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The Evolving Orthodox Triangle Constantinople – Kiev – Moscow

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Churches think in centuries and are not bound to short-term political mandates. On January 5, 2018 the Patriarch of Constantinople implemented his decision to grant independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a move that upset Moscow. To understand the current developments, it is worth looking back at this centuries-long history of fluid relationship between Constantinople, Kiev and Moscow.

Constantinople-Kiev: Christianization

In 882, Oleg of Novgorod moved his capital to Kiev and continued the work of Rurik to unite Slavic tribes, setting the stage for the history of Kievan Rus. The prediction of Saint Andrew was unfolding. It is said that during the first century, when Andrew the Apostle traveled to what is now Kyiv, he climbed onto a hilltop overseeing the Dnepr River. There he planted a cross, prophesizing the future of the great Christian city and the role it would play.

The Slavs were a loose union of tribes, whilst Constantinople was flourishing. In 980, Vladimir the Great ruled in Kiev and endeavored to consolidate and expand further his territories. In 988, he conquered the city of Kherson, in Crimea, where a bishop see had been established since the fourth century. Although accounts vary on the conversion of Vladimir, what is clear is that the Byzantine emperor sent his sister Anna to marry Vladimir, uniting Kiev and Constantinople. When Anna arrived, Vladimir converted to Christianity, restored Kherson to Constantinople, and returned to Kiev with Crimean ecclesiastics. It is undeniable that economic and political reasons influenced his choice to convert as his agenda leaned toward the Christian world.

Although the Byzantine emperor appointed the head of the clergy in Kiev, he faced opposition from the Kievan princes who did not endorse a filiation of churches from Constantinople, nor did they submit to the emperor’s authority to make Kievan Rus a colony of the Byzantine Empire. Relations with the empire were complicated: Constantinople did not mingle directly in Kiev’s internal affairs but would not let the princes interfere in religious matters. In other words, the authority of Constantinople over Kiev was exerted through the clergy, who enjoyed considerable powers in Kievan Rus. As a consequence, the first inclination toward creating an independent church appeared. Yaroslav the Wise proclaimed Hilarion of Kiev the first non-Greek metropolitan in 1049. Nonetheless, Constantinople regained control over the appointment of the head of the church in Kiev. Constantinople never bestowed upon Kiev the right to appoint its own Slavic metropolitan, establishing a red line that would trigger immediate action from Constantinople. For centuries to come, the position would mostly be held by Greeks, who remained outside of internal Kievan politics. As Kiev had grown to be a major economic center, it was in Constantinople’s interest to stay on good terms with its Slavic neighbor, gaining importance on the international scene.

Yaroslav the Wise passed away in 1054, a key date as it is the year of the schism between Rome and Constantinople.

Kiev choses Constantinople over Rome

Opinions on rites and theological elements diverged over time between Rome and Constantinople, in part because of linguistic differences. Latin became dominant in the West while Greek was the language of choice in the East. Because of the status of language as a major cultural vehicle, the use of different languages impacted religious rites. Gradually, Rome imposed the closure of churches following the rites as practiced in Constantinople and Constantinople did the same to churches following the practices of the Western Church. Eventually, the Roman pope Leo IX and Michael Cerularius of Constantinople excommunicated each other in 1054.

Humbert of Silva Candida, the papal legate who delivered the excommunication to Patriarch Michael Cerularius, decided to stop by in Kiev on his way back to Rome from Constantinople. The newly converted Kievan Rus represented an attractive potential ally for Rome, especially given that the young federation of Slavs was expanding in size and importance on the international scene. Since integrating with this new community of Christians would strengthen their hand against Byzantium, Rome’s envoy visited the Grand Prince of Kiev with the aim of convincing him to join Rome. Yet Yazislav, the new Grand Prince of Kiev, refused any allegiance to Rome. The clergy in Kiev would remain on the Orthodox side with Constantinople in the great East-West schism.

