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Algerian controversy over Salafism puts government control of religion on the spot

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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photo: Wikimedia Commons

A controversy in Algeria over the growing popularity of Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars spotlights the risk governments run in a region in which they strive to control religion in a bid to counter militant strands of Islam, often by touting apolitical, ultra-conservative trends.  These efforts are proving difficult to contain within the limits of the government’s agenda.

The controversy over Saudi support of Salafi scholars highlights how state control, frequently exercised through degrees of micro-management of weekly Friday prayer sermons, and/or putting clerics on the government payroll as well as supervision of mosques and school textbooks, often backfires.  For one, the credibility of government-sponsored Islamic scholars is undermined as they become increasingly viewed as functionaries and parrots of regimes.

It also thrusts into the limelight the slippery slope on which governments play politics with conservative and ultra-conservative religion for opportunistic reasons or as in the case of Turkey in a bid to establish state-controlled Turkish Islam as a global force.

Ultra-conservatism’s increasing attractiveness is magnified by the inability of governments to comprehensively police alternative expressions of religion on the Internet and social media as well as halt the popping up of unlicensed mosques and informal study groups.

As a result, Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative as well as militant strands of Islam emerge as the only alternative release valve, particularly in countries that restrict freedom of expression, the media and religion and have failed in their delivery of public goods and services

“Whatever the state does to control the religious realm, it cannot oblige or guarantee that people will rely on official bodies and individuals for their religious guidance. In fact, Algerian youths in particular are disillusioned and have lost confidence in their religious institutions. As such, they may be attracted to other religious voices, especially those offering ‘grab and go’ solutions to complex issues or a Manichean view of the world,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck.

The controversy in Algeria further raises questions about definitions of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s declared effort to return the kingdom to what he termed ‘moderate Islam’ given that Saudi Arabia played a key role in globally promoting Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for almost half a century.

In Saudi Arabia, the jury is still out on Prince Mohammed’s approach to moderation. In an ultra-conservative country in which religious leaders were not only popular, but government employees who shared power with the ruling Al Saud family, Prince Mohammed has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and kowtowing to his reforms with little indication that they have had a true change of heart.

Algeria has long seen Saudi-inspired quietist strands of Salafism that preach unreserved obedience to a Muslim ruler as a way of countering expressions of popular discontent and more militant strands of Islam.

“The onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings only increased the utility of quietist Salafists to the state. All the main quietist figures issued calls for Algerians to resist the wave of political contestation rocking the Arab world… This drove a wedge between rulers and ruled, exacerbating social divisions, which would inevitably lead to a rise in insecurity and worsening corruption,” said international relations scholar Anouar Boukhars.

A recent study showed that many Algerians were turning on social media to Saudi and Egyptian rather than Algerian religious scholars.

Some Saudi scholars like Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefe, a controversial ultra-conservative, known for his misogynist and anti-Shiite tirades, who ranks among the top 100 global and top 10 Arab social media personalities with 21.6 million followers on Twitter and 24.3 million on Facebook boast a larger following in Algeria than in the kingdom itself.

The study concluded that Mr. Al-Arefe had two million Algerian followers as opposed to 1.3 million Saudis.

Algerian media reports, echoing secular concerns, detailed earlier this year Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Islam in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

El Watan and other media reproduced a letter written by Saudi Sheikh Hadi Ben Ali Al-Madkhali, a scion of Sheikh Rabia Al-Madkhali, the intellectual father of what French Islam scholar Stephane Lacroix terms a loyalist strand of Salafism that projects the kingdom as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The letter appoints three prominent Algerian scholars, including Mohamed Ali Ferkous, widely viewed as the spiritual guide of Algerian Madkhalists, as Salafism’s representatives in Algeria.

“Madkhalism…(is) perhaps Saudi Arabia’s own Trojan Horse,” quipped North Africa scholar George Joffe. “State-approved imams in Algeria now find themselves under considerable pressure, in mosques that have been targeted, to adapt their teachings and doctrines to Salafi precept, even if this challenges the authority of the ministry of religious affairs,” Mr. Joffe added.

The mixed results of the Algerian government’s effort to control and use religion are replicated across the Muslim world.

Pakistan, a country in which ultra-conservatism and militancy has over decades been woven into the fabric of the state and society and that is struggling with political violence against the state as well as minorities, serves as an example of the risks involved in playing politics with religion and state support for non-pluralistic, intolerant and supremacist interpretations of Islam.

Attempting to rollback the fallout of such policies is proving to be a gargantuan task. The Pakistani government earlier this year launched a pilot project in Islamabad to regulate Friday prayer sermons. The problem is that it controls a mere 86 of the city’s 1,003 mosques.

