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

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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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Business and boxing: two sides of the same coin

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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What do a planned US$15 billion Saudi investment in petroleum-related Indian businesses and a controversial boxing championship have in common?

Both reflect a world in which power and economics drive policy, politics and business at the expense of fundamental rights.

And both underscore an emerging new world order in which might is right, a jungle in which dissenters, minorities and all other others are increasingly cornered and repressed.

Rather than furthering stability by building inclusive, cohesive societies both support trends likely to produce an evermore unstable and insecure world marked by societal strife, mass migration, radicalization and violence.

A world in which business capitalizes on decisions by a critical mass of world leaders who share autocratic, authoritarian and illiberal principles of governance and often reward each other with lucrative business deals for policies that potentially aggravate rather than reduce conflict.

No doubt, the planned acquisition by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned national oil company Aramco of 20 percent of the petroleum-related businesses of Reliance Industries, one of India’s biggest companies, makes commercial and strategic economic and business sense.

Yet, there is equally little doubt that the announcement of the acquisition will be read by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, days after he scrapped the autonomous status of the troubled, majority Muslim region of Kashmir, as a license to pursue his Hindu nationalist policies that discriminate against Muslims and other minorities and fuel tensions with Pakistan, the subcontinent’s other nuclear power.

The ultimate cost of the fallout of policies and business deals that contribute or give license to exclusion rather than inclusion of all segments of a population and aggravate regional conflict could be far higher than the benefits accrued by the parties to a deal.

Underscoring the risk of exclusionary policies and unilateral moves, cross border skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani forces erupted this week along the Kashmiri frontier in which at least five people were killed.

The timing of the announcement of the Aramco Reliance deal in a global environment in which various forms of racism and prejudice, including Islamophobia, are on the rise, assures Indian political and business leaders that they are unlikely to pay an immediate price for policies that sow discord and risk loss of life.

Like in the case of Saudi and Muslim acquiescence in China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled, north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history, the announcement risks convincing embattled Muslim minorities like the Uighurs, the Kashmiris or Myanmar’s Rohingya who are lingering in refugee camps in Bangladesh that they are being hung out to dry.

To be sure, Kashmiris can count on the support of Pakistan but that is likely to be little more than emotional, verbal and political.

Pakistan is unlikely to risk blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, at its next scheduled meeting in October by unleashing its anti-Indian militants.

Anthony Joshua’s controversial fight with Andy Ruiz scheduled for December in Saudi Arabia, the first boxing championship to be held in the Middle East, pales in terms of its geopolitical or societal impact compared to the Saudi Indian business deal.

Fact is that Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the championship has provoked the ire of activists rather than significant population groups. The fight is furthermore likely to be seen as evidence and a strengthening of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s selective efforts to socially liberalize the once austere kingdom.

Nonetheless, it also reinforces Prince Mohammed’s justified perception that Saudi Arabia can get away with imprisoning activists who argued in favour of his reforms as well as the lack of transparency on judicial proceedings against the alleged perpetrators of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia insists the killing was perpetrated by rogue operatives.

What Saudi investment in India and the scheduled boxing championship in the kingdom have in common is that both confirm the norms of a world in which ‘humane authority,’ a concept developed by prominent Chinese international relations scholar Yan Xuetong, is a rare quantity.

Mr. Yan employs the concept to argue without referring to President Xi Jinping, Xinjiang, China’s aggressive approach towards the South China Sea or its policy towards Taiwan and Hong Kong that China lacks the humane authority to capitalize on US President Donald J. Trump’s undermining of US leadership.

Mr. Yan defines a state that has humane authority as maintaining strategic credibility and defending the international order by becoming an example through adherence to international norms, rewarding states that live up to those norms and punishing states that violate them. Garnering humane authority enables a state to win allies and build a stable international order.

Mr. Yan’s analysis is as applicable to India and Saudi Arabia as it is to China and others that tend towards civilizational policies like the United States, Russia, Hungary and Turkey.

It is equally true for men like Anthony Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn and business leaders in general.

To be sure, Aramco is state-owned and subject to government policy. Nonetheless, as it prepares for what is likely to be the world’s largest initial public offering, even Aramco has to take factors beyond pure economic and financial criteria into account.

At the end of the day, the consequence of Mr. Yan’s theory is that leadership, whether geopolitical, economic or business, is defined as much by power and opportunity as it is by degrees of morality and ethics.

Failure to embrace some notion of humane authority and reducing leadership and business decisions to exploiting opportunity with disregard for consequences or the environment in which they are taken is likely to ultimately haunt political and business leaders alike.

Said Mr. Yan: “Since the leadership of a humane authority is able to rectify those states that disturb the international order, the order based on its leadership can durably be maintained.”