But rivalries amongst Slavs were fierce. In 1169, the pious Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal Andrey Bogolyubsky sacked Kiev and took many religious pieces, including a highly revered Byzantine icon of the Mother of God of Odigitriya, one of the holiest in Russian Orthodoxy. He initiated the construction of many churches in Vladimir-Suzdal, near today’s Moscow and converted more Slavic tribes. He is also renowned for having made the first attempt to set up a new eparchy to compete with Kiev. Around the year 1170, he bypassed the Kiev Patriarchate and directly requested of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Luka Khrizovergus, that he established an eparchy in Vladimir. He also asked for the new metropolitan to have the same rank as the one in Kiev. The patriarch declined his request, but the competition with Kiev had begun.

Moscow enters the scene

The Mongol invasion spread quickly from east to west and reached Kiev in 1240. The city was destroyed and almost its entire population was dispersed. Kiev, the beautiful jewel of a city was shattered. Some sixty years after the destruction of Kiev, the city was still not recovering. So, the metropolitan Maksim moved his residence from Kiev further east to Vladimirin 1299. Nonetheless, he kept his title of Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus. The transfer of the religious center from Kiev was a major move, the consequences of which greatly affected the future of Orthodoxy and lay power as well. At that time, the Mongol dominated the region. The first union of Slavs, the Kievan Rus had disappeared and new states had not formed yet.

In a short span of three decades, major events shaped the face of the new power that emerged in Moscow, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Moscovy.

Under the relative religious tolerance of the Mongols, the church consolidated its power and the metropolitan Piotr moved to Moscow in 1325, giving the sign that the city was one of the leading politico-religious centers.

In the meantime, Constantinople was mired in its own problems and the Eastern Roman Empire was suffering through its last days. As the Vatican was entering the Renaissance era, it was eager to end the 1054 schism, especially to its own advantage. Thus the Catholic pope was well inclined to help Constantinople, which had asked for help and unity in resisting the Ottoman threat. At the Council of Florence in 1439, the Catholic Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople signed an agreement that should have put an end to the schism. At that time, Constantinople was still appointing the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus, and it counted on the support of Moscow to endorse the agreement. But reality dictated otherwise as Russia had gained much distance from Constantinople and its issues. The Patriarch of Constantinople died soon afterward, and it was decided that his signature was nonbinding for the Orthodox churches. Only Constantinople still hoped that the union with Rome would save them from the Ottomans. But a decade later, in 1453, Constantinople fell under the control of the Ottomans.

Moscow-based bishops decided to emancipate themselves from Constantinople, which had compromised with the Catholics to save itself, yet was now under Muslim rule. For the first time, Moscow elected its own head of the church, independently from Constantinople. Although the autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church was recognized only in 1589, the church became de facto independent in 1448, with Jonah as its first metropolitan. One of his first objectives was to maintain religious unity in territories over which his predecessors had authority. Eventually, in 1458, the canonical territories over which the metropolitan professed corresponded to those over which the Grand Prince of Moscow ruled. This transition was reflected in his title, which changed in 1461 to Metropolitan of Moscow and All Rus. The Russian Church was now an actor of importance that saw itself as the guardian of Orthodoxy, the Third Rome.

The new Autocephalous Church asserts itself

The remaining element was the recognition of autocephaly by Constantinople. Without the approval of its peers, the self-proclaimed autocephaly has no validity in the Orthodox world.

The Ottomans imposed heavy tributes on patriarchates that fell under their territorial control. Economically weakened, the patriarchates lost considerable weight, especially Antioch, which had been weakened and forced into exile several times due to centuries under the dominion of Arabs and crusaders. In 1586–1587, the patriarch of Antioch, Joachim V, engaged in a journey to collect donations from other Orthodox churches. In Moscow, the future tsar Boris Godunov offered his support and seized this political moment to stir ambitions of an official autocephaly. Two years later, the patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II, traveled to Moscow with the same objective of collecting money. During his stay, he would have discussed with Boris Godunov the possibility of remaining the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch but being based in Russia. Finally, after lengthy negotiations, Jeremias II decided to give autocephaly to the Russian Orthodox Church and returned home. The recognition was made official in 1589 with the concurrence of the other three original patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

In 1589, the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time had a patriarch at its head, Job of Moscow. There were now five patriarchs: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Moscow. And the tsar was the guardian of Orthodoxy.

