Trajectory of a nation’s growth rests on its past, and looks towards a better future with the present middling its way, improving upon the former and consequently attempting to improve the latter. India has had the dubious distinction of being just stable and detached enough to warrant a cold shoulder, sometimes self inflicted, from the major powers at their heights of confrontation. It has never been a ‘frontline’ state in any ideological or grand struggle, be it the Second World War, the Cold War or the War on Terror. The country was led by Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru for almost 17 years, the statesman also donning the role of External Affairs Minister and for a brief period of time, Defence Minister. These years were crucial as they shaped the way Indian strategic thinking would evolve. While its western neighbour Pakistan has milked its sponsor since 1947 by first presenting itself as an ally in the war against communism and later creating and charging to destroy a Frankenstein monster of terrorism, its huge eastern neighbour has thrived under a unique combination of communist authoritarianism and state sponsored capitalism, creating the perfect dialectic. However, India today has been accorded an opportunity to help usher in a more liberal international order or at least maintain the status quo, in face of an ambitious and belligerent China, state sponsored terrorism, non-state actors, migrant crisis, ethnic cleansing, an increasingly hostile nuclear environment and climate change.
What do I mean when I say India has an opportunity of a lifetime? Who or what presents this? Why only India? To answer this, lets take a broad look at the current international scenario, region wise. US, the borderline global superpower finds itself oscillating between an isolationist (withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership TPP and Paris Climate Deal) and interventionist stance (Expanding presence in Africa, continuing interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, pressurising Iran and sanctions on North Korea). From an overt nuclear posture to assisting the Taliban and colluding with Pakistan, Iran and China, Russia presents a broad spectrum of challenge (subconventional to nuclear) to the US and its allies. The entire West Asia/ North Africa (WANA) region is in disarray. Turkey has initiated its own war with the Syrian Kurds, post military rout of ISIS, with battles raging in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Iran may suffer a renewed round of sanctions. Most of South and South East Asia has been charmed, coerced or compelled to be part of China’s or more specifically Xi Jinping’s mega project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The future of EU is uncertain. A migrant crisis, coupled with Brexit, lone wolf attacks and rise of xenophobia has forced cracks in the supra-state. India, due to its current stability and especially its past stands on the cusp. An opportunity has been created due to a diametrically opposite combination of India’s past and present resulting in a transitional foreign policy whose future is still uncertain.
India has followed a policy of strategic restraint since its independence. Its leaders saw the armed forces as wasteful expenditure and contributors to imperialism. The Non Aligned Movement (NAM) was created by Nehru, in conjunction with prominent leaders of the Third World, out of a need to stay away from the two heavily militarised Cold War camps. India’s posture of non alignment had benefits for Jawaharlal Nehru’s image as an internationalist. It also created India’s image as a non-aggressive, peace loving nation and a chaotic yet stable democracy which believed in the rule of law. However, as an incipient nation state, flanked on two sides by hostile neighbours, India found it difficult to carve out a strategy to either contain, suppress or rationalise relations with Pakistan or China. Fears of an omnipotent military, exacerbated by coups and dictatorship in Pakistan and China distanced the political class further from the armed forces. As a result, India was able to generate military force but never military power, an important component of any state’s foreign policy. After all, a country’s success in its foreign affairs, whether one may admit it or not, rests to a great extent on its country’s coercive strength, whether latent or overt. Non alignment also meant missing out on security umbrellas, technical knowhow and state of the art weaponry. What non alignment did allow was for India to attempt to chart an independent course for itself. By taking part in the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) in the aftermath of the Korean war, it established itself as an impartial mediator in conflict resolution. It undertook a genuine humanitarian intervention by stopping the genocide in then East Pakistan in 1971. However, shackled by Nehruvian restraint, India, whether under the Congress or the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), still tried to act and behave under a moral shroud, unmindful of the dangers of indirectly appeasing a country like Pakistan which kept on pushing India’s non-existent red lines.
