinian states living together side by side. In his declarations he refers to this as “the Two States Solution,” meaning a Palestinian state and a none-Jewish state, “a state of all its citizens,” or “a secular states,” as the Jews have no national ingredients and they do not deserve a state.
Abu Mazen is against full-fledge terrorism, like a national Intifada. But this not on a moral or political basis, but because he believes that a full-fledge Intifada unites the Israeli people, make him stronger in resistance, and mainly because it threatens the Palestinian case in the world and alienates it from world public opinion.
Hostility. The paranoid exhibits a highly hostile attitude towards the world. He is belligerent and irritable, humorless and extremely sensitive in an ever-growing need for love. The hostile paranoiac – suffused with suspicion and distrust – is ready for rejection, and he perceives it as a way of life. Thus, he is never disappointed. He is chronically angry, and senses hostility all around. He reacts viciously, savagely, to any perceived threat, and does not forgive insults, psychological wounds, or slights. He reacts by quick, cruel counterattacks. Above all, he is a loner, a solitary leader, who creates escalating social conflicts. He very accurately detects any hostility towards him, but is oblivious to his own role in creating and promoting it. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which provokes hostility. The men around him, even his most loyal aides, must behave as if always walking on eggs, and absorb his rage.
Arab conspiracy thinking has a powerful value. Its aim is to remove responsibility from the Arab person or group by believing that one is the victim of a conspiracy. Arab-Islamic culture aims to explain why the Arab or the Arabs are in a specific situation in the political, social, or economic fields. The Arabs are not to blame for their plight, but only outside factors. They externalize the guilt. They are always right. Furthermore, their reaction is aggressive and totalistic, as we can see in the Return to Islam phenomenon, especially in its new, more murderous form exemplified by Bin Laden’s movement.
Arab-Islamic political culture is a fertile field for political paranoia. The Middle East is bound to conspiracy thinking. It starts with a psychological process uncommon and unrecognized in Western culture, externalizing guilt. In Jewish and Christian culture, one takes responsibility and internalizes guilt. In contrast, the opposite is true in Arab-Islamic culture. The main question is: “Do I have a problem? You are guilty!” There is no tolerance for the rights and justice of the other. There is no conscience and no guilt or remorse. They are always right.
The need for enemies has socio-biological and psychological roots. In the Middle East, enemies are those outside Islam, and the politico-cultural adversaries of the Arabs. To the paranoiac, enemies are chosen because they have assumed roles, acquired traits, and displayed behavior that the paranoiac wishes to describe as fitting enemies. The Jews/Israelis fit the pattern of accusation perfectly, not only because of their historic role in the Diaspora and as a “protected people” (Dhimmi) in Islam, but because of Arab self-interest, both symbolic and material.
Fear of Loss of Autonomy. The paranoid leader is always prepared for an emergency, and in a state of readiness to flee. He is a man on the run, constantly worried about attempts by outside superior forces to impose their will on him. This is why he manifests exaggerated independence. At the same time, he puts himself in danger, precisely because of the fear of losing control. Subordinating and accommodating oneself to the will of others is necessary in political life. But the paranoiac cannot tolerate and accept compromise, and he finds himself in constant conflict with both real and imaginary situations and adversaries.
One of the first decisions Arafat made on his political road, and Abu Mazen continues his track, was that his organization would preserve its full independence of action. It would not be subject to the patronage of any Arab state, in order to ensure that it would act on behalf of Palestinian interests alone. He has zealously preserved this principle to this day. Nevertheless, knowing that the activities of his organization depended on the aid, support, and backing of Arab states, he made use of all possible manipulations and provocations, in order to drag them into war with Israel.
Abu Mazen, like Arafat, sought to bring about the deep involvement and active intervention of the Arab states in “the Solution to the Palestine Question”, however, without imposing patronage on the Palestinians. They are committed to independent action in conformity with their interests. From Arafat’s vantage point, and Abu Mazen follows, “independence of decision” (Istiqlal al-Qarar) is one of the three central strategies of the Palestinians. This is the right way from which there must be no retreat. This means that they need to make decisions independently, without dependence on alien interests. They must be the masters of their fate.
This is on the political level. On the personal level Abu Mazen absolutely refuses to accept domination by others. He is very sensitive to his independence, and does not tolerate any challenge to his status. He has partners on his way, but he is very sensitive to any criticism of himself. In this sense, Abu Mazen created a link and full integration between the ego, the personal, and the Palestinian collectivity.
