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The meeting between al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] L [/yt_dropcap]ast mid-February both the leader of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, and the leader of the Libyan National Army – that is the leader of “Operation Dignity” – Khalifa Haftar, were in Cairo, but no one can still today check whether they actually met. Indeed, as far as we know, they did not, considering the real allergy that Haftar has for the leader of Tripoli’s GNA.

Again last mid-February, in the Egyptian capital city, al-Sarraj met the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Mahmoud Egazi, who deals with the Libyan dossier for the Egyptian President.

Egypt supports Haftar for many reasons: the presence of over 750,000 Egyptian workers in Libya – and, at Gaddafi’s time, they were at least 1.5 million, mainly Copts.

The other reasons are the tension in Sinai, now being jihadised; 1,200 kilometers of borders with Libya, which are very hard to keep under control; remittances from Libya to Egypt to the tune of 33 million US dollars a year, as well as a 75% decrease of bilateral trade.

Egypt will keep Libya united as long as it can, but it will certainly avoid the spreading of the Muslim Brotherhood (siding with al-Sarraj) and the various derived jihadist fraternities.

Great Britain, foolishly happy to have finally weakened Italy, cannot but support al-Sarraj, while France, which thinks also about the Suez Canal, supports el-Sisi and hence also Haftar.

Haftar, however, did not meet with al-Sarraj, who was in Egypt – as we have seen – and the leader of “Operation Dignity” avoided seeing him.

Moreover, Tobruk’s Parliament has noted that “there is no moral nor material obligation” to respect the immigration memorandum between al-Sarraj’s government and Italy.

With whom are we talking in Libya? With the democratic-UN ghosts or with the “effectual truth of the matter” – just to quote Machiavelli?

Ultimately, we do not still know the reason why the United Nations, the European Union and many others take al-Sarraj and his government so seriously.

Furthermore, in honour of the mythical Western enlightened “secularism”, we wish to point out that respect for the Islamic law, namely the sharia, is the fifth of the 32 “principles” enshrined in the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat on December 17, 2015, which is at the basis of al-Sarraj’s current government.

On the other hand, al-Sarraj’s government relies on Turkey’s and Qatar’s support, while the Turkish diplomacy is led by Amrallah Ishlar, who travels perpetually back and forth between the various capital cities of current Libya.

Are we really sure that this strange Turkish activism is in Europe’s or, at least, Italy’s interest, considering that also France supports Haftar?

Are we sure that Turkey does not want also an Islamist pole on the Maghreb coast, graciously granted to it by Western stupidity – a pole controlling the Libyan African oil and the Mediterranean region?

The submission of NATO and EU interests to Turkey’s is now a painful mystery.

Do they want to support Turkey against the “tyrant” Assad, so that Syria becomes as pervious and porous as a sponge?

Do they want to imagine that instead of cooperating with Russia in Syria and the Middle East, Turkey is finally seduced by the immense Western stupidity?

Moreover Ahmed Mitig, one of al-Sarraj’s four deputies, does not consider important to fight Isis in Sirte which, for Tripoli’s government, clearly appears to be a useful buffer to protect itself from Haftar’s forces.

Now, with “Operation Dignity” in the Libyan oil crescent area, we realize all the importance of a power taking more action so as to have less UN-style talk and more military facts.

In 2011 only a perfect fool could imagine this Libyan scenario and both in France and Great Britain we found two useless idiots who, with a view to taking ENI away from us and putting an end to the disastrous project of the Union for the Mediterranean, set fire to the weakest point in Maghreb.

Moreover, as is well-known, al-Sarraj’s domestic allies in Tripoli are both the Salafists and the Muslim Brothers.

With a view to opposing Isis, we support its ideological progenitors, by trusting al-Sarraj’s red tie.

Since the insurgency against Gaddafi, the Muslim Brothers have systematically murdered at least 500 elite officers of the Libyan Armed Forces, in Benghazi only, while even today, in the United States, the obvious equation between Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups is denied by the US government.

Well done. Who do you think has spread the concept of Qur’an as the only law? Fear makes you do unthinkable things, but stupidity is even worse.

Furthermore, rumors are rife that in early 2016 the Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda in Libya reached a political agreement – something which would only surprise the many people disinformed about the “sword” jihad.

Hence what is it? Blindness? Ignorance? Amateurism? A mix of all three.

The West – in the hands of the last master and of ruling classes and politicians who only see the poor (Arab) money – leaves to its enemies the lines of its final penetration and its complete defeat.

Moreover, so far al-Sarraj’s government – so dear to the United Nations and to the European Union – has failed to muster the support of Tripolitania’s Islamist militia led by Khalifa al-Ghweil or of Tobruk’s “House of Representatives” or, finally, of Cyrenaica’s government led by Al Thinni.

Hence, what is it for? For making Turkey do business? For supporting Qatar, which invests massively in our companies?

Furthermore, “Libya Dawn” militias do not support al-Sarraj yet, but only obey to al-Ghweil, while both Haftar and Tobruk’s forces have successfully countered, with weapons in their hands, any attempt by Al Sarraj’s few military forces – especially those of the Muslim Brotherhood – to conquer Cyrenaica’s oil districts.

