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Sri Lanka seeks deeper ties, free trade agreement with China

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Like Nepal, Sri Lanka seeks profitable trade equations with China in order to raise its GDP. Sri Lanka wants a longer-time period to negotiate a free trade agreement with China as it is concerned about the economic impact of a rushed deal on their small country, the Sri Lankan ambassador said on Sunday, the Feb 04.

There has been rising concern in the South Asian nation about Chinese investment, a key part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to create a modern-day Silk Road across Asia.

Hundreds of Sri Lankans clashed with police at the opening last year of a Chinese-invested industrial zone in the south, saying they would not be moved from their land. It was the first time opposition to Chinese investments in Sri Lanka had turned violent.

Speaking on the sidelines of an Independence Day reception at the Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing, Ambassador Karunasena Kodituwakku said a free trade agreement with China could not be rushed. “We’d like to have the process a little longer. China would like to have it faster,” Kodituwakku told Reuters. “Because Sri Lanka being a small economy, we have to get a consensus from stakeholders,” he added. “Therefore the delay is due to the time period. But eventually we will sign the agreement.”

Sri Lanka last month signed a free trade agreement with Singapore, but Singapore’s economy is not as complex as China’s, Kodituwakku said. The deal with the city state is Sri Lanka’s first modern and comprehensive FTA. “Chinese imports are very important to Sri Lanka, but opening up the whole thing in a short time may make some problems for local companies. Therefore we have to balance it.”

Sri Lanka has also been trying to get investment for a little utilized airport on its southern tip, in Mattala, built at a cost of $253 million by China, which also provided $230 million of funding. “No doubt it was a white elephant. It is still a white elephant,” Kodituwakku said.

India had been in advanced talks with Sri Lanka to operate the airport, but the ambassador said no deal had been reached. “We have to turn it into a viable economic venture. In fact we gave the option to Chinese companies. I know Chinese companies have shown an interest, but according to our studies they were not having a viable economic plan and that’s why they had to give the option to India,” he said. “The Indian offer had been there, but even that has not been finalized,” Kodituwakku added. “Anyone who wants to come and turn the Mattala airport into a viable economic venture will be welcome. But unfortunately no one has taken over.”

When Sri Lanka’s government first looked to develop a port on its southern coast that faced the Indian Ocean, it went not to China, but to its neighbor, India.

Then-Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said he urgently needed funding to transform the harbor of his home town and asked Indian officials for help with the project.

New Delhi showed little interest in funding a costly and massive port construction project in the underdeveloped fishing village of Hambantota, a district that had been crushed by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

China has for decades invested in Sri Lanka, particularly during moments in recent history when much of the international community held off. China supplied the Rajapaksa government with military aid and it promised to spend to rebuild the country’s damaged infrastructure. India had also sent in military help, but nowhere near the levels Beijing dispatched.

The civil war ended in 2009. Between 2005 and 2017, China spent nearly $15 billion in Sri Lanka. By comparison, the International Finance Corporation, which is part of the World Bank group, says that between 1956 and 2016, it invested over $1 billion.

Along with the Hambantota port investments, Beijing loaned Sri Lanka $200 million in 2010 for a second international airport and a year later a further $810 million for the “second phase of the port project.”Beijing loaned Sri Lanka $200 million in 2010 for a second international airport and a year later a further $810 million for the “second phase of the port project.

Beijing invested $1.5 billion in 2010 to build the port. The venture was considered economically unviable and indeed, in the years that followed, the port sat empty and neglected, and Sri Lanka’s debt ballooned. China’s official licensing of the port in December last year gives it yet another point of access over a key shipping route, and the prospect of providing it with a sizeable presence in India’s immediate backyard and traditional sphere of influence, bringing China closer to India’s shores than New Delhi might like.

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s decision to sign a 99-year lease with a Chinese state-owned company for the Hambantota port to service some of the billions it owes to Beijing has some observers concerned other developing nations doing business with China as part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative might fall into similar financial straits. A trap, they warn, that may well have them owing more than just money to Beijing.

There was more. $272 million for a railway in 2013 and more than $1 billion for the Colombo Port City project, ventures that hired mostly Chinese workers (one Sri Lankan report put the number of Chinese workers dedicated to projects in 2009 at 25,000), and all with money Sri Lanka could barely afford to repay. By 2015, Sri Lanka owed China $8 billion, and Sri Lankan government officials predicted that accumulated foreign debt — both owed to China and other countries — would eat up 94% of the country’s GDP.

Proud India’s pain

 In recent years India is gradually getting isolated in the South Asia region where it claims to be the super power. India feels enormous pain to see its neighbors Pakistan, China and Nepal work together and Bangladesh which has problem with Pakistan for historical reasons also is in the coalition led by China. There is very little that New Delhi can do to divide them but it can make their alliance stronger by wrong moves.

In fact, India has no reliable ally except perhaps Bhutan and Afghanistan but they are very costly ones as they depend on India for several favors.

