The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman surprised the entire world and delivered a message of smoothening of relations between Oman and Israel. This event has marked the first ever visit by any Israeli leader to Oman in 22 years. The Israeli Prime Minister and the Sultan discussed ‘Ways to enhance the peace process in the Middle East’ as well as other issues of ‘joint interest’. For Netanyahu, a milestone was achieved in the form of Oman recognition of Israel as normalizing relations with fellow regional states is one of the important clause of Netanyahu’s policy. Moreover, an Israeli Minister Yisrael Katz attended an International Transport Conference in Oman and proposed a railway link to connect Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea. However, the railway link isn’t confirmed yet, it was just proposed in the conference. In parallel, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev attended Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2018 in United Arab Emirates, where for the first time in history the national anthem of Israel was played. Similar approach was adopted by Israel towards Qatar. These changing dynamics can foresight the future of Gulf politics, that is, gulf countries can align with Israel to counter the influence of Iran in the region and for this purpose gulf countries may recognize Israel.
An important thing to notice is that the countries smoothening their relations with Israel are members of GCC, where Saudi Arabia is at the top of hierarchy- the major decision maker in Middle East- which means without Saudi Arabia’s willingness and its interests, GCC countries cannot take such a big decision. Now here a question arises, why would Saudi Arabia allow this approach?
The main reasons are; firstly, the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman have cordial relations with Israel’s top leadership and he(MBS) is seen as a potential ally by Israel in Middle East, the major reason why Israel demanded US to side by Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder case. Second, it would be very difficult for Saudi Arabia- the self-proclaimed leader of the Sunni Muslim world- to recognize Israel while other states in the region still oppose the existence of a Jewish state in Middle East. Recognition of Israel by other GCC countries would make it far easier for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel or at least to melt ice. Lastly, the Khashoggi murder case have already deteriorated the international image of Saudi Arabia, at this point of time the country cannot afford to bear another blame as Muslim countries think it would be injustice to Palestinians if Israel is recognized.
So will Saudi Arabia follow the suit and recognize Israel? The question still remains ambiguous, but since Saudi Arabia haven’t opposed these action of GCC countries and a continuous diplomatic support from Israel to Saudi Arabia have been visible although both countries do not have diplomatic relations, it can be predicted that something is going on, between both of these states which they have chosen not to disclose now. Coming to Qatar, since Qatar is also involved in this process of developing diplomatic relations with Israel, it can prove to be a catalyst in the troubled Saudi/Qatar relations as helping Saudi Arabia to develop relations with Israel while other Arab states are doing the same can lift up the entire blame from Saudi Arabia. Maybe the sanctions over Qatar will be lifted or just become less intensified. Qatar sees it as an opportunity to regain the similar status in the region as well as to reconstruct relations with the other Arab countries.
Caught in geopolitical crossfire: Al-Azhar struggles to balance politics and tradition
When Pope Francis I visited Egypt in 2017 to stimulate inter-faith dialogue he walked into a religious and geopolitical minefield at the heart of which was Al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and foremost seats of Islamic learning. The pope’s visit took on added significance with Al-Azhar standing accused of promoting the kind of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that potentially creates an environment conducive to breeding extremism.
The pope’s visit came as Al-Azhar, long a preserve of Egyptian government and ultra-conservative Saudi religious influence, had become a battleground for broader regional struggles to harness Islam in support of autocracy.
At the same time, Al-Azhar was struggling to compete with institutions of Islamic learning in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan as well at prestigious Western universities.
The battleground’s lay of the land has changed in recent years with the United Arab Emirates as a new entrant, a sharper Saudi focus on the kind of ultra-conservatism it seeks to promote, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts since 2015 to impose control and force Al-Azhar to revise its allegedly conservative and antiquated curriculum that critics charge informs extremism.
Ordained by God
Addressing a peace conference at Al-Azhar, the pope urged his audience to “say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”
In doing so, the pope was shining a spotlight on multiple complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa. These battles include Saudi efforts to distance ultra-conservatism from its more militant, jihadist offshoots; resistance to reform by ultra-conservatives who no longer are dependent on support of the kingdom; and differences between Saudi Arabia and some of its closest Arab allies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, in their approaches towards ultra-conservatism and opposition to extremism.
Mr. Al-Sisi, referring to assertions that Al-Azhar’s curriculum creates a potential breeding ground for extremism, charged at the outset of his campaign that “it is impossible that this kind of thinking drive the entire world to become a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction to the extent that we antagonize the whole world. It’s unconceivable that 1.5 billion Muslims will kill the whole 7 billion in the world so that they alone can rule.”
Mr. Al-Sisi, often prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandisement, threatened the university’s scholars in 2015 that he would complain to God if they failed to act on his demand for reform. “Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.,” Mr. Al-Sisi said.
Speaking months later to a German Egyptian community, Mr. Al-Sisi, an observant Muslim who in a 2006 paper argued that democracy cannot be understood without a grasp of the concept of the caliphate, asserted that “God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, he made me like this so I could see and understand the true state of affairs. It’s a blessing from God.”
Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault on Al-Azhar was sparked by multiple factors: the Islamic State’s extreme violence; pressure by the United Arab Emirates that more recently joined the fray of those seeking to shape Islam in their mould, and the experiences of Egyptian intelligence officers with militants.
