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Elections in the Lebanon

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The general elections in the Lebanon were held on May 6 last. They had originally been scheduled for 2013 but,due to the repeated failure of Parliament to elect a new President from April 23, 2014 to October 31, 2016 because no candidate had succeeded in obtaining the required two-thirds majority, the Parliamentary term had been extended at first until 2017 and then until 2018.

A new electoral law had been adopted in 2017, providing a proportional representation system for the first time in the history of the country.

The maximum proportional representation system in elections coincides with the maximum destabilization of a country.

Finally, Michel Aoun was elected President on October 31, 2016 at the 46th electoral session of the Lebanese Parliament, breaking a 29-month deadlock.

Aoun is a Maronite Christian, as provided for by the Lebanese Constitution, and he was Head of the Armed Forces as early as 1984. From 1988 to mid-October 1990 he served also as Prime Minister appointed by the then departing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, whose controversial decision led to the paradoxical situation of having two rival Lebanese governments contending for power, one by Aoun and the other by Selim Hoss, apparently pro-Western and self-appointed Prime Minister.

The Lebanese Constitution lays down, inter alia, that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Head of  government an Islamic Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shi’ite.

The Lebanese Constitution, however, does not define – as happens also in other Middle East countries – traditional political groups, but sectarian parties of religious origin and affiliation.

Until Aoun’s election, two coalitions competed in the country. The first one was the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, a politician close to Saudi Arabia floundering in a very severe financial and political crisis – a political alliance currently established, together with the Christians of Samir Geagea, by the group of Sami Gemayel, the Head of the Maronite Phalanx, and by Walid Jumblatt, the historical leader of the Druses.

From the very beginning the whole “March 14 Alliance”  was closely linked to Saudi interests.

It is worth recalling, however, that the Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a 150% share of the GDP, a total net indebtedness of 79 billion US dollars and an increase in the debt / GDP ratio which, according to the International Monetary Fund, could reach  a 180% share in three years.

In a forthcoming Conference to be held in Paris, the Lebanese government will ask for foreign investment targeted to infrastructure equal to at least 16 billion US dollars, while banks do not provide liquidity to anyone.

As evidenced by the growth of grassroots parties, infrastructure and local public services, as well as urban management issues, are the true weak point of the Lebanese State.

70% of the Lebanese public spending goes to wages and salaries and to debt servicing, in particular, while as much as 10% goes on subsidies to the electricity and energy bills of the poorest population.

Hence there is no room for any government to reduce the Lebanese public spending significantly.

Therefore there is always a very close link between the dysfunctionality of political systems and State’s indebtedness and, finally, between the rigidity of electoral representation and the impossibility of controlling the connection between debt and GDP.

This should be studied to further clarify the “Italian case”.

The March 8 Alliance, however, was established  by Hezbollah – the Shiite Party founded in 1982 by Imam Khomeini “as if it were the apple of his eye”, as well as by Nabih Berri’ Shi’ite movement of Amal (Hope) and, finally, by Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian Party.

According to what is currently maintained in the Lebanon, the agreement between the two major factions envisages the “green light” of the March 8 Alliance for the future premiership of Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the other coalition.

However, who is Michel Aoun? First and foremost, the military commander of the 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Armed Forces who succeeded in stopping the offensive of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt who, at that time, was leading the pro-Syrian militia.

As already stated, in the years following his appointment as Head of government, Aoun clashed especially with both the Shi’ite and Druse groups and the Maronite militia of Samir Geagea’s “Phalanx”.

As was also the case in Northern Ireland and Spain, with the Basque movement, the political revolution easily gives way to illegal activities.

In 1989, after the signing of the inter-Lebanese peace agreement -a sectarian pact, named Taif Accord because it was made in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the  Lebanese civil war-the new President Hrawi dismissed Michel Aoun and ordered him to leave the presidential Palace. He refused to dismiss and barricaded himself in the Palace to prepare for his defense, thus refusing to give up the power.

Not very long after the attacks on the presidential Palace Aoun was asked to leave the Lebanon and later went into exile in France. For the former Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces the exile was inevitable after the victory of the Syrian forces that entered the Lebanon to stabilize the “province” of Beirut.