What is true for political leaders is also true for business leaders even if they refuse to acknowledge that their decisions have as much political as economic impact.

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Iran: What is in store for the JCPOA?

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The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) continues to be in the spotlight of global politics. And even though the “Iranian problems” go beyond the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it is the “dying” JCPOA that is the main cause of tensions in and around Iran, be it the financial and economic blow of the United States, which uses the “oil baton” to strike at the Iranian economy, the threat of war in the Persian Gulf and tanker conflicts, or Iran’s geostrategic and regional position in general.

Regrettably, we have to admit that because of Washington’s destructive moves on the global scene the JCPOA is coming under corrosion and may well turn into dust in the near future. Such a negative outcome runs counter to the interests of Russia, China, and the European Union. Therefore, they are making tremendous efforts to preserve these agreements, even if in a slightly different format after the withdrawal of the US.

Political analysts reveal two conflicting views on the future of the JCPOA. Some are sure that the days of the nuclear deal are numbered. Others believe that it can still be “saved”, but this requires the concerted efforts of the countries participating in it.

On July 28, members of the Joint Commission on the Implementation of the JCPOA gathered in Vienna at the level of political directors to focus on pressing issues the JCPOA is confronted with. Participating in the meeting were delegations from Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Germany and Iran. They discussed the negative effect of Iran’s measures to curtail its commitments under the agreement thereby aggravating the situation in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s partners called on Tehran to refrain from further withdrawal from a number of obligations under the JCPOA. The Iranian leaders have announced that, starting from May 8, they introduce 60-day rounds to gradually curtail compliance with the requirements of the JCPOA . Early September will see a new, third phase of the Iranian struggle against US sanctions. The essence of such moves on the part of Iran is to force the European Union, and, first of all, Britain, France and Germany, to launch at full capacity the INSTEX settlement mechanism, which serves to guarantee the export of Iranian oil. Apparently, this presents a lot of difficulty and causes a lot of doubts among the founders of this financial mechanism.

Reporting on the Vienna consultations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said that “the meeting in Vienna did not give us any guarantees about the future the JCPOA.” He pointed out that Iran is not sure of the effectiveness of European efforts within the framework of INSTEX and, therefore, about maintaining the JCPOA. Iran will decide on further steps after the forthcoming ministerial meeting of countries that act as guarantors of the JCPOA, the diplomat said.

The head of the Russian delegation in Vienna, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, remarked in this connection: “We urged the Iranians to refrain from this [from the phased exit from the JCPOA, V.S.] and explained why: the more measures are taken to reconsider commitments, even if voluntary ones, the higher the political temperature and the higher the chances that some of the participants in the JCPOA may lose temper and trigger aggravation. ”

The Russian diplomat went on to comment: “Certainly, you can follow this course, but it is getting ever more precarious. If we want Iran to refrain, and we also talked about this, the rest of the countries must redouble their efforts in order to provide Iran with an acceptable level of oil export despite all the odds and set the stage for at least some normalization of foreign economic activity.”

To what extent is this possible amid the unprecedented US pressure on Iran? Federica Mogherini, head of the EU for foreign affairs, has cautiously suggested the possibility of intensifying the work of INSTEX. “The question whether INSTEX will deal with oil is currently being discussed by the shareholders,”- she said.

But it is this very issue that determines Iran’s policy, and the choice of the directions of this policy clearly correlates with the following possible developments regarding the JCPOA.

The first way is possible if the authors of the JCPOA, the European Union, and other countries concerned can provide an “acceptable level of oil export”. In this case, Iran will return to the meticulous fulfillment of its nuclear deal commitments. However, there are great doubts that Iran’s partners will be able to satisfy its oil export needs.

American officials have warned European countries that they risk violating sanctions against Iran if they promote a barter system that could allow the export of Iranian oil. A senior White House administration official told Washington Examiner that the US Department of the Treasury had contacted the INSTEX Council to “signal dissatisfaction with the creation of a tool that helps to dodge sanctions and the dangers associated with it.”

No matter how much European politicians and diplomats would like to support the JCPOA, it seems that European business is not ready to take chances with the US sanctions.

The American oil embargo has created a situation which is unparalleled, even compared to the tough international sanctions of 2012-2016. In July, the export of Iranian oil fell to 100 – 120 (taking into account condensate and light oil) thousand barrels per day . In June, this indicator ranged between 300 and 500 thousand. In April 2018, Iran exported 2.5 million bpd , which is 25 times more than this July.

According to experts, to determine the exact amount of oil currently sold by Iran is difficult, since Tehran is using “gray” and other export options. However, the current estimates range within the above mentioned figures.