“Hatred and bloodshed are backed up by curricula…that are approved by Islamic scholars, the ones that wear turbans… When I interrogated the extremists and talked to the Azhari scholars, I reached the conclusion that extremism comes primarily from the ancient books of Islamic jurisprudence which we’ve turned into sacred texts. These texts could have been forgotten long ago had it not been for those wearing the turbans,” said former Egyptian intelligence officer and lawyer Ahmad Abdou Maher, a strident critic of Al-Azhar.
Islam al-Bahiri, another Al-Azhar critic, who was jailed for his views and later pardoned by Mr. Al-Sisi charged that “Al-Azhar is part of the problem, not the solution. It cannot reform itself because if it does reform itself it would lose all authority. Al-Azhar is fighting for its own survival and not for the religion itself… They want you to follow religion as they understand it.”
Ironically, Mr. Al-Sisi has himself to blame for Al-Azhar’s ability to fend off the president’s effort. In attempting to not only tighten state control of Al-Azhar, Mr. Al-Sisi overreached by trying to fundamentally alter its power structure.
Legislation introduced in parliament would have limited the tenure of the grand imam, create a committee that could investigate the imam if he were accused of misconduct, broadened the base that elects the imam, included laymen in the Body of Senior Scholars that supervises Al-Azhar, and added presidential appointees to the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar.
Mr. Al-Sisi’s overreach enabled Al-Azhar, in a rare example of successful opposition to his policies, to mobilize its supporters in and outside of parliament and defeat the legislation. It also allowed Al-Azhar to reject out of hand of Mr. Al-Sisi’s demand that it rewrites the rules governing divorce to make it more difficult for husbands to walk away.
The proposed legislation nonetheless sent a message that was heard loud and clear in Al-Azhar. In response to Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault, the leadership of Al-Azhar has sought to curb anti-pluralistic and intolerant statements by some members the faculty, set up an online monitoring centre to track militant statements on social media, and paid lip service to the need to alter religious discourse. It has, however, stopped short of developing a roadmap for reform of the institution and its curriculum.
Differences of opinion between ultra-conservatives among the Al-Azhar faculty and those more willing to accommodate demands for reform surface regularly.
Soaad Saleh, an Islamic law scholar and former head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee, last year publicly criticized a ruling by grand mufti Shawki Allam that exempted Egypt’s national team from fasting during Ramadan in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.
Ms. Saleh argued that only those travelling for reasons that please God such as earning money to feed the family, study or to spread the word of God were exempted from fasting. Soccer did not fall in that category, the scholar said.
Ms. Saleh earlier asserted that Muslims who conquered non-Muslims were entitled to sex slaves. “If we [Egyptians] fought Israel and won, we have the right to enslave and enjoy sexually the Israeli women that we would capture in the war,” Ms. Saleh said.
Ms. Saleh remains a member of the Al-Azhar faculty. So is Masmooa Abo Taleb, a former dean of men’s Islamic studies who argued several years ago that Al-Azhar had endorsed the principle that Muslims who intentionally miss Friday prayer could be killed.
Al-Azhar nevertheless asserts that it has reviewed its curriculum and was working with the education ministry to revise school textbooks. It rejects suggestions that the revisions are primarily cosmetic.
“We have done a number of corrective as well as preventive measures to respond to this urgent call about reforming Islamic religious discourse. We have revisited a number of religious fatwas that were authored in the past; fatwas that unfortunately have given rise to a number of wrong behaviours,” said Ibrahim al-Najm, a senior scholar at Dar al-Iftar, the Al-Azhar unit responsible for legal interpretations.”
Mr. Al Najm pointed to a revision of a fatwa that authorized female genital mutilation as well as Al-Azhar Facebook pages with millions of followers that refute jihadist teaching such as those of the Islamic State. A recent online textbook says in the introduction: “We present this scientific content to our sons and daughters and ask God that he bless them with tolerance and moderate thought … and for them to show the right picture of Islam to people.”
Yet, scholars of the university struggle when confronted with an Al-Azhar secondary school textbook, a 2016 reprint of a book first written hundreds of years ago that employs the same arguments used by jihadists. The book defines jihad exclusively as an armed struggle rather than the struggle to improve oneself and contains a disputed saying of the Prophet according to which God had commanded Mohammed to fight the whole world until all have converted to Islam.
Scholars argued that such texts were part of history lessons that teach Islamic law, including the rules of engagement in war in times past. They assert that students are taught that interpretations of the law in historic texts may have been valid when the books were written but are not applicable to the modern-day world.
They further stress that the concept of jihad an-nafs, the struggle for improvement of oneself, was taught extensively in classes on ethics and morals. Al-Azhar has nonetheless advised faculty that they should not allow students to read old texts without supervision. Panels have been created to review books to ensure that they do not advocate extremist positions.
Al-Azhar’s critics charge that it is plagued by the same literalism and puritanical adherence to historic texts that radicals thrive on and that feeds intolerance and discrimination. Al-Azhar has lent credibility to those charges through various positions that it adopted. Those include, for example, demanding closing down a TV show that advocated the purge of canonical texts that promote violence against and hatred of non-Muslims and the suspension of a professor for promoting atheism by using books authored by liberals.
Al-Azhar’s huge library that provides teaching materials is a target too. It contains volumes of interpretations of the Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet written over the centuries, some of which preach militant attitudes such as a ban on Muslims congratulating Christians on their holidays, a Muslim’s duty to fight infidels, the imposition of the death penalty on those who abandon Islam, and harsh punishments for homosexuals.
The blurring of the lines
Complicating the effort to reform Islam is a dichotomy shared by both Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi. Both accept the notion of a nation state and see themselves as guardians of Islamic Orthodoxy, witness the crackdowns for example on LGBT, as well as Mr. Al-Sisi’s failure to make good on his promise to counter discrimination of Egypt’s Coptic minority and widespread bigotry among the Muslim majority.
Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi also both embrace the civilizational concept of the ummah, the community of the faithful that knows no borders. Their efforts to counter extremism are moreover not fundamentally rooted in values that embrace tolerance and pluralism despite the adoption of the lingo but as defenders of Muslim conservatism against extremism and jihadism, trends they deem to be heretical.
In a study written in 2006 at the US War College, Mr. Al-Sisi, a deeply religious man whose wife and daughter are veiled, pushed the notion that democracy in the Middle East needed to be informed by the ‘concept of El Kalafa,’ the earliest period of Islam that was guided by the Prophet Muhammad and the Four Righteous Caliphs who succeeded him. “The Kalafa, involving obedience to a ruler who consults his subjects, needed to be the goal of any government in the Middle East and North Africa,” Mr. Al-Sisi wrote.
Resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s calls for fundamental reform is nonetheless deeply engrained. It has been boosted by a history of fending off attempts to undermine its independence, a deeply embedded animosity towards government interference and its definition of itself as the protector of Islamic tradition.
It has also been undergirded by decades of Saudi influence that was long abetted by Mr. Al-Sisi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and Mr. Al-Sisi’s high-handed approach.
The resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s campaign is further informed by the fact that although still revered, Al-Azhar no longer holds a near monopoly on Islamic learning. Beyond the competition from Saudi, Jordanian and Turkish institutions, Al-Azhar is also challenged by Islamic studies at European and North American institutes such as Leiden University, Oxford University, London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) the University of Chicago and McGill University.
Yet, those institutions too are not immune to producing ultra-conservatives. Take for example, Farhat Naseem Hashmi, a charismatic, 60-year old Pakistani Islamic scholar and cultural entrepreneur who graduated from the University of Glasgow. Ms. Hashmi has become a powerful ultra-conservative force among Pakistan’s upper middle class. Or Malaysian students in the Egypt, UK and elsewhere who were introduced to political Islam by Muslim Brotherhood activists at their universities.
Muhammed Azam of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Institute of Islamic Studies notes that the Malaysian government no longer funds students that want to go to Al-Azhar. “If they go (to Al-Azhar), it is self-funded,” Mr. Azam said. He noted further that Saudi Arabia had stepped in to offer hundreds of scholarships at institutions in the kingdom. “Because of the financial constraints, people to go to whatever country has got sponsorship,” Mr. Azzam said.
At the same time, Mr. Azzam said more Malaysians were heading to Jordan. “There is a shift. Malay parents now send their kids to Jordan to further their studies either in Islamic studies or Sharia or one specific subject matter or banking and finance… They have a different curriculum. They have the Islamic and the secular curriculum and that has given a different result for the graduates who come back,” he said.
A grinding, long drawn out battle
The upshot of all of this is that the struggle for Al-Azhar is likely to be grinding and drawn out rather than swift and decisive. It is a political, geopolitical and religious battle in which Mr. Al-Sisi, backed by his Gulf allies sees religious reform as one key to countering perceived security threats and extremism.
His nemesis, a Sorbonne-educated imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque, Ahmed El- Tayeb, pays lip service to the notion of reform but insists that textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise and righteousness, not obscurantism. Reform in Mr. El-Tayeb’s view cannot entail abandoning unambiguous Koranic texts or authentic sayings of the Prophet or hadiths.
Mr. Al-Sisi appears to also have learnt a lesson from his failed effort to bend Al-Azhar to his will. His religious endowments ministry has laid the groundwork for male and female imams to be trained at a newly-inaugurated International Awqaf Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than Al-Azhar. The ministry has drafted the curriculum to include not only religious subjects but also politics, psychology and sociology.
Built on an area of 11,000 square meters, the academy boasts a high-tech infrastructure with foreign language and computer labs. Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh, the Saudi Islamic affairs minister, attended the inauguration and promised that the Saudi Institute of Imams and Preachers would work closely with the academy. Select Al-Azhar faculty have been invited to teach at the academy. Training courses last six months.
The academy competes with the just opened Al-Azhar International Academy that in contrast to the government’s academy focuses exclusively on religious subjects. The Al-Azhar initiative builds on the institution’s international outreach in recent years that was designed to combat extremism and project Al-Azhar as independent and separate from the Egyptian government.
Parallel to the inauguration of the government academy, Mr. Al-Sisi, in an effort to curtail Al-Azhar’s activity decreed that senior officials including Mr. El-Tayeb would need to seek prior approval from the president or the prime minister before travelling abroad.
As part of his effort to micro-manage every aspect of Egyptian life and frustrated at Al-Azhar’s refusal to bow to his demands, Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, ignoring Al-Azhar objections, instructed his religious affairs ministry to write standardized sermons for all mosque preachers.
While resisting Mr. Al-Sisi’s attempts to interfere in what Al-Azhar sees as its independence and theological prerogatives, it has been careful not to challenge the state’s authority on non-religious issues. This was evident in Al-Azhar’s acquiescence in the arrest in 2015 of some 100 Uyghurs, many of them students at Al-Azhar, who at China’s request were deported to the People’s Republic.
The pope’s interlocutors at Al-Azhar meanwhile tell the story of the institution’s convoluted geopolitics.
They included former Egyptian grand mufti Ali Gomaa, an advocate of a Saudi-propagated depoliticized form of Islam that pledges absolute obedience to the ruler, an opponent of popular sovereignty, and a symbol of the tension involved in adhering to both Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that serves the interests of the Saudi state, and being loyal to the government of his own country.