Some critics warn that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be taking his country down a road like that of Pakistan. They compare the Turkish leader to former Pakistani ruler General Zia ul-Haq who in the 1980s accelerated Islamization of Pakistani society.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and director of South and Central Asia for the Washington-based Hudson Institute Husain Haqqani asserted that Mr. Erdogan was adopting the “Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity” and pouring money into Islamic schools.

“Erdogan has taken the Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity. Zia imposed Islamic laws by decree, amended the constitution, marginalized secular scholars and leaders, and created institutions for Islamization that have outlasted him. Erdogan is trying to do the same in Turkey,” Mr. Haqqani told journalist and columnist Eli Lake.

Mr. Lake argued that Turkey, despite having tacitly supported the Islamic State at one point during the Syrian civil war, Turkey had not yet “sunk” to Pakistan’s level of cooperation with Islamic militants in its dispute with India and manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

However, suggesting that Turkey risked becoming another Pakistan, Mr. Lake quoted former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman as saying: “Turkey is not Pakistan yet, but if it continues the trajectory that Erdogan has put it on, there is a prospect it could become like Pakistan.”

At the other extreme, Chinese authorities in the north-western province of Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur Muslim minority, were several months ago shutting down some 100 illegal, underground religious seminaries a month despite creating in the region the world’s most repressive surveillance state, according to a Chinese communist party official.

The crackdown involves the banning of religious practices and the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools and the detention of thousands in political re-education camps.

The controversy in Algeria, Mr. Erdogan’s embrace of Islam, Pakistan’s struggle to come to grips with the fallout of ultra-conservatism, China’s efforts to crackdown on religion, anti-government and anti-clergy protests in Iran earlier this year, and examples of societies elsewhere in Asia turning towards intolerance and conservatism as governments employ or repress religion for opportunistic political purposes, suggest that political leaders have learnt little, if anything.

Yet, the lesson is that government control and/or playing with religion seldom produces sustainable results. The lesson is also that repression, including restricting freedoms of expression, media and religion, aggravates problems and benefits ultra-conservatives and militants.

Finally, the lesson is that the solution likely lies in inclusive rather than exclusionary policies and transparent and accountable governments capable of delivering pubic goods and services that ensure that all segments of the population have a stake in society. That lesson is one that governments in Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China seemingly prefer to overlook.

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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The secret behind Trump’s moves in eastern Deir ez-Zur

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Trump’s desire for Syrian oil has led observers to consider it as the beginning of occupying oil wells in other countries, including Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states.

The obsession of the U.S. president with money and oil is obvious for everyone and that is why U.S. military commanders have used this temptation by Trump to persuade him to keep some troops in Syria.

On October 28, Trump said, “We are keeping the oil — remember that. Forty-five million dollars a month?  We have secured the oil”.

Last week, news sources reported that the U.S. president has agreed to develop military missions to protect oilfields in eastern Syria.

The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported that the U.S. has established a new military base in the oil-rich parts of Deir ez-Zur in Syria.

In this regard, Trump announced the settlement of some U.S. companies in Syria’s east to invest in and exploit oilfields. It was a move that drew Russian backlash.

Russian opposition to Trump’s oil ambitions

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement in late October that the Syrian oil is the focus of U.S. attention. In a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Lavrov said it was important to refrain from “steps undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov also said, “This, what Washington is doing now — capturing and maintaining control through the use of arms over oil fields in eastern Syria — that is, to put it simply, international, state-sponsored banditry,” DW reported on October 26.

Konashenkov said tank trucks guarded by U.S. military servicemen and private military companies smuggle oil from fields in eastern Syria to other countries.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin also pointed to U.S. efforts to reinforce its presence in Syrian oil-rich lands, calling it an illegal act by Washington. Vershinin also said that Moscow will never accept the policy that the U.S. is pursuing in Syria.

The Russian Defense Ministry in recent weeks has also released satellite images of some areas in Syria showing that U.S. troops have created security guard to smuggle Syria’s oil. Earlier, images of eastern Syria were released documenting oil trucks were traveling across Syria-Turkey borders, an action which reveals the goals of those countries which support terrorism in Syria.

 Syria’s oil reserves

In terms of oil reserves, Syria is in 32nd place after Malaysia and ahead of Argentina, with 2,500,000,000 barrels. Syria’s known oil reserves are mainly in the eastern part of the country in Deir ez-Zor, the second largest Syrian province after Homs. The rest of reserves are in other provinces such as Hama, Ar Raqqah and Homs.

Before the beginning of civil war in 2011, Syria was extracting 385,000 barrels of light crude oil with an approximate value of €3 billion, which were being transferred to Homs via pipeline. 89,000 barrels of the extracted oil were being refined and used for domestic uses. The rest was being exported through port of Baniyas.

Lebanon has uncovered some oil and gas reserves in the Mediterranean. Syria can also explore some of these reserves as it has long coasts along the Mediterranean if it invests in its territorial waters.  

