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Crown Prince Mohammed’s vow to moderate Saudi Islam: Easier said than done

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent disavowal of the kingdom’s founding religious ideology had a master’s voice quality to it. His words could have literally come out of the mouth of his Emirati counterpart and mentor, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but with one major difference: the UAE unlike the kingdom has no roots in ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

The absence of an overriding puritan religious history has made it easier for Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to campaign against Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and since the popular Arab revolts of 2011 suppress any expression of political Islam.

To that end, Prince Mohammed attempted with little evident success to counter the Qatar-backed  International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) headed by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s foremost living scholars who is widely viewed as a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the creation of groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

Despite this week’s verbal assault on Wahhabism, Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have cringed when Prince Mohammed bin Zayed scored what likely was his greatest success: the exclusion of Wahhabism, the Saudi strand of ultra-conservatism, developed by Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, an 18th century preacher with whom Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s forefather forged a power-sharing agreement that has constituted the basis of Saudi national ambitions ever since, from a definition of Sunni Islam by prominent Islamic scholars.

The frontal assault on Wahhabism as well as other Saudi-inspired interpretations of Islam, such as Salafism and Deobandism, came in a statement last year by a UAE-funded conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Participants included the imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque in Cairo, Ahmed El- Tayeb; Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam; former Egyptian Grand Mufti and Sufi authority Ali Gomaa, a strident supporter of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi; Mr. Al Sisi’s religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari; the mufti of Damascus Abdul Fattah al-Bizm, a close confidante of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and influential Yemeni cleric Habib Ali Jifri, head of the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic Tabah Foundation who has close ties to Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

While the Grozny statement constituted a milestone, it will take more than statements for the Saudi and UAE princes to succeed in their endeavour. Like many of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s announcements, his vow to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam” was long on expressions of intent and short on details that would put flesh on the skeleton.

To be sure, since emerging almost three years ago as Saudi Arabia’s strongman, Prince Mohammed has taken several steps to roll back the influence of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment and relax its strict moral codes. The steps, including reducing the power of the religious police, lifting the ban on women’s driving, and allowing forms of entertainment like music, film and dance that were long banned, seem, however more designed to upgrade rather than abolish autocracy and enable badly needed economic reform and diversification.

Recent arrests of some of Saudi Arabia’s most popular Islamic scholars as well as human rights activists, judges and intellectuals, whose views run the gamut from ultra-conservative to liberal, coupled with Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s campaign suggest that Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s definition of “moderate Islam” is one that is primarily apolitical, quietist and adheres to a religious school of thought that teaches unconditional obedience to the ruler.

Moreover, changing deeply engrained attitudes that have been embedded in the kingdom’s education and social system since it was founded in the first half of the 20th century and shaped pre-state life will take time. While Saudi Arabia has in recent years taken steps to alter its school curriculum and remove bigoted and violent content from textbooks, it still has a long way to go, according to a 2013 study by a US State Department contractor, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.

The study, disclosed by The New York Times, reported among multiple questionable textbook references that seventh graders were being taught that “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” was among the deeds Allah loved the most. Tenth graders learned that Muslims who abandoned Islam should be jailed for three days and, if they did not change their minds, “killed for walking away from their true religion.” Fourth graders read that non-Muslims had been “shown the truth but abandoned it, like the Jews,” or had replaced truth with “ignorance and delusion, like the Christians.”

Some of the books, prepared and distributed by the government, propagated views that were hostile to science, modernity and women’s rights. The books advocated execution for sorcerers and warned against the dangers of networking groups focussed on humanitarian issues like Rotary Club and the Lions Club that allegedly had been created “to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.”

Even if all the questionable references were removed, changing those attitudes could be a generational task. While Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s proposed reforms have largely been welcomed by Saudi youth, who constitute a majority of the kingdom’s population, they are likely to stir mixed responses as a result of deep-seated attitudes that have been cultivated for decades.

An unpublished survey of aspirations of 100 male Saudi 20-year olds indicated the problems Prince Mohammed is likely to encounter beyond opposition from ultra-conservatives to moderating the kingdom’s adopted interpretation of Islam. The men “wanted social change but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters. Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited,” said Abdul Al Lily, a Saudi scholar who conducted the survey and authored a book on rules that govern Saudi culture

Some 50 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and be able to drive fast cars, Mr. Al Lily said. He said issues of political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighbouring Yemen did not figure in their answers.

However, Mr. Al Lily’s interviewees bolted when confronted with the notion that liberties they wanted would also apply to their womenfolk. “People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Mr. Al Lily said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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