Thus, even if INSTEX begins to operate at its full “oil” capacity, even if oil is sold on a daily basis to China , Russia , and European countries, and even if the oil export is carried out with the use of all possible legal and semi-legal ways, it is unlikely that all this will compensate Iran’s losses in oil exports and, accordingly, in petrodollars.

However, even in the event of such a far from optimistic scenario, and even considering financial losses, Tehran will not profit from leaving the JCPOA, first of all, for political reasons.

The second option for Iranian policy, will most likely take shape in the context of the EU’s inability to circumvent US sanctions and thereby fulfill its obligations under the JCPOA. In this case, there could be two scenarios.

The first hypothetical option for Iranian policy amid INSTEX futility: Iran openly leaves the JCPOA. On July 29, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it demanded yet again that European countries act on the conditions of the JCPOA. Otherwise, the statement said, Iran would cease to pursue its obligations under this agreement.

As part of this option, Iran terminates the implementation of the Additional Protocol to the IAEA guarantees,  puts an end to the activities of the IAEA inspectors and control by the Agency, restores its nuclear potential and activates the implementation of its nuclear program under plans which were in force before the adoption of the JCPOA. In its most radical version, Iran withdraws from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Such a policy, in its best version for the Iranians, will lead to the complete isolation of Iran and the resumption of international sanctions, possibly under the patronage of the UN Security Council. At worst, it will lead to possible air and missile strikes by the United States and / or Israel at Iran’s nuclear facilities (let’s recall the troubled year 2012). Clearly, such a development does not suit anyone, first of all, Iran.

It should be borne in mind that the European Union (Britain, France and Germany), while opposing the United States on the JCPOA, backs Donald Trump and his team on other issues concerning Iran and its policies. These are as follows: Iran’s missile program, Tehran’s military and political activities in the Middle East, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and other Shiite groups, which are deemed terrorist in most Western countries. Therefore, in the event of the collapse of the JCPOA, the EU will concentrate all its political, diplomatic and propaganda campaigns and, possibly, military potential, on Iran.

The second possible political option of Tehran in the conditions of INSTEX incapacity is the continuation of the policy which is currently pursued by the Iranian leadership. On the one hand, there is a well-structured and well-thoughtout phasing out of obligations under the JCPOA, which does not envisage going beyond the “red lines”. On the other hand, bringing partners as close as possible and at the same time lifting tensions in relations with opponents with a view to set the stage for negotiations

On January 29, 2019, addressing a conference on defense and security in Iran, Chief Military Advisor to the Commander-in-Chief and Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Brigadier-General Yahya Rahim Safavi said that “the development of Iran’s strategic relations with global competitors of the United States, including Russia and China, is one of Iran’s major defense strategies.”

In June, China and Iran held joint naval exercises at the strategic Strait of Hormuz. In July, Iran unilaterally introduced a visa-free regime for citizens of China, as well as for residents of Hong Kong and Macau.

According to Iranian politicians and political analysts, Russia is Iran’s strategic ally in the region and elsewhere in the world. The Commander of the Iranian Navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, has said that Iran and Russia intend to step up maritime cooperation. According to the admiral, a memorandum of understanding was signed in Moscow on naval cooperation and the two sides plan joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean before the end of the year. “By the Indian Ocean, we mean a vast area in the northern part of the ocean, including … the Strait of Hormuz, as well as the Persian Gulf.” Later, on July 30, the command of the Iranian Navy stated that Rear Admiral Khanzadi’s words about the location of the exercises were misinterpreted. He meant the northern part of the Indian Ocean and the Oman Sea.

On August 1, the Russian Defense Ministry did not confirm either the signing of any  document, or any plans for joint maneuvers of the Russian Navy and the Iranian Navy.

Judging by these facts, Tehran is trying to use Iran’s good relations with China and Russia for its political agenda and for an effective struggle against its antagonists.

Simultaneously, Iran is seeking to alleviate tensions with its opponents as part of its policy of moderate withdrawal from the JCPOA. A few days ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced his country’s readiness for a dialogue with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most fierce rival in the Middle East. The two countries disagree on many issues and support parties that are at war with one another.

The most significant event of recent days is an appeal of the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to U.S. President Donald Trump to settle the differences between the two countries through negotiation and not succumb to the influence of advisers and allies, who, in his opinion, are pushing Washington into war with Tehran. As Mr. Zarif said “diplomacy is tantamount to common sense, not weakness.”

The Iranian diplomacy is thus demonstrating political flexibility and, at the same time, pragmatism. It seems that Tehran is playing a simultaneous game with many parties and, an all likelihood, there are two major points for Iran to gain from these games.

The first is to prolong the time it takes to make drastic decisions. In any case, it will play for time until the presidential election in the United States, due to take place in November 2020, hoping for the victory of the Democrats and, accordingly, the revival of the JCPOA and the return of Iranian-American relations to the period of 2015-2016.