India, on the eve of national elections of 2014 was on shaky ground, in terms of international prestige and national security. BJP’s election manifesto of 2014 promised a sea change in India’s foreign policy and national security apparatus including an overhaul and review of India’s strategic nuclear programme. Instead of treaties and deals based out of fear or dependence, this manifesto aimed at leveraging India’s advantages in constructing a web of interlocking relationships that would be favourable to all parties involved. Instead of behaving as an arrogant power or regional hegemon, India invited all the countries in its neighbourhood to interact with it on an egalitarian basis. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi (NaMo) embarked on an ambitious tour of countries (56 and counting) in his three years since coming to power on a landslide victory. Following an aggressive stance and creating personal rapports with heads of states, NaMo revitalised India’s foreign policy. From heavily focusing on the economic and strategic parameters of its relations with ASEAN and beyond in a revamped Act East Policy to strengthening ties to the US to connecting with West Asia and Iran, NaMo has prioritised India’s national interests above everything else. Some of the foreign policy benefits that have accrued to India due to NaMo are:
Conversion of Look East into Act East
Given that around half of India’s foreign trade is dependent on the economies of South and South East Asia, it was just a matter of time when India had to focus on the region. Actuation of the Act East Policy (AEP) is an acceptance of the same. AEP heavily focuses on increasing connectivity between India’s still-neglected North East and the East Asian countries. A number of connectivity projects have been initiated, both single mode and multi-modal, to give impetus to people-to-people and economic links. AEP has graduated from a solely economic and cultural policy to a more strategic one, with the Indian Navy playing an important role in ensuring safe passage of merchant traffic and Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), apart from conducting multinational exercises and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations. The Indian Navy’s primary area now extends from the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Southwest Indian ocean, Indian Ocean Region (IOR) island nations and East African littoral states, while the secondary area for the first time addresses South China Sea (SCS) as well as Western Pacific and East China Sea. Indian warships will start patrolling the Malacca Straits for protecting the SLOCs. This is a signal that India aims to act as a Net Security Provider for the SLOCs passing through the greater Indo-Pacific region. Signing of an agreement giving Indian ships logistics rights at Changi, Singapore is a step in that direction. India has also agreed to take part with Japan, Australia and the US in a grouping of democracies called the Quadrilateral (Quad). This has been ostensibly to coordinate in the fields of ensuring Freedom of navigation (FoN) in international waters, a free and open region and adherence to rule of law but considered as a counter to rising Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Many analysts consider it as the beginning of an ‘Asian NATO’ though its feasibility still remains to be tested.
Neighbourhood First Policy
NaMo has focused on improving relations with its neighbours, although that seems to be floundering at the moment. From HADR missions to Maldives, indirect financing of weapons for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) through Russia, negotiations over Teesta waters and exchange of enclaves, concluding a civil nuclear agreement with Sri Lanka and attempting dialogue with Pakistan, NaMo government has made connecting with the neighbourhood his priority. NaMo has understood that for India to flourish economically, militarily and culturally, its neighbourhood has to offer a conducive environment. This can only with an active policy of shaping events and policies as per its national interests. India has offered SAARC nations benefits of telecommunications and e-medicines through the use of SAARC satellite, sacrificed real estate on its eastern border for better relations with Bangladesh and come to Bhutan’s aid when defending its territorial integrity in face of Chinese aggression. India has however sent tough signals to Pakistan that its benevolence cannot be taken for granted by conducting surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads post the Uri attacks of September 2016.
Entries into Strategic Clubs
Modi’s presentation of India as an emerging power and his personal style of diplomacy has ensured entry of India into various ‘untouchable’ clubs and groupings such as the Australia Group, Wassenaar Agreement and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). This has helped India in inching close to the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) which will help in it gaining access to unprecedented nuclear material, technology and equipment, without acceding to signing the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Also, India’s entry into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) may help it in gaining access to the Central Asian Republics (CAR), alternatives to India’s dependence on the Middle East for energy sources.
Closing in with the US
With an unprecedented five trips to the US, Modi has indicated a definite change in its non aligned mode towards coordinating with the US on a number of converging issues. India’s entry into important clubs and groups has been facilitated by the US, its status has been upgraded to being a Major Defense Partner of the US, it has been feted as a pivot for countering China through the Quad and President Trump in his newly unveiled Afghanistan strategy has admitted to India’s stabilising role in the war-torn country. Major defence deals such as acquisition of M-777 Ultra Light Howitzers, C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and Guardian drones for the Airforce have resulted in the further diversification of India’s arsenal, long dependent on Russia. The US has designated Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), an old pro Pakistan terrorist organisation in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) along with placing its chief Syed Salahuddin as a global terrorist. An India-specific Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) has been signed based on the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA). However the rest two foundational agreements also need to be agreed upon and signed in order to provide a platform for future collaboration with the US forces in countering common foes and sharing of sophisticated technology with India. There however needs to be a note of caution for India for not hugging the American coast too closely, as it still needs to find its feet.
