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Muslim causes vs national interest: Muslim nations make risky bets

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Saudi attitudes towards the plight of thousands of illegal Rohingya in the kingdom fleeing persecution in Myanmar and squalid Bangladeshi refugee camps help explain Saudi support for China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang.

For more than half a year, Saudi Arabia has been deporting large numbers of Rohingya who arrived in the kingdom either on pilgrimage visas or using false travel documents, often the only way they were able to leave either Myanmar or Bangladesh.

The expulsions of Rohingya as well as hundreds of thousands of other foreign workers coupled with the introduction of fees on their dependents and restrictions on the sectors in which they can be employed are part of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to reform the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and increase job opportunities.

The success of Prince Mohammed’s reforms rests to a large extent on his ability to reduce an overall 12.7 percent unemployment rate that jumps to 25.8 percent among its youth, who account for more than half of the population.

Threatening up to 250,000 Rohingya believed to be residing in Saudi Arabia, the expulsions contrast starkly with condemnations by the kingdom as well as the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) of Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya.

The OIC last month called for filing a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice for its alleged violations of the Rohingya’s human rights. Some 750,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent years where they are housed in refugee camps.

Saudi Arabia has donated millions of dollars in aid for the refugees and has said it is “gravely concerned and condemns the policy of repression and forced displacement carried out by the government of Myanmar against the Rohingya minority.”

The deportations together with Saudi endorsement of the clampdown in Xinjiang that has put an estimated one million Uyghurs in re-education camps, where they are indoctrinated to prioritize communist party ideology and President Xi Jinping thought above their Islamic faith, suggests that the kingdom is not willing to compromise its economic interests even if they call into question its moral claim to leadership of the Islamic world.

The Saudi approach constitutes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its leadership role is bolstered. A majority of Muslim countries reluctant to criticize China take heart from the fact that the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, has taken the lead in shielding China from Muslim criticism.

On the other hand, China like other Muslim nations is making a risky bet in which it could end up on the wrong side of history.

While there are no signs that hopelessness is fuelling widespread radicalization among the Rohingya, analysts suggest that in the Bangladeshi camps “almost every factor identified by radicalisation experts can be found, to a greater or lesser degree… It would only take a very small percentage of them (the refugees) to be radicalised for there to be a major security problem.”

The emergence of Rohingya militancy with Saudi treatment of members of the group constituting one of the grievances could make the kingdom a target.

Similarly, if history is anything to go by, Saudi Arabia and Muslim countries, are betting against the odds that China will succeed to Sinicize Turkic Muslims and ensure that growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asian nations with close cultural and ethnic links to Xinjiang is kept in check.

Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on Chinese policy towards religion and minorities, has argued that past attempts to Sinicize minorities have failed.

He said his research among Sinicized Tibetans showed that even assimilated Tibetans could become champions of the very ethnic identity they supposedly had renounced.

Similarly, Mihrigul Tursun, an Uyghur activist released from a re-education camp, told the US Congress that “my experience in this state program actually made me more conscious of my ethnic identity.”

Describing the Chinese clampdown in Xinjiang as an “upgraded version of the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Zenz recently noted that Tibetan nomads and Christian villagers were being forced to replace their altars and depictions of Jesus with images of Chinese leaders, including Mr. Xi.

Mr. Zenz’s reference to Tibetans and Christians highlights the fact that non-Muslim countries have been equally reluctant to put their money where their mouth is in condemnations of China’s assault on religion that go beyond Islam and are part of a larger attempt to replace religion with adherence to the country’s communist party and reverence of its party and political leaders.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is walking a tightrope in balancing its national interests with expectations of its role as a leader of the Muslim world.

While needy Rohingya and other illegal Muslim workers were detained and deported to an uncertain future that was likely to fuel despair and hopelessness, Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh announced that King Salman would host for this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca 200 relatives of the victims of the attacks by a white supremacist on two mosques in New Zealand’s Christchurch. Fifty people died in the attacks.

Clearly designed to project the kingdom as a generous supporter of Muslim causes and improve its image tarnished by the war in Yemen and last year’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Mr. Al-Sheikh said the invitation was part of Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism effort.

While public sentiment towards the clampdown in Xinjiang remains unclear despite vocal Saudi support for the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh, indications are that a significant segment of the kingdom’s population remain wedded to its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

A recent poll on Twitter showed that a majority of Saudis was opposed to the proposed halt to forcing stores to close during prayers, a key part of the kingdom’s tradition of enforced public religiosity.

