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

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The Palestinian national movement has become the hostile stepsister, mainly the slayer of the Zionist national movement, and it remained until today absolutist in its goals, the destruction of Israel as a state and as a nation. Every people are created in a long historical process. The issue is not whether there is a Palestinian people, but the question should be asked is: What are the goals of the Palestinians? What is the terrain of their aspirations? How and where do they define their state? What are the borders of their state?

The Palestinian national movement claims, in Article 3 of the Palestinian Charter: “The Palestinian Arab people possess the legal right to its homeland, and when the liberation of its homeland is completed, it will exercise self-determination solely according to its own will and choice.”

This means that their national existence is lacking as long as the State of Israel exists. Palestinian national existence can arise only on the ruins of the State of Israel, and not alongside it. This is the immediate meaning of Article 3. It is necessary to focus on these issues, and not on the sterile dispute about the Palestinian national entity, its existence or nature. There is a Palestinian people, because there is a national group that defines itself as such. But the Palestinians have not changed their ways of thinking or their operational ways, and they still aspire to set up “Greater Palestine” on the wreckage of the State of Israel.

Nevertheless, there is a large problem in objectively and scientifically defining “Who is a Palestinian,” just as there is a difficulty in defining “Who is an Arab,” and just as there is a dispute over the question of “Who is a Jew.” The concept Arab has changed and developed over the years, but there never was an agreed, accepted definition of it. Ibn Khaldun, the Arab historian, claimed that the Arabs were only wandering Bedouin. This was also the meaning of the term until the 18th century in the Middle East. Arab leaders have tried to determine a definition of an “Arab” in accordance with several distinct criteria: he who lives on Arab soil, speaks the Arabic language, his mother tongue being Arabic, was born into Arab culture, and is proud of the splendid Arab past.

Others spoke of Arab culture and loyalty as a national feeling, while yet others argued for belonging to the Arab nation and living the Arab life style. The common elements are language, which is a cultural component; a common history that expresses the Arab past; regional and cultural unity; and vehement resistance to Zionism and international imperialism. However, are these enough? They possess great importance, but they are still very problematic. We still have remained in a situation where the concept is amorphous and a matter of emotions, and not necessarily of the conscious intellect.

Who, then, are the Palestinians? In particular, what is their national goal and how do they seek to achieve it? According to the Palestinian national covenant, in Article 5: “The Palestinians are the Arab nationals who were living permanently in Palestine until 1947, whether they were expelled from there or remained…”

What do they intend by referring to the year 1947? Does this merely refer to the Partition Plan, UN General Assembly resolution 181? We have to refer to Articles 19 and 20 that reject the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate document, and everything deriving from them. Now we understand: the so-called Palestinians are demanding “Greater Palestine”, which historically lay on both sides of the Jordan River.

Here is the strong link between defining national identity and defining the problem. There are many Palestinian groups within various political-juridical frameworks, and therefore the definition of Who-is-a-Palestinian does not derive from one’s national or geographic origin. Rather, from their political point of view, being Palestinian means supporting a total national-ideological program.

The name Palestine, which refers to the territory of the Land of Israel, and the name Palestinian which refers to the Arab people, crystallized with the establishment of the State of Israel and creation of an Israeli political identity. Only then did the Palestinian politicians notice the importance of the name, and turned “Palestine” into an operative idea, a territorial entity existing since ancient times. The connection between the name and the people is new and artificial to that same extent. However, the link between the origin of the Palestinian people – a mixed multitude of groups from the region, which had recently arrived – and the historical peoples of the Land of Israel, is not only artificial, deceitful and fraudulent, but ridiculous, pathetic and lunatic.

The Palestinian problem is, above all, a political problem with political meanings. The assertion that Israel came into existence on the basis of injustice to the Palestinian nation is totally unacceptable, and it proceeds on gross errors and lies.

It is not the problem of a people uprooted from its land; after all, most Palestinians have lived to this day in historic mandatory Palestine, whether in the boundaries defined in 1922, on both sides of the Jordan, or in the limited definition of the Western territory.