U.S. actions in eastern Euphrates

Now that the defeat of terrorists is clear to everyone, the U.S. is seeking to create an economic crisis in Syria by using oil as a tool against Damascus. This is the reason why it is seizing the country’s oil reserves and also pressures Damascus to accept Washington’s conditions.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Middle Eastern protests: A tug of war over who has the longer breath

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Mass anti-government protests in several Arab countries are turning into competitions to determine who has the longer breath, the protesters or the government.

In Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, countries in which the leader was either forced to resign or has agreed to step down, authorities appear to be dragging their feet on handovers of power or agreed transitional power sharing arrangements in the hope that protesters, determined to hold on to their street power until a political transition process is firmly in place, either lose their momentum or are racked by internal differences.

So far, protesters are holding their ground, having learnt the lesson that their achievements are likely to be rolled back if they vacate the street before having cemented an agreement on the rules of the transitional game and process.

Algerians remain on the streets, seven months after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to step down, in demand of a complete change of the political system.

Scores of recent arrests on charges that include “harming national unity” and “undermining the morale of the army” have failed to deter Algerians who refuse to accept the military’s proposed December 12 date for elections.

Lebanon enters its second months of protests with the government going through the motions but ultimately failing to respond to demands for a technocratic government, a new non-sectarian electoral law and early elections.

An effort to replace prime minister Saad Hariri with another member of the elite, Mohammad Safadi, a billionaire businessman and former finance minister, was rejected by the protesters.

We are staying here. We don’t know how long – maybe one or two months or one or two years. Maybe it will take 10 years to get the state we are dreaming of, but everything starts with a first step.” said filmmaker Perla Joe Maalouli.

Weeks after agreeing to resign in response to popular pressure, Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mehdi appears to be increasingly firm in his saddle.

Much like what prompted US President George H.W.. Bush to first call in 1991 for a popular revolt against Saddam Hussein and then give the Iraqi strongman the tools to crush the uprising, Mr. Mehdi is holding on to power in the absence of a credible candidate acceptable to the political elite to replace him.

Mr. Mehdi’s position is strengthened by the fact that neither the United States nor Iran wants a power vacuum to emerge in Baghdad.

Backtracking on Mr. Mehdi’s resignation and refraining from appointing a prime minister who credibly holds out the promise of real change is likely to harden the battle lines between the protesters and the government.

The tugs of war highlight the pitfalls protesters and governments need to manoeuvre in what amounts to a complex game with governments seeking to pacify demonstrators by seemingly entertaining their demands yet plotting to maintain fundamental political structures that anti-government activists want to uproot.

The risk of a tug of war is that protests turn violent as happened in Hong Kong or in Lebanon where cars of parliamentarians were attacked as they drove this week towards the assembly.

Meeting protesters’ demands and aspirations that drive the demonstrations and figure across the Middle East and North Africa, irrespective of whether grievances have spilled into streets, is what makes economic and social reform tricky business for the region’s autocrats.

Its where what is needed for sustainable reforms bounces up against ever more repressive security states intent on exercising increasingly tight control.

Sustainable reform requires capable and effective institutions rather than bloated, bureaucratic job banks and decentralisation with greater authorities granted to municipalities and regions.

Altering social contracts by introducing or increasing taxes, reducing subsidies for basic goods and narrowing opportunities for government employment will have to be buffered by greater transparency that provides the public insight into how the government ensures that it benefits from the still evolving new social contract.

To many protesters, Sudan has validated protesters’ resolve to retain street power until transitional arrangements are put in place.

It took five months after the toppling of president Omar al-Bashir and a short-lived security force crackdown in which some 100 people were killed before the military, the protesters and political groups agreed and put in place a transitional power-sharing process.

The process involved the creation of a sovereign council made up of civilians and military officers that is governing the country and managing its democratic transition.

Even so, transitional experiences have yet to prove their mettle. Protesters may have learnt lessons from the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Yet, this time round, protesters lack the broad-based international empathy that 2011 uprisings enjoyed and are up against more than domestic forces backed by conservative Gulf states.

Powers like Russia and China make no bones about their rejection of protest as an expression of popular political will.

So has Iran that has much at stake in Iraq and Lebanon, countries where anti-sectarian sentiment is strong among protesters, even if the Islamic republic was born in one of the 20th century’s epic popular revolts and is confronting protests of its own against fuel price hikes.

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Iran’s next parliamentary election hinges on economic problems, US sanctions effective

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It seems any faction focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections.

The eleventh elections of the Islamic Parliament in Iran will be on Feb 21, 2020 across the country. Seyed Salaman Samani spokesman of Interior Ministry said in an interview that has published on the official website of the ministry.

About 4 months have remained to the elections, but the politicians and parties have started to organize their campaigns and planning for victory.