A prominent backer of Mr. Al-Sisi’s grab for power, Mr. Gomaa frequently espouses views that reflect traditional Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism rather than the form projected by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In an interview with MBC, a Saudi-owned media conglomerate, Mr. Gomaa asserted in 2015 that women did not have the strength to become heart surgeons, serve in the military, or engage in sports likes soccer, body building, wrestling and weightlifting. A year later, Mr. Gomaa issued a fatwa declaring writer Sherif El-Shobashy an infidel for urging others to respect a woman’s choice on whether or not to wear the veil.
Prince Mohammed has since 2015 significantly enhanced women’s professional and sporting opportunities although he has not specifically spoken about the sectors and disciplines Mr. Gomaa singled out.
Pope Francis’ interlocutors in Cairo also included Mr. El-Tayeb, the imam of the Grand Mosque. A prominent Islamic legal scholar, who opposes ultra-conservatism and rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize, recalls Mr. El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar scholars, the legal scholar said, compete “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.
“Many of my friends and family praise Abdul Wahab in their writing,” the scholar said referring to Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century religious leader whose puritan interpretation of Islam became the basis for the power sharing agreement between the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family and its religious establishment. “They shrug their shoulders when I ask them privately if they are serious… When I asked El-Tayeb why Al-Azhar was not seeing changes and avoidance of dogma, he said: ‘my hands are tied.’
To illustrate Saudi inroads, the scholar recalled being present when several years ago Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, a former grand mufti and predecessor of Mr. El-Tayeb as imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, was interviewed about Saudi funding. “What’s wrong with that?” the scholar recalls Mr. Tantawy as saying. Irritated by the question, he pulled a check for US$100,000 from a drawer and slapped it against his forehead. “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), they are our brothers,” the scholar quoted Mr. Tantawy, who was widely seen as a liberal reformer despite misogynist and anti-Semitic remarks attributed to him, as saying.
Separating the wheat from the chafe at Al-Azhar is complicated by the fact that leaders of the institution although wary of Salafi influence have long sought to neutralize ultra-conservatives by appeasing rather than confronting them head on.
The Al-Azhar scholars believed they could find common ground on the grounds that they and the ultra-conservatives each had something the other wanted. Beyond gaining influence in a hollowed institution, ultra-conservatives wanted to benefit from its credibility while Al-Azhar hoped to capture some of the ultra-conservatives’ popularity on Muslim streets. That popularity would help justify Al-Azhar’s long-standing support for Egyptian and Arab autocracy.
Saudi Arabia, since the rise of King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed, has, at least in the greater Middle East including Al-Azhar, largely focused on the promotion of a specific strand of Salafism, Madkhalism.
Led by octogenarian Saudi Salafi leader, Sheikh Rabi Ibn Hadi Umair al-Madkhali, a former dean of the study of the Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings at the Islamic University of Medina, Madkhalists seek to marginalize more political Salafists critical of Saudi Arabia by projecting themselves as preachers of the authentic message in a world of false prophets and moral decay.
They propagate absolute obedience to the ruler and abstention from politics, the reason why toppled Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi tolerated them during his rule and why they constitute a significant segment of both Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) as well as forces under the command of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli.
Madkhalists often are a divisive force in Muslim communities. They frequently blacklist and seek to isolate or repress those they accuse of deviating from the true faith. Mr. Al-Madkhali and his followers position Saudi Arabi as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.
The promotion of Madkhalism falls on fertile ground in Al-Azhar. It was part of what prompted conservative Al-Azhar clerics to call on Egyptians not to join the 2011 mass protests on the grounds that Islam commands Muslims to obey their ruler even if he is unjust because it could lead to civil strife.
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born Qatari-based scholar with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, unsuccessfully sought to counter Al-Azhar’s call by developing an alternative strand of legal thought that he described as fiqh al-thawra or jurisprudence of the revolution.
Mr. Al-Qaradawi argued that protests were legitimate if they sought to achieve a legitimate end such as implementation of Islamic law, the release of wrongly incarcerated prisoners, stopping military trials of civilians or ensuring access to basic goods.
Mr. Al-Qaradawi’s argument failed to gain currency among the Al-Azhar establishment. Moreover, more critical thinking like that of Mr. Al-Qaradawi barely survived, if at all, in private study circles organized by more liberal and activist scholars associated with Al-Azhar because of the risks involved in Mr. Al-Sisi’s tightly controlled Egypt.
A new kid on the block
If Saudi money was a persuasive factor in shaping Al-Azhar’s politics and to some degree its teaching, the kingdom has more recently met its financial match. Ironically, the challenge comes from one its closest allies, the United Arab Emirates, which promotes an equally quietist, statist interpretation of Islam but opposes the kind of ultra-conservatism traditionally embraced by Saudi Arabia. The UAE has scored initial significant successes even if its attempts to persuade Al-Azhar to open a branch in the Emirates have so far gone unheeded.
Mr. Al-Sisi demonstrated his backing of the UAE approach by not only acquiescing in the participation of Messrs. Gomaa and El-Tayeb but also sending his religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari, to attend a UAE and Russian-backed conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2016 that condemned ultra-conservatism as deviant and excluded it from its definition of Sunni Muslim Islam.
The UAE scored a further significant success with the first ever papal visit to the Emirates in February by Francis during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Mr. Al-Tayeb.