The sense of betrayal enables Abu Mazen not only on account of the externalizing Arab culture, to lay the guilt on Israel for all the wrongs that the Palestinians have carried out, as well as for the harsh terrorist attacks against Israel itself. In his mind, this is a legitimate response of the weak, being the victim. The dehumanization of Israel and the Jews as such, are central in Abu Mazen’s worldview.
Projection. Projection is an aberration of the normal state of shame. The paranoiac externalizes his painful feelings to his environment, thereby transforming intolerable internal threats into more manageable external threats. This is the result of presuming that internal changes or states are due to external causes. At the same time, the purpose of projection is to be a device by which the paranoid leader externalizes threatening internal states to his surroundings. The personality style is characterized by hypersensitivity, loneliness, and aggressiveness. The paranoid leader does not withdraw from the world. Rather, he is concerned with the hidden motives of others lying behind appearances.
Abu Mazen has a powerful need to dominate his surroundings up to the smallest details, and to direct events. He is characterized as possessing low emotional stability, and this explains his deep emotional need to demonstrate superiority, a profound aspiration to earn the admiration and respect of others, but at the very same time, profound suspicion towards them. He is constantly in competition, constantly aspiring to win and prove his superiority to others. His speeches rampant with contradictions. He uses ambiguity both inwardly and outwardly, both in Arabic and in English, towards the Israeli “peace camp” and towards hostile factors opposed to him.
He is ready to sacrifice many others of his own people for the sake of achieving the goal, without any emotion or regret. He never did any soul searching or expressed regret or had any doubts about the price. He sees this as an advantage, presenting the Palestinian distress to the world. The sacrifice in lives is the most successful means of attaining the goal, and the Palestinian victims mandate resoluteness in the struggle. From his vantage point, the end justifies the means. For that reason he has never been concerned about the social-economic-employment-health situation of the Palestinians. With all the billions of dollars that he has received, not one refugee family has been rehabilitated from their refugee state.
Abu Mazen is addicted to the communications media, and brilliantly uses them as a tool of manipulation. The exaggerations, the lies, the total distortions are tools central in importance in the media’s openness to him. Even when he appears ridiculous, he succeeds in transmitting his messages. These skills show in his unique negotiations management. The bargaining is in the spirit of an Oriental bazaar, by which only the cunning wins. In all discussions he displays impressive dramatic ability, though his suspicion is obsessive. Whenever he has come to negotiations, it has been difficult for him to believe assurances, and he has brought the talks to a dead end.
Delusional Thinking. The paranoiac holds strong, false beliefs about his surrounding reality that represent the crystallized expression of projective thinking. Of all the paranoid delusions, those of persecution and grandiosity, in particular, form part of his political world. The paranoiac expects to be treated in a special way, and when he thinks he is not receiving his due, he reacts with hurt, anger, and vindictive rage. Delusion leads to the distortion of actual events and of rational beliefs. At the same time, the paranoid leader expects to receive special treatment, as a manifestation of his narcissistic pathology. This means he cannot trust anyone, nor confide in anyone. Indeed, intimate personal friendship is a luxury that he cannot afford. On the other hand, delusional thinking may be politically helpful, since political failures confirm his suspicions while political success seems to confirm his grandiosity.
Abu Mazen’s behavior is impulsive, with a strong inclination to outbursts of rage that are difficult to anticipate, while his moods change quickly and often. He was and remains unpredictable in his reactions. He reacts impulsively and sharply out of proportion to any criticism. This is the reason why it is not clear how he will react to proposals for a settlement or accord. At the same time he has an astonishing ability to impress and win over people in personal meetings. He leads people to empathize with him, to feel sympathetic, to see him as a vulnerable man deserving protection and defense.
Summing up: he who really believes that Abu Mazen is a reliable partner for peace negotiations – think again. He is the embodiment of stubbornness, like Arafat, with other means. He does not recognize Israel and he is not willing to reach a territorial compromise with Israel. Unfortunately, the international support he gets and the huge benevolent monetary donations the Palestinians get makes him more stubborn. That is why, paradoxically, the first step to bring the Palestinians to the negotiation table and to have an endurable solid peace is that the international donations will be cut off, and the Palestinian leadership will be opposed by harsh options. Continuation of the current circumstances is a guaranteed formula to conflicts and violence, never to peace.
Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message
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.
Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers
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
Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in 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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