The current parliament was formed from 41 percent Reformers and Moderates, 29 percent Principlists, 28 percent Independents and 2 percent Minorities, according to the ISNA News Agency.

In Tehran, capital of the country, all seats were gained by the Reformers, but some important cities such as Mashhad as the second city in the country, the Principlists were decisive winners.

But the majority of people and political activists are serious dissatisfactions concerning the function of the parliament, even some experts have emphasized on the famous slogan that says: “Reformer, Principlist, the story is over.”

This situation has formed, while Iran`s Parliament has been under control between two parties in the past years. So, some experts seek up the third faction for improving the country’s position, but so far the third faction has had not a leader and specific structure.

Due to the Reformers supporting of President Hassan Rouhani in the last presidential elections and lack of his rhetoric realization, the position of the Reformers has weakened increasingly. For example, Rouhani said during the contests of the presidential elections about 2 years ago in Iran television that If Iranians reelect me, all sanctions even non-nuclear sanctions will be lifted. But now, the sanctions against Iran have increased and the economic situation of the people has hurt extremely.

But recently, many celebrities of Iran have regretted concerning supporting Rouhani like Ali Karimi the former football player and Reza Sadeghi the famous singer, they demonstrated their regret on social media. So, some suggested that the victory of Principlists in the elections is certain.

“The Principlists need not do anything; they are comfortably the winner of the next parliamentary elections.” Sadegh Zibakalam, an Iranian academic reformist said in an interview with Shargh Newspaper.

“We have no chance for parliamentary elections and next presidential elections unless a miracle happens,” he added.

The Iranian Principlists are closer to Iran`s supreme leader and guard corps than the Reformers. A political face in the right-wing like, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf with the slogans “New Parliament ” and “Neo-Principlism ” has recalled young people to receive their ability to provide the elections list. Ghalibaf launched his third presidential campaign for the Iranian presidency on April 15, 2017, but on May 15, 2017, Ghalibaf withdrew, but he supported Ebrahim Raisi who is the current chief of Iran`s judiciary.

Another face is the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. Some experts say Ahmadinezhad has a great plan for the next elections but so far he has not spoken about it. Recently he criticized toughly from the government of Rouhani and Iran’s Judiciary. Recently, some of his close activists arrested by Iran’s Judiciary, and they are in Evin Prison now. Some analyzers say Ahmadinezhad has high popularity, just as the people have welcomed warmly lately on his travels across the country.

JAMNA or “Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces” is another chance for Principlists in the next elections. JAMNA founded in late 2016 by ten figures from different spectrum of conservative factions, in the end, the party elected Ebrahim Raisi as a candidate for the presidential election but Raeisi defeated.

But Reformers are not hopeless, Mohammad Khatami as the leader of the Reformers, who served as the fifth President of Iran from 1997 to 2005 has said statements recently. He has wanted from the government to qualify the Reformers candidates for participation in the political event.

One of the Reformer’s big problems in the history of Iran `s elections has been the disqualification by the Guardian Council. According to Iran constitution, all candidates of parliamentary or presidential elections, as well as candidates for the Assembly of Experts, have to be qualified by the Guardian Council to run in the elections.

Some Reformers in reformist newspapers state that they will take part in the parliament elections on this condition the majority of Reformers’ candidates will be qualified by the Guardian Council.

Some analysts said the Iran parliament has not enough power in order to improve the country’s situation. Just as the parliament has approved the bill of “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime” by a 126 vote in last year, but the Guardian Council has disagreed with it and its fate shall determine by Expediency Discernment Council, while the government has frequently emphasized on the bill. The government believes the approving the bill will cause to reducing the bans about the economic transaction with the world.

Generally, Iran`s economic position is very critical currently, tough sanctions by Trump administration and the defeat of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) has caused that Iranians to be under serious problems. The stuff prices and inflation are at the highest level since Iran`s revolution in 1979. So, it seems any faction that focuses on solving the economic problems, has more chance for victory in the parliamentary elections. Also, the more important issue is the participation rate of people. If dissatisfactions about economic problems will be continued, hope and joy between people would reduce the rate of Participation in the next elections. Some experts say based on experiences in Iran, when the rate of participation in the elections is reduced, the Principlists has a more chance for the victory, because the gray spectrum that is not black or white, usually has a willing to the Reformers. the spectrum includes younger people even teenagers in the urban society.

Some political observers say the gray spectrum has not very willing to participate in the next elections. Some suggested that the future situation, especially in the economic field is very important to make the willingness about the gray spectrum to participate.

Analysts said the winner of the presidential elections 2 years later is the winner of the parliamentary elections on Feb 21, 2020. The majority of the next parliament will affect the political space across the country. This procedure in Iran has precedent. Like the victory of the Reformers in the last parliamentary elections that it caused the Rouhani victory about 2 years ago.

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