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Arab Liberals on Arab Political Life (A)

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap] he Egyptian liberal intellectual, ‘Amr Isma’il accuses that the main issue is Arab culture that externalizes the guilt, irresponsibility, and inability to change the culture (www.elaph.com, October 31, 2004 – MEMRI, November 19, 2004, No. 816): “Why can’t the Arabs see things as the rest of the world? Why do we always feel that someone is conspiring against us, and that he is the cause of our problems, our cultural and economic backwardness? Why are we not able to criticize ourselves? Why do we talk by means of bullets, car bombs, and violence of suicide bombing?

Why do we kill and slit throats in the name of Allah and at the same time protest angrily when others depict Muslims as terrorists? Why are we the only nation that still uses religion, Islam, and the name of Allah in everything: politics, economics, and science? We kill in the name of Allah, we blow up people in the name of Allah, and we slit throats in the name of Islam. Why we do not ask ourselves why no other religious group perpetrates these acts of atrocity? Why we do not ask ourselves what are the roots to our extremist thinking and who should be blame for? Why we always blame others of intervening in our internal affairs, and we do not look at our deeds?

Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian American intellectual, declares: ‘Arab’ means never having to say you are sorry (http://www.think-israel.com): “To expect Arab and Muslim leadership to apologize is a reflection of the West Naïve and wrong expectations of Arab culture. In the Arab world, to take responsibility and say sorry is taken as unmanly sign of weakness that means more trouble. Those who admit guilt are given no mercy and end up taking all the blame and being brutally punished. It is a norm for Arabs to deny a fact and blame others, rather than admit to the wrongdoing and apologize.

In our politically correct liberal culture, the media and academia would urge to a collective self-psychoanalysis, to uncover the root causes of how we could have caused such evil behavior. This is not the case of the Arab world. How can anyone expect them to apologize for deep-rooted cultural and religious mission to defeat or kill infidels? Most Arabs still blame Israel for 9/11.

How can we expect these countries to sincerely cooperate with the international community to end terror and its barbaric brutality? Americans should stop judging other countries with the American value system, and especially stop expecting Arab-Islamic culture to respond rationally according to Western standards. Arab media never miss an opportunity to give the masses their daily dose of fear of America. What we see out of the Arab world is anger, hatred, revenge and a culture out of control.

The Tunisian intellectual and thinker, al-‘Afif al-Akhdar, analyzes and criticizes Arab cultural values and characters (www.elaph.com: MEMRI, May 4, 2003. Nos. 439, 499): All the peoples of the world are moving forward along the course of history towards globalization, a society of knowledge, and political modernization – all but the Arabs, who race in the opposite direction. The Eastern European countries have moved peacefully with speed from murderous Stalinist totalitarianism to democracy, from economic backwardness to continuing economic growth.

The Muslims are moving with rapid steps from backwardness into sub-backwardness, and from poverty into sub-poverty. The peoples of mankind are governed by the law of progress, while the Muslims are governed by the law of regression.

The insane obsession with vengeance has robbed the Muslims minds of the ability to think reasonably. That is why they are incapable of identifying their real problems and defining their political, educational and social priorities. In contrast to almost all other societies, Arab-Muslim societies are completely closed and irrational.

Their obscurantist religious culture is a terrible obstacle hindering their transition to a society less closed, less oppressive and less hostile towards the individual, to the woman, to the non-Muslim, towards the rational and the modern. This deep-rooted culture of tribal vengeance in Arab collective consciousness is a fundamental driving force, which has transmuted this consciousness into a fixated, vengeful mentality, instead of transforming it into far-sighted thought and self-criticism.

The culture of tribal vengeance haunts not only in our relations with the outside, but also our relations with each other, between Arab countries and within each country, from honor crimes to tribal and factional strife and state wars. The hysteria of vengeance on the West and on Israel has disastrous results. The policy of vengeance that prevails especially among the influential elites has banished any rational policy from the domestic decision making, just as people afflicted with depression.

al-‘Afif al-Akhdar discusses Arab identity crisis and its education (www.elaph.com., June 15, 2003- MEMRI Special Dispatch Nos. 499 and 518): Why is it that our countries are among the wealthiest in natural resources and poorest in human resources? Why does the world’s human knowledge double every three years while with us, what multiplies several times over is illiteracy, ideological fear and mental paralysis? Why expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, and appeasement horrify us, and in cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance? Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and even call it heroism and martyrdom?

