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

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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.

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

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South Asia

Floods; A Challenge to Comprehensive National Security of Pakistan

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Starting mid-June 2022, flooding and landslides caused by heavy monsoon rainfall have brought widespread destruction across Pakistan. © WFP/Saiyna Bashir

Pakistan is encountering one of the major catastrophic occurrence in the present day history. The colossal floods, along with the glacier melt, have prompted 33% of the nation to submerge underwater with more than a million individuals being displaced along with a loss of above 43 billion.  The rising recurrence of floods, outrageous rainfall, and heatwaves have moved environmental change from a hypothetical conversation to an intense burden on the country and its people. Looking at the human perspective, the losses are too grave to quantify. However, in political terms, they address the missing area of climate security in the state’s national security paradigm, which could present existential difficulties for Pakistan.

Pakistan’s comprehensive national security is under stress by the adverse consequences of outrageous weather events across different areas. It isn’t just about financial security versus traditional security any longer. Comprehensive National Security can never be comprehensively achieved because national power comprises of all components and assets that facilitate the state to pursue interests. Hence, all these components, resources, and areas form the crux of what we call comprehensive security. Subsequently, to address the existence of multiple threats, an extensive perspective on national security is expected with an equivalent focus on all areas, while prioritizing climate security because of its seriousness and immediacy. The grave economic losses may be quantified in the long run but societal and political impacts also cannot be ignored. Pakistan’s representative of UNICEF, Abdullah Fadil reposts that “At least 18000 schools have been damaged in the flood, which have affected an estimated 16 million children. Many children are now at heightened risk, without a home, school or even safe drinking water. There is therefore a risk of many more child deaths.” International experts, humanitarians and Social workers visiting Pakistan have termed it as one of the largest catastrophe of the modern history. South Asian expert Michael Kugelman states “that the only hope within the flood victims is the International aid but it is slow to come”. The international world needs to respond to the aid appeals as a collective responsibility rather than a favor to Pakistan because the climate change crisis is largely driven by the world’s most industrialized countries.

The 2022 floods in the country have uprooted entire communities, finished occupations and revenue generation sources, and have drastically expanded migrations inside the country and levels of urbanization. Assume relief projects are not comprehensive and the impacted population feels that they have not been accommodated Post-catastrophe which they themselves didn’t create.  Considering all this, their confidence in the legitimacy or administering authority of the state could be antagonistically affected, creating threats of mass unrest. Destroyed homes, displacement within the country, and temporary camp-like arrangements have a potential of posing critical identity challenges and meanwhile create financial instabilities among impacted communities. Such aftereffects severely hurt the societal and political segments of security, undermining comprehensive national security. Such extreme climatic disasters account for short term reliefs along with long-term impacts on the resources of state. Increased displacement within the country, increased poverty with unemployment rate on the surge creates huge risks which directly impact the comprehensive national security. Violence against women tend to rise, Children drop out of school as there exists no infrastructure, food security is challenged, health security is badly endangered and quality of human life declines in a worst possible way. Extremists, Proxies and non-state actors may capitalize on resentment felt by the displaced. In short, human security is challenged in all basic forms.  So when human security is challenged, how can a state achieve comprehensive national security which itself places human as a center point.

Another challenge which is indirectly affiliated with the climate change is directed towards military. Pakistan’s military has played a crucial and a comprehensive role in flood through its rescue efforts, humanitarian relief and rehabilitation process. Military has rendered sacrifices in these flood operations especially when a Corps Commander along with senior officers embraced martyrdom in the Lasbela district in Balochistan while overlooking relief activities. The IPCC report itself states that Pakistan’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) will only increase over time. Military resources being expended to HADR will obviously take away military’s attention away from hardline security issues and put it under increased management stress in times to come.

It can be asserted that the comprehensive national security is under stress by the negative impacts of horrific weather incidents across the various sectors of the society. It isn’t only about economic security versus the traditional security anymore, because today what constitutes the national power and comprehensive national security isn’t only the traditional and economic security but all societal elements form a collective part of this comprehensive framework. Thus, a comprehensive outlook of national security is required with equivalent focus on all sectors, with a priority on climate and food security due to its immediacy.

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Political Scientist: Taliban Rule will not bring Afghanistan to the Stability and Development

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The evidence suggests that the Taliban movement cannot stabilize Afghanistan and does not want to fight international terrorism that threatens the region and stability globally.

The day before, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a report on Afghanistan, citing increasing security problems. For example, the paper states that foreign terrorist groups remain in the country. “The security situation reveals a worrisome trend in recent months, particularly the series of attacks by ISIL-K, recurring armed opposition clashes with Taliban de facto security forces and the continuing presence of foreign terrorist groups in Afghanistan,” the UN Secretary General’s report says. The report also declared that the US statement on the elimination of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul “highlighted the ongoing ties between the terrorist group and the Taliban, which go against the latter’s obligations to combat terrorism.”

At the same time, the Taliban claims that there are no more terrorist groups in Afghanistan. “We will never allow anyone to pose a threat from Afghanistan to other countries,” Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Thakur said.

