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The Origin and Essence of “Palestine” and “Palestinians” as political entities (A)

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“Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people are not mentioned in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah (Hadīth and Sīrah), or in the entire Islamic Scriptures, or all along Islamic history. This is the most important fact to understand the political issues today. If any, “Palestine” and “Palestinians” are not only new invention of the 20th century, but the origin of the names is not Islamic or Jewish or other local Middle Eastern source, but a British one, a name taken from the Roman period.

Moreover, if the name “Palestine” has any linguistic relation to the Roman name “Palaestina” that meant to erase the Jewish name, Eretz-Yisrael, the Land of Israel, after it was conquered, there is nothing whatsoever concerning the name “Palestinians” as a nation, politically, socially, or etymologically.

To add to this scientific truth and reality, Jerusalem is also not mentioned in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah (Hadīth and Sīrah). After it was conquered by the Muslims in 638, it was called by the Muslim invaders “The City of the Temple House” (Madinat Bayt al-Maqdis). Bayt al-Maqdis is translated in Hebrew, the Jewish Beit Ha-Miqdash.

To end the religious-historical-political debate, this territory is called in the Qur’an “The Land of the Children of Israel” (Ard Banī-Isra’īl); “The Blessed Land” of the Children of Israel (al-Ard al-Mubārakah); “The Holy Land” of the Children of Israel (al-Ard al-Muqadasah). No “Palestine” or “Palestinians”, but the Children of Israel.

From Islamic perspective, Allah has assigned the Holy Land to the Children of Israel until the day of Judgement (Sûrat al-Mā’idah, 5:21). “we made the people who were deemed weak to inherit the eastern lands and the western ones which we had blessed; and the good word of your Lord was fulfilled in the Children of Israel” (Sûrat al-A’rāf, 7:137). “And we said unto the Children of Israel: dwell in the land of promise; but when the promise of the Hereafter cometh, we shall bring you as a crowd gathered out of various nations” (Sûrat Banī Isrā’īl, 17:104). “We made the Children of Israel the inheritors of the Land (Sûrat al-Shû’arā’, 26:59).

By that, the religious argumentation is over for good. There is no “Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people, but the Land of Israel alone. As for the historical side, it is also short and clear: the territory called “Palestine” is a new political invention of the beginning of the 20th century; and the name “Palestinians” is the name of a people beginning to identify themselves from the second half of the 20th century.

“Palestine” had no special geographic entity or political role whatsoever in the history of the region, and the “Palestinians” had no specific sociopolitical or cultural identity, but only after the creation of the State of Israel. “Palestine” has never been a territorial-cultural unit in history, let alone a political one, with its people as one recognized entity, struggling for independence among other political entities in the region.

There is nothing at all, in the entire Islamic literature or poetry, archaeological or scientific, from the 7th century to the 20th century that mention whatsoever “Palestine” and “Palestinians”. Indeed, this is a new creation of the 20th century. Moreover, had the British called the territory not “Palestine” but “Jupiter”, would we be hearing today of a Jupiterian people fighting to liberate their Jupiterian territory?

To set the scientific undoubted truth: this has nothing to do with the question whether there is a “Palestinian” people today. Contrary to the “Palestinians”, who refute and deny any connection of the Jews to their land, the “Land of Israel,” it has to be said: today there is a Palestinian people, a new and invented one, but still it exists. But, it is a new creation of the 20th century, and “Palestinianism” as a national identity, is the creation of the middle of the 20th century.

So far for “Palestine” as a territory and “Palestinians” as a people. From here we can debate the relevant issues honestly and correctly, without the bias of false propaganda. King David captured Jerusalem and made it a political and religious center for the Jews. His son Solomon bureaucratized the Jewish state and inaugurated the First Temple. Since the dynasty of David and Solomon, and after the destruction of the Second Jewish House by the Romans in year 70, this territory, the Land of Israel, was conquered and ruled by many empires in history, and still, except of the Crusaders’ “kingdom of Jerusalem,” there has never been an independent political entity with its unique nation living and residing in the territory of the Land of Israel.

To make it even clearer: since the Islamic occupation of the Land of Israel in 634 and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there was never an Arab or Islamic independent rule or political regime in this territory. It was ruled independently in the first Jewish Kingdom, the Second Jewish Kingdom, and the State of Israel. This is a historical fact no one can deny scientifically.    

Bernard Lewis, perhaps the best Islamic and Middle East researcher, has made a comprehensive review of the issue, in which we can discern the following aspects. The word Palestine comes from Philistine, originally denoting the southern coastal region. In Hebrew that area was known as Pleshet, a Hebrew word. In the New English Bible, the Latin name Palaestina is replaced by Philistia in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the word Palestine does not occur at all.