Kiev, the Tsarist Empire and the church

Peter the Great launched many reforms to modernize Russia, following European model. He replaced the patriarchate with a committee termed the Holy Synod, placing a bureaucrat, the Chief Procurator, as its de facto head and the tsar’s eyes and ears in the church. With authority over religious matters and control over the appointment of bishops, Peter succeeded in relegating the church to the status of a ministry or state department, with clerics placed in charge of spiritual matters.

Catherine the Great continued the policies of Peter the Great. She entertained the Austro-Russian idea of dissolving the Ottoman Empire. As part of this scheme, she nurtured plans to embark on a “Greek Project”: re-establishing a Greek Byzantine empire to replace the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had gained ground in continental Europe. For instance, she supported the Daskalogiannis Rebellion in Crete in 1770, in which Cretans rose up against the Turks. In reality, she was rather indifferent to religion: she embraced the project, promoted by Prince Potemkin, for geopolitical rather than religious reasons. Yet it did not materialize, and no alliance with Austria came into being. In 1783, Catherine decided to annex Crimea, putting an end to the revolts occurring there and, most importantly, pushing the Ottoman Empire back across the Black Sea. Crimea became a Russian province and part of Novorossiya or “New Russia” in 1784.

Religion politics in Russo-Turkish Wars

Eventually, tensions between the Russian and Ottoman empires had reached a climax, and war broke out in 1787. The conflict lasted for five years but was decided to Russia’s advantage. Russia was therefore able to consolidate its positions around the Black Sea but never captured Constantinople, the gateway to the Mediterranean’s warm waters and an Achilles heel for Moscow to this day. Even though the Treaty of Jassy, signed at the end of the war on January 9, 1792, recognized the Russian territorial gains, relations with the Ottoman Empire remained tense. Russian expansion benefited from momentum on the world scene shaken by the French and American revolutions. Consequently, nobody really reacted to Russian expansion until the situation in France had stabilized. But Napoleon reaction was short-lived.

Alexander’s victory over Napoleon gave him a new sense of divine mission, and by 1814, the tsar had grown more religious and prone to messianism. His religious awakening triggered his initiation of the Holy Alliance between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Signed in Paris in 1815, this alliance aimed to promote Christianity but was also a reaction to the Napoleonic Wars. The Great Powers wanted to ensure a balance of power in Europe and avoid revolutions. During the two hectic decades that followed, the Catholic Church remained strong and Napoleon III pursued a pro-Catholic agenda, as proven by his 1849 expedition to restore the pope. He posed as the champion of Catholicism in Europe, which in part explained his decision to engage in the Crimean War against Russia.

With its territorial gains and advances well into the Black Sea region, Russia represented a growing threat for the Ottoman Empire and its French and British allies. Paris, together with London, backed the Ottoman Empire, whose western territories in the Balkans saw many uprisings, such as those of the Orthodox Serbs and Orthodox Greeks.

The trigger of the Crimean War of 1853–1856 was religious, but the roots were indisputably linked to the fear of Russia’s growing influence in the weakened Ottoman Empire. At the beginning, quarrels between Catholic and Orthodox monks arose in Palestine about their prerogatives. As the matter had reached serious levels, Tsar Nicholas I intervened and asked the Sultan to recognize the right of Russia to protect the Christians of the Ottoman Empire according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed after the war of 1774. This right gave the Russian Orthodox Church further predominance over the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The document also gave Russia access through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. This privilege was certainly not pleasing to France or England.

Catholic France declared that it wanted to have authority over the Eastern Christians, a decision contradicting a previous agreement that gave Russia the right to protect Christians. The French Catholic Emperor Napoleon III promised support to the Sultan if he were to resist this Russian “aggression.” Stung by the humiliating conditions of the treaty following the Ottoman defeat, the Sultan agreed. Consequently, a new war erupted between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. As promised, France, joined by England, intervened in support of the Sultan to preserve the territorial integrity of his empire.