India plays safe with Sri Lanka which is fast becoming an economic partner of Asian economic giant China. India does not want to openly antagonize its sea neighbor Lanka over Tamil issue and hence allows Lankan military to attack and kill Tamil fishermen from India. If India retaliates against Lankan atrocities, it would lose Lanka almost forever. Already Sri lanka has filed cases against India over Kudankulam nuclear plant since that island nation is within the danger zone of nuclear radiation from Kudankulam but India has so far managed to pacify Colombo not to push for any punitive measures. So, India is tolerating the Lankan atrocities on Tamil fishermen. Also, the ruling BJP has no place in Tamil Nadu state and the federal government has no fear of losing support of Tamils for the party in the next general poll. The local BJP does not raise the issue of political future of the party in the state with the central party.

Thus Tamil fishermen are the causality of regional geo-politics.

Sri Lanka ill-treat Tamils as enemies

 Fully aware of Indian mindset and dilemma of Tamil community, Sri Lanka just goes on attacking the Tamil fishermen. If Tamil fishermen go to Katchatheevu they are sure to be attacked and yet they cannot avoid going there since their life is inter linked with the zone.

Lankan regime knows India would not undertake nay punitive measures against the continued Lankan military offenses. Sri Lankans know their value as being ally of China and Pakistan.

For the same reason, India also does not push for speedy investigation procedures on war crimes of Lankan military forces against Lankan Tamils who are of Indian origins. .

 There has been a monstrous trend around the world, starting in USA to view the minority populations as their enemies as the majority populations refuse to share the nation’s resources with the minorities equitably.

The Singhalese majority (Buddhist) populations in Sri Lanka ill-treat Tamil populations as the key “problem” they face and refuses to share the resources of the island nation with the minorities mainly Indian Tamils.

Sri Lanka does not distinguish between Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils when it comes to treating them as equal humans. Tamil fishermen who go to their traditional zones like Katchatheevu are attacked perpetually even as Indian government looks the other way, pretending to be unaware of atrocities against Indian Tamils.

Lankan regime plays dirty regional politics to force Indian regime not to interfere with Lankan attack on Tamil fishermen. Regional geo politics favor Chinese supremacy in the South Asia region while India, backed by USA, is determined to to have final say in the regional politics.

Now Pakistan and Nepal are close friends or allies of China for its economic help and Lankan government is fast becoming an ally of China which India wants to disturb by maintaining silence over Lankan atrocities on Indian fishermen, even attacks and murders them freely on the sea. India is keen to obstruct any better ties between China and Lanka and Nepal but Nepal has been lost by New Delhi.

In fact, India also kills fishermen on the sea and de snot feel bad ot pained when neighboring Lankan military also does the same. Tamil nadu government under instruction from federal government also attacked and killed fishermen when they protested against the Kudankulam nuclear terror plans. So, attacks and murders by Lankan forces cannot make India worry.

So much so, the Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe had the courage to warn Indian government that they would kill any Indian who “trespasses” their “territory”. Sri Lanka now considers Katchatheevu, a small islet in the Indian Ocean lying between Lanka and India and right now under Lankan control, belongs to them and India cannot have any claim over the zone and Tamils should not be seen there. .

Apparently, .Indo-Lankan tensions are pure fiction as the regimes continue to target Tamils in both nations probably, like in cricket for 50s and 100s, on mutual understating.

The way Myanmar Muslims are being ill-treated by the regime and military, among other state-majority Buddhist’ agencies has heavily influenced non-Muslim states with military upperhandism like Sri lanka where the majority populations consisting of Singhalese minorities especially Tamils and Muslims are being attacked in order to appease the majority people.

Sri Lankan regime in South India knows too well that the Hindutva regime of PM Modi in India would not mind if Tamils and Muslims who are not Hindutva supporters either in India or Sri Lanka and hence it target both communities.

Though Lankan target is primarily focused Tamils, nowadays even Muslims are also the target of the Singhalese regime.

Constructive actions

Lankan government wants integration of communities without reconciliation.  The larger communal tensions occur between youth of the two communities in the aftermath of a sports event.  One group of youth had chided and spoken defiantly to another group from the other community.  The initial violence was between the youth of the two communities who took offense at the attitudes of the other. A house was attacked by a group of youths.  The matter should have been settled at that level by the community leaders, and if that failed by the local police.  But this did not happen because external forces got involved.  There are different accounts of who these might be, with organized extremist groups being the suspects, but with also questions being asked about the law enforcement authorities themselves.  As rumours have a way of getting multiplied, it would be constructive if the government were to conduct an independent inquiry into this incident.

There are extremists on all sides of Sri Lanka’s continuing ethnic divides who are waiting to act as guardians of their community’s interests.  This is true of members of all communities and they act with most energy in the areas in which they are a majority.  It is therefore important that there should be constant awareness and interaction programs organized by the government, civil society and by religious institutions, to promote inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding and togetherness.

The challenge would be to link them to civil society groups that could energize them and take them to the community level to engage in local level conflict mitigation work. There also needs to be education programs on the values of pluralism so that those who are a majority in any part of the country do not think that they are entitled to have special rights as individuals over those who are not in a majority.

Sleeping duck

As this government is one that is not based on ethnic nationalism and is also a combination of the two major political parties, it is more representative of the mainstream polity.  It is also more acceptable to the ethnic and religious minorities.  There is a general acceptance that the government is genuinely liberal where people’s freedoms are concerned.