The Babylonian conquest of the Land of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, culminated in destruction of the First Temple. The Roman conquest of the Land of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, culminated in destruction of the Second Temple. At first, the Romans called the country “Provincia Judaea”. But after crushing the Bar-Kokhba rebellion in the year 135, the Romans changed the name to “Provincia Syria Palaestina”, part of its policy of divide-and-rule, with the intention of uprooting any memory of Jewish existence. In about 400 CE, Palestine was split into two provinces known as “Palaestina Prima” and “Palaestina Secunda”. Later, in 425 CE, “Palaestina Tertia” was added. The new Roman name for Jerusalem was “Aelia Capitolina”. The Jews continued to consider it as the Land of Israel and “The Promised Land”.

After the Arabs had conquered the country, Palaestina Prima became Jund Filastin, the military district of Filastin (the Arabic adaptation of the Roman name), administered from Ramla; Palaestina Secunda including Western Galilee, became Jund al-Urdun (Jordan military district), was administered from Tiberias. The Arab division of the country, like the Roman, was not vertical between east and west, but horizontal, with Filastin in the south and Urdun in the north.

During the Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, the country was treated merely as part of Syria (bilad al-Sham). For the Crusaders, the area was called “The Holy Land” or the “Kingdom of Jerusalem”. The end of Crusader rule in Jerusalem came in 1187, when Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi) drove them out. After the Islamic re-conquest of the country, the term Filastin did not come back into use. The parts of the country were named after major cities (Jerusalem, Gaza, Nablus, and Nazareth). In various places, the area was sometimes called al-Quds Sahel, Jerusalem coast.

During the Ottoman Empire the Land of Israel was divided into three districts as administrative units (Sanjaks): Gaza, Jerusalem, and Nablus, with their provincial capital in Damascus. The country was known as “Southern Syria” (Suriyah al-Janubiyah). More specifically, the area from Safed to Jerusalem was part of the Vilayet (province) of Beirut. Indeed, Ottoman rule further emphasized the absence of any socio-cultural or political identity of the country in Arab and Islamic thought. For the population of the area, the territory had never meant more than an administrative sub-district, and had been forgotten even in the limited sense.

What was the social-political reality of the Land of Israel up to the end of the 19th century? Most documents and Christian travelers who visited the country described it as a land in decay. The common adjectives were “desolate” and “neglected”. “So abandoned that even the imagination cannot give it the splendor of life.” “The emptiness of a silent world.” The economy was primitive, the transportation wretched, and the roads dangerous. Jaffa and Haifa were described as “frozen, wretched life”.

According to all the demographic estimates, in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were about 300,000 persons, most of them a mixed multitude of recently arrived migrants. Arab Muslims were the majority of the population carried on a semi-nomadic way of life, and lived in the mountains of the Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. The Christians were concentrated in the holy cities, in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The Jews lived mainly in Jerusalem, where they were a majority of the population, as well as in Hebron, and the Galilee cities of Safed and Tiberias .

Until the end of the First World War, Palestine was divided into several districts belonging administratively to Syria, and the inhabitants considered themselves part of Syria, broadly defined. British rule from late 1917, made “Palestine” the name of the formal political entity. Neither Jews nor Arabs consented to the name, however the Jews accepted it formally together with the name the Land of Israel, whereas the Arabs saw themselves as part of Syria and rejected it.

The best account of the period is still Porath’s analysis. The idea of a British mandate for a Jewish National Home stimulated the counter-notion of Palestine’s unity with Syria, with Damascus as its capital. This trend is attested by the recommendation of the King-Crane Commission that, “The unity of Syria be preserved, in accordance with the petition of the great majority of the people of Syria.” King and Crane recommended that Palestine be included in Syria.

From the beginning, the British were engaged on three separate political tracks. This multi-faceted policy bore crucial influence on the future of the Middle East. It began with official correspondence, ten letters written, starting in July 1915, between Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sherif Hussein of Mecca, whom the British made spokesman of the Arabs.

According to Clayton, the British Director of Military Intelligence, Britain only wanted to keep the friendship and active assistance of the various Arab chieftains. McMahon never had it in mind to set up an Arab state, since the conditions throughout Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Syria did not allow such a scheme to be put into practice. To Storrs, the Oriental Secretary, the Hashemite demands were impossible, and Hussein’s borders were in fact tragi-comic. Moreover, Hussein had received no mandate whatsoever from his Arab counterparts, and the whole issue was premature and out of context.

All British officials maintained that McMahon had specifically excluded all the areas west of the district of Damascus, what they call Palestine. According to Lloyd George, McMahon was very convinced that the exclusion of Palestine was well understood by Sherif Hussein. Colonel Vickery, an expert Arabist, stated that he could affirm most definitely that Hussein’s demands were centered only on Syria. Hussein stated quite emphatically that he did not concern himself with Palestine at all, and he had no desires there. This was Clayton’s impression too.

