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Nepal trusts India much less than China

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Like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, Nepal is also, in recent years, tilted towards China, especially for economic, rather than military or even strategic reasons although all of them have made any collative effort on any regional or international issues.

Nepal, the landlocked country, which is surrounded on three sides by India and China on one side over the Himalayas, depends on neighbors for its prosperity and also diversifying the sources of key supplies was very important for the successful conduct of its policies. Nepal is trying to find a way to ensure manageable risk in terms of resources it gets from other countries.

Extra pressure from New Delhi forced Nepal to move towards China.

Constantly tormented by the necessity of pursuing a neutral policy to effectively balancing between its immediate but antagonistic neighbors China and India, Nepal has been striving to figure out how it is related at multiple levels to both countries.

China and as well as Indian exerts tremendous influence on Nepal to toe their lines however, Katmandu is keen to be a partner of Beijing. While China is a UN veto power and world economic power, India is an emerging economy with its own limitations.

However, Hinduism playing a mediating factor, India has extensive political and economic influence over Nepal and thus far it provides much of Nepal’s supplies. In 2015, India withheld supplies, especially fuel, to the country after the devastating earthquake by blocking traffic because of a political dispute. Here Beijing stepped in and supplied fuel along the mountainous routes and became a trusted partner.

Rise of leftism

A Left parties’ alliance formed a new government in Nepal after a landslide victory, seen as a triumph of China over India regarding influence in Kathmandu, with pro-Chinese nationalist leader K.P. Sharma Oli expected to be prime minister. The alliance has an ideological affinity with communist China. Its top leaders, Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, both ex-prime ministers, also have a personal rapport with top Chinese and party officials.

Leaders of the coalition in Katmandu said the new government will launch five or six megaprojects aimed at spurring development and job growth, including revisiting the Chinese company-funded Budhi Gandaki dam project, which was cancelled on the eve of the election.

After the elections, Oli visited a border point with Tibet where a trans-Himalayan railway project is under review, further indicating future collaboration with China. Oli pledged to bring in Chinese investment for key infrastructure projects, and to return a US$2.5 billion hydropower project to China’s Gezhouba Group, after the current government scrapped the deal citing contract “irregularities”.

While Chinese communist ideology seems to be close to Nepalese political and intellectual classes, India under BJP government tries to  use Hindu religion to exert  more influence the on the Nepalese mindset than China.

Nepal’s newly elected Left Alliance is not doing Beijing’s bidding, but seeks to balance relations between China and India to promote economic growth and political stability. The sweeping victory of the Communist CPN-UML and Maoist Party alliance in Nepal’s election this month has raised alarm bells. The primary concern in the international press seems to be that a communist government will allow China a greater role in a region India sees as its backyard.

Earlier, the centrist Nepali Congress-led incumbent government played a role in slowing Beijing’s economic advances in Nepal. Not one project has yet been pursued under the “Belt and Road Initiative”, eight months since a framework agreement. Breaking with the tradition of visiting India first upon taking office, Dahal chose China as his first port of call in August 2008. Oli signed a slew of deals, including on transport and transit, when he arrived in Beijing as Nepal’s leader in March 2016. These treaties not only ended Nepal’s sole dependency on India for trade but also diversified the Nepalese market for petroleum imports, crucial for a landlocked nation that has faced three economic blockades by India.

Once considered close to New Delhi, Oli became vocal against India when it pressured Nepal over its constitution in September 2015, then imposed a five-month blockade, and tried to bar Oli from becoming prime minister. But, he is not against seeking Indian investment for development. No government in Nepal can ignore one neighbour at the cost of another. Nor can it afford sole dependency on either.

With China surpassing India on the list of Nepal’s largest donors and investors, India’s unease has deepened. The problem is India still sees Nepal as its “backyard”; it welcomes Chinese investment but expresses deep suspicions when it comes to its neighborhood.

There is speculation, mostly from Indian sources, that China has been pulling the levers behind the scenes to help the two major left parties come together. Western media have repeated the claim, with the alliance depicted as a pro-China force and Chinese activities held responsible for India’s diminishing influence in Nepal.

If India’s traditional dominance in Nepal has waned, it is more because of India’s reckless diplomacy and it new hate politics. After India imposed an effective blockade against Nepal in 2015-16 for refusing to write a constitution on its terms, Nepal was cut off from fuel and essential supplies for more than five months. Nepal has since looked north for development and diplomatic balance and China readily obliged its red neighbor.

