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Whither Wahhabism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could well dash expectations that he is gunning for a break with Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism rather than a shaving off of the rough edges of Wahhabi ideology that has been woven into the kingdom’s fabric since its founding more than eighty years ago.

Prince Mohammed has fuelled expectations by fostering Islamic scholars who advocate a revision of Wahhabism as well as by lifting a ban on women’s driving and creating space for entertainment, including music, theatre, film, and, for conservatives, controversial sports events like wrestling.

The expectations were reinforced by the fact that King Salman and Prince Mohammed have called into question the degree to which the rule of the Al Sauds remains dependent on religious legitimization following the crown prince’s power grab that moved the kingdom from consensual family to two-man rule in which the monarch and his son’s legitimacy are anchored in their image as reformers.

To cement his power, Prince Mohammed has in the past year marginalized establishment religious scholars, detained critics and neutralized members of the elite by arresting relatives, prominent businessmen, and officials and stripping them of much of their assets.

In doing so, Prince Mohammed has subjugated the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious leaders through a combination of intimidation, coercion and exploitation of religious dogma particular to a Saudi strain of ultra-conservatism that stipulates that Muslims should obey their ruler even if he is unjust. Islam “dictates that we should obey and hear the ruler,” Prince Mohammed said.

In an optimistic projection of Prince Mohammed’s changes, Saudi researcher Eman Alhussein argued that the crown prince’s embrace of more free-thinking scholars has encouraged the emergence of more “enlightened sheikhs,” allowed some ultra-conservatives to rethink their positions, enabled a greater diversity of opinion, and fundamentally altered the standing of members of the religious establishment.

“The conflicting and different opinions presented by these scholars helps demolish the aura of ‘holiness’ some of them enjoyed for years… The supposed holiness of religious scholars has elevated them beyond the point where they can be questioned or criticized. Ending this immunity will allow the population to regain trust in their own reasoning, refrain from being fully reliant on scholarly justifications, and bring scholars back to Earth,” Ms. Alhussein said.

The crown prince’s approach also involves a combination of rewriting the kingdom’s religious-political history rather than owning up to responsibility and suppression of religious and secular voices who link religious and social change to political reform.

Some Saudi scholars argue that the degree of change in the kingdom will depend on the range of opinion among religious scholars. They suggest that change will occur when scholars are divided and stall when they speak with one voice. The wide range of opinion among Islamic scholars coupled with Prince Mohammed’s autocratic approach would appear, according to the argument of these scholars, to largely give him a free hand. Reality, however, suggests there may be other limits.

Prince Mohammed is unlikely to pull off a break with the Wahhabi religious establishment because the clerics have proved to be resilient and have displayed a great capacity to adapt to transitions and vagaries of power… The crown prince’s public denunciations of extremist ideas and promises to promote moderate Islam have been interpreted as a renewed desire to break with Wahhabism. A closer reading shows that Prince Mohammed primarily condemns the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists and exonerates Wahhabism,” said Nabil Mouline, a historian of Saudi religious scholars and the monarchy.

Mr. Mouline went on to say that “the historical pact between the monarchy and the religious establishment has never been seriously challenged. It has been reinterpreted and redesigned during times of transition or crisis to better reflect changing power relations and enable partners to deal with challenges efficiently.”

Predicting that Wahhabism would likely remain a pillar of the kingdom in the medium term, Mr. Mouline cautioned that “any confrontation between the children of Saud and the heirs of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab will be destructive for both.”

Prince Mohammed has indeed in word and deed indicated that his reforms may not entail a clean break with Wahhabism and has been ambiguous about the degree of social change that he envisions.

He has yet to say a clear word about lifting Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship that gives male relatives control of women’s lives. Asked about guardianship, Prince Mohammed noted that “we want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”

Similarly, there is no indication that gender segregation in restaurants and other public places will be formally lifted any time soon. “Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go,” Prince Mohammed said.

Multiple incidents that illustrate contradictory attitudes in government policy as well as among the public suggest that liberalization and the restructuring of the elite’s relationship to Wahhabism could be a process that has only just begun. The incidents, moreover, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s top-down approach may rest on shaky ground.

