How’s this for timing? On September 23, as many as 250 troops from the Indian Army’s Kumaon Regiment arrived in Vladivostok for INDRA-2016, an 11-day joint exercise with an equal number of Russian Army troops. On the same day, 70 Russian soldiers arrived in Pakistan for the first-ever Pakistan-Russia joint military drills named Druzhba-2016.
Coming days after the Uri attack, Druzhba-2016 has caused a collective uproar across the international border, with some media outfits calling it a Russian snub. To most Indians it appeared to be a betrayal by a long-time ally.
It’s understandable that the average Indian person would react with such dismay at a time when tensions are running high over the Pakistan masterminded attack that left 18 Indian Army soldiers dead.
However, considering the extensive and strategic nature of the Indo-Russian partnership – BRICS, G-20 and defence – it should be a no-brainer that Moscow’s engagement with Pakistan does not come at the expense of its ties with India.
Those who believe Moscow is flirting with Islamabad because India is drifting into the western camp belong to two categories. One, they probably live under a rock and have no idea about the nature of India’s ties with Russia. The second group comprises western commentators – and their camp followers in India – who want it to happen and are therefore expressing their inner desire.
According to Petr Topychankov, South Asia expert and Associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program, “Pakistan cannot replace or even influence Russia’s strategic partnership with India. This is just impossible. Russia’s priorities are very clear. No matter how long New Delhi will enjoy its ‘honeymoon’ in relations with Washington, both India and Russia understand that their ties cannot be influenced by any third parties.”
Russia-Pakistan ties had plummeted to such abysmal depths during the Cold War that they are only now recovering to normalcy. In 1947, when Pakistan was carved out of India by the retreating British, Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin believed the emergence of the two countries was just a deal between the Indian elites and the British imperialists.
In fact, the Soviet media did not pay any attention to the proclamation of the formation of Pakistan. Nisha Sahai Achuthan writes in ‘Soviet Arms Transfer Policy in South Asia -1955-81’ that the Kremlin did not deem it necessary even to felicitate to Pakistani leaders on the occasion of the formal inauguration of their new state. Stalin told an Indian diplomat: “How primitive it is to create a state on the basis of religion.” He even expressed the view that a federation between India and Pakistan would be the ideal solution, and doubted the survival of Pakistan as an independent nation.
While the Pakistanis didn’t like the negative Russian views on the world’s first Islamic state, the Soviet Union took exception to Islamabad’s denouncing of communism. And when the first Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan visited Washington in 1948, and declined Moscow’s invitation, the rift grew wider.
On October 24, 1952 Izvestia wrote: “After Partition…Pakistan began to draw the fixed attention of the United States imperialist circles. The latter were enticed not so much by the country’s natural wealth as by Pakistan’s strategic position, especially its western part. Taking advantage of the United Nations mediation of the Kashmir dispute, the United States ruling circles endeavoured to derive from this “mediation” everything possible for strengthening American position in Pakistan. United States influence on Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy increased especially after Liaquat Ali Khan’s trip to Washington.”
The chances of the two countries coming together disappeared when General Ayub Khan engineered a coup and took Pakistan into the Baghdad Pact in 1959. Denouncing the bilateral agreement, Moscow Radio said the Soviet government had several times drawn the attention of the Pakistan Government to the “grave consequences of Pakistan’s membership of the Baghdad Pact which had made that country an American bridgehead for the atomic bombardment of the USSR”.
However, it was after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that ties with Pakistan rock bottom. Under the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan assumed the role of a frontline state against communism and became the conduit for weapons to be used against the Soviet forces. Over 15,000 Soviet soldiers died as a result of Pakistan’s involvement.
It is a miracle that the mighty Soviet Army did not strike Pakistani supply lines and the numerous training camps where lumpen elements from all over the world arrived for jehad – in reality a one-way mission – against the ‘godless’ Soviets. Indeed, it is a measure of how much Pakistan was disliked in the former Soviet Union that long after the country dissolved, it wasn’t safe for Pakistani students and travellers to declare their nationality in places such as Uzbekistan and Azerbajian, where people held Islamabad responsible for the deaths of their boys in the Afghan War.
Thawing the Cold War
To borrow the words of Indian diplomat Eenam Gambhir, Pakistan has become the “Ivy League of terror”. The Pakistani passport is the third most unwelcome travel document in the world after the passports of Iraq and Afghanistan. Its only friend – or rather patron – is China, which uses it as a test market for its export model weapons. In this backdrop, Pakistan is desperate for new friends, allies or backers.
