Meet Mohammed bin Abdul-Karim Al-Issa, the public face of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s version of moderate Islam.
A 54-year old former justice minister, Mr. Al-Issa, one of a younger generation of Islamic scholars willing to do Prince Mohammed’s bidding, has been doing the rounds internationally and making all the right moves to project the de facto Saudi leader as the spearhead of efforts to counter ultra-conservatism at home, fight political and militant Islam across the globe and promote the crown prince as a tolerant leader bent on fostering inter-faith dialogue.
Mr. Al-Issa’s moves also serve to strengthen ties with US President Donald J. Trump’s Evangelist voter base and shape an environment that legitimizes Saudi Arabia’s close cooperation with Israel.
In his latest move, Mr. Al-Issa is this week convening a four day international conference on moderate Islam as head of the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the kingdom’s global promotion of anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian ultra-conservative strands of Islam, and a member of the Supreme Council of Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority.
Breaking with past Saudi religious and political tradition, Mr. Al-Issa has reached out to Jewish and Evangelist communities. He called during a speech in October at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, widely viewed as pro-Israeli, for a Muslim-Christian-Jewish interfaith delegation to travel to Jerusalem to promote the cause of peace despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal diplomatic relations.
Mr. Al-Issa has defended Prince Mohammed’s reforms such as the curbing of the powers of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of the ban on women’s driving and the nurturing of modern-day entertainment such as cinemas and concerts.
He has rejected the use of violence, including against Israel, acknowledged the Holocaust, denounced the efforts of Holocaust deniers, and announced that he would next January become the most senior Islamic cleric to visit Auschwitz on the 75th anniversary of its liberation.
Mr. Al-Issa laid out his approach in an interview with Le Monde two years ago. “All religious institutions must modernize their speech, to make it compatible with the times,” he said.
No doubt, Mr. Al-Issa’s moves help reshape an environment in which religious intolerance and prejudice was the norm and still is widespread. Yet, critics charge that his efforts to project Prince Mohammed as a religious reformer do not go beyond speech and symbolism and constitute a public relations effort rather than true change.
It, moreover, remains unclear, how effective Mr. Al-Issa’s efforts are. They certainly help the Trump administration defend its unconditional support for Prince Mohammed, including its willingness to shield the kingdom from accountability for its conduct of the war in Yemen and the killing last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia insists Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by rogue operatives.
Yet, some of Mr. Al-Issa’s well-connected interlocutors during his visit to Washington said they came away from discussions with him not sure what to think. Likewise, a Saudi intellectual rhetorically asked Saudi Arabia scholar Stephane Lacroix during an interview: “How can one take Mohammed al Issa’s statements seriously when religious bookstores in Riyadh are full of books advocating the exact opposite?”
Malaysia, one of the kingdom’s associates in countering extremism has taken a similarly critical view of the its efforts. Malaysian defense minister Mohamad Sabu last year closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Kuala Lumpur following criticism that the kingdom with its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam may not be the right partner.
In a recent article discussing the limits of Prince Mohammed’s reforms, Mr. Lacroix, pointing to the arrests of Islamic thinkers critical of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi traditions and the suppression of all debate, concluded that “this makes MBS’s religious reforms look more like a public relations stunt than a genuine transformation.” Mr. Lacroix was referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.
Mr. Lacroix’s conclusion is enhanced by the fact that there is little that would suggest fundamental reform of religion involving tolerance at a practical rather than a talking heads level beyond the countering of extremism at home and abroad, a key Saudi interest, and the social changes Prince Mohammed has so far introduced to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and further his plan to diversify its oil-dependent economy and create badly needed jobs.
If anything, Prince Mohammed’s reforms appear to be designed to shave off Wahhabism’s rough edges, project a more moderate image, and promote at home and abroad in countries like Kazakhstan, Algeria and Libya an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler. Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on all forms of dissent enforces the principle.
By the same token, Prince Mohammed has done little to push reform since lifting the ban on women’s driving and enhancing their professional and sporting opportunities. The kingdom’s male guardianship of women has been softened at the edges but remains firmly in place.
Scores of young Saudi women have recently employed devious tactics to escape family abuse and leave the kingdom to seek asylum elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, rather than cracking down on domestic abuse and abolishing the guardianship system, has sought to prevent women from fleeing and force the return of those who made it abroad.
By the same token, the kingdom has yet to take steps that would put flesh at home on the skeleton of its notion of religious tolerance.
Christians, Jews, Buddhist and Hindus continue to be banned from building houses of worship despite the fact that archaeologists have found evidence of the existence in the time of the Prophet Mohammed of a 7th century synod near Jubail and the fact that older residents along the Saudi border with Yemen vividly recall interacting with a Jewish community.
After brutally cracking down on rebellious Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, Prince Mohammed has moved quickly to rebuild the levelled town of Awamiyah. Shiites, nonetheless, accounted for the majority of the 37 people beheaded in April in a mass execution.
Mr. Al-Issa’s Supreme Council of Ulema has no Shiite clerics among its members nor do Shiite judges sit on the benches of national courts or serve in the police force or as ambassadors.
The risk for Prince Mohammed is that religious moderation like economic reform that trickles down could become an issue on which his ability to deliver will be a litmus test of his reforms.
A recent poll of Arab, including Saudi youth, showed that two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role while 79 percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed. Half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.
Said Mr. Lacroix: “If religious reform is only a push from above and not the result of genuine social debate, it is easily reversible.”
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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