The protection of holy places and Christians became the source of an international war with several fronts around the Black Sea, including in the Caucasus. The war was eventually lost by Russia, which was then forced to hand over several territories around the Black Sea. As a result, France gained influence in the Holy Lands.

Moscow – Constantinople Competition

World War 1 put an end to both Russian and Ottoman empires. Under the Soviet, religion was undermined, priests were killed and churches destroyed. So, the Russian church found itself in a state of confusion when the Soviet government collapsed. The church was divided and weak. During the final years of the twentieth century, the ROC stabilized and consolidated its power over its canonical territory thanks to the support of the Russian authorities. It also reasserted its stance within the Orthodox Church worldwide. By far the largest in terms of parishioners and with growing wealth, the Russian Orthodox Church overshadowed the patriarch of Constantinople.

The later did not enjoy much freedom under the new Turkish rule. In addition, it had lost jurisdiction in the Balkans in the nineteenth century. Turkish authorities imposed that the Patriarch should be a Turkish citizen, usually of Greek origin, and such candidates are rare. All in all, the Patriarch of Constantinople has been in an increasing difficult position for centuries, and Moscow has proved to be a strong challenger. In 2016, the ROC asked to convene the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete and not in Istanbul as Turkish authorities had downed a Russian jetfighter deployed for operations in Syria. Based on this security argument, the Council agreed to change location. Nonetheless, local Orthodox churches, namely the Bulgarian Church, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, and the Serbian and Georgian Orthodox churches refused to participate because of disagreements over the agenda. The ROC suggested solving those issues to guarantee full attendance, even if it meant postponing the Council. Eventually, the disputes were not resolved and the ROC decided to cancel its participation. By so doing, the ROC expressed a defiant message about the role and authority of the Constantinople Patriarchate. Tensions never resolved and the situation in Ukraine added insult to injury in the relation between Constantinople and Moscow.

Moscow – Kiev: rivals once more

Since the mid seventeenth century, Kiev remained largely under the rule of the Tsar and then Soviet Moscow. Ties binding Ukraine and Russia were strong especially in the field of alimentation, industry and energy.

After the end of the Soviet Union, the Western European World and Russia have tried to attract Kyiv into their respective spheres of influence, a game from which Kiyv benefitted. In 2014, the tables turned drastically with the Euromaidan revolution that toppled President Yanukovych.  Incapable of averting Ukraine’s choice of the EU, Moscow was concerned that Ukraine might ally with NATO. Russian authorities treated the situation as a security matter and actively supported the separation of the autonomous region of Crimea and its attachment/annexation to Russia. The situation spiraled out of control and a kinetic conflict erupted in the Donbas, leading to serious readjustments in international affairs.

Against the backdrop of the complex international relations prevailing in the early twenty-first century, interests of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state have overlapped in Ukraine. The question of religion and allegiance to the Kyiv or Moscow patriarchate has become a matter of identity and call for resistance among some Ukrainians against Russia in 2014. This unfortunate confusion resulted in intra-Orthodox confrontation with the killing of orthodox priests and the destruction of orthodox churches. In a vicious circle, religious and political differences fueled each other.

Many critics have interpreted the positions of the Russian church and the Russian authorities as two sides of the same coin. Consequently, the Russian church became synonymous with Russian interference in Ukraine, and as such the separation as we see it unfolding was almost a fait accompli.

The creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church is another turn in this fluid relationship between the three historic cities of Constantinople, Kyiv and Moscow. And it is hardly to be the last move…

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Islamophobia and Western World

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“How Islamophobia developed in west and how it built track towards influencing life of common man?”

In this research paper we are going to conduct a research on Islamophobia, its causes, its impact. First aim is to define and explain phobia. Define and explain  Islamophobia. Its main causes. How attacks of 9/11 influenced the lives of Muslims. Caricatures of Holy Prophet displayed in a school of France and magazine “Charlie Hebdo”. Consequences of Islamophobia are the main topics. In this paper I’ve brightened the aspects leading to Islamophobia, change of policies for Muslims in France.