The country is an excellent example of what happens to a US ally after it is past its use by date. It was abandoned after the Afghan war by all its western backers, to be requisitioned a decade later for the War on Terror, which was in reality America’s War in Favour of Terror. Now that the US is winding down its operations in Afghanistan, America is again jettisoning Pakistan. To be sure, Islamabad has played both sides in the war so it can’t really point fingers at the US.
Russia and Pakistan have been circling around some sort of agreement for decades. During the 1950s, when communist newspapers were attacking Pakistan, Soviet diplomats left a door open for Islamabad. They said Moscow and Islamabad differed only 10 per cent while the remaining 90 per cent of their mutual relationship was fine.
Ayub Khan also hinted that Russia was waiting if the pact with the US didn’t work out. In an interview published in the French newspaper La Monda, he stated that Pakistan might turn to other powers for help if the United States continued to underestimate Pakistan’s needs. He said, “The camp opposed to the Americans attaches great importance to our country both militarily and politically and persistently makes advances to us.”
The Pakistan Times in an editorial commented: “Our foreign aid requirements are vital and urgent, and we cannot be expected to wait indefinitely in the hope that opinion in America will eventually be persuaded to view our needs with greater sympathy and understanding. Some other states in a position to help, have in the recent past repeatedly expressed their desire to give us substantial aid without political strings, and America should have no grouse if we turn to those countries to make up the shortfall between our needs and the aid available to us from our major allies.”
History repeats itself. With America withholding military and economic aid, Pakistani generals – who form the deep state that runs the country – are interested in building bridges with Russia.
What Russia wants
The United States’ retreat from the Middle East and its pivot to the Asia-Pacific has created several low-hanging opportunities for Russia in the region. Moscow is moving into Egypt with advanced MiG-35 jets. Iraq is buying Russian attack helicopters after a 25-year gap. Weapons sales are being considered for Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is among these new opportunities.
For the first time ever Russian and Pakistan interests have converged – in the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban. America’s slow motion exit from Afghanistan has got the jehadis salivating at the prospect of regaining power in the war-torn country. While the Taliban may not have won more than a handful of battles in America’s longest war, in the popular Afghan narrative they have defeated yet another superpower. If, and when, they storm the gates of Kabul, the emboldened Islamists are likely to target Pakistan next.
This has set off the alarm bells in Moscow. The Russians are paranoid about waves of Islamic terrorists attacking their soft underbelly in Central Asia. “First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan… If things turn out badly, in about 10 years our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organised Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan,” current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had warned way back in 2009.
The Pakistanis are worried too. Not only will they lose the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation that the United States doles out for the use of Pakistani military bases, Islamabad feels it is being abandoned in the midst of its fight with the Islamists.
Although it is a fact that they created the Islamist genie in the first place, for once the Pakistanis are right in saying they are bigger victims of terror than India. For instance, in a joint attack in 2011 the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda nearly totalled the Karachi Naval Base. While India suffers a major terror attack once or twice a year, across the border bomb explosions are a weekly or sometimes daily occurrence. It’s got so bad that Shia mosques in Pakistan don’t have regular prayer times for fear of being bombed by Sunni terrorists.
So, whether India likes it or not, Pakistan is really at the frontlines in the battle against the Taliban. The Pakistanis are, therefore, looking at extricating themselves from the US-created mess. For Russia, there could be no better time to pry Pakistan away from the Americans.
The Mi-25 saga
Druzhba-2016 isn’t the first instance where India has behaved like a jilted lover. In 2014 there was considerable anger among the Indian public when Russia announced it would supply Mi-25 helicopters to the Pakistan Army. Since Indians have for decades considered Russians as friends, many felt the sale was a betrayal. However, it is very likely Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had sounded out South Block before green lighting the deal.
At any rate, New Delhi wasn’t upset over the sale of a few 1970s vintage gunships to the rust bucket Pakistani military. In a previous era, despite being equipped with better weapons than the Indian side, the Pakistanis botched both the 1965 and 1971 wars. P.V.S. Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra describe in their book Eagles Over Bangladesh how the Indian Air Force neutralised the Pakistan Air Force “in less than 72 hours”. Today the Indian military is a behemoth and the balance is skewing – in India’s favour – by the day.