India may not accept developments in Nepal as the aspirations of a landlocked, sovereign neighbour to diversify its trade, transport and transit dependencies.  India’s clout would not count greatly if it continues to try to reverse the logical trend but on the contrary would only help steer China’s speedy footprints in Nepal.

But India must honour its earlier infrastructure commitments to Nepal, while admitting that China is a reality, not a choice, for Kathmandu.

Logic

It is geographic logic that geared Nepal towards the south but economic and geopolitical logic means it now also engages China. There is now a consensus across the political spectrum on the need to end Nepal’s exclusive southern orientation and develop better trade and transport links with China.

Study of China and its language are becoming popular in Nepal. The students of Nepal are also taught about contemporary China, including the government’s claim that it is the home of the “four great new inventions”, including shared bicycles and high-speed railways. The number of Chinese tourists travelling to Nepal is also swelling, rising 20 per cent in 2016 to 104,000, according to figures from the Nepal Tourism Board. The sharp rise has coincided with an increase in the number of Chinese businesses in Kathmandu, including hotels and restaurants in the so-called Chinatown in the city’s Thamel district.

Since opening in 2015, Nepal has organised dozens of events promoting Chinese culture. In fact, the Classrooms have sparked controversy in some countries because of their links to the Chinese government, and the perception that they support Beijing’s political objectives and fail to tackle sensitive topics. There are more than 1,000 such classrooms in primary and secondary schools around the world.

While China’s cultural clout in Nepal lags far behind that of India – with which Nepal shares a 1,700km open border – opportunities for Beijing to shift that balance were given a huge boost when Nepal’s Communist alliance, which is seen as friendlier to China, secured a landslide election victory.

Totalitarian China has restrictions placed on religions, especially Islam and controls over the internet and blocks many websites which might carry content that is religious and not exactly critical of the ruling Communist Party – including Google and Facebook – but also religious contents.

Political economy

The left win in Nepal was good news for China, given Nepal’s strategic location as a buffer with India and proximity to Tibet, an autonomous region of China with lingering tensions over its sovereignty.

Nepal’s communists have been adherents of the market economy since the establishment of democracy in 1990 and many leaders have close relationships with India. Most domestic forces have sought help from India and China to gain political leverage and both countries have attempted to influence political processes. Their involvement is as effective as local dynamics allow. No country wields absolute power over politics in Nepal.

China is Nepal’s largest foreign investor, and in the past financial year alone has invested 8.36 billion Nepalese rupees (US$81.89 million) in the country, an increase of almost 35 per cent from the year before, according to Nepal’s Department of Industry.

More than US$80 million of investment are helping Beijing to win hearts and minds in its tiny, but perfectly placed neighbour Nepal. Much to the annoyance of New Delhi, Beijing has poured huge sums of money into infrastructure projects in Nepal – a landlocked nation with China to its north and India to its south – under its trade and infrastructure development plan known as the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

The impact of Chinese investment in Nepal is visible in its roads and motorways, hydroelectric projects and railways, as well as the rebuilding projects launched after the devastating earthquake of 2015 that left more than 9,000 people dead. At the entrance to a project, partly funded by Beijing, to restore a tower in front of the old royal palace in Durbar Square, are the flags of both Nepal and China.

China has been making strenuous efforts to increase trade with Nepal. At present, China-Nepal relations are developing at the fastest pace we’ve seen,” said Yu Hong, Chinese ambassador to Nepal. Nepal’s closeness to China, expected to deepen under its New Leftist government, is just a sovereign nation’s wish to secure its interests and India should accept it as such.

In fact, the regional superpower China helps Nepal overcome it’s over dependence on India by providing those resources that come from India to the former kingdom of Himalayas. Nepal ended its long dependency on India for internet access recently by opening a fibre optic link to China. Nepal’s information minister Mohan Bahadur Basnet inaugurated the link across the Himalayas at a ceremony in the capital, Kathmandu. Previously, all internet connections in the landlocked country came via three access points in its only other neighbour, India through the cities of Bhairahawa, Biratnagar and Birgunj in southern Nepal.

The new internet line provided by China Telecom Global extends from Kathmandu to the border point Rasuwagadhi into the Tibet region. It comes after a coalition of two communist parties that are considered pro-China won Nepal’s election last month. The Nepal line is connected via Hong Kong bandwidth, which is not restricted by the infamous “Great Firewall”. The link was scheduled to be up and running by the middle of last year but it was delayed due to the difficulties of working at high altitudes above 4,000 metres.