It was a period in which Aoun established very close relations with the French intelligence services and, above all, with the Israeli ones.

During those years the Lebanon became a full Syrian protectorate.

Nevertheless Aoun came back to the political scene and to the Lebanon in 2004, when the UN voted Resolution No. 1559, which obliged all the Syrian Armed Forces to leave Syria.

Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to the Lebanon on May 7, 2015 – eleven days after the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The huge demonstrations following the assassination of Hariri, guarantor of the Lebanese reconstruction -although with the Saudi money – after the massive destruction caused by the civil war, forced the Syrians to leave the country.

It was from that moment that Aoun, who had long  secretly and later overtly returned to the Lebanon, quickly began to approach and come closer to his long-standing enemies, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Amal.

Amal, the old movement of Nabih Berri, had fought against Hezbollah for control over South Beirut in the “Lebanese civil war” and, however, had been founded by Musa al-Sadr, the Imam who established the belonging of the Alawites – hence the elite currently ruling Syria – to the Shi’ite Islam and was most likely killed, upon Gaddafi’s order, in Rome in 1978.

As can be easily seen, the Lebanese politics has always been a game of shadows and paradoxes.

In 2008, however, Aounhad failed in his first presidential project, while reestablishing relations with his old Maronite enemy, Samir Geagea, who in 2016, withdrew from the presidential election and made his votes converge on Aoun.

Nevertheless Aoun could anticipate the real presidential victory only when Saad Hariri, weakened by the financial crisis of his company operating in Saudi Arabia and pressed by the French Embassy for other very urgent financial problems, gave him his support –  certainly in return for a future Premiership, thus abandoning the Christian candidate of his coalition, Suleiman Frangiehjr.

Aoun, however, is old since he is aged 82. He is supposed to pave the way for his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister, Gebrain Bassil.

Moreover, the two coalitions – both heirs of the civil war – are ever less voted by young people and by all those who want to lay the ghost of the Lebanese political and military factionalism. There are many of them.

Not surprisingly, in the latest elections the two coalitions  even joined forces to defeat the new civic and environmental movement known as Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”) which, however, unexpectedly won  one of Beirut’s three electoral districts.

Beirut Madinatiis a movement which emerged after the 2015-16Lebanese protests as a reaction to power and water shortages, streets filled with trash and dizzying urban infrastructure. Nothing destroys political representation as disaster in basic public services.

Nothing supported Hezbollah more than its supply of sectarian welfare, which replaces a State that no longer has  the money nor the rules – stupidly “liberalized” – to help the poor in hospitals, schools and at work.

The rules of privatization will destroy political representation also in the West.

As can be easily imagined, however, the core of the Lebanese political system is currently the intelligence service network.

Also as a military leader, Aoun is still at the centre of the Lebanese intelligence system.

He is the guarantor and the mitigator of both the demands of the Shi’ite alliances, including Hezbollah -Aoun’s ally since 2005 and traditional point of reference for Syria and, above all, for Iran – and of the multifarious, but powerful world of Sunni militias.

The Sunnis are a politically growing area no longer tolerating the defeats of the “jihadist brothers” in Syria and Iraq, nor the perceived dominance of Hezbollah and Amal.

The Lebanon, however, has four intelligence agencies: the “Intelligence Section of the Interior Security Forces” (IS-ISF); the “General Directorate of General Security” (GDGS); the “Military Intelligence Directorate” (MID) and the “State Security Directorate” (SSD).

The IS-ISF deals with counterterrorism, anti-drugs and criminal investigations; the GDGS works on visas and passports, censorship, port and airport checks, as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

Conversely, the MID operates in the field of military espionage, the protection of Armed Forces’ sites and facilities, as well as the prevention of political upheavals.

Finally, the SSD protects public offices and important personalities.

General Antoine Suleyman Mansour has recently replaced his peer Camille Daher as Head of the MID.

Mansour was born in the Beqaa Valley and followed counterterrorism courses in the USA, in France, but above all in Syria.

