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Caught in geopolitical crossfire: Al-Azhar struggles to balance politics and tradition

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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.

Combatting extremism

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.

Convoluted geopolitics

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.

Absolute obedience

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.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Middle East

Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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