Work on a communications link to China was finished in December 2014, but it was completely destroyed in a devastating earthquake in April 2015. A land transport route through the Tatopani border point to China is still closed.

Chinese influence can be seen across Nepal, Beijing still has some way to go, especially in the area of people-to-people relations, which are still not sufficient. Cultural relations and the people-to-people relations are the vehicle for strengthening bilateral relations

This visible presence is a concern for India, which regards China as a strategic competitor and views the influx of Chinese money with a geopolitical edge. There are also perennial concerns over China’s soft power regarding sovereignty

Helplessness

Any country would like to have full and complete sovereignty and freedom to decide its course without any pressure or force from any other big nation. Nepal feels for that ambiguity and inability. .

Nepal is pursuing a long history of trade and cultural connection with China that was broken after the British incursion. What the India/West axis sees as Nepal being breaking away from its fold, but Nepal sees as a much-needed rebalancing.

Nepalis strongly desire to break free from the shackles of political and economic domination from both Indi and China. They have seen Asian countries transform themselves in a matter of decades and are eager for similar change. They have seen the rise of China and how the Chinese have lifted millions out of poverty. They have seen in their own country how almost 70 years of Western development aid has done little in comparison.

There is a great disillusionment against what is widely perceived as the proclivity of the Indians and Westerners to get mired in domestic politics and social engineering Nepal is not a “security instrument” to contain China, nor a battleground in the new great game. It is easy to see why the Chinese model, with its strictly economic terms of engagement, is preferable to many, even with concerns about “debt entrapment” among countries dealing with China.

Anyone in China’s neighborhood is going to be aware of the gravity of China’s pull and the amount of influence it could potentially wield. But many in Nepal appear unconcerned, focusing instead on China’s massive economic development and the spillover benefits it could have for their country. 10 years down the road, Nepal’s economy will have largely benefited because of the Chinese economy.

Obviously Nepal will benefit from the growing Chinese economy and the Chinese protection would ward off any threats from India.

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South Asia

The Not-So-Missing Case of Indian Innovation and Entrepreneurship

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Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Hitendra Singh and Gauri Noolkar-Oak*

Recently, an article published in Modern Diplomacy caught our attention. The author has cited Mr. Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and found his famous statement on Indians lacking enterprise and innovation to be ‘music to his ears’. He has then gone on to paint Indians in broad strokes – ironic, for it is something he has accused Indians of doing – and labelled them as a nation lacking entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. While his reasoning certainly has an element of truth and an instant appeal, our response looks to add nuances to his argument and provide a more realistic and complete picture of enterprise and innovation in India.

To begin with, the terms ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘innovation’ cannot be used interchangeably; not all entrepreneurs are innovators, and vice versa. There are more than 50 million medium and small businesses operating in India which contribute 37% of India’s GDP and employ around 117 million people. These numbers sufficiently prove that entrepreneurship is alive and kicking in the Indian society; Indians are running businesses not only in India but are leading and successful entrepreneurs in many countries of Asia, Africa and rest of the world. Hence, an argument that Indians lack entrepreneurship does not hold much strength.

In the case of innovation and creativity, a different story is emerging. It is slow but is happening and it is solving some of the largest social and developmental challenges in India – from grassroots, to research labs, to top-tier institutions such as ISRO and various DRDO labs. At a global level, India has not only moved up six places in its GII ranking in 2017, but is also ranked second in innovation quality. India has also won international acclaim for its innovative and cost-effective technology; such as its first mission to Mars in 2014, the Mangalyaan, was successful in the first attempt, made entirely with domestic technology, and cost less than the Hollywood movies ‘Gravity’ and ‘The Martian’. It is surprising that the author spots lack of innovation in a household broom but does not see innovation in a nation that sends a successful Mars mission on a budget that is less than that of a Hollywood movie about Mars.

At the national level, grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship are gaining more and more institutional recognition; the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) and the annual Festival of Innovation at the Rashtrapati Bhavan are perhaps the only high-level government initiatives supporting and celebrating innovation in the world. Additionally, many universities and educational institutes across the country host innovation competitions, festivals and incubators.

Several remarkable individuals are nurturing India’s growing innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.Prof. Anil K. Gupta founded SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions) in 1993 and the Honey Bee Network in 1997 to connect innovators from all sections of the society to entrepreneurs, lawyers and investors. For more than 12 years, he has walked around 6000 kilometres across the country, discovering extraordinary grassroots innovations on the way. Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar, an eminent chemical scientist, has led multiple scientific and technological innovations in the country, earlier as the Director-General of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and now as the President of the National Innovation Foundation.