The second British political track was the secret talks with France and Tsarist Russia, resulting in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, concerning the post-war division of the Middle East under European control and their respective spheres of influence. The region was to be divided into zones of direct and indirect British and French rule, while “Palestine,” the brown zone on the map, was to be internationally administered.

The third British political track was the Balfour Declaration, a letter from the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, declaring that “His majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

Much has been written about this commitment and its consequences. Essentially, the arguments are divided into four: a) strategic self-interest. The Jewish entity would be friendly to British interests in the region; b) self-deception: the Jewish people wielded enormous economic and political power that would help usher the US into the First World War, and would stop the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; c) religious idealism: the British Protestants believed it was the duty of Christianity to help the Jews return to Palestine, as a precondition for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; d) admiration of the British leadership for Judaism and Zionism as conformed to the principles of national self-determination and the right of a nation to rule on a nation-state.

The British government was never consistent in its interpretation of the Declaration, and did not speak with one single voice. Yet, all agreed that President Wilson’s wartime Fourteen Points support the principles of self-determination, and the rights of small nations to independence, including the Jews.

Nevertheless, the Declaration was not published hastily or frivolously; nor was it formulated out of ignorance of the facts, in the words of Lord Amery, one of its authors. It is a striking fact that four drafts were drawn up, starting in July 1917, before the Declaration was published. Talks and discussions about the various approaches towards Palestine had already begun in Britain in 1915.

The following aspects are important for understanding the matter:

First, this was a step taken with deliberation, which the British government decided upon cautiously. It was an inseparable part of its policy. The government received the consent of all the major parties in Britain, and the decision was enthusiastically supported by policy-makers, particularly the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and the foreign minister, Lord Balfour, admirers of Zionism and the advancement of Jewish interests in the Land of Israel.

Second, it suited the perceptions of British military men and statesmen who viewed the Jewish National Home in the Land of Israel as a basis for loyal manpower, a barrier to the French expansion southwards, from Syria and Lebanon, and an alternate base for the British presence in Egypt for defending the Suez Canal.

Third, Britain’s Principal Allies, the United States, France, Russia, and Italy, knew the contents of the Declaration before it was made public.

Fourth, inclusion of the Declaration in the Mandate over Palestine that Britain received gave it the force of law and a recognized international status.

Fifth, the Declaration had an attraction for public opinion in Britain and the United States, and it suited the spirit of the times that sympathized with national movements for attaining self-determination.

The goal of the British government was defined by the Foreign Office: to establish a state in its natural and historic boundaries, that constant immigration and economic development would make into a Jewish state. From Britain’s viewpoint, the greatest and oldest historical wrong done to the Jews was coming to an end.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

The Arabs argued that the Balfour Declaration was merely a statement of sympathy for the Zionist movement, however, this was not the issue. The historical context was worked out in the Agreement of Understanding and Cooperation which was signed on 3 January 1919 by Amir Faisal – ”the leader of the Arab uprising”, according to the King-Crane Commission, “the representative of the Arab national movement”, according to the British – and by Chaim Weizmann, representing the Zionist movement. The aim was defined as collaboration in developing the Arab state and a Jewish Palestine:

Relations…shall be controlled by the most cordial good will and understanding (art. 1)…the definite boundaries between the Arab state and Palestine shall be determined (art. 2)…carrying into effect the British Government Declaration of the 2nd November 1917 (art. 3)…all necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine in large scale” (art 4).

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

In his famous exchange of letters of March 3-5, 1919, with Felix Frankfurter, Amir Faisal recognized that there was no distinguishable Palestinian nationhood, and declared “There is room in Syria for both of us.” However, Arab pressures on Amir Faisal showed their success in an interview in the Jewish Chronicle of October 3, 1919. He explained his views about the meaning of his agreement with Weizmann as follows: From the Arab viewpoint, Palestine is merely a district, and the objective was to set up an Arab state including Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. The Arabs could not retreat from this position. The Jews are members of the Mosaic faith and are not a nationality. Moreover, the possible immigration of Jews is up to 1,500 per year. This territory would be a sub-district of the Arab kingdom under his kingship, in which the Jews would enjoy cultural rights. However, Jewish sovereignty is utterly rejected.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

With the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, Amir Faisal presented a memorandum describing the demands and proposals of the Arab national movement. His proposals were rejected, but subsequent to the tension that developed between Britain and France, the president of the United States, Wilson, proposed sending an investigating commission to examine the attitudes of the inhabitants as to a desirable government. This commission, which in the end had only two members, American representatives, King and Crane, presented its recommendations in August 1919 in a detailed report: Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine) should be considered a single political unit, headed by Amir Faisal, and it should be guided by a mandatory power, but not by France. The commission proposed changing Zionist plan and preventing the turning of Palestine into a Jewish state. However, this report was filed away by the American administration.