The Beqaa Valley is the axis of Hezbollah’s economic and strategic power.

It is in that region, which is essential also for Israel’s defense, that the “Party of God” organizes its drug trafficking and where its main very secret arms caches are located.

The “Shi’ite pathway” stretching from Iraq to Teheran up to South Beirut – as currently imagined – is vital for the very survival of Hezbollah, but also for the Iranian power system.

It is the most evident threat to the Israeli system, especially if we relate it to the Iranian operations in the Gaza Strip and in the Territories.

Moreover, General Daher also dealt – directly with Saudi Arabia – a supply of brand new French weapons paid by Saudi Arabia and worth three billion US dollars. Nonetheless the negotiations  failed and the weapons were later bought by Saudi Arabia for its armed forces.

It is easy to understand what this meant for the Lebanese internal political equilibrium.

It is said that General Daher bears the brunt of his affinity with General Kahwahj, former Chief of Staff in Beirut and, above all, Aoun’ sworn enemy and internal rival.

General Karaa, the first Head of the SSD and Abdou Fattou,  responsible for the confidential funds of the Service, were replaced by Tony Saliba and Wafiq Jizzini, respectively. In 2008 General Karaa had investigated into Hezbollah’s advanced and confidential communication network, which is very powerful and secret, while Abbas Ibrahim, who leads the GSDS, is explicitly supported by the “Party of God” and hence has remained at his place.

Ibrahim has also held the recent and complex negotiations between the Daesh-Isis, Al Nusra and Hezbollah for the transfer – hence the recent increase in the Lebanese sectarian violence – of Sunni terrorists to Syria, under the direct protection of Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence Service.

Hence what is the current electoral system in the Lebanon? In June 2017 the various religious and political forces reached an agreement on electoral procedures.

The agreement led to a proportional representation system, wanted above all by the Maronite world, and, in particular, by Aoun’s movement, namely the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as by its Shi’ite allies.

Considering the 6.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanon, Muslims account for 54%, of whom 27% are Sunni and 27% Shi’ite, with the latter growing significantly.  Christians account for 40.5%, of whom 21% are Maronite, 8% areGreek Orthodox, 5% are Greek Catholics, 6.5% are other types of Christians, while the Druses are 5.6%.

As could be easily predicted, currently Hezbollah is the real winner of the latest Lebanese elections.

Together with Amal, united in a joint list called Al Amal wal Wafa (“Hope and Loyalty”), the two Shi’ite Parties, along with other friendly lists, won 13 and 15 seats respectively.

Beforehand, the two pro-Iranian Parties, with a very long history of violent struggle between each other, had 13 seats each in the Lebanese Parliament, which has a total of 128 seats.

As many as 7,000 clearly documented infringements of the electoral procedures were checked, with a voter turnout lower than 50%. Hence many operations of tampering with people’s will were recorded, whatever this means in the Lebanon.

Aoun’s movement rose from 18 to 22 seats while, at least this time, Geagea’s group–Hezbollah’s traditional Maronite opponent and Aoun’s current ally -rose  from 8 to 14 seats.

Also the Azm Party of former Prime Minister Najib Mikatirose from one to four seats.

The Azm Party was founded by Mikati, the well-known Premier of the March 8 Alliance, with the support of Hezbollah, Aoun and their local allies.

The Syrian National Socialist Party and Tashnag, the political group of reference for the Lebanese Armenian community, obtained two and three seats, respectively.

However, Kollouna Watani(“We are All National”) – a recently-established political group -got no seats.

Saad Hariri’s Party, which seems to be no longer close to its Saudi friends’ heart, fell from 33 to 21 seats only. Moreover, in Beirut, in the traditional strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Shi’ites won.

The Druse Party of Walid Jumblatt, namely the Progressive Socialist Party, lost two seats falling from 11 to 9.

Here demography rather than militant politics matters – as well as the great Lebanese migration of the middle class to  Europe and the United States.

The Kataeb Party, the old Maronite Phalanx of Sami Gemayel, fell from five to three seats.