Besides, the IAF itself operates two Mi-25 helicopter squadrons (No.104 Firebirds and No.125 Gladiators) and so the gunship is hardly a secret weapon.
The reason why the Russians offered the Mi-25 helicopter is significant. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russian pilots nicknamed the Mi-25 the “Flying Tank” because it was not only extremely survivable, it also created terror among the Afghan mujahidin. The gunship was so effective that the fear-stricken Islamic fighters called it the “Shaitan-Arba” or Satan’s Chariot.
While a handful of gunships to Pakistan won’t change the military balance vis-a-vis India, the Mi-25 can be the game changer in battles with guerrillas up in the mountains. Also, in Afghanistan where airfields are as rare as hen’s teeth, helicopters are the only way to get out and about. By supplying these gunships to Pakistan, the Russians get the Pakistanis to continue with the job of clearing up Islamist opposition.
In fact, the proven effectiveness of Russian helicopters was the reason why the US Defence Department – no less – paid Moscow $1 billion for supplying the Afghan military with their gunships.
As the world’s largest arms importer, India has considerable leverage over Russia. Moscow is hardly likely to risk its strategic relationship and defence trade amounting to dozens of billions of dollars by allying too closely Pakistan.
So long as Russia doesn’t cross the red line by supply strategic weapons like long-range jet fighters, submarines or missiles to Pakistan, India doesn’t have any reason to be alarmed by low-key joint military exercises. Sergey Chemezov, the CEO of the Russian state-run technologies corporation Rostec assures, “Our strategic partner has always been, and will be, India.”
And finally, a note to the media: do not label every new development as a “landmark deal” or a “strategic decision” as you did when Russia announced in 2014 that it was lifting its unofficial arms embargo on Pakistan. Here’s why: between 1996 and 2010 Russia had sold 70 Mi-17 transport helicopters to Pakistan. There was nothing “landmark” about the Mi-25 deal.
Joint military exercises are essentially confidence building measures. For Russia and Pakistan, considering their bitter history, defence contacts are necessary for erasing their past distrust in order to start over.
The India-Russia relationship is quite stable so the Indian public and media have no reason to get worked up over 70 Russian soldiers conducting drills with poorly motivated soldiers of the Pakistan Army.
According to Topychankov, “India will always play a very special role in Russia’s foreign policy and Russia is very much interested in keeping the strategic level of its ties with India.”
The Not-So-Missing Case of Indian Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Hitendra Singh and Gauri Noolkar-Oak*
Recently, an article published in Modern Diplomacy caught our attention. The author has cited Mr. Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and found his famous statement on Indians lacking enterprise and innovation to be ‘music to his ears’. He has then gone on to paint Indians in broad strokes – ironic, for it is something he has accused Indians of doing – and labelled them as a nation lacking entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. While his reasoning certainly has an element of truth and an instant appeal, our response looks to add nuances to his argument and provide a more realistic and complete picture of enterprise and innovation in India.
To begin with, the terms ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’ cannot be used interchangeably; not all entrepreneurs are innovators, and vice versa. There are more than 50 million medium and small businesses operating in India which contribute 37% of India’s GDP and employ around 117 million people. These numbers sufficiently prove that entrepreneurship is alive and kicking in the Indian society; Indians are running businesses not only in India but are leading and successful entrepreneurs in many countries of Asia, Africa and rest of the world. Hence, an argument that Indians lack entrepreneurship does not hold much strength.
In the case of innovation and creativity, a different story is emerging. It is slow but is happening and it is solving some of the largest social and developmental challenges in India – from grassroots, to research labs, to top-tier institutions such as ISRO and various DRDO labs. At a global level, India has not only moved up six places in its GII ranking in 2017, but is also ranked second in innovation quality. India has also won international acclaim for its innovative and cost-effective technology; such as its first mission to Mars in 2014, the Mangalyaan, was successful in the first attempt, made entirely with domestic technology, and cost less than the Hollywood movies ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Martian’. It is surprising that the author spots lack of innovation in a household broom but does not see innovation in a nation that sends a successful Mars mission on a budget that is less than that of a Hollywood movie about Mars.
At the national level, grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship are gaining more and more institutional recognition; the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) and the annual Festival of Innovation at the Rashtrapati Bhavan are perhaps the only high-level government initiatives supporting and celebrating innovation in the world. Additionally, many universities and educational institutes across the country host innovation competitions, festivals and incubators.