And then, there are thousands of common men and women, hailing from various walks of life, innovating continuously and creatively to solve pressing everyday problems in the Indian society. There are the famous Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a cost-effective way of manufacturing sanitary napkins, and Mansukhbhai Prajapati, who invented a clay refrigerator which runs without electricity. Then there are Mallesham from Andhra Pradesh, who sped up the process of weaving Kochampalli sarees and reduced the physical pains of the weavers, and Shri Sundaram from Rajasthan, who found a way to grow a whole tree in a dry region with just a litre of water. Raghav Gowda from Karnataka designed a cost-effective and painless machine to milk cows, while Mathew K Mathews from Kerala designed a solar mosquito destroyer. Dr. Pawan Mehrotra of Haryana has developed a cost-effective version of breast prosthesis for breast cancer survivors while Harsh Songra of Madhya Pradesh has developed a mobile app to detect developmental disorders among children.

Three women from Manipur, OinamIbetombi Devi, SarangthenDasumati Devi and Nameirakpam Sanahambi Devi invented an herbal medicine that is proven to promote poultry health. Priyanka Sharma from Punjab developed a low-cost biochip to detect environmental pollutants, while Dr. Seema Prakash from Karnataka revolutionised eco-agriculture by inventing a cost-effective plant cloning technique. AshniBiyani, the daughter of Future Group CEO Kishore Biyani, leads the Khoj Lab, which collaborates with the NIF to help commercialise grassroots innovations and ideas.

These and thousands of such examples present a very encouraging picture of the creativity and innovation of Indians. The innovation that the author admires are rooted in a context. Apple and Google (or Lyft or Uber or Spotify) could be created because there was an end consumer who was looking to pay for their products. There are many India innovator-entrepreneurs, such as those mentioned above, who have created products for a necessarily less glamorous but useful India context. Products like brooms and packaged food add convenience to the time-stretched urban and middle and upper middle classes; with a large unskilled and semiskilled workforce competing vigorously for such jobs, does the Indian society have an incentive to invest in innovating them?

Having said that, it is true that upsurge of innovation in India is relatively recent, i.e. about two to three decades old. It is also true that the Indian society has been experiencing socio-economic affluence on such a broad scale only for the past three decades, since the market reforms of 1991. It has been 70 years since Indians have gained sovereignty and control over their resources. The top five innovative countries according to the GII – Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, USA and UK – have been sovereign states for about at least two and a half centuries. It would perhaps then be more accurate to compare India’s current innovation scenario with, for instance, the USA’s innovation scenario in the mid-19th century.

Further, given the economic and resource drain faced by the Indian society over centuries, Indian innovation was geared more towards surviving rather than thriving. This explains the ‘group mentality’ strongly rooted in mainstream Indian society; staying and cooperating in a group increased one’s capacity to cope with and survive through all kinds of adversity. Individualistic aspirations, beliefs and actions were then a price to be paid for the security blanket it offered. And yet, once relative stability and affluence began to set in, the innovative and creative instincts of Indians lost no time in bursting forth.

Long story short, both innovation and entrepreneurship are thriving in India. They might not be as “macro” or glamourous as Apple or Uber, but they are solving fundamental problems for the Indian masses. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of room for improvement and growth – India has a long way to go to be recognised as a global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. However, the scenario is not by any means bleak, as these many examples point out. The trajectory of enterprises and innovation in India is only upward. The future is promising.

* Gauri Noolkar-Oak is Policy Research Analyst at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India.

Views expressed by the authors are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation.

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Changing Perceptions: How Pakistan should use Public Diplomacy

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Traditionally in International Relations the concept of “hard power” remained the basic focus for states so as to achieve power and dominance in international anarchic system but with the changing scenarios in the age of globalization, economic interdependency and rapid spreading of information through various tools, “Soft Power” concept emerged which had great impact on states’ foreign policies. This term of soft power was first coined by Joseph Nye in mid-1960’s which could be defined as the ability of the state to influence others without coercion and this soft power technique basically revolves around three major instruments such as Culture, political values, and foreign policies. Apart from soft power concept, there is another basic concept called as “Public Diplomacy”. This could be described as the further dimension of soft power because by practicing Public Diplomacy state can initiate their soft power policies and can achieve the desired outcomes by winning the hearts and minds of foreign audience and non-governmental entities because by doing so it will enable government and decision making bodies of foreign states to act accordingly.