Distorted thoughts lead the Muslim to think that he belongs to ‘the best nation created for human beings’ that Allah designated it to guide and lead humanity. This is the reason why the Muslims find it impossible to imitate others and learn from them. Ethnocentrism leads them to believe that since the language of the Arabs is the mother of all languages, anyone not completely fluent in it considered an animal and a barbarian, and that since its culture is the most divine, and its religion is the only true religion, then the other cultures are unworthy and other religions are mere vanity, and both deserve to disappear or to be subjugated.

Muslims still believe that Islam is the supreme religion, and the Arab nation is the most important of all nations. However, the Arabs’ repeated defeats tell them that they are the last in line among the nations. This contrast-ridden discourse is the source of the Arabs psychological and social ills, and of their grave identity crisis.

The religious media and education to this situation provide an easy answer: Since we have given up our religion, Allah has given us up. Therefore, let us set out on a campaign of return to Allah and to the Golden Age, riding on a belt of explosives. Religious education systematically produces generations of people stricken by the madness of pure religious identity, such as the racial purity madness of the Nazis. For Nazism, this meant that the ‘master’ Aryan race had to destroy the ‘inferior’ races. In Islam, it means that the only ‘true’ religion must triumph over the other religions that are ‘false,’ and their fate is Hell. This belief of Islamic identity led them to megalomania, fanaticism, self-segregation, and terrorism.

The obligation to fight the infidels has created a psychological barrier between Muslim Arabs and modern culture, and has led them to an internalization of the view that modern institutions, sciences, universal values, and technology created by the infidels are heresy too.

Why did Germany and Japan not retaliate for their wounds after World War II with responses similar to ours? The answer is, because religious narcissism was not internalized in their modern cultures and adopting secularism prevented them hallucinatory responses. They imitate the West, assimilating into it, while we fought with it, struggled against it, and became locked in on our own values. The amok-struck Islam, the Islam of ‘conflict with the infidels’ and military vengeance against them, has lost its ability to unfurl the real problems openly and search for realistic solutions. This ‘conflict with the infidels’ is the hard core of Islamic fanaticism and the main reason for the conduct of terrorism.

Arab-Muslims must give up the requirement to confront the infidels, not to use jihad until the Day of Judgment; to abandon the loyalty to the Qur’anic ‘Verses of the Sword;’ to change the attitude towards the rational, the women, and the non-Muslims; to give-up the dreams of liberating Palestine to the last grain of earth, and regaining Andalusia. Yet, the most important is the total change in educational teachings of the youth in which the Arab world remains locked.

The author and journalist, Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi (www.rezgar.com, August 14, 2004: MEMRI, September 20, 2004. No. 786) condemned the growing support for terrorism and extremism in the Arab world, and the rejection of moderation and reason.

If the Arabs had today a well-burnished mirror in which they can see themselves, they would be stricken by fear and panic at the sight of themselves. The image is that we have become the most terrorist nation and the greatest spillers of blood in the world. The image is that we have become a nation devoid of reason.

What happened to the Arabs in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, Yemen, and in other countries? Why have the Arabs gone crazy in such a manner? Is it a result of pervasive corruption prevalent in governmental institutions? Did this occur because of the dark religious educational system which incites to war against modernity, democracy, and permits the spilling of the blood of its supporters?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that the intellectuals have distorted the truth? Is it a result of the frightening spread of illiteracy and cultural ignorance in the Arab world that the vast majority does not read, does not know, and does not think? Is it a result of the proliferation of political totems in Arab life such as Abd al-Nasser or Saddam Hussein, or in counterfeit religious totems such as Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, and many others?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that terrorist groups have huge incomes from charity organizations streaming in daily from good Muslims from the world? Did this occur as a result of the huge sums that the terrorists obtain by hashish and opium trade? The Islamists who hijacked Islam are now leading the flocks of Arabs towards the annihilation of human history.

Indeed, the Arabs have turned into slaves of blood-drenched religious totems. The Arabs think in a medieval fashion regarding politics, society, economy, and education. They are still living in the Middle-Ages, and they are slaves to a medieval mentality and to thinkers from the Middle-Ages. The Arabs have distanced themselves from reason, and speak to the world with the sword, the axe, the knife, and armies of masked bandits.

Journalist and former Kuwaiti communications minister Dr. Sa’d bin Tefla (Jordanian TV, June 8, 2004: MEMRI, August 24, 2004. No. 770), rejects the notion of blaming Zionism and imperialism of the Arab harsh and fanatic situation:

Zionism and imperialism have nothing to do with our culture of violence and religious extremism. Slaughter, anarchy, and bloodshed in no way resemble Jihad according to the Shari’ah. The anarchy and terrorism are indications of a culture of collective suicide. This culture of violence emanates from the spread of the extremist religious trend.