The pope, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledged the UAE’s greater influence, when in a public address, he thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Mr. Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration. “Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al-Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist with close ties to key players in Al-Azhar and the UAE.
The UAE’s increasing involvement in Al-Azhar is part of a broader strategy to counter political Islam in general and more specifically Qatari support for it. The Grozny conference was co-organised by the Tabah Foundation, the sponsor of the Senior Scholars Council, a group that aims to recapture Islamic discourse that many non-Salafis assert has been hijacked by Saudi largesse. The Council was also created to counter the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Mr. Al-Qaradawi.
There’s a big, wide world out there
Mr. Al-Sisi’s efforts to gain control or establish alternative structures and competing UAE and Saudi moves to influence what Al-Azhar advocates and teaches notwithstanding, it remains difficult to assess what happens in informal study groups. Those groups are often not only dependent on the inclinations of the group leader but also influenced by unease among segments of the student body with what many see as a politicization of the curriculum by a repressive regime and its autocratic backers that are hostile to them.
Islamist and Brotherhood soccer fans, many of whom studied at Al-Azhar, were the backbone of student protests against the Al-Sisi regime in the first 18 months after the 2013 military coup.
Unease among the student body is fuelled by the turning of Al-Azhar and other universities into fortresses and an awareness that students, and particularly ones enrolled in religious studies, are viewed by security forces as suspicious by definition, monitored and regularly stopped for checks.
“The majority of students at Akl Azhar are suspect. They lean towards extremism and are easily drafted into terrorist groups,” said an Egyptian security official. Foreign students wearing identifiable Islamic garb complain about regularly being stopped by police and finding it increasingly difficult to get their student visas extended.
A walk through the maze of alleyways around the Al-Azhar mosque that is home to numerous bookshops suggests that there is a market not only for mainstream texts but also works of more radical thinkers such as Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century theologist and jurisconsult, whose thinking informs militants and jihadists and Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Kishk, a graduate of Al-Azhar known for his popular sermons, rejection of music, propagation of polygamy, and tirades against injustice and oppression.
Works of Sayyid Qutb, the influential Muslim Brother, whose writings are widely seen as having fathered modern-day jihadism, are sold under the table despite the government’s banning of the Brotherhood.
Caught in the crossfire
Caught in the crossfire of ambitious geopolitical players, Al-Azhar struggles to chart a course that will guarantee it a measure of independence while retaining its position as the guardian of Islamic tradition.
So far, Al-Azhar has been able to fend off attempts by Mr. Al-Sisi to assert control but has been less successful in curtailing the influence of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that increasingly are pursuing separate agendas.
In addition, Al-Azhar is facing stiff competition from a newly established Egyptian government facility for the training of imams as well as institutions of Islamic learning elsewhere in the Muslim world and Islamic studies programs at Western universities.
Al-Azhar’s struggles are complicated by the driving underground of alternative voices as a result of an excessive clampdown in Egypt, unease among segments of the student body and faculty at perceived politicization of the university’s curriculum and the blurring of ideological lines that divide the protagonists.
They are also complicated by inconsistencies in Al-Azhar’s matching of words with deeds. The institution has taken numerous steps to counter extremism and bring its teachings into line with the requirements of a 21st century knowledge-driven society. Too often however, those measures appear to be superficial rather than structural.
The up-shot is that redefining Al-Azhar’s definition of itself and the way it translates that into its teachings and activities is likely to be a long-drawn-out struggle.
The tension between Iran and the United States
At the beginning of last summer, precisely on May 8, 2018, US President Donald J. Trump carried out one of his old projects, i.e. to explicitly walk out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom + Germany and the European Union on July 14, 2015.
The IAEA inspectors spend 3,000 days a year, on average, checking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and so far they have not ascertained any particular Iranian infringement of the 2015 agreement.
Immediately after the US action, the EU adopted a blocking statute, based on the fact that the USA had unilaterally stated that Iran had not publicly declared a previous nuclear programme, prior to the JCPOA.
According to the 2015 Treaty, Iran had agreed to destroy its arsenal of medium-enriched uranium, as well as to eliminate 98% of its low-enriched uranium production, and to finally reduce the number of its gas centrifuges for the selection of isotopes by two thirds, for a period of 13 years starting from the signing of the agreement with the P5 + 1, namely the JCPOA.
For the subsequent 15 years, in fact, Iran had committed to enrich its uranium by only 3.67% compared to the levels before the signing of the agreement, without building other centrifuges for the following 10 years as from the signing of the JCPOA, while the enriched uranium production had to be reduced to the activity of a single first-generation centrifuge.
As previously mentioned, the EU put in place a blocking statute mainly to protect EU-based companies from the effects of US sanctions against Iran. In May 2019, however, IAEA established that Iran had basically complied with the JCPOA, except for some doubts about the number of centrifuges actually in operation.
Immediately after the US withdrawal from the treaty, Iran reaffirmed its acceptance of the treaty of July 14, 2015, along with France, Germany and Great Britain, while the Russian Federation and China explicitly supported Iran, which stated that only the USA had unilaterally and illegally withdrawn from the agreement.
According to President Trump, one of the political reasons for the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was the resulting strengthening of his positions during the negotiations with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, while the former US President, Barack Obama, said that the US withdrawal from the treaty of July 14, 2015 left the USA torn between two equally suicidal choices: a completely nuclearized Iran or the quick breaking out of another war in the Middle East.
The only countries supporting President Trump, against the nuclear agreement with Iran, were Saudi Arabia, the traditional enemy of the Iranian Shiites, and obviously Israel.