And, indeed, we paid al-Sarraj’ soldiers.

Hence, even assuming it may lead to some results, the Abu Dhabi meeting will be a success only for General Khalifa Haftar, who will show to al-Sarraj such a mediation line not to make him be overthrown (no one has an interest in replacing an absolute nobody) and avoid his uprising in Tripoli, which – however – would not go beyond the second floor of the building – in front of the port – hosting the GNA, so dear to the United Nations and its ignorant leaders.

Nobody knows what would happen if al-Sarraj were to go to the bathroom on the first floor without being protecting by his bodyguards.

According to some anonymous sources, during the two hours of private talks in Abu Dhabi, the two leaders accepted to hold Parliamentary and presidential elections within 2018.

Again according to these sources, Al-Sarraj accepted to support the appointment – by March 2018 – of General Haftar to serve as provisional President of the new future Libyan Republic, in addition to leading a national unity government with all the forces on the field to manage the upcoming elections.

Al-Sarraj feels he is weak and understands that – as Mao Zedog would have said – the EU and the UN are two “paper tigers”. Hence he is endeavouring to survive his non-existent Tripoli’s government.

Moreover, the crime organizations which handle migrant trafficking have been fully eradicated from the coastal areas where Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” rules, while they thrive on the other shores.

This too would be a sign to consider if a quite responsible a skillful government ruled in Italy.

Nevertheless, we doubt that – despite the professional competence and intelligence of the Minister for Internal Affairs, Marco Minniti – the current government wants to get to the root of the matter.

They are too weakened by the talk about al-Sarraj’s “legitimate power”, created only upon their own request.

As many readers may recall, al-Sarraj’s Libyan Presidential Council, created in March 2016 and located in the base of Abu Sittah, near Tripoli, relied on the Libyan Political Agreement signed on December 17, 2015, which appointed only nine members of al-Sarraj’s government, with no other signatures in support of it.

Westerners are divided like the Libyan forces inside the country. In its magnificent blindness, the United States supports only Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and its President, al-Sarraj.

Do not ask us why – it is just a leap of faith.

Tripoli-Abu Sittah’s government also wants “to fight against people’s traffickers and to repress ISIS in Sirte”, but we know that so far these two goals have only been reached by Haftar.

France supports Haftar because it wants to avoid spreading the contagion to Senegal, Gambia, Niger and Morocco.

And it still has interests between the Horn of Africa and the Suez Canal.

No UN nonsense or foolishness will distract France’s attention from its bilateral relations with Egypt.

As is well-known, also the Russian Federation supports Haftar and there will soon be a Russian base in Cyrenaica and a Russian power projection onto the Western Mediterranean region.

Hence, with Tripoli-Abu Sittah’s government, it is as if Andorra wanted to rule over France or Spain.

However, the agreement finally signed in Rome on March 28 last between the Tuaregh, Tebu and Awlad Suleiman tribes – all operating south of Libya – to stop the trafficking of human beings and stabilize the country is good news.

Nevertheless the Russian Foreign Minister, Lavrov, is perfectly right in supporting “inclusive dialogue and avoiding betting on a single force only”.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that the United Nations and, above all, the European Union have not yet realized it.

The Italian Foreign Minister, Angelino Alfano, believes that “dialogue is positive” and that “also Haftar should be given a role”.

He is certainly right, but the role played by the General of “Operation Dignity” is now clear, while al-Sarraj’s role remains inevitably on the back of the stage.

Hence what should be done?

Simple actions should be taken. Convening a Conference in Rome, whether the UN or the pro-EU useless hierarchies like it or not.

Negotiating a clean-cut and militarily clear delimitation of internal lines and strictly order all Libyan parties to hold elections by and no later than October 2017.

Defining one single national unity government, which shall be established after the local elections.

Creating not a multitude of sympathetic amateurs at war, but a series of effective NATO outposts between the various factions.

Thanks to the idiots that have fragmented and disrupted it, Libya is now only a land of factions.

We should know it and try to separate the military groups, even harshly.

Libya is no longer the country created by Italo Balbo’s Mazzinian genius or the nation built by Gaddafi’s iron will.

Certainly, the leader of Tripoli’s government, Khalifa al-Ghweil, did not allow al-Sarraj and the UN envoy, Kobler, to land in Mitiga, the only airport in the capital city.

While Tripoli’s President does not rule even in his city, Italy and the other naïve supporters of Kant’s perpetual peace refuse to have relations with the only Prince having Weapons – just to quote Machiavelli – namely Haftar, because Cyrenaica’s government, to which the General refers and reports, is a friend of the Russian Federation.

Cyrenaica has already established an “Eastern” branch of the National Oil Company (NOC), the only company authorized by the UN to sell Libyan oil, which – on April 25 last – immediately ordered a sale of 650,000 barrels, loaded on the Indian ship Distya Ameya in the port of Malta, to be sold through a company of the United Arab Emirates.

After UN pressures, the Indian ship returned to Libya, but now the oil split is an objective fact.

In all likelihood, the idea of General Haftar and of Tobruk’s leader, Al Thinni, is to set the precedent of Cyrenaica’s autonomy similar to that of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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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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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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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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