Prince Mohammed last month sacked Ahmad al-Khatib, the head of the entertainment authority he had established after a controversial Russian circus performance in Riyadh, which included women wearing “indecent clothes,” sparked online protests.

Complaints of creeping immorality have in the last year returned the religious police, who have been barred by Prince Mohammed from making arrests or questioning people, to caution unrelated men and women from mixing.

The police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, said in a statement in 2017 that it was starting “to develop and strengthen fieldwork.” It said its officers would have a greater presence on “occasions that require it,” such as school holidays.

Saudi sports authorities in April shut down a female fitness centre in Riyadh over a contentious promotional video that appeared to show a woman in figure-hugging workout attire. “We are not going to tolerate this,” Saudi sports authority chief Turki al-Sheikh tweeted as he ordered that the centre’s license be withdrawn.

Saudi beauty queen withdrew last December from a Miss Arab World contest after being attacked and threatened online.

Holders of tickets for a concert in Jeddah by Egyptian pop sensation Tamer Hosny were surprised to receive vouchers that warned that “no dancing or swaying” would be allowed at the event. “No dancing or swaying in a concert! It’s like putting ice under the sun and asking it not to melt,” quipped a critic on Twitter.

Shireen al-Rifaie, a female television, was believed to have fled the kingdom in June after the General Commission for Audio-visual Media said she was being investigated for wearing “indecent” clothes during a report on the lifting of the driving ban for women. Ms. Al-Rifaie’s abaya, the garment that fully cloaks a woman’s body, was blown open as she was filming on a street a report on what the lifting of the ban meant for women.

While women celebrated last month’s lifting of the ban, many appeared apprehensive after activists who had campaign for an end to the ban were arrested calling into question Mohammed’s concept of liberalization. Many said they would stay off the streets and monitor reactions.

Police in Mecca said barely two weeks after the lifting of the ban that they were hunting for arsonists who had torched a woman’s car. Salma al-Sherif, a 31-year-old cashier, said the men were “opposed to women drivers.”

Ms. Al-Sherif said she faced abuse from men in her neighbourhood soon after she began driving in a bid to ease her financial pressures. “From the first day of driving I was subjected to insults from men,” she said. Ms. Al-Sherif was showered with messages of support on social media once the incident became public.

“While the lack of concerted resistance thus far towards women driving may in part speak to a more progressive and younger Saudi society, it would be remiss to assume that those opposing such policies have disappeared from view altogether,” cautioned Sara Masry, a Middle East analyst who attracted attention in 2015 for her blog detailing her experience as a Saudi woman living in Iran.

In adding speed and drama to the Al Saud and the government’s gradual restructuring of its relationship to Wahhabism, Prince Mohammed was building on a process that had been started in 2003 by then Crown Prince Abdullah.

At the time, Prince Abdullah organized the kingdom’s first national dialogue conference that brought together 30 religious scholars representing Wahhabi and non-Wahhabi Sunnis, Sufis, Ismaili, and Shiites.

Remarkably, the Wahhabi representatives did not include prominent members of the kingdom’s official religious establishment. Moreover, the presence of non-Wahhabis challenged Wahhabism’s principle of takfir or excommunication of those deemed to be apostates or non-Muslims that they often apply to Sufis and Shiites.

The conference adopted a charter that countered Wahhabi exclusivity by recognizing the kingdom’s intellectual and religious diversity and countering the principle of sadd al-dharai (the blocking of the means),a pillar of Wahhabism that stipulates that actions that could lead to the committing of a sin should be prohibited. Sadd al-dharai served as a justification for the ban on women’s driving.

Saudi Arabia scholar Stephane Lacroix sounded at the time a cautionary note that remains valid today.

“It…seems that part of the ruling elite now acknowledges the necessity for a revision of Wahhabism. It has indeed become clear that only such a move would permit the creation of a true Saudi nation, based on the modern and inclusive value of citizenship—a reality still missing and much needed in times of crisis. However, the sticking point is that this ideological shift must go hand in hand with a radical reformulation of old political alliances both at home and abroad. And therein lies the problem,” Mr. Lacroix said.

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.

Middle East

Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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