It should be pointed out that the leader of Al-Qaeda was destroyed in the guarded central district of Kabul, where international organizations, diplomatic missions and administrative facilities are located. It is pretty tricky to assume that the leadership of the Taliban movement was not aware of the presence of this terrorist. If the Taliban security forces did not know that Zawahiri was hiding in Kabul, they would not control the situation even in the heart of Afghanistan. If we assume the opposite, the Taliban’s policy of supporting or, at least, reluctance to fight international terrorist organizations is apparent. Recall that the Taliban promised the international community to fight international terrorism more actively in exchange for humanitarian aid and possible recognition of their regime in the future.

Moreover, it gives the impression that the main sponsor of the Taliban, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, has lost control of the movement. It is obvious that organizations similar to the Taliban cannot function successfully without foreign economic, military and political assistance. The Pakistani military, particularly the ISI, took part in creating the Taliban movement in the 1990s and patronized them all this time. It is known that there are many Islamabad henchmen in the Taliban leadership, and either radicals or Pakistanis do not hide close ties and contacts. However, neither the Pakistanis nor other players can exert pressure on the Taliban. At least, the political pressure that is being exerted now by the international community is not enough: the Taliban do not show a desire to begin the fight against terrorism.

In the theory of political science and international relations, I am unaware of cases when similar regimes have gained success and contributed to the long-term development of their countries, societies and regions. In this regard, it can be considered that the Taliban and their patrons must significantly and profoundly transform their guidelines, ideology and management strategies. Otherwise, as experience shows, in the future, similar regimes end badly, which affects the stable development and position of their countries and nations.

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World ‘must engage’ or risk Afghanistan’s collapse

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A woman walks through a corridor in a village in Zindajan district, Afghanistan. © UNICEF/Shehzad Noorani

“Patience is running out” for many in the international community when it comes to effectively engaging with Afghanistan’s de facto rulers, the Taliban, senior UN envoy for the country, Markus Potzel, told the Security Council on Tuesday.

Despite some positive developments over the past few months, the Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan said they have been “too few and too slow and they are outweighed by the negatives”.

Women’s rights

He drew attention to the ongoing ban on girls’ secondary education and growing restrictions on women’s rights, as “signals that the Taliban are indifferent to more than 50 per cent of the population” and are willing to risk international isolation.

“The relegation of women and girls to the home not only deprives them of their rights, but Afghanistan as a whole is denied the benefit of the significant contributions that women and girls have to offer,” he detailed.

Terrorism concerns ‘dismissed’

Meanwhile, from armed clashes to deadly terrorist attacks, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has monitored a steady rise in security incidents by terrorist groups and others.

“Our earlier warnings about the capabilities of Islamic State Khorosan Province (ISKP) were dismissed by the Taliban”, he told ambassadors.

“But ISKP has demonstrated in the last few months alone that it can carry out assassinations of figures close to the Taliban, attacks against foreign embassies, as well as fire rockets across Afghanistan’s border to attack its neighbours – all while maintaining its long-standing sectarian campaign against Shia Muslims and ethnic minorities,” said Mr. Potzel.

Provincial rights violations

And armed clashes are continuing between Taliban security forces and armed opposition groups in the Panjshir, Baghlan, Kapisa, Takhar, and Badakhshan provinces, the UN envoy continued.

“There are disturbing reports, as well as videos and photos, indicating possible serious human rights violations committed in Panjshir,” he said, calling for an investigation into allegations of extra-judicial killings there.

The mission will continue to carefully monitor these and other reports of serious human rights violations, he added.

UN bolstering cash economy

As per capita income has collapsed to 2007 levels – erasing 15 years of economic growth – the country’s economic situation “remains tenuous” (with little detail forthcoming from the Taliban) due in part to Afghanistan’s isolation from the international banking system.

Liquidity remains heavily dependent on the cash that the UN continues to bring in for humanitarian operations – cash, I must stress, that supports the needs of the Afghan people and does not directly reach the de facto authorities,” said Mr. Potzel.

But even the funding is uncertain as the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan has only received $1.9 billion out of a $4.4 billion requirement.

No representation

Humanitarian and economic measures will not meet the Afghan people’s longer-term needs, and the emergency aid cannot replace essential service delivery systems, such as health and water, or hold off an economic collapse, he warned.

Moreover, a continued lack of political inclusivity and transparency in decision-making leave most Afghans without any government representation.

“There are no consistent mechanisms for citizens to provide feedback to the authorities and little indication that the Taliban wish to even hear any,” the UN envoy said.

‘We have to engage’

While the Taliban’s self-identified emirate has not been recognized by any State, the international community also does not want to see the country collapse, Mr. Potzel stressed.

“If the Taliban do not respond to the needs of all elements of Afghan society and constructively engage within the very limited window of opportunity with the international community, it is unclear what would come next,” said the Deputy Special Representative.

“Further fragmentation, isolation, poverty, and internal conflict are among the likely scenarios, leading to potential mass migration and a domestic environment conducive to terrorist organizations, as well as greater misery for the Afghan population.

“That’s why we have to engage”, he declared, adding that “continued qualified engagement” was the most realistic way of helping the Afghan people.

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