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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.

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Middle East

US-Iran Tension: Avert any big disaster to humanity

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US-Iran tension is growing to a dangerous level. Irrespective of who is right and who is wrong, but everyone agrees that it is leading toward a big disaster. Human life and natural resources are at stake. Irrespective, who will suffer more and who will suffer less, but it is human life, which is the most precious thing in this world, is at stake.

Middle-East is an oil and gas-rich area and meets the major portion of world energy demand. Any disturbance in this region will have a severe impact on the global economy. Whether one is right or wrong, will be the victim of this crisis directly or indirectly.

This war will be not like the Iraq war or the Libya War. As at that time, there was only one superpower and the world was unipolar. There was no resistance from any corner of the world. US and allies, without any resistance, conducted the war and achieved their desired results. But a lot of resistance was witnessed in case of Syrian War. The whole scenario has been changed, the calculated results were not achieved yet. Finally, the US has decided to pull back its troops. Similarly, Afghanistan case is not ideal, after spending trillion dollars, and fighting for 17 years, not gains on the ground and finally has to pull back.

It may not be limited to only US-Iran but may engulf the whole region. As traditional rivals are waiting for an appropriate opportunity to settle their old disputes. Whether, it is Arab-Iran, or Israel-Iran, or Arab-Israel enmity, may it spread to a much wider sphere than expected. It is in control of a few countries to start or refrain the escalation, but once it has been broken, it may be beyond the control of either country.

Especially, Russia and China are not sleeping at this time. They are in a strong position to offer resistance. It should not be taken an easy task like Iraq or Libya war. It is difficult to predict the exact reaction of Russia or China, but anticipated resistance.

If we expect, US or Iran to avert this foreseeable war will be not a realistic approach. As if they were to avoid any disaster, they should not have created so hype and should not have moved to this stage. They may not accept total hegemony of the US in this part of the world. They have heavy stakes in the middle-East and cannot be spectators only.

Geopolitics has been changed, regional alliances have emerged, and nations have re-aligned themselves. Much more complex changes have been witnessed after the war on terror. Public awareness has been enhanced, maybe some of the governments in this region have a different outlook, but public opinion is much more realistic and may play a vital role in the days to come. Old time’s friends may stand on the other side of the table. Some radical changes may be visible on grounds.

UN role was ineffective in the past and a little is expected in the future. In fact, the UN has been hijacked and curtailed to a very limited role practically. While one of its major mandates was to resolve the disputes among nations and avoid wars or war-like situations.

Under this serious scenario, there is a hope that all peace-loving nations and individuals, may peruse the UN and International Community do something to avert this bid human disaster.  We all share one world, we have the responsibility to save this world. Any loss of human life in any part of the world is considered the loss to the whole of humanity. And the destruction of natural resources may be considered a loss to humanity. Any damage to Environment or ecology or biodiversity may be a net loss to humanity. We all are son and daughter of ADAM and share a common world, common environment, common resources. We need to protect humanity, environment and natural resources.

It is strongly appealed to the UN, International Community and all individuals who believe in Peace, must act, and must act now, and must act strongly, to avert any bid disaster to humanity.

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Middle East

Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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Middle East

The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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