WHAT IS PHOBIA?

A Phobia is an extreme fear of something. It may be an anxiety disorder in which fear of something is expressed. There are many factors that trigger a phobia, these factors may be environmental or genetic. But here we are talking about worldly phobia.

WHAT WE CALL, “ISLAMOPHOBIA

There is a great debate on Islamophobia. If we talk about Islamophobia which is a very considerable phobia or fear for the west. Islamophobia according to western people is hatred and prejudice against Muslims. Islamophobia is a phrase used to describe baseless malice and agitation or hatred towards Islam, Muslims, and Islamic culture. It also throws light on discrimination that is faced by Muslims. Muslims face violence on daily bases. Circadian, they are victimized. Examples may vary from region to region, the way Muslims are treated and how arduous it is for them to face all the pessimism.

Commonplace, Muslims are attacked, their properties are attacked, their rights are violated, they face threats of violence. Muslims are blackmailed. Muslims face biased attitude at schools, workplaceand they also go through religion bigotry. Despite of all the endowment of Muslims, they are denounced and stigmatized. In a few recent years the terminology of Islamophobia gained vast popularity in west. Muslim minorities colonizing Europe face many issues on daily basis. This term spread widely in European countries in 2007. It was the after shock of economic crisis of 2007. They terrorists Muslims ( Muslim extremists)  which proved to be fuel to the fire.

Muslim minorities in Europe have always been manifested in a wrong order. It is portrayed that Muslims want to isolate themselves. Due to this wrong image of Muslims that is being portrayed, they are not given indistinguishable rights at work places, school and other business sites.

About 20 million Muslims live in Europe. These Muslims are viewed as a threat to European culture and their ways of spending life. The word Islamophobia has become a part of political discourse due is all because of researches  and citations of British and western think tanks. This term gains a number of critics. Western concept of Islam is only one-way street. Western people and leaders criticize Islamic values openly but they pay no consideration to frame of mind of Muslims.

ATTACKS OF 9/11

The 9/11 arsonist attacks exceptionally altered slant of public towards Muslims. Thenceforth, arsonist acts, the attacks by deadly jihadists in London, Paris, Brussels, and Barcelona have escalated trepidation. Aftermath of all these attacks by Muslim extremists, Muslims are regarded as terrorists by Europeans and they view Islam as a threat. The attack of 9/11 on twin tower was considered as an attack by Muslims, since then, Muslims are considered to bean ultimatum. Many changes were felt following these attacks. These terrible attacks left a horrific effect on Muslims. Muslims were considered as pessimists. President of the time Mr. George Bush launched “war on terror” which affected Muslim world badly. Muslims were the prey of this war. Countries like Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan became the pivot of American forces. Sadly, Afghanistan and Iraq also have masses of American troops.

9/11 made Islamophobia more acceptable. Muslims are considered as terrorists and attacks of 9/11 were scrutinized to be done by Muslim extremists such as Al-Qaeda.

ISLAMOPHOBIA AND FRANCE

Recently, a French school teacher Samuel Paty displayed the lampoons of our Holy Prophet (pbuh) upon which a Muslim student Abdullah. He waited for his teacher to come out of his home and he shot him down with an air gun. Abdullah was living there with status of a refugee. After that French policies started to slap down on Muslims. French President said:

Islam in French needs Enlightenment.”

Further, he mentioned that we need to fight Islamist separatism.

He took measures and implemented new policies on Muslims which includes financing of mosques on French territory. Ban can be imposed on anyone visiting mosque.

On the other hand, Turkey which is also a western a country stood in front of France and retorted aggressively following the caricatures.

This is not the first time, such thing has also happened in France before in 2015. When a French magazine “Charlie Hebdo” published the mimics of our Holy Prophet(pbuh). Muslim extremists invaded the offices of Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 persons and injured 11. According to a report the killers were two Muslim brothers belonging to  extremist group Al-Qaeda.