Under NaMo’s leadership, India is currently transitioning from a strategic self restraint phase to a more assertive one. But this can easily be set aside as an aberration rather than the accepted norm considering India’s past policy of under-influencing events. The momentum that has been gained will suffer setbacks as happened in Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka but India has to push on. India has to accept the rise and ascendance of China on the world stage. It has to accept that it cannot match China’s financial investments in its neighbourhood that have led to China leaning governments in Nepal and Maldives, re-encroachment on Doklam in Bhutan and fructifying of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India’s tryst with realism is still in its infantile stage due to a number of reasons. The way forward is to leave the past of non alignment behind, and engage the world based on its priorities. This will lead to situations where policy decisions affecting one country may be a hindrance to another. A classic example is India’s relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). On one hand, India has a major strategic relationship with Israel especially in arms deals, on the other India trains the officers of PA’s small military in its academies. These discrepancies will arise and will have to be dealt with in a diplomatic and mature manner. Instead of Non Alignment, India needs to follow National Alignment, facets of which can be summarised below:-
Improving Diplomatic Footprint
Though NaMo leads from the front when engaging nations, this personal touch must be seen as a superimposition over India’s diplomatic prowess and not as a standalone setup. India’s pool of 3000 diplomats compares poorly with countries such as Japan (5700), South Korea (4500) and the US (20000). Change of government may reduce the personal nature of diplomacy currently being followed and dedicated and expanded cadre of officers will be able to handle the political fluctuations.
China has arrived on the global stage. This is a fact. States have to learn to live with this. Despite the US egging on India to take on China and Japan clamouring for giving the Quad more teeth, India needs to realise its present strengths and limitations. It needs to deal with China more diplomatically and needs to give dialogue more opportunity to work. It has to realise that the US and Japan each have their own motives to counter China and those motives may not resonate with India. India needs to focus on reducing its trade deficit with China, upgradation of its border infrastructure and engaging in dialogue but ceding no space on Doklam. Despite India’s stance on CPEC crossing India’s sovereign territory, a pragmatic decision can be made on agreeing to be part of BRI as India’s projects in South East Asia will invariably clash with it, and a collaboration outlook should be more constructive for the countries involved. Indian armed forcesneed to be upgraded in its eastern sector to deter Chinese aggression.
India needs to slow down future investments and step up completion of already promised projects in various countries. The much heralded Trilateral Highway connecting India’s North East to Myanmar and Thailand, a crucial link in India’s AEP still remains incomplete with the earliest completion date now being pushed to 2020. India’s soft loans of around $24.2 billion in the form of ‘lines of credit’ to various countries in Central America and Africa also needs constant monitoring.
Stop Moralising, Start Realpolitiking
It is not important that two countries’ national interests align perfectly. Although US expects its allies and major strategic partners to follow its foreign policy, India needs to chart its own course as per National Alignment. As an example, post pullout of the US from the Paris climate agreement, India must coordinate more deeply with China with regards to climate change. Despite voting against shift of Israel’s capital to Jerusalem, India can still expect to consummate an extensive arms deal with the country. India also needs to take on board the US, Russia and China in terms of countering terror. As of now, India seems to be the only country that seems to straddle many boats and in the process, promote a horizontal bonhomie amongst nations.
The days of the strategic alliances are all but over. NATO may have got a second chance at survival with the resurgence of Russia but whether Article Five of collective defence will be sustained by the Europeans is not as clear as it states. The current US administration’s self professed isolationism in major issues has put the efficacy of security umbrellas in question. India, unlike the US, understands that all international problems do not have a military solution. It needs to step away from contemplating a NATO like model, even with like minded democracies (Quad) and focus on diversification that helps its national interests. But it should also shed its inhibitions regarding establishment of overseas bases, basing of ships and troops of other countries and conducting joint exercises with the Quad on ground and air. The idea of two mutually destructive superpowers sitting on an arsenal of nuclear weapons can be replaced with that of society of states with economic, cultural and technical linkages but with adequate coercive power to deter a challenge. What lies in India’s destiny? Part of a NATO like entity or an independent yet interconnected foreign policy? Its the latter that would benefit the entire world.
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. 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.
Changing Perceptions: How Pakistan should use Public Diplomacy
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.
Rolling back militancy: Bangladesh looks to Saudi Arabia in a twist of irony
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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Sub-Saharan Africa’s growth is projected to reach 3.1 percent in 2018, and to average 3.6 percent in 2019–20, says Africa’s...
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