In context of South Asia particularly taking into consideration the important developing state Pakistan whose basic concern is to maintain friendly and neutral relations with other states Public diplomacy could, however, help it to maintain its relations in the regional complex structure where India is seen as the dominant power and alongside India the powerful rise of China as an external actor in South Asia. By efficient usage of Public diplomacy, Pakistan can improve its bilateral ties with the neighboring states.

The image of Pakistan in foreign media is portrayed as the state which is full of many internal and external challenges and it is also not portrayed as the safe country to travel into. In order to improve the image, Pakistan firstly needs to improve its relations with states within the region and for that India which is considered as hostile neighbor Pakistan should effectively use its public diplomacy tool it should introduce exchange programs because by educating youth and by deploying positive image in their minds Pakistan can influence them which could bring change in the coming years and also by increasing tourism activities. This would make foreigners aware of the fact that Pakistan is a secure state. Similarly, cultural activities, sports diplomacy, literature, art, and media could also have a great impact so as to change the perceptions.

Hence it could be suggested that for the development of state it is important for Pakistan to improve its public diplomacy by changing perceptions of public and elite of neighboring states it should take basic steps which could change the negative image which is in limelight since 9/11. Pakistan by enhancing the public diplomacy in other states as the tool to implement its soft power policies would, however, be able to economically, culturally and politically improve its stance in the International arena.

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South Asia

Rolling back militancy: Bangladesh looks to Saudi Arabia in a twist of irony

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Bangladesh, in a twist of irony, is looking to Saudi Arabia to fund a $ 1 billion plan to build hundreds of mosques and religious centres to counter militant Islam that for much of the past decade traced its roots to ultra-conservative strands of the faith promoted by a multi-billion dollar Saudi campaign.

The Bangladeshi plan constitutes the first effort by a Muslim country to enlist the kingdom whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam,’ in reverse engineering.

The plan would attempt to roll back the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s global investment of up to $100 billion over a period of four decades in support of ultra-conservative mosques, religious centres, and groups as an antidote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.

Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and various countries, including Malaysia, has focused until now on countering extremism in cooperation with defense and security authorities rather than as a religious initiative.

Saudi religious authorities and Islamic scholars have long issued fatwas or religious opinions condemning political violence and extremism and accused jihadists of deviating from the true path of Islam.

The Saudi campaign, the largest public diplomacy effort in history, was, nevertheless, long abetted by opportunistic governments who played politics with religion as well as widespread discontent fuelled by the failure of governments to deliver public goods and services.

The Bangladeshi plan raises multiple questions, including whether the counter-narrative industry can produce results in the absence of effective government policies that address social, economic and political grievances.

It also begs the question whether change in Saudi Arabia has advanced to a stage in which the kingdom can claim that it has put its ultra-conservative and militant roots truly behind it. The answer to both questions is probably no.

In many ways, Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and militancy, violent and non-violent, despite sharing common roots with the kingdom’s long-standing theological thinking and benefitting directly or indirectly from Saudi financial largess, has created a life of its own that no longer looks to the kingdom for guidance and support and is critical of the path on which Prince Mohammed has embarked.

The fallout of the Saudi campaign is evident in Asia not only in the rise of militancy in Bangladesh but also the degree to which concepts of supremacism and intolerance have taken root in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Those concepts are often expressed in discrimination, if not persecution of minorities like Shia Muslims and Ahmadis, and draconic anti-blasphemy measures by authorities, militants and vigilantes.

Bangladesh in past years witnessed a series of brutal killings of bloggers and intellectuals whom jihadists accused of atheism.

Moreover, basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s secular constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. Saudi Arabia withheld recognition of the new state as well as financial support until the amendment was adopted four years after Bangladeshi independence.

In Indonesia, hard-line Islamic groups, led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), earlier this month filed a blasphemy complaint against politician Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno and the younger sister of Megawati Sukarnoputri, who leads President Joko Widodo’s ruling party. The hardliners accuse Ms. Sukarnoputri of reciting a poem that allegedly insults Islam.

The groups last year accused Basuki Tjahaja Purnama aka Ahok, Jakarta’s former Christian governor, of blasphemy and spearheaded mass rallies that led to his ouster and jailing, a ruling that many believed was politicized and unjust.