To claim that the Palestinians were displaced by Israel, when no such entity existed at that time, is playing with the facts of history and justice. The Balfour declaration of 1917, being part of the Mandate given to Britain to fulfill, granted the whole territory of “Greater Palestine,” including East Jordan to the Jewish people, and it was recognized by the 1919 Paris Peace Settlement after WWI and the League of Nations as was legitimized in the Mandatory system. It was also legitimized by the UN resolutions.

To assert that Israel has taken territory in 1948 owned by the Palestinians and known to be theirs is totally false, since the Jewish settlements were on empty places and partly bought in full money from local inhabitants. Israel did not took areas belonging to the Palestinians in the 1967 war. This is a big atrocious lie. Between 1948 and 1967, the so called Palestinians were considered and treated only as Arab refugees. They were not mentioned even by Arab states as political problem and as a nation deserve of a territory. All Arab leaders clearly differentiated between “the solution of Palestine issue” (Hall Qadiyat Filastin) and the resolution of the Arab refugees (Qadiyat al-Lija’ al-Arab).

Indeed this differentiation is clearly revealed on the international arena. Even as late as November 1967, the UN Security Council Resolution 242 mentions ‘the refugee problem’ and not a ‘Palestinian people’. The fact is that a Palestinian entity grew as a political movement precisely because of the Arab states defeat in 1967 war. Only from that time on, the world began to hear of a “Palestinian People.”

The Palestinian issue is not a problem of refugees, since only a minority of them is living in camps, and examination of the socioeconomic data shows clearly that their situation resembles in its nature the problems of hundreds of millions of inhabitants of Third World countries – and in many cases their situation is much better.

The Palestinian issue is not a problem of a society that was uprooted from its human environment, since almost all Palestinians are living in an Arabic speaking society, in Arabic culture, and under Arab regimes. They live under Arab regimes, mainly Jordan and Lebanon, and they are antagonistic to these states; in the western territory of the Land of Israel they live as independent entities under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza; and they live as a minority in Israel.

Most of the population of Jordan are Palestinians and most Palestinians have or had Jordanian identity. In this sense, the situation of the Palestinians does not at all resemble the situation of the Jews in the Diaspora before they had a state. The true political situation is absolutely different from Palestinian propaganda, where its aims to be achieved through national struggle by prolonged inhuman terrorism and at the same time political demands of humanitarian base: the refugees’ Right of Return.

The assertion that Israel came into existence on the basis of injustice to the Palestinian nation is totally unacceptable historically, politically and ideologically. It proceeds on gross errors and big lies.

To claim that the Palestinian nation was displaced by Israel, when no such entity existed at that time, is playing with the facts of history and human logic.

To assert that Israel has taken territory owned by the Palestinians and known to be theirs is totally false that has never suited the history and reality.

To argue that Israel took areas belonging to a Palestinian political entity in the Six Day War is a big lie. The West bank was conquered by Jordan in 1948, and its population annexed to Jordan and agreed to have a Jordanian citizenship; and the Gaza strip was conquered by Egypt, which retained their mandatory identity. From 1948 to 1967, this population has never raised its voice being a Palestinian people and demanding political aims and independence. It was only after 1967, when Israel has liberated these territories, which were promised by the Mandate that we heard of a “Palestinian people.

Indeed, the Palestinian entity grew as a political movement because of the Israeli defeat of the Arab states in 1967 war, taking territories from Jordan and Egypt, whose control was never legitimized even by other Arab states, let alone the international community. Until then, the Palestinians were considered and treated only as Arab refugees. Further, UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 mentions “the refugee problem” and not a “Palestinian people”.

The question still remains: what do the Palestinians want? What are their goals? What and where is the Palestine that they speak of? How and where do they perceive the State of Israel existing and on which borders? Where was the “Palestinian people” in those years? Where they even raised their voice for political aims? Above all, what kind of justice do the Palestinians want? Where do they wish to implement their justice? And what are the borders of their Palestine?