Several remarkable individuals are nurturing India’s growing innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.Prof. Anil K. Gupta founded SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) in 1993 and the Honey Bee Network in 1997 to connect innovators from all sections of the society to entrepreneurs, lawyers and investors. For more than 12 years, he has walked around 6000 kilometres across the country, discovering extraordinary grassroots innovations on the way. Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, an eminent chemical scientist, has led multiple scientific and technological innovations in the country, earlier as the Director-General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and now as the President of the National Innovation Foundation.
And then, there are thousands of common men and women, hailing from various walks of life, innovating continuously and creatively to solve pressing everyday problems in the Indian society. There are the famous Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a cost-effective way of manufacturing sanitary napkins, and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who invented a clay refrigerator which runs without electricity. Then there are Mallesham from Andhra Pradesh, who sped up the process of weaving Kochampalli sarees and reduced the physical pains of the weavers, and Shri Sundaram from Rajasthan, who found a way to grow a whole tree in a dry region with just a litre of water. Raghav Gowda from Karnataka designed a cost-effective and painless machine to milk cows, while Mathew K Mathews from Kerala designed a solar mosquito destroyer. Dr. Pawan Mehrotra of Haryana has developed a cost-effective version of breast prosthesis for breast cancer survivors while Harsh Songra of Madhya Pradesh has developed a mobile app to detect developmental disorders among children.
Three women from Manipur, OinamIbetombi Devi, SarangthenDasumati Devi and Nameirakpam Sanahambi Devi invented an herbal medicine that is proven to promote poultry health. Priyanka Sharma from Punjab developed a low-cost biochip to detect environmental pollutants, while Dr. Seema Prakash from Karnataka revolutionised eco-agriculture by inventing a cost-effective plant cloning technique. AshniBiyani, the daughter of Future Group CEO Kishore Biyani, leads the Khoj Lab, which collaborates with the NIF to help commercialise grassroots innovations and ideas.
These and thousands of such examples present a very encouraging picture of the creativity and innovation of Indians. The innovation that the author admires are rooted in a context. Apple and Google (or Lyft or Uber or Spotify) could be created because there was an end consumer who was looking to pay for their products. There are many India innovator-entrepreneurs, such as those mentioned above, who have created products for a necessarily less glamorous but useful India context. Products like brooms and packaged food add convenience to the time-stretched urban and middle and upper middle classes; with a large unskilled and semiskilled workforce competing vigorously for such jobs, does the Indian society have an incentive to invest in innovating them?
Having said that, it is true that upsurge of innovation in India is relatively recent, i.e. about two to three decades old. It is also true that the Indian society has been experiencing socio-economic affluence on such a broad scale only for the past three decades, since the market reforms of 1991. It has been 70 years since Indians have gained sovereignty and control over their resources. The top five innovative countries according to the GII – Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, USA and UK – have been sovereign states for about at least two and a half centuries. It would perhaps then be more accurate to compare India’s current innovation scenario with, for instance, the USA’s innovation scenario in the mid-19th century.
Further, given the economic and resource drain faced by the Indian society over centuries, Indian innovation was geared more towards surviving rather than thriving. This explains the ‘group mentality’ strongly rooted in mainstream Indian society; staying and cooperating in a group increased one’s capacity to cope with and survive through all kinds of adversity. Individualistic aspirations, beliefs and actions were then a price to be paid for the security blanket it offered. And yet, once relative stability and affluence began to set in, the innovative and creative instincts of Indians lost no time in bursting forth.
Long story short, both innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving in India. They might not be as “macro” or glamourous as Apple or Uber, but they are solving fundamental problems for the Indian masses. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of room for improvement and growth – India has a long way to go to be recognised as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. However, the scenario is not by any means bleak, as these many examples point out. The trajectory of enterprises and innovation in India is only upward. The future is promising.
* Gauri Noolkar-Oak is Policy Research Analyst at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India.
Views expressed by the authors are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.
Changing Perceptions: How Pakistan should use Public Diplomacy
Traditionally in International Relations the concept of “hard power” remained the basic focus for states so as to achieve power and dominance in international anarchic system but with the changing scenarios in the age of globalization, economic interdependency and rapid spreading of information through various tools, “Soft Power” concept emerged which had great impact on states’ foreign policies. This term of soft power was first coined by Joseph Nye in mid-1960’s which could be defined as the ability of the state to influence others without coercion and this soft power technique basically revolves around three major instruments such as Culture, political values, and foreign policies. Apart from soft power concept, there is another basic concept called as “Public Diplomacy”. This could be described as the further dimension of soft power because by practicing Public Diplomacy state can initiate their soft power policies and can achieve the desired outcomes by winning the hearts and minds of foreign audience and non-governmental entities because by doing so it will enable government and decision making bodies of foreign states to act accordingly.