Marada, Frangieh’s old movement, kept its three seats.

Certainly the prorogation of Parliamentary terms of office  began with the outbreak of riots in 1975 – except for the extraordinary appointment of 40 MPs elected in 1991. Hence the Parliamentary Assembly elected in 1975 lasted in office precisely until 1991.

The Parliament just dissolved had been elected in 2009, for four years only, but its term was extended four times in a row.

Furthermore, the election of President Suleiman on May 25, 2008 had been made possible only by the inter-Lebanese Dialogue held in Doha on May 21, 2008, shortly after the (military) show of strength by Hezbollah in West Beirut, right in the Sunni area of the capital city.

Therefore the elections of June 2009 directly followed President Michel Suleiman’s rise to power.

Four years later, the elections already scheduled for June 7,  2013, were postponed again.

The Parliament continuously renewed its term of office  until 2014, then until June 2017 and again until 2018. A failed link between the Presidency and local representation.

Moreover, at military level, since that moment Hezbollah has been a unit integrated with the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Hence the Syrian army, the “Party of God” and the Al QudsIranian brigades have become actors on the operational front as early as the fall of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016, while a real Iranian military protectorate on the Lebanon has been created by the presence of said three forces along the axis stretching from Northern Syria to Southern Lebanon, through the Golan Heights.

Later, after the clear support of the “Party of God” to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the cleavage, i.e. the final “break” between Sunnis and Shi’ites, widened, even in the Lebanon alone.

Therefore, after the end of the “Caliphate”, Saudi Arabia and its allies have no elements on which to manipulate the balance of power and forces in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.

All this happens while Saad Hariri, together with the Saudi “enemies” that are still in the broad March 8 Alliance, are agreeing with Hezbollah to form a “national unity” government. Hariri, who is floundering in a financial crisis, needs this government to get back on track.

As an old South American parliamentarian used to say, politics “es muy lucrativa pero muy peligrosa”

With specific reference to Hariri, this is the sense of his defacto “being held hostage” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as from November 2017.

This is the internal and external sphere of power relations in the Lebanese political system.

The rationale of the new electoral system provided for by Law No. 44 of June 17, 2017 is to project internally the external equilibria which ensure unity and funding to the Lebanese State.

With a view to avoiding further chaos, after Michel Aoun’s election, all the electoral districts and constituencies were designed to preserve and stabilize the traditional religious-sectarian electorate.

In fact, electoral law No. 44/2017 divides the country into fifteen major electoral constituencies, further divided into 26 cazas, namely minor electoral districts, thus putting together the classic proportional representation system with a mechanism defined by the specific “preferential voting”.

This means that each voter shall vote for one of the competing lists and shall be entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate of the same list he/she has chosen.

This voting system selects candidates only within the caza, the first and smallest electoral district.

The vote, however, is valid only if the preferential votes are cast in all fifteen regional constituencies – with the electoral quotient determined by the number of voters in a given constituency divided by the number of seats already allocated for that constituency.

The preferential voting, however, defines the ranking – hence the winner at caza level.

In other words –  as is also the case with Western Europe -this happens to create a sort of electoral elite as against the mass of irrelevant representatives.

Therefore the  Lebanese system creates a hidden electoral bonus, but only for the best known candidates.

Nonetheless the real issue is another one: the division is currently within the March 14 Alliance, with the Sunni, Druse and Christian side opposing the Syrian designs on the Lebanon, as against the March 8 Alliance that is  increasingly linked to the Syrian regime and its external supporters.

Hence the local paradoxes of a now clear geopolitical framework: Samir Geagea’s “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea are hostile to the Syrian-Iranian axis and close to Saudi Arabia, but are allied with the Free Democratic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil, who have instead signed a written contract with Hezbollah.

Therefore, in the Lebanon, there is a political system reaffirming and maintaining the destabilization of the country indefinitely. It brings back memories.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days

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These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.

Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.

Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.

Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.

The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.

Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.

His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.

Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.

Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.

Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.

The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.

Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”

Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”

Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”

The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.

Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.

In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.

Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.

Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.

Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.

Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.

In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Middle East

Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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