We are all responsible for this culture, and that Zionism and Imperialism have nothing to do with it. It is no less wrong to say that violence is the result of occupation, since it has cultural roots. Unfortunately, this culture of violence has existed before the Americans came to Iraq and the Gulf; before the Israeli occupation of Palestine; and before the American occupation of Afghanistan.

The number killed in Algeria surpasses the number of Palestinians killed by Israel. Before Iraq was occupied, there was violence that killed over one million Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, and Kuwaitis. This was not done by the Zionists or America, but by Arabs and Muslims.

The reformist Arab diplomat who writes under the pseudonym Abu Ahmad Mustafa (al-Sharq Al-Awsat, September 13, 2003) quotes Saudi philosopher Abdallah al-Qassimi, who said many times that ‘the greatest distance between two points in the world is the distance between an Arab’s words and his deeds.’

We have become accustomed to not asking questions and not searching for the truth. We must examine our history, our books, and our stories with an open mind without hatred and blaming of the other. ‘Islam is the solution’, is not true. Islam is not the answer. It is hidden in sick minds brainwashed with hatred for the brethren living nearby and peoples living miles away.

How can an intelligent person state or assert that we are a nation that preaches love among people, when in our own home we carry out ugly deeds and are silent about the disgrace? What is to blame is the culture of submission comes from the clerics of past and the idols of today.

Our struggles are connected to the past, not to health, not to education, not to human rights, not to general freedoms and political reform. We live in a situation in which most of our thinking is directed towards what happens after death, to the next world and not today.

Arab Liberal Columnist, Zuheir Abdallah (al-Hayat, MEMRI, August 12, 2003. No. 551) blames Arab fascism tyranny and Islamism for failing to achieve any accomplishments for the Arab world.

The Arab world were taken over by despotic tyrannical regimes. The economic and scientific growth regressed and reached the bottom level, in comparison to the rest of the countries in the world. Arab fascism and fundamentalist Islam have nothing to offer the people, except empty slogans revolving around themes of resistance and struggle.

Let us ask ourselves what did we offer for ourselves and the rest of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution to this day, from human sciences and inventions or any other added value to civilization? Unfortunately, the answer is: almost nothing. The Arab world is in deep backwardness.

After the Chechnya terrorists attack in Beslan, Nonie Darwish has published an article (http://www.noniedarwish.com) that she is not surprised of the Arab Islamic behavior.

Unfortunately, the world media is not doing its job in telling the Arab World about it. CNN feels that being “objective” is never to blame Arab culture, and it ends up supportive of Arab views in its delivery of news in the Middle East and around the world.

The horrible news from Chechnya, the Philippines, India, the Sudan or Pakistan, were always covered up and twisted to portray Muslim terrorists as innocent victims of terrible discrimination. These murderers were always portrayed as “freedom fighters” who needed to rise against the majority Christian or non-Muslim population. My culture of origin turns into robotic monsters with a wish to destroy life on earth in order to go to heaven. This is the basic of Arab-Islamic culture and religion.

Where are Muslim demonstrations against terror? All I’ve ever noticed following 9/11 were celebrations throughout the Arab world. I decided to make a stand against the Islamic culture of terror. It is time for the world media and the UN to take a serious stand against Islamic, yes, Islamic, terror. Oil rich Arab countries finance terrorism or teach that terrorists are heroes going to heaven. No “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” and no diluted language by the international media.

The out-of-control culture in the Middle East needs a wake-up call and a dose of reality. What is needed immediately is a united world stand against the Arabs’ stagnant and barbaric view of the world. We should demand from our media to report the truth and not stand as an obstacle in facing and fighting danger. The world cannot stand by, confused and equivocal about 9/11 and Islamic terrorism any more. Please, America and the good people of the world, save my Arab culture of origin from itself.

Nonie Darwish has ongoing criticized Arab-Islamic culture (http://www.noniedarwish.com):

Once beautiful culture has now decayed, very sick, and unable to accommodate other religions or cultures. This sickness is now contaminating the West through the terror of jihad. People who criticize the current culture of Islam are not the threat to Islam; rather, the silence and justification of 9/11 by Muslims is Islam’s true enemy. The Arab-Islamic world has lost its moral equilibrium, added to their paranoia and obsession with Israel.

Islam is cracking out from its core. This is a culture in convulsions, using anything and everything as weapons against the rest of the World. Instead of using reason to reform their religion and join the rest of the civilized world in a peaceful co-existence, they choose violence through their ancient doctrine of jihad. The end result is masses submitting to the terror of dictatorships in an oppressive social structure.