In context of South Asia particularly taking into consideration the important developing state Pakistan whose basic concern is to maintain friendly and neutral relations with other states Public diplomacy could, however, help it to maintain its relations in the regional complex structure where India is seen as the dominant power and alongside India the powerful rise of China as an external actor in South Asia. By efficient usage of Public diplomacy, Pakistan can improve its bilateral ties with the neighboring states.
The image of Pakistan in foreign media is portrayed as the state which is full of many internal and external challenges and it is also not portrayed as the safe country to travel into. In order to improve the image, Pakistan firstly needs to improve its relations with states within the region and for that India which is considered as hostile neighbor Pakistan should effectively use its public diplomacy tool it should introduce exchange programs because by educating youth and by deploying positive image in their minds Pakistan can influence them which could bring change in the coming years and also by increasing tourism activities. This would make foreigners aware of the fact that Pakistan is a secure state. Similarly, cultural activities, sports diplomacy, literature, art, and media could also have a great impact so as to change the perceptions.
Hence it could be suggested that for the development of state it is important for Pakistan to improve its public diplomacy by changing perceptions of public and elite of neighboring states it should take basic steps which could change the negative image which is in limelight since 9/11. Pakistan by enhancing the public diplomacy in other states as the tool to implement its soft power policies would, however, be able to economically, culturally and politically improve its stance in the International arena.
Rolling back militancy: Bangladesh looks to Saudi Arabia in a twist of irony
Bangladesh, in a twist of irony, is looking to Saudi Arabia to fund a $ 1 billion plan to build hundreds of mosques and religious centres to counter militant Islam that for much of the past decade traced its roots to ultra-conservative strands of the faith promoted by a multi-billion dollar Saudi campaign.
The Bangladeshi plan constitutes the first effort by a Muslim country to enlist the kingdom whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam,’ in reverse engineering.
The plan would attempt to roll back the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s global investment of up to $100 billion over a period of four decades in support of ultra-conservative mosques, religious centres, and groups as an antidote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.
Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and various countries, including Malaysia, has focused until now on countering extremism in cooperation with defense and security authorities rather than as a religious initiative.
Saudi religious authorities and Islamic scholars have long issued fatwas or religious opinions condemning political violence and extremism and accused jihadists of deviating from the true path of Islam.
The Saudi campaign, the largest public diplomacy effort in history, was, nevertheless, long abetted by opportunistic governments who played politics with religion as well as widespread discontent fuelled by the failure of governments to deliver public goods and services.
The Bangladeshi plan raises multiple questions, including whether the counter-narrative industry can produce results in the absence of effective government policies that address social, economic and political grievances.
It also begs the question whether change in Saudi Arabia has advanced to a stage in which the kingdom can claim that it has put its ultra-conservative and militant roots truly behind it. The answer to both questions is probably no.
In many ways, Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and militancy, violent and non-violent, despite sharing common roots with the kingdom’s long-standing theological thinking and benefitting directly or indirectly from Saudi financial largess, has created a life of its own that no longer looks to the kingdom for guidance and support and is critical of the path on which Prince Mohammed has embarked.
The fallout of the Saudi campaign is evident in Asia not only in the rise of militancy in Bangladesh but also the degree to which concepts of supremacism and intolerance have taken root in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Those concepts are often expressed in discrimination, if not persecution of minorities like Shia Muslims and Ahmadis, and draconic anti-blasphemy measures by authorities, militants and vigilantes.
Bangladesh in past years witnessed a series of brutal killings of bloggers and intellectuals whom jihadists accused of atheism.
Moreover, basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s secular constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. Saudi Arabia withheld recognition of the new state as well as financial support until the amendment was adopted four years after Bangladeshi independence.
In Indonesia, hard-line Islamic groups, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), earlier this month filed a blasphemy complaint against politician Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno and the younger sister of Megawati Sukarnoputri, who leads President Joko Widodo’s ruling party. The hardliners accuse Ms. Sukarnoputri of reciting a poem that allegedly insults Islam.