The second is to score as many points as possible on playing venues around the world to create favorable conditions for undoubtedly welcome future negotiations, in the first place, with the Americans, and, preferably, with a Democratic administration.

Despite its daring and independent position, Tehran has no other pragmatic choice but negotiations. In all likelihood, the American pressure on Iran under Donald Trump will not dwindle. Given the situation, Iran’s foreign policy of the near future will move along a thorny path full of unpredictable pitfalls and unexpected turns. But obviously, all these efforts are oriented at the only option possible – negotiations. Other ways are either unrealistic, or lead to war. And this, I dare say, is something no one wants, including the United States.

From our partner International Affairs

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Middle East

U.S. – Iran tensions: Position of Baku Remains the Same

Asim Suleymanov

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on

The situation in the Middle East is still tense. First of all, because of the aggravating relations between Iran and the United States, that resemble a roller coaster. A temporary stabilization follows the next peak, but at a level below the previous aggravation. Then a new incident takes place or another ultimatum is given by one of the parties, and everything repeats again.

Tensions with Iran have steadily increased since U.S. President Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Agreement and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran. Rouhani and other Iranian officials accuse the United States of engaging in “economic terrorism.”

The international community now is watching the development of the conflict between the US and Iran. The regular imposition of new sanctions on Iran, the start of tanker wars, the mutual threats of Washington and Tehran become a real threat to international security. The projects exempted from US sanctions include the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant (FFEP) and the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor.

It seems clear the Iranians have little inclination or motivation to back down. They will probably increase the aggression toward merchant shipping, either putting mines in the Strait of Hormuz (which they did as part of the so-called “tanker wars” in the 1980s) or actually sinking a ship, probably surreptitiously using a diesel submarine.

Meanwhile, anti-Iran sanctions hit considerably Iran’s partners. They are forced to look for mechanisms of evading these sanctions and to look for new formats of interaction in order to protect existing ones.

Today, many countries reject full economic cooperation with Tehran. But the format of cooperation, aimed primarily at the implementation of global economic and transport projects, continues to exist. The next trilateral summit of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran is clear evidence that this format of cooperation is beneficial. All the sanctions can’t hinder it.

If we imagine that the war between the USA and Iran will start, it will become an unconditional, non-compensating disaster for all its participants. That will be a war without winners. All the involved parties will lose.

As a neighboring country Azerbaijan will inevitably be drawn into the conflict. It can turn into a catastrophe, as refugee flows and extremists will head to Azerbaijan, especially from Iranian (Southern) Azerbaijan region.

So far, the President of Azerbaijan Republic Ilham Aliyev remains the most successful leader of the South Caucasus. He is confidently controlling the ship of the state. With its reasonable policy, Azerbaijan has already ensured its own place in a multipolar world. And this place does not mean that Azerbaijan will follow Russia and China instructions. The government of Baku will act in accordance with its own interests that ensures independence and a place in the future multi-polar world.

The main thing is to continue this course being afraid of nothing, but acting within the framework of international law, if some other country commits indecent acts. A real politician should not fall prey to intimidation, the psychological attack of the West countries. This politician weighs reality, facts, actions. If Azerbaijan succumbs to such an attack, the tested methods will be applied in response such as color revolutions, external pressure and etc.

For Azerbaijan, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not just an ordinary country. First of all, Iran is the Azerbaijan Republic’s southern neighbor. The 2 states share about 618 kilometers of land borders. These two countries border each other in the Caspian Sea as well. Both countries share values from their mutual past and some elements of a common culture. Azerbaijan has the second largest Shi’i population in the world, after Iran. The membership of both countries in Muslim and regional organizations like the Organization of Islamic Conference and ECO, is an indicator of the countries’ affinities in terms of geography and religion.

The history of direct relations for the last 10 years shows that such positive and binding factors as neighborhood and the same religion are not enough to create close relations between them. Other important factors, which affect current relations between Azerbaijan and Iran, exist as well.

Azerbaijan is well aware that there can be no sovereign state in a unipolar world. This simple, but very sober and very courageous calculation dictated Aliyev’s policy of supporting the Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia format of cooperation.

The Islamic Republic of Iran plays an active role in the geopolitical struggle over Caspian oil. As major hydrocarbon exporters themselves, Russia and Iran view the new oil and gas producers in the Caspian region as a threat to their own economic interests. Just like Russia, Iran is deeply concerned over growing western capital investments and the expansion of foreign interests and presence in the region. Being unable to compete with US and European technology and capital in tapping the abundant Caspian natural resources, Iran and Russia have resorted to non-economic ways of influence in the region.

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