There was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

Meanwhile, the mandate principle was accepted in June 1919, in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. In April 1920, at a session of the San-Remo Conference, it was agreed to grant the mandate over Syria and Lebanon to France, and the mandates over Palestine and Iraq to Britain. Included in the mandate was the Balfour Declaration as a document obliging political action. Thereby the Balfour declaration took on international validity.

The mandate was approved by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, but it entered into effect only a year later, when the Churchill White Paper was included in it. Winston Churchill was the Colonial Secretary. His White Paper stipulated that the National Home provisions of the Mandate were not applicable to Trans-Jordan to the east. Thus, the Churchill White Paper cut away a major part of Palestine (35,468 square miles out of 46,339) in order to set up the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, known at that time as Trans-Jordan.

Still, there was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

In the remaining years until the conclusion of British rule in 1948, the Jewish and Arab inhabitants lived in a country officially named “Palestine” in English, “Filastin” in Arabic, and “Palestina (E.I.)” in Hebrew, the initials E.I. standing for Eretz-Israel.

Therefore, in opposition to the Arab claims that Britain was characterized by blatantly inconsistent policy, by a zig-zag policy, there are ample proofs there was precisely a high degree of consistency in its policy, though there were disputes between policy-making officials in London and policy executing officials on the ground. Moreover, Kedourie is right in his brilliant study of in the Anglo-Arab labyrinth, saying that if there was a fraud, and if manipulations were performed, it was precisely the Arabs, masters at negotiating, who tried to change the circumstances of political history in order to dictate other political frameworks, so as to make reality turn in their favor.

If one closely examines British policy from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to the MacDonald White Paper in 1939, he will note a drastic shift of British policy towards the Arab positions. Yet, it was not enough for the Arabs demanding an extreme pro-Arab policy, since they demanded all of the territory, out of total rejection to Israel, as they do today. Still, there was no mentioning of a “Palestinian” people.

So much for “Palestine”, but what about the “Palestinians”? Who are the “Palestinians”? The population now called “Palestinians” were a mixture of many peoples roaming and migrating around the region, from and through Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Arabia and even Sudan. The Syrian and Egyptian accents of Arabic are very conspicuous among the Arab population.

During the Ottoman period, the Arabs living in the country were known particularly by their religious affiliation. They did not regard themselves – nor were they regarded by others – as “Palestinians”.

All reliable history books clearly prove that the non-Jewish population of “Palestine” grew steadily by many groups from around countries after the Jewish-Zionist flourishing economy and its enterprises. The 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, in volume 20, under the entry “Palestine,” provides a detailed information on the inhabitants, roughly estimates to be 650,000. They are composed of a large number of elements, differing widely in ethnological affinities, language and religion. There are no less than 20 foreign ethnicities other than the small native fellahin and the Jews and Christians living in the cities: Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Arabian, Nawar, Turkic, Armenian, Greek, Italian, Turkoman, Kurd, Bosnian, Circassian, Sudanese, Algerian, and others. It mentions that this complexity makes it no easy task to dwell on the ethnology of “Palestine.”

Therefore, if there were Palestinians and a Palestinian state existed, when was it founded and by whom? What were its borders? What were its capital and major cities? What was its language and its national emblem and currency? Who were its leaders, what were their interactions with other leaders, and where they are written in accords of the history of the region? There is nothing of the sort, and all are imagined and fabricated.

Indeed, the people called “Palestinians” are anything but generic Arabs collected from all over the regional countries. If they really have a genuine ethnic identity entitled for self-determination, why did they never try to become independent until the establishment of the State of Israel, and mainly the 1967 Arab defeat? The “Palestinians” have only one motivation: the destruction of Israel as a state and as a nation.

The first years of the Mandate saw their stubborn struggle to be part of Syria, to have a Syrian identity. The Arabs in the country began to use the name “Palestinian” only on account of the Zionist successes. Their identification as Palestinians came only after the establishment of the State of Israel, and it was purely crystallized after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.

As late as 1945, the famous Arab historian Philip Hitti appeared before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and vehemently claimed that there were no Palestinian people, and that no “Palestine” had existed in history. This was also the official position of the Palestinian Arab representatives. They stated that “Palestine” was part of Syria in the geographic sense, and its inhabitants belonged to the Syrian branch of the Arab family of peoples.

This was also the position of the Arab representatives who appeared before the UN General Assembly in 1947. They asserted that Palestine was part of Greater Syria, and that the Palestinians did not constitute an entity separate and distinct from the Syrians. The striking phenomenon that emerges here is the reference to the Arab population as Arabs, not Palestinians. All the international decisions spoke of Arabs. The refugees too were referred to in the 1950s and 1960s as Arabs. Even Security Council Resolution 242 spoke only of Arab refugees, not of “Palestinians”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Middle East

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

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Image source: NATO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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