There is no tolerance in Islamic society to differing views, and freedoms are rare assets. In Islamic culture, one is accountable to everybody for one’s behavior. This is a collective culture. Paradoxically, submission is that it creates people who are extremely sensitive to criticism and with chauvinistic impulses. You thus see a loyal, submissive polite Muslim turn violently angry over the slightest differences of opinion. People explode in illogical overreaction to trivial disagreements.

The mothers of suicide bombers are speaking and living a life that is against the normal impulses of Motherhood. The religious and political indoctrination through tyranny pushed them against themselves and their child into insanity. Hate is a motivation for jihad and also helps unite the Muslims, in compliance. The use of fear and hatred is a very primitive but very effective tool. This manipulation of human beings has reached an art form in Muslim culture. The enemy of Islam becomes a very necessary part of the religion, since it contributes to the unity of Muslims and ensures compliance. This unity has to be fed, cultivated and nourished constantly at all levels of education and the media through hatred to the other.

The infidels are extremely useful in Arab-Islamic culture. There is less cohesion between Muslims as a result of love, compassion, constructive activities for the common good and working together for improving society and economy. Image and reputation is of utmost importance between Muslims and especially in front of foreigners. Their first instinct is always to lie, even in situations that do not require lying, to show only the good side and shame those who don’t go with the lie for the sake of saving face.

Oil money from Saudi Arabia got more and more influential in reviving the more extreme form of Islam among more moderate and poorer Muslim countries. That same Wahhabi sect was responsible for 9/11. It was a call of warning from Saudi extremists to Western civilization. They announced to us loud and clear ‘we are coming to Islamize you the same way we did to moderate Arab countries.’ All the Saudis want is to spread Islam and to be the Mecca of the World.

Arab columnists have published articles critical of the view that the main motivation to terrorism is poverty or despair. The main reasons and most important factors in motivating terrorism are cultural and religious. The incitement by religious and political leaders encourages conducting terror operations. Muhammad Mahfouz, a Saudi columnist claims (Saudi Gazette, December 30, 2004: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853):

The only way to end violence and terrorism is to fight a cultural and ideological battle. Terrorism is one of the most dangerous problems encountered in recent times, for it undermines the stability and security of all human societies. An external and superficial probing of the problem will not be effective until we delve deeply into its Islamic cultural and ideological roots. The relationship between the phenomenon of terrorism in Islamic society and culture is like the relationship between the cause and consequence. This may explain the reason why youths belonging to rich families and others from well position in society are implicated in terrorist crimes.

This means that financial and economic factors cannot be associated with this fanatic ideology and terrorism. It is cultural and religious factors that motivate to murder innocent people and not poverty. The only way to put an end to the wave of violence and terrorism is to fight ideological cultural battle against terrorism carried out by a group of brain-washed youth, influenced by glamorous slogans. Without fighting this fateful battle, we will never succeed in eliminating the menace on civilization. Any delay in fighting this ideological cultural battle will drag us to the abyss of instability. We need more than ever to dismantle the cultural and ideological incubators which feed this phenomenon and mold it socially and culturally.

The elimination of terrorism and violence are associated with uprooting the culture of violence which promotes killing, justifies terrorism, and provides it a legitimate cover. The security battle will not help much in putting an end to this phenomenon. On the contrary, it may give it a justification to continue. We need transparency and courage to put an end to this poisonous menace, and any laxity in this matter will cost more lives and destruction. Thus, the coming battle is the battle of culture, to fight and defeat terrorism in all its stages.

For ‘Abdallah Rashid (al-ittihad, January 10, 2005: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853) it is clear:

The greatest mistake of social and political commentators is their attributing the cause for the spreading of terrorism in the Arab and Islamic world to the lack of social justice, the situation of poverty, and the harsh social conditions in most of the Arab and Islamic countries. The socio-economic situation of most of the terrorists who participate in the criminal operations around the world is very good. They are from well-off families, with high education and good jobs, and many of them are even married with children.

Most of the volunteers who went to Iraq to join al-Qaeda terrorist groups are from Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States [61%!]. They come from families that are not poor and from a social environment that does not suffer from economic problems and wretchedness. The simple reason is the terrifying brainwashing suffered by most of the Arab youth at the hands of ‘religious clerics,’ the media, and particularly at the hands of the extremists with backward views. They nourish the Muslim youth with various kinds of racist views, destructive extremist principles, and nurse them with hostility, hatred, and resentment towards others.

Middle East

Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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Middle East

Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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Middle East

The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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