 Charlie Hebdo, a publication that has always quoted controversy with satirical attacks on political and non-secular leaders. It published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) in 2012, following which France temporarily closed embassies and schools amid fears of reprisals. Its offices had been bombed in November 2011 after publishing a caricature of Muhammad on its cover.

CONSEQUENCES OF ISLAMOPHOBIA

Islam is criticized by infidels in very tough words through out the world. Muslims are held responsible for incendiary activities because of hatred and prejudices towards Islam. New policies are being implemented on Muslims. French policies started to slap down on Muslims. Muslims are most exposed to hate speech, racism, discrimination, bigotry at work place, educational institutes and mosques are ambushed by fascists. In India Muslims are being killed because they eat meat of cows and cow is a sanctified animal for Hindus. They are whipped and canned when they go to mosques. Kashmir has become a detention center as was Germany during the reign of Hitler for Jews.

Industry of islamophobia is on rise. In the U.S., about one-half of nationally representative samples of Mormons, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews agree that in general, most Americans are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans. Specifically, 66% of Jewish Americans and 60% of Muslim Americans say that Americans in general are prejudiced toward Muslim Americans. Muslims(48%) have been through religious discrimination. It is always felt that Muslims will overtake the society and they will spread violence, hatred and bigotry in society. It is in people’s perception that Muslim’s will create problems. Well, it is not their fault up to major extent. It is due to extremist groups like Al-Qaeda which conveys terror in hearts of people. Another aspect is the role of the Media which tries to aggrandize every issue for commercial gain. The recent acts of certain so-called Muslim terrorists in America and other parts of the world added much more fuel to the fire which was already burning and the image of bad or evil which was already used by certain Western governments about Muslims got a stamp of approval for many people who are not aware of the true aspects of Islam.

ISLAMOPHOBIA, A FORM OF RACISM
Most scholars agree that Islamophobia is a form of racism. It is anti-Muslim racism. This type of racism stirs up hatred and prejudices on religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds. Islam is baselessly labeled as treacherous to western civilization. They feel inferior in front of Islamic values. And they are always trying to prove Islam inferior and themselves, superior.

Islamophobia is illustrated as manifestation of cultural racism. Many people go through discrimination because they are perceived as Muslims. Western identities are created within white racialists.15 March, a gunman walked into the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire. During the course of his killing spree there, and at the Linwood Islamic Centre, 51 people were slaughtered in their place of worship for no other reason than their Murderer wanted to decide their faith by himself.  the racists in Northern Ireland who left a pig’s head on the door of the mosque . If this is not racism, then what it is? The motorists demanding £1,000 more to insure their car if their name is Muhammad, then what it is, called religious racism. Then how is it possible for native Muslims of those countries to spend a life of tranquility in those countries, where there not even minor rights of Muslims are protected. Where Muslims face troubles to go to their places of worships. This is not what they call freedom of speech. There is wide variability between freedom of speech and religious racism.

HOW TO ERADICATE ISLAMOPHOBIA?

It should be the first duty of teachers to exterminate such convictions from intellects of the young students and children. Islam is a peace loving religion. Muslims can not harm even an animal without any rationale. Media must also alter the way they present Muslims. Media must show things that are free from any kind of hatred towards religion. Politicians must also acknowledge ways to prevent Islamophobia. It would aid in preventing crimes. Differences in religious beliefs are basis of prejudices. These divergences take place in intellects of young children.

CONCLUSION

Islamophobia is rooted in minds of western people and other non-Muslims. Islamophobia is a slang which deteriorates the tranquility of human mind. Islamophobia is unbearable for Muslims and acts related to it. Such as exhibiting caricatures and lampoons of Holy Prophet Muhammad and then calling it freedom of speech. People are visually impaired to metamorphose among freedom of speech and hate speech. Hate speech, then escorts to ferocity. In retaliation of hate speech Muslim extremists pursuit anarchism. This anarchism ushers to Islamophobia and hence the cycle continues. Western states are chauvinists. Chauvinism has deeply rooted in intellect of people. Despicable oratory bestows people with license to treat Muslims preferentially. Muslims, in many parts of the world are conventionalized as arsonists and terrorists. They consider immigrants as foreign in their lands. Even the natives of those lands are prejudiced as foreigners. Muslim students and teachers are bullied. Together, we can flotsam bigotry and preconception and make world which is full of respect for religions.