From the viewpoint of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestine has a normative validity. It proposes total solutions to an imagined reality, and it is determined to view Palestine as an indivisible unit. Thus, their very definition of Palestine implies the necessity of liquidating Israel. Many of the articles in the Palestinian National Charter (al-Mithaq al-Watani al-Filastini) explicitly emphasize liberation of the entire territory of Palestine by violence and armed struggle. The same thrust is found in the resolutions of meetings of the Palestinian National Council (al-Majlis al-Watani al-Filastini) held over the years.

Article 1 of the Palestinian National Charter states: “Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian Arab people and an integral part of the great Arab homeland, and the people of Palestine is a part of the Arab nation.” This reveals the central trend in Palestinian policy from the beginning, the absolute demand for the whole territory of what they call Palestine, without sharing any part of it with others or dividing it. Therefore, self-determination would come only after the complete liberation of Palestine, as clearly stated in Article 3 of the Charter.

It is election season in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians are preparing for local and municipal elections in the Palestinian Authority held territory, on October 8. In 2012 elections Hamas boycotted the vote, allowing Fatah to claim victory. This time Hamas has decided to participate, a move that caught the Palestinian Authority by surprise. Hamas’s has started a frightening platform, when one of its top muftis, Yunis al-Astal, issued a Fatwah banning Palestinians from voting for any other party other than Hamas, otherwise he will be considered an infidel and apostate.

Significantly, official Fatah Facebook page on August 2, 2016, boasts about leading Palestinians in terror. Fatah did not cite even one peace-seeking or peace-promoting achievement, but only acts of violence and terror. Fatah has killed 11,000 Israelis; Fatah has sacrificed 170,000 Shuhada’; Fatah was the first to carry out operations of terror attacks, and it was the first to reach the nuclear reactor in Dimona; Fatah was the first to defeat the Zionist enemy; Fatah led the Palestinian attack on Israel in the UN.

The 1988 Hamas charter (“Islamic Resistance Movement”) is genocidal. Its slogan and model are: “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Qur’an its charter, Jihad its path, and death for the cause of Allah its most sublime belief” (Article 8). Yet the United Nations has never denounced it, and most of Western countries do not label Hamas as terrorist organization. Hamas is against any peace process: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. All initiatives, proposals, and international conferences are a waste of time and vain endeavors” (Article 13).

Hamas is committed to continuing Jihad against “the Jews” until the Day of Judgment. The land of Palestine, it affirms, must be cleansed from their impurity and viciousness. Muslims are obligated by order of the Prophet to fight and kill the Jews wherever they find them. This call to genocide is justified by a Hadith which concludes article 7 of the charter: The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to implement Allah’s promise, whatever time that may take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until the Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them), until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: Oh Muslim, Oh Abdullah, there is a Jew behind me, come on and kill him.”  

For Hamas it is clear: there is only one political system and one rule: “The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinguished Palestinian movement, whose allegiance is to Allah, and whose way of life is Islam. It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine, for under the wing of Islam followers of all religions can coexist in security and safety where their lives, possessions and rights are concerned. In the absence of Islam, strife will be rife, oppression spreads, evil prevails and schisms and wars will break out” (Article 6).

“The Islamic Resistance Movement is a humanistic movement. It takes care of human rights and is guided by Islamic tolerance when dealing with the followers of other religions. It does not antagonize anyone of them except if others antagonize it or stands in its way to hamper its moves. Under the wing of Islam, it is possible for the followers of the three religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – to coexist in peace and quiet with each other. Peace and quiet would not be possible except under the wing of Islam. Past and present history are the best witness to that” (Article 31).

Hyowever, historically The phrase “Palestinian Arab people” implies that there were a Palestinian people in the past and that it had acted as a political collectivity. Of course, there never was such a collectivity. The Arabs living in geographical Palestine were called inhabitants of “Southern Syria” (Suriya al-Janubiyyah) and they considered themselves as Muslims first, then as Arabs, and then, by ascriptive affiliation, as natives of a town or village and/or as part of a tribe and extended family (Hamulah).