The US President also added that the USA would cooperate with the EU to “put pressure” on Iran, but the European Union implemented a project, called Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), to avoid the negative effects of US sanctions on European companies. INSTEX, officially announced on 31 January 2019, is led by Per Fischer -former Head of Financial Institutions at Commerz bank -as President, and includes Simon McDonald, permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs of Great Britain, Miguel Berger, Head of the economic office at the German Foreign Ministry, and Maurice Gourdault de Montaigne, Secretary General of the French Foreign Ministry (“and of Europe”, as the official formula states). The whole body does not include senior managers of the banking system and of commercial institutions.
A political organization that has political purposes vis-à-vis Iran and the USA, not a real starting point for continuing to do business in Iran.
Hence for many countries, including Iran, INSTEX is more a political move to differentiate themselves – with difficulty – from the USA than an effective and operational system against the US sanctions on Iran.
On April 29, Iran announced it had set up the Special Trade and Finance Institute (STFI) to monitor the INSTEX activities and thus favour Iran-EU trade even during the US sanction regime.
The Iranian President of STFI is Ali Askar Nouri, former consultant of Iran Zamin Bank and the Institute also includes Hamid Ghanbari, former director of the Central Bank of Iran, Farshid Farrokh, manager of the Refah Bank, and finally some other managers coming from the Iranian banking system.
Given the low political level of the Iranian STFI, it is likely that the Iranian government does not trust the INSTEX system at all as a way to really solve the trade relations between the EU and Iran.
The European system also implies that the profit generated from the purchase of Iranian oil by companies having their headquarters in the EU must be transferred to the INSTEX “special-purpose vehicle”.
Nevertheless, considering the general US restrictions on the sale of Iranian oil, in all likelihood the EU “special-purpose vehicle” will be increasingly linked to ever smaller Iranian funds and hence will not be in a position to collect enough liquidity to justify reasonable trade with Europe.
Moreover, considering that the major buyers of Iranian oil belong to non-European States, it is equally unlikely that these countries, namely China, India, Korea and Japan, will accept to transfer their payments to INSTEX.
Moreover, considering the US regulations, even if the EU vehicle really worked, Iran could spend all the funds included in the EU mechanism only for medicines and- to a little extent – for food.
Hence no mechanism to protect Iran-EU trade can be created unless agreements are also made with the USA.
However, who is really hit by the US sanctions? Rather than the political and military actions of the Iranian government, what is really destroyed is Iran’s private economic sector.
Currently the Iranian population is equal to 82 million inhabitants, with an economic ranking that places the Shiite Republic of Iran in the eighteenth position in the world.
In the case of Iran, another reason for the economic crisis led by foreign countries is the devaluation of its national currency, namely the rial.
The local government’s inflationary actions, the restriction of foreign currency assets and the related slowdown in growth, with an inflation rate at 13% and an unemployment rate at 12.3%, are drastic measures. This is official data from the Iranian government, which is apparently much more acceptable than real data.
Furthermore, the Shiite regime has imposed restrictions for as many as 1,300 types of product, in addition to the escape from the dollar in transactions and the preferential use of the Euro in international trade.
In the real exchange market, currently the rialis worth 90,000 as against the US dollar, while at the end of last year one dollar only was worth 42,840 rial. An induced Weimar-styleinflation, which is destabilizing for every social system.
The Euro, however, is not a currency that has the characteristic of being a Lender of Last Resort, as Paolo Savona often says- hence its global use is inevitably very limited.
Therefore the rial should still decrease by at least 10% in the exchange with the US dollar.
At official rates, bank interest is already at 24%. Hence, in these crisis contexts, the Euro is therefore not allocable, while the role of the Chinese renmimbi is growing, considering China’s vast purchases of Iranian oil – which will not last forever.
If not to maintain a game of tensions with the USA, on the part of China, pending the trade war that inflames the two major players in global economy, namely the USA and China.
Transfers abroad- to the EU in this specific case – cost the Iranian companies at least 20% of the total capital transferred.
It should also be recalled that oil sales are worth only 40% of Iran’s total GDP, considering that the largest sector of the Iranian economy is services, which account for 51% of GDP, followed by tourism (12%), the real estate sector, and finally the mining sector (13%) and agriculture (still at 10%).
What could be a possible solution? The greater economic correlation between Iran and China, considering that the commercial crisis between the United States and China is almost simultaneous to the crisis between Iran and the USA – and it has quite similar strategic potentials.
Hence for the United States the effects will be the maximum pressure available against Iran, in addition to greater US military presence in the Middle East and the damage caused by the USA to the European allies still tied to the signing of the 2015 JCPOA.
It is also impossible not to think about the inevitable negative reactions on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, already under pressure from various parts.
Moreover, the bilateral relations between China and Iran are still growing significantly, at economic, political and strategical levels.
Furthermore, China currently imports 11% of its oil from Iran, in addition to an investment of over 5 billion US dollars for the technological upgrading of the refining and transport of oil and gas.
China has also invested in the urban transport system, particularly in the Tehran subway, as well as in regional motorways and in the Mehran Petrochemical Complex, in addition to a credit line of the Chinese State financial holding (CITIC) to the Iranian government, amounting to over 10 billion US dollars.
The China Development Bank has also guaranteed additional 15 billion US dollars – up to a transfer of capital – between Iran and China, which, as stated by Hassan Rouhani, the current leader of the Iranian government, are expected to reach 600 billion US dollars.
Currently Iran is China’ second trading partner, after the United Arab Emirates, and is also capable of permanently supplying the Shiite republic with advanced weapons.