Pakistan’s draconic anti-blasphemy law has created an environment that has allowed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives and powerful political forces to whip up popular emotion in pursuit of political objectives. The environment is symbolized by graffiti in the corridor of a courthouse In Islamabad that demanded that blasphemers be beheaded.

Pakistan last month designated Islamabad as a pilot project to regulate Friday prayer sermons in the city’s 1,003 mosques, of which only 86 are state-controlled, in a bid to curb hate speech, extremism and demonization of religions and communities.

The government has drafted a list of subjects that should be the focus of weekly Friday prayer sermons in a bid to prevent mosques being abused “to stir up sectarian hatred, demonise other religions and communities and promote extremism.” The subjects include women rights; Islamic principles of trade, cleanliness and health; and the importance of hard work, tolerance, and honesty.

However, they do not address legally enshrined discrimination of minorities like Ahmadis, who are viewed as heretics by orthodox Muslims. The list risked reinforcing supremacist and intolerant militancy by including the concept of the finality of the Prophet Mohammed that is often used as a whip to discriminate against minorities.

Raising questions about the degree of moderation that Saudi-funded mosques and religious centres in Bangladesh would propagate, Prince Mohammed, in his effort to saw off the rough edges of Saudi ultra-conservatism, has given no indication that he intends to repeal a law that defines atheists as terrorists.

A Saudi court last year condemned a man to death on charges of blasphemy and atheism. Another Saudi was a year earlier sentenced to ten years in prison and 2,000 lashes for expressing atheist sentiments on social media.

Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations have long lobbied for the criminalization of blasphemy in international law in moves that would legitimize curbs on free speech and growing Muslim intolerance towards any open discussion of their faith.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia cannot be held directly liable for much of the expression of supremacism, intolerance and anti-pluralism in the Muslim world. Yet, by the same token there is little doubt that Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism frequently contributed to an enabling environment.

Prince Mohammed is at the beginning of his effort to moderate Saudi Islam and has yet to spell out in detail his vision of religious change. Beyond the issue of defining atheism as terrorism, Saudi Arabia also has yet to put an end to multiple ultra-conservative practices, including the principle of male guardianship that forces women to get the approval of a male relative for major decisions in their life.

Prince Mohammed has so far forced the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment into subservience. That raises the question whether there has been real change in the establishment’s thinking or whether it is kowtowing to an autocratic leader.

In December, King Salman fired a government official for organizing a mixed gender fashion show after ultra-conservatives criticized the event on Twitter. The kingdom this week hosted its first ever Arab Fashion Week, for women only. Designers were obliged to adhere to strict dress codes banning transparent fabrics and the display of cleavages or clothing that bared knees.

In February, Saudi Arabia agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels after its efforts to install a more moderate administration failed to counter mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism propagated by mosque executives.

Efforts to moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state that traces its ultra-conservatism to the teachings of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, but has long interpreted them more liberally than the kingdom, have proven to be easier said than done.

Saudi King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor, positioned himself as a champion of interfaith dialogue and reached out to various groups in society including Shiites and women.

Yet, more than a decade of Saudi efforts to cleanse textbooks used at home and abroad have made significant progress but have yet to completely erase descriptions of alternative strands of Islam such as Shiism and Sufism in derogatory terms or eliminate advise to Muslims not to associate with Jews and Christians who are labelled kaffirs or unbelievers.

Raising questions about Saudi involvement in the Bangladeshi plan, a Human Rights Watch survey of religion textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for the 2016-2017 school year concluded that “as early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought.”

Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle noted that Prince Mohammed has remained conspicuously silent about hate speech in textbooks as well as its use by officials and Islamic scholars connected to the government.

The New York-based Anti-Defamation League last year documented hate speech in Qatari mosques that was disseminated in Qatari media despite Qatar’s propagation of religious tolerance and outreach to American Jews as part of its effort to counter a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.

In one instance in December, Qatari preacher Muhammed al-Muraikhi described Jews in a sermon in Doha’s Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque as “your deceitful, lying, treacherous, fornicating, intransigent enemy” who have “despoiled, corrupted, ruined, and killed, and will not stop.”

No doubt, Saudi Arabia, like Qatar, which much earlier moved away from puritan and literal Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, is sincere in its intention to adopt more tolerant and pluralistic worldviews.

Getting from A to B, however, is a lengthy process. The question remains whether the kingdom has progressed to a degree that it can credibly help countries like Bangladesh deal with their demons even before having successfully put its own house in order.

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