During the Mandatory period, a “Palestinian” meant a person who bore a Palestinian identity card issued by the British Mandatory authorities. After the rise of the State of Israel, the term “Palestinians” developed into a national definition of the Arabs connected with the country, comprising a self-conscious collectivity. But only after the 1967 war did the Palestinian national movement emerges politically in the Middle Eastern and international arenas.

Article 4 of the Palestinian National Charter asserts: The Palestinian identity is a genuine, essential, and inherent characteristic; it is transmitted from parents to children. The Zionist occupation and the dispersal of the Palestinian Arab people. do not make them lose their Palestinian identity, and their membership of the Palestinian community, nor do they negate them.

It is very important to note that the Palestinian leadership has emphasized time and again that even those Palestinians who have acquired foreign citizenship shall remain Palestinians with full rights to their homeland, no matter where they live nor how much time has elapsed. This means that being a Palestinian is independent of citizenship or formal nationality.

From the beginning, members of the Palestinian National Council and the National Executive Committee have mostly been delegates of the organizations comprising the Palestine Liberation Organization, as a political umbrella, while other members have been independents. Indeed, the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization was superimposed on the Palestinians. For this reason, Article 8 of the Charter tries to settle the issue of legitimacy and to achieve internal unity. This is why the Palestine Liberation Organization declares itself the representative of the revolutionary forces (Article 26).

Now the last question arises. Where is Palestine? What are its boundaries? Article 2 of the Charter clarifies this matter: Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit.

On these grounds, the Palestinians are not only making a claim to Western Palestine, but also to eastern Palestine, that is, the territory of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Various resolutions of the Palestinian National Council affirm this outright. Indeed, the Palestinian national movement, represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization, frankly shows that it is far from accepting any territorial compromise.

Declarations suggesting willingness to compromise are only on the tactical level, and even the partial agreements that they are willing to sign are typified by a policy of take and take, most assuredly not one of give and take. This new strategy began in 1974 at the twelfth session of the Palestinian National Council. It was reinforced through the years. What motivates the Palestine Liberation Organization’s leaders is a policy of illusion and deception as embodied in the Staged Strategy, from 1974.

This reality presents several factual aspects. The fact is this conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has attract the attention of the international community for decades, and many hundreds of attempts to achieve political compromises and arrangements have been made and are still in process. They all were rejected.

The fact is that even the most moderate among the Jews, the members of Brit-Shalom, in the 1930s, who were ready for far-reaching concessions, even rejecting Zionism and Jewish statehood, did not succeed in achieving a basis for common understanding with the local Arab leadership.

The fact is that during the period of the British mandate, the local Arab leadership was not ready for any compromise as to Jewish immigration, as to Jewish settlement on the land, or as to the various partition plans that were proposed.

The fact is that the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947 was totally rejected by the local Arab leadership with the encouragement of the Arab states; and on the morrow of the UN vote, they began an organized war against the Jewish population.

The fact is that when the Jewish leadership decided to establish the State of Israel on the basis of the UN Partition Plan, war was proclaimed by the Arab states, with the encouragement of the local Arabs, in order to prevent establishment of the Jewish State.

The fact is that after the failure of the Arab states in the war, frontiers for the Jewish state were determined in negotiations with the Arab states, but they have appropriated the Palestine issue to themselves, and until 1967, the Palestinian issue was known only as a humanitarian problem of refugees.

The fact is that UN General Assembly Resolution 194, of December 11, 1948, refers mainly to the conciliation regime with the Arab states, and only in Article 11 does it relate to the “refugee problem” at all, and if this means Palestinians, it no less means the Jewish refugees from Arab states.

The fact is that from 1948 on, the Palestinians had no connection with regional political reality in general. They were not an active political player, they did not have any territorial assets, and their problem was defined as humanitarian one.