Therefore, it is a real “substitution of Iran’s imports” both from the EU and, obviously, from the USA, which enables China to create an economic and military outpost in the Persian Gulf, capable of opposing – in a short lapse of time-the US strategic presence in the region. Not to mention the EU countries’ military set-up and arrangement in the Middle East.
Moreover, also the USA knows that, considering the asymmetric structure of Iran’s military forces, a clash with Iran could be very costly and even burdensome for the United States, which probably could barely penetrate the Gulf, while it is still believed that a direct North American action on Iranian soil is currently ever more difficult.
Meanwhile, Iran is struggling to create new markets for its oil, in areas that cannot be integrated into the JCPOA and the US system.
The target countries of Iran’s expansion are Brazil, China – as usual – but also India, which can be decisive today, considering that the Iranian production reached only 400,000 barrels per day last May, less than half of the sales in the previous month and even below the 2.5 million barrels per day of April 2018.
Everything started with an annual income from Iranian oil of approximately 50 billion US dollars.
Currently, however, according to US experts, oil proceeds have fallen by at least 10 billion US dollars, after the US re-imposing full sanctions last November.
The situation is still better for Iranian exports – also to Turkey – of petroleum by-products, such as urea, but above all for the sales of natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, biofuel, methanol, and even other non-oil energy products.
Iran accepts payments either in currencies other than the dollar or with the old trade-in system, which is a traditional and widespread system in the oil world.
However, let us revert to the bilateral political crisis between the USA and Iran.
After the sanctions renewed by President Trump, Iran has started again to enrich uranium to 20% and has also announced it would update the Arak reactor, which was part of the Iranian military system and produced plutonium.
Moreover, Iran claims that the Arak reactor is still subject to the JCPOA rules and that its productive activity will end soon.
In Natanz, another important centre for the Iranian production of enriched uranium, the extraction of isotopes has increased significantly. As Iranian leaders themselves say, this extraction should be increased by 400% compared to the JCPOA rules.
It should be recalled that the treaty of July 14, 2015 limits the production of uranium to 300 kilos of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which has a real content of active and useful uranium to the tune of 202.8 kilos.
On a strictly military level, the USA has already sent to the Persian Gulf region a group of warships, including the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and four destroyers armed with missiles. Furthermore, some B-52 bombers have been deployed in the Al-Obeid US base, Qatar, in addition to over 120,000 soldiers, distributed in the various US facilities in the Middle East, although President Trump has said that the shipment of these troops is a fake news.
Nevertheless, this shipment has recently been confirmed by the US Administration.
However, on May 12 last, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the so-called Pasdaran, attacked four-seven large commercial ships in the port of Fujrairah, one of the great world hubs in oil maritime trade. Other data has not been provided to the press.
Allegedly, they were vessels belonging to companies based in the United Arab Emirates.
It is also likely that at least two of those ships were of Saudi nationality.
Another attack of obscure Iranian origin occurred on May 19, when a Katjuscia rocket was fired against the US Embassy in Baghdad, but without causing victims.
On May 14, however, Supreme Leader Ali Akhbar Khamenei said that “there would be no war against America”. At the same time, however, the Iranian Rahbar does not want to re-open the nuclear talks with the United States.
Both because Khamenei does not want to give the impression of rapidly succumbing to the United States – and here the Shiite regime could even self-destruct – and because, in all likelihood, reopening negotiations would imply the end of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It should be noted that there is also the oil issue for the USA itself.
Tension in the Gulf leads to a fast and significant increase in all OPEC crude oil prices while, even considering its higher extraction costs, the US oil is also capable of producing profit, in a context of quick and uncontrollable growth in the OPEC oil barrel prices.
The United States has now reached a production of at least 2.5 million barrels per day, which makes the USA attentive to any possible useful hedging on OPEC oil, with a view to exploiting any geopolitical crisis that – in the oil market – always has immediate consequences on the oil barrel price.
It should also be noted that the Strait of Hormuz is twenty miles wide. It is technically impossible for Iran to control or block it all.
Iran, however, can use strong cyberattacks against the oil networks of the neighbouring States that, in various ways, are also all linked to Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have alternative pipelines that can easily bypass the Strait of Hormuz.
Even in the case of an Iranian unconventional attack, Saudi Arabia can sell at least 6.5 million barrels per day and currently the USA is much less exposed to an oil shock like those of the 1970s, given that the American economy is less oil-dependent and particularly considering that the national production of American (and Canadian) oil and gas is such as to ensure an acceptable level of oil use, even without the North American purchases from OPEC countries.
In 2019, however, China has agreed to keep on buying oil and gas at low prices in Iran, at a level ranging between 700,000 and 800,000 barrels per day.
Iran has no interest in dealing with the United States, right now that a new presidential election cycle is starting.
On June 8 last, Iran officially declared that it would break some other restrictions included in the JCPOA if the 2015 treaty continues not to provide the expected economic benefits to Iran.
The remaining parties that adhered to the JCPOA have recommended Iran to comply – even unilaterally – with the agreement of July 14, 2015 – and these countries are China and the United Kingdom.
The EU, however, will continue to carry out checks on Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, both in the collection of heavy water and in the production of enriched uranium, which is essential for building nuclear weapons.
On a strictly economic level, Iran has abolished the oil subsidy regime for the population – a cost of 38 billion US dollars a year, equal to approximately 20% of GDP.
As both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have noted, this is the first aspect to be kept in mind.
Nevertheless, in a context like the sanction regime, it is impossible to maintain a policy of internal liberalizations.