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Islamophobia: A fungible prop for Muslim religious soft power

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Think the Muslim world is united in opposing Islamophobia? Think twice.

Rising anti-Muslim sentiment in countries like China, Myanmar, and India as well as the West against the backdrop of increased support for anti-migration and extreme nationalist groups, and far-right populist parties is proving to be a boost for contenders for religious soft power in and leadership of the Muslim world.

For Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, supporters of different expressions of political Islam, Islamophobia provides the backdrop for attempts to position themselves as defenders of Muslim causes such as Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and conflict in predominantly Muslim Kashmir.

Absent from the contenders’ list is China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. China, which aggressively has sought repatriation of Turkic Muslims, recently ratified an extradition treaty that Turkey, home to the largest Xinjiang exile community, insists will not put Uighurs at risk.

By the same token, Islamophobia has proven a useful tool to influence efforts by men like French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to crack down on political Islam and shape the faith in the mould of Turkey & Co’s Middle Eastern rivals for religious soft power, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf monarchies advocate a vague notion of ‘moderate’ Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and is quietist and non-political. The two Gulf states have gone as far as legitimizing China’s crackdown and persuading the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to endorse Chinese policy as an effective way of countering political extremism and violence.

Economics and trade are powerful drivers for the Muslim world’s refusal to hold China accountable. But so are the brownie points that major Muslim-majority contenders for religious soft power garner in Beijing. Muslim criticism of the crackdown potentially could make the difference in pressuring China to change its policy.

Saudi and Emirati rejection of and campaigning against political Islam bolsters the rationale of not only China’s crackdown but also Russian efforts to control Moscow’s potentially restive Muslim minority. China may not like the propagation of political Islam by the Gulf states’ religious soft power rivals but values their silence.

Chinese Turkic Muslims is not the only issue over which contenders, including Asian states like Indonesia, irrespective of what notion of Islam they promote, stumble in their quest for religious soft power.

So is another litmus test of claims of a majority of the contenders to embrace religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue that raises the question of whether contenders should clean up their own house first to give credibility to their often-opportunistic embrace of ‘moderate’ Islam.

Among the rivals, the UAE, populated in majority by non-nationals, is one of only two contenders to start acknowledging changing attitudes and demographic realities.

Authorities in November lifted the ban on consumption of alcohol and cohabitation among unmarried couples. This week, the UAE opened the door to the naturalization of foreign nationals.

The other contender, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement, has begun tackling legal and theological reform of Islam with the encouragement of the government. The movement offered in October a platform for then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to lash out at China’s treatment of Turkic Muslims.

By contrast, Pakistan, in an act of overreach modelled on US insistence on extra-territorial abidance by some of its laws, recently laid down a gauntlet in the struggle to define religious freedom by seeking to block and shut down a US-based website associated with Ahmadis on charges of blasphemy.

Ahmadis are a minority sect viewed as heretics by many Muslims that have been targeted in Indonesia and elsewhere but nowhere more so than in Pakistan where they have been constitutionally classified as non-Muslims. Blasphemy is potentially punishable in Pakistan with a death sentence.

The Pakistani effort was launched at a moment that anti-Ahmadi and anti-Shiite sentiment in Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shia Muslim minority, is on the rise. Recent mass demonstrations denounced Shiites as “blasphemers” and “infidels” and called for their beheading as the number of blasphemy cases being filed against Shiites in the courts mushrooms.

Pakistan’s rivals in the competition for religious soft power have largely remained silent about the worrying trend, raising questions about the integrity of their commitment to religious freedom and tolerance as well as their rejection of Islamophobia.

Newly appointed Indonesian religious affairs minister, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, a senior Nahdlatul Ulama official, is proving to be the exception that confirms the rule. Mr. Qoumas pledged in one of his first statements as a minister during a visit to a Protestant church to protect the rights of Shiites and Ahmadis.