A new feature on the social media, which is running without any control, is the naming and shaming of Buddhist monks who join inter-religious groups that seek to promote reconciliation and amity at the community level. A major criticism of the government that comes from all sides of the political spectrum, though for different reasons, is that the government is indecisive and not strong.

However, the downside to freedom and opening of space to voice opinions and to criticize is that this space is being exploited by those who do not accept a liberal and pluralist view of society.  This can be seen on the social media which is filled with hate speech.  There is a strong anti Muslim discourse that claims that they have links with international terror groups are increasing their population too fast and surreptitiously introducing birth control drugs to unsuspecting Sinhalese men, women and children.

Unfavorable comparisons are made in this regard with the former government.  The Sirisena government, committed to fail governance through reconciliation, is reported to be collecting material relating to social media that spreads hate.

Since the US super power doesn’t impose its will on Colombo to initiate punitive measures against those guilty of war on Tamil population and extra crimes, the new government is also is not really bothered about justice for the Tamils.

India government, in the mood to punish the historic foes, plays a spoiling game for the Tamils and Muslims in the island la nation which is facing serious threat of disappearance due to fast climate changes.

The state can incite violence against the minorities just in a matter of hours, even minutes and just go rampage of the localities of minorities like Muslims. The core media that always oblige the government for making money as advertisements and foreign trips, just generate fake stories to target the Muslims, other minorities.

The disastrous inter ethnic violence between Sinhalese and Muslims in Gintota over the weekend which led to damage to a large number of homes, businesses and buildings is one of the crudest instances of how the state guides most of the community clashes generally for political reasons. .

The government actions included sending in police battalions, the police paramilitary Special Task Force and anti-riot squad and the military and a visit to the area by PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. As a result a conflagration on the scale of the Aluthgama riots of 2014 in the neighboring Kalutara district did not materialize.  It might have, if the government had not acted sooner and showed publicly that it had no sympathy with those who attacked others. The arrest of 19 trouble makers, many of whom had come from outside, and the declaration of a curfew, ensured that the violence was suppressed.  However, the Muslim community which had to bear the brunt of the violence continues to live in a state of unease.

Religious differences had little or nothing to do with the clash which was between two identity groups making it more akin to an ethnic conflict, rather than a clash of religions.  The immediate cause of the conflict was reportedly a relatively minor incident.  There was a road accident involving motor cyclist from one community and a three-wheel passenger from another community.  The parties had dealt with their trauma in a reasonable manner, going to the hospital and arriving at a private settlement, with some financial compensation being part of the package.  However, external forces had intervened thereafter to escalate the conflict.   The fact that an event of this nature which is not uncommon on Sri Lanka’s crowded roads could have escalated so fast is a cause for concern and reveals underlying tensions within the country.

Despite the end of the war nearly a decade ago, there is a continuing negative relationship between the ethnic communities and one which is not spoken about publicly, that needs to be carefully dealt with.

As a coalition government it is difficult for the government to come to quick decisions especially on controversial issues.  This creates a dangerous space that those who wish to destabilize the polity can utilize and which needs to be closed.

It is necessary for the government to start acting more decisively against those who engage in violence and voice extreme nationalist opinions in an inflammatory manner which provokes others to inter-ethnic or inter-religious violence.

India and Sri Lanka pursue similar objectives- denying jobs and rights to minorities, both refuse to consider the minorities as equals.

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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 innovative, 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 gone from driving innovative research in Reliance Industries to chairing and leading the then newly founded National Innovation Foundation in 1999.

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 innovation outbreak 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 Associate at Pune International Centre, a liberal think tank based in Pune, India.

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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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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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Energy1 hour ago

Economic value of energy efficiency can drive reductions in global CO2 emissions

Ambitious energy efficiency policies can keep global energy demand and energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO₂) emissions steady until 2050, according to a...

Newsdesk4 hours ago

UN launches global plan to strengthen protection of internally displaced persons

With multiple crises forcing millions of people away from their homes, United Nations agencies, Governments and partners have launched a...

Economy13 hours ago

Circular economy: More recycling of household waste, less landfilling

EU Parliament backs ambitious recycling targets, under legislation on waste and the circular economy, adopted on Wednesday. Improving waste management...

Middle East13 hours ago

How the Guardian newspaper fulfills George Orwell’s prediction of ‘Newspeak’

On Sunday April 15th, Britain’s Guardian bannered “OPCW inspectors set to investigate site of Douma chemical attack” and pretended that...

Diplomacy14 hours ago

The evolution of the concept of diplomacy

Transformation in diplomacy, like the transformation of other international scenes of international relations, has not stopped at a specific point,...

South Asia15 hours ago

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

Hitendra Singh and Gauri Noolkar-Oak* Recently, an article published in Modern Diplomacy caught our attention. The author has cited Mr....

Economy16 hours ago

Greece can turn its education system into a source of inclusive and sustainable growth

With a qualified and well-engaged teacher workforce, motivated 15-year-old students with a strong sense of school belonging, and one of...

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