However, on a purely strategic level, what could all this mean, insofar as a permanent geoeconomic clash is emerging between Iran and the United States?
For example a much harder and more continuous war in the Lebanon than we have already experienced.
Or a clash with Israel involving Assad’ Syrian Army, the Hezbollah, some units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and even Hamasin the South.
A long-term war capable of slowly consuming both the material and soldiers of the Jewish State and its international support.
Or a new war in Syria, between the Golan Heights and the areas close to Damascus, forcing Russia to play a military role in Assad’ Syria and creating a clash between Israel and Russia, again on Syria alone.
Or another possibility could be a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, with airstrikes on the territory of the Shiite republic and the whole panoply of means available for non-conventional actions.
Or finally a clash throughout the Middle East, with the possible presence of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s coordination of all Shiite forces inside and outside the opposing countries.
It is from this viewpoint that we must evaluate the above mentioned strengthening of the US military structure throughout the Middle East.
It should also be noted that the 120,000 US military to be deployed in the various US bases in the region are more or less the same – in number – as those that were used in the attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis is tightening on Iran: last March oil exports fell drastically up to reaching only 1.1 million barrels on average, while Taiwan, Greece and Italy stopped their imports and the major importers, namely China and India, reduced their purchases from Iran by 39% and 47% respectively.
The more the crisis deepens in Iran, the more likely the option of a regional war – probably triggered by Iran – becomes.
The probable clash between Iran and the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia must be assessed in the framework of this very weak balance between a possible anti-Shiite war and a careful evaluation of the effects and results of a probable war against Iran and on how it will leave the Middle East.
The economic summit in Bahrain won’t be about Palestinian-Israeli conflict
In less than two weeks Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will present in Manama the first part of the long-awaited “deal of the century”, the peace initiative of president Donald Trump designed to find an ultimate solution for the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Iraq and Lebanon will not take part in the event, while Tehran had already accused the participants, mainly Saudi Arabia of “betrayal of the Palestinian struggle”. Following the massive pressure on Arab leaders and promises of significant economic development, the American administration was finally able to secure the participation of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and probably Morocco. Israel didn’t receive an official invitation for this event yet. It is, however, clear that it will be invited, and some rumors imply that PM Netanyahu himself might come to Bahrain, a country with which Israel doesn’t have any diplomatic relations.
Yet, it seems that this odd event in Manama will resemble a wedding without the bride. The groom will be there, so are the loving parents who will provide the dowry and the guests, but the bride, i.e. the Palestinian autonomy had already declared that it will not send any official or unofficial delegation to the upcoming economic conference.
The relations between the White House and the Palestinian administration had gone sour since President’s Trump decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians are suspicious of Trump’s attempts to promote “a deal” that might not include a reference to a two-state solution. For the last two years, the sole connection between Washington and Ramallah has been maintained by the respective security agencies. Recent remarks made by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel on Israeli territorial claims in Judea and Samaria and the hints of Israel’s annexation plans intensified Palestinian concerns towards the unveiling of the first part of “the deal”. Palestinian officials had harshly criticized the participation of Arab countries in Bahrain conference, expressing hope that they will send low-key representation, while the Jordanian Kind explained that he decided to send a delegation to the summit “to listen and remain knowledgeable of what is taking place”.
Yet, the most fascinating thing about the economic conference is that it’s not at all about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite its title. With only one year left prior to the US presidential elections and considering the political turmoil in Israel and the unwillingness of the Palestinian partner to engage in any plan presented by Trump’s administration, there is little hope in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington that the “deal of the Century” will accumulate in peaceful solution in the current century.
Why, then, the American administration is investing time and energy in the upcoming Bahrain summit? The answer is clear: mostly, to consolidate the alliance of the “moderate Arab states”. Considering the recent dramatic events at the sea of Oman and the attack on two oil-tankers, it will not be far-fetched to imagine that the growing tensions in Iran will overshadow the official reason for the gathering. In the same fashion, the “anti-terror” conference in Warsaw that took place in February this year, was solely about Iran, while all other aspects of anti-terrorism activities were left behind. The deterioration of the situation in the Persian Gulf is crucial for the hosts and their allies – the Arab countries in the Gulf. Egypt and Jordan were required to be there because they are key American allies in the region who also maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. The plan that is envisaged by Kushner and Greenblatt will include economic benefits and development programs for both Amman and Cairo who are dealing with pressing economic hardships. Would they prefer to stay away from the conference that is being shunned by the Palestinians? Probably. Could these two countries, who receive significant economic help from the US say no to the invitation and not show up at the wedding of the century? Highly unlikely.
Ironically, some 52 years ago in Khartoum, it was the Arab league that had unanimously voted on the famous “three no’s” resolution in Khartoum, declining any possibility of dialogue with Israel. Today, when the Arab states are weakened by the “Arab spring” and preoccupied with growing tensions in the Persian Gulf while the focus has shifted from the Palestinian question elsewhere, they are more prone than ever to go along with practically any American plan, while the only ones who refuse to cooperate with Trump and obediently fulfil his orders are the Palestinians who will be absent from Manama gathering. The support of the Palestinian struggle and its importance in Arab politics had dwindled, while other regional affairs had moved center stage. Considering this dramatic change of circumstances, the odd wedding in Bahrain doesn’t seem so odd anymore. It can be seen as yet another step in American attempts to consolidate an Arab alliance against Iran. The Palestinian-Israel conflict that will keep simmering after the conference just as it did before has nothing to do with it.
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