Said Indonesia scholar Alexander R Arifianto: “Qoumas’ new initiatives as Religious Affairs Minister are a welcome move to counter the influence of radical Islamists and address long-standing injustices against religious minorities. He now has to prove these are not empty slogans, but an earnest attempt at promoting equal citizenship for all Indonesians irrespective of their religious beliefs.”

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Custodians of Islam, changing their Avatar

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If we peek into the historical traces, it could be seen that the world has fought more wars on religion or for their state’s dignity and integrity than any other reason. It is mainly because accepting others ideologies either its religious or national, it’s hard to accept and this is at present the prevailing issue if someone looks deeper into the complex picture of geo-politics.

United Arab Emirates has passed new laws that have shocked the entire Muslim world. The Arab World has also been perceived as the “custodians of Islam” and other Muslim countries have look towards for the perfect implementation of misinterpreted “Islamic values”, ignoring the fact that mainly the values followed in the Arab world are Arabic not Islamic. There is huge difference among two interpretations.

UAE has recently relaxed its social constraints. These constraints that served as a shield from adopting the un-Islamic practices and pro-western values. UAE has allowed couples to cohabit; it has allowed drinking without fear of punishment. Lastly it has also it put off the honor crime from its menu means; they have criminalized the act of honor killing. The decision of UAE to revamp its policies depicts that UAE has chosen a “new” avatar, a more pro-western avatar, leaving the Islamic values behind.  The broadening of personal freedoms reflects that UAE is on its new journey to change its society at home.

After the announcement of new laws it seems as if United Arab Emirates is more focus on shifting their oil dependent economy or other industries. This includes inviting the high-flow of Israel and Western investments into their country at the cost of anything. They are aiming to boost UAE is the skyscraper tourist destination for Western tourists and fortune seekers, businesses regardless of its “legal hard-line Islamic System.”

Moreover, the major revamps came particularly right after the historic U.S brokered deal to normalize relations between UAE and Israel. The future will reveal but it can be foreseen that the days of monarchy are coming to end. It won’t happen in few years; it will take time but is surely going to happen. The decades old filthy rich monarchy will be replaced by “Democracy” for sure.

Other than the UAE, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also on the same journey. The new monarch King Muhammad Bin Salman is also tilted towards “Western culture” and more “Liberalist thoughts and values”. He is also more inclined to bring on more liberal structures in their country, for examples recently Saudi Arabia has given more freedom to women for driving and is allowed to work with men at offices or any other workplaces. These drastic changes were considered as an impossible task to do but things are changing rapidly.

The question to ask is, now where would Pakistan tilt? Whose society would Pakistan look upon as the guardian and custodians of Islam and its Islamic values? The Arab countries have also had massive influence upon the Pakistani society particularly in religious terms. Pakistan has to bear the cost of “Wahabbism” clashing with “Shiaism” and other Islamic sects that were mainly brought by the Arabs into the country.

Many Pakistanis have considered the Arabs as their ideal and the Arabian society as an ideal society to live in. I have also heard people giving examples of “Islamic system of Saudi Arabia” and how loyal they are to the “Islamic values”. They are also perceived as the “Guardians” and “Custodians” of Islamic values. But now as they are inclined or totally moving towards Western system, would Pakistan also opt for liberalism in their country?

As there has always been an environment of confusion in the Pakistani society. This confusion is, wither to opt for democracy or go for an Islamic system. This has created a sharp separation in the Pakistani society, the one struggling to go totally Western (far-left), and the others trying to preserve the Islamic system (far-right).

After United Arab Emirates new laws, this question is becoming more complex. The transformation of United Arab Emirates adoption of Westernized values shows that it is only the Muslim world leaving its values behind and moving towards a borrowed baggage of cultures and values. The future will disclose that who will sit on the throne of “Custodian of Islam”. Till now the changing geo-political situation shows that it is Turkey that is striving to go for this throne.

On the current politics of Arab powers I would say, “A tree’s beauty lies in its branches, but its strength lies in its roots,” rightly said by Matshona Dhliwayo.

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