The fact is that even Resolution 242 of November 1967, deals with the issue under the rubric of the refugee problem, not with that of a Palestinian people, not with a political problem referring to an exploited disinherited people.

The fact is that in the 1967 war, Israel conquered militarily and politically liberated areas of mandatory Palestine which had been occupied by Arab states – Jordan, which had annexed the West Bank in April 1950, making it part of Jordanian territory, and Egypt which continued to view the inhabitants of Gaza as being subjects of the Mandate.

The fact is that the so-called Palestinians were not sovereign over any territory, ever in the far and recent history of the region, and the State of Israel never conquered any territory from them.

The fact is that the Palestinian national movement, in contrast to Palestinian identity, was shaped and organized only after the 1967 war and its chief goal to this day has not been to obtain a territory for the Palestinians and to live at peace with Israel. Rather, it has been to liquidate the State of Israel through indiscriminate terrorism, an inhuman incitement, and to take possession of the territory in its entirety.

The fact is that the Palestinians were not sovereign over any territory, and the State of Israel never conquered any territory from them. The Palestinian national movement, in contrast to Palestinian identity, was shaped and organized only after the 1967 war, and its chief goal to this day has been to take possession of Palestine in its entirety through indiscriminate terrorism and to control the territory of “Greater Palestine,” including Jordan, by totally demolishing the State of Israel.

The fact is that the Palestinian national movement is a terrorist movement armed from head to toe throughout its history. It has operated violent, indiscriminate terrorism not only against Jews and Israel from the beginning of Jewish settlement in 1882, but also against the Palestinians themselves, and even against Arab states, directly in Jordan and Lebanon, since the late 1960s on.

The fact is that the Palestinian national movement acts by pressures of threats of terrorism to undermine the stability of regimes and the regional order, for the purpose of financial blackmail and getting “protection money” from the oil states. These were operated in order to advance its national goals on the account of the vital interests of the Arab states and the Arab masses. It brought turmoil to the Jordanian and Lebanese political system, and in Lebanon it brought about the military intervention of Syria in June 1976, and Israel in June 1982.

Some lessons have to be understood. The so-called Palestinian issue on the international arena is not the “occupation” and it has never been. It is not the “1967 occupation” but the “1948 occupation.” It is all about total hatred and absolute rejection of any Jewish nationality on any part of what they call “Palestine.”

The Palestinian inhuman terrorism is not about Israeli racism or Apartheid. This claim is more than ridiculous. To refer to Israel being racist or Apartheid, is no less to stubbornly declare that Earth is flat, or that humans breathe not oxygen. 96 percent of the Palestinians in the territory west of the Jordan River, live on their own rule, either under the Palestinian Authority, or under the Hamas regime in Gaza. They whatsoever do not engage with Israel, and are free to live under Arab-Palestinian rule. They have nothing to do with “occupation.”

Palestinian terrorism is not about “occupation,” or “settlements,” or a declaration to establish a Palestinian state, or a demand to an Israeli return to the pre-1967 borders. Palestinian terrorism is mainly to remove, to totally wipe out Israel from the map of the Middle East. This inhuman Palestinian terrorism is due to the Palestinian politics of incitement and hatred, human record has never seen, including the Nazi era.  

Palestinian terrorism does not stem from poverty, misery or lack of education. We have dealt with this issue previously on other papers in Modern Diplomacy. This is stupid and ridiculous on the march. The ignorant media reporters, the biased one-sided “peace activists,” and the hypocrite politicians tell us that that the Palestinians resort to violence because they are “hopeless,” unemployed, impoverished and uneducated. The terrorists are well-educated (mostly university, engineers and physicians) and come from fluent families economically.

This is a world-wide situation. Precisely the poor and uneducated do not engage in terrorism. They work hard to feed their families; they do not have time for “revolutions;” and they do not know how to work in organizations. The media and now the social media are the main source of the terrorist activity, and they constantly motivate and direct the public with hateful, libelous accusations and pure false propaganda.

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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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