The groups last year accused Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka Ahok, Jakarta’s former Christian governor, of blasphemy and spearheaded mass rallies that led to his ouster and jailing, a ruling that many believed was politicized and unjust.
Pakistan’s draconic anti-blasphemy law has created an environment that has allowed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives and powerful political forces to whip up popular emotion in pursuit of political objectives. The environment is symbolized by graffiti in the corridor of a courthouse In Islamabad that demanded that blasphemers be beheaded.
Pakistan last month designated Islamabad as a pilot project to regulate Friday prayer sermons in the city’s 1,003 mosques, of which only 86 are state-controlled, in a bid to curb hate speech, extremism and demonization of religions and communities.
The government has drafted a list of subjects that should be the focus of weekly Friday prayer sermons in a bid to prevent mosques being abused “to stir up sectarian hatred, demonise other religions and communities and promote extremism.” The subjects include women rights; Islamic principles of trade, cleanliness and health; and the importance of hard work, tolerance, and honesty.
However, they do not address legally enshrined discrimination of minorities like Ahmadis, who are viewed as heretics by orthodox Muslims. The list risked reinforcing supremacist and intolerant militancy by including the concept of the finality of the Prophet Mohammed that is often used as a whip to discriminate against minorities.
Raising questions about the degree of moderation that Saudi-funded mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would propagate, Prince Mohammed, in his effort to saw off the rough edges of Saudi ultra-conservatism, has given no indication that he intends to repeal a law that defines atheists as terrorists.
A Saudi court last year condemned a man to death on charges of blasphemy and atheism. Another Saudi was a year earlier sentenced to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing atheist sentiments on social media.
Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations have long lobbied for the criminalization of blasphemy in international law in moves that would legitimize curbs on free speech and growing Muslim intolerance towards any open discussion of their faith.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia cannot be held directly liable for much of the expression of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism in the Muslim world. Yet, by the same token there is little doubt that Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism frequently contributed to an enabling environment.
Prince Mohammed is at the beginning of his effort to moderate Saudi Islam and has yet to spell out in detail his vision of religious change. Beyond the issue of defining atheism as terrorism, Saudi Arabia also has yet to put an end to multiple ultra-conservative practices, including the principle of male guardianship that forces women to get the approval of a male relative for major decisions in their life.
Prince Mohammed has so far forced the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment into subservience. That raises the question whether there has been real change in the establishment’s thinking or whether it is kowtowing to an autocratic leader.
In December, King Salman fired a government official for organizing a mixed gender fashion show after ultra-conservatives criticized the event on Twitter. The kingdom this week hosted its first ever Arab Fashion Week, for women only. Designers were obliged to adhere to strict dress codes banning transparent fabrics and the display of cleavages or clothing that bared knees.
In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.
Efforts to moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state that traces its ultra-conservatism to the teachings of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, but has long interpreted them more liberally than the kingdom, have proven to be easier said than done.
Saudi King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, positioned himself as a champion of interfaith dialogue and reached out to various groups in society including Shiites and women.
Yet, more than a decade of Saudi efforts to cleanse textbooks used at home and abroad have made significant progress but have yet to completely erase descriptions of alternative strands of Islam such as Shiism and Sufism in derogatory terms or eliminate advise to Muslims not to associate with Jews and Christians who are labelled kaffirs or unbelievers.
Raising questions about Saudi involvement in the Bangladeshi plan, a Human Rights Watch survey of religion textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for the 2016-2017 school year concluded that “as early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle noted that Prince Mohammed has remained conspicuously silent about hate speech in textbooks as well as its use by officials and Islamic scholars connected to the government.
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League last year documented hate speech in Qatari mosques that was disseminated in Qatari media despite Qatar’s propagation of religious tolerance and outreach to American Jews as part of its effort to counter a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.
In one instance in December, Qatari preacher Muhammed al-Muraikhi described Jews in a sermon in Doha’s Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque as “your deceitful, lying, treacherous, fornicating, intransigent enemy” who have “despoiled, corrupted, ruined, and killed, and will not stop.”
No doubt, Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, which much earlier moved away from puritan and literal Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, is sincere in its intention to adopt more tolerant and pluralistic worldviews.
Getting from A to B, however, is a lengthy process. The question remains whether the kingdom has progressed to a degree that it can credibly help countries like Bangladesh deal with their demons even before having successfully put its own house in order.
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