Adherence to ultra-conservative norms raises the question whether those segments of the Saudi population may be more empathetic to the plight of the Uyghurs.

As part of its effort to co-opt the Chinese Diaspora and counter criticism, China has sought to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community. To do so, China’s consulate in the Red Sea port of Jeddah hosts events not only in Mandarin and Arabic but also Uyghur, according to Mohammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi China scholar.

Mr. Al-Sudairi attributed China’s focus on Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and wealthy Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and CPC.”

That focus suggests that public sentiment towards the plight of Muslims in places like Myanmar and Xinjiang may be more layered than positions put forward by Muslim leaders.

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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Iranians move into front line of the Middle East’s quest for religious change

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A recent online survey by scholars at two Dutch universities of Iranian attitudes towards religion has revealed a stunning rejection of state-imposed adherence to conservative religious mores as well as the role of religion in public life.

Although compatible with a trend across the Middle East, the survey’s results based on 50,000 respondents, who overwhelmingly said they resided in the Islamic republic, suggested that Iranians were in the frontlines of the region’s quest for religious change.

The trend puts a dent in the efforts of Iran as well as its rivals, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, that are competing for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world.

Among the rivals, the UAE, populated in majority by non-nationals, is the only one to start acknowledging changing attitudes and demographic realities. Authorities in November lifted the ban on consumption of alcohol and cohabitation among unmarried couples.

Nonetheless, the change in attitudes threatens to undercut the efforts of Iran as well as its Middle Eastern competitors to cement their individual interpretations of Islam as the Muslim world’s dominant narrative by rejecting religious dogma and formalistic and ritualistic religious practice propagated and/or imposed by governments and religious authorities.

“It becomes an existential question. The state wants you to be something that you don’t want to be,” said Pooyan Tamimi Arab, one of the organizers of the Iran survey, speaking in an interview. “Political disappointment steadily turned into religious disappointment… Iranians have turned away from institutional religion on an unprecedented scale.”

In a similar vein, Turkish art historian Nese Yildiran recently warned that a fatwa issued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet declaring popular talismans to ward off “the evil eye” as forbidden by Islam fueled criticism of one of the best-funded branches of government.

The fatwa followed the issuance of similar religious opinions banning the dying of men’s moustaches and beards, feeding dogs at home, tattoos, and playing the national lottery as well as statements that were perceived to condone or belittle child abuse and violence against women.

Funded by a Washington-based Iranian human rights groups, the Iranian survey, coupled with other research and opinion polls across the Middle East and North Africa, suggests that not only Muslim youth, but also other age groups, who are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority, aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

Their quest runs the gamut from changes in personal religious behaviour to conversions in secret to other religions because apostasy is banned and, in some cases, punishable by death to an abandonment of religion in favour of agnosticism or atheism.

Responding to the Iranian survey, 80 per cent of the participants said they believed in God but only 32.2 per cent identified themselves as Shiite Muslims, a far lower percentage than asserted in official figures of predominantly Shiite Iran.

More than a third of the respondents said that they either did not belong to a religion or were atheists or agnostics. Between 43 and 53 per cent, depending on age group, suggested that their religious views had changed over time with six per cent of those saying that they had converted to another religious orientation.

Sixty-eight per cent said they opposed the inclusion of religious precepts in national legislation. Seventy per cent rejected public funding of religious institutions while 56 per cent opposed mandatory religious education in schools. Almost 60 per cent admitted that they do not pray, and 72 per cent disagreed with women being obliged to wear a hijab in public.

An unpublished slide of the survey shows the change in religiosity reflected in the fact that an increasing number of Iranians no longer name their children after religious figures.

A five-minute YouTube clip allegedly related to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacked the survey despite having distributed the questionnaire once the pollsters disclosed in their report that the poll had been supported by an exile human rights group.

“Tehran may well be the least religious capital in the Middle East. Clerics dominate the news headlines and play the communal elders in soap operas, but I never saw them on the street, except on billboards. Unlike most Muslim countries, the call to prayer is almost inaudible… Alcohol is banned but home delivery is faster for wine than for pizza… Religion felt frustratingly hard to locate and the truly religious seemed sidelined, like a minority,” wrote journalist Nicholas Pelham based on a visit in 2019 during which he was detained for several weeks.

The survey’s results as well as observations by analysts and journalists like Mr. Pelham stroke with responses to various polls of Arab public opinion in recent years that showed that, despite 40 per cent of those polled defining religion as the most important constituent element of their identity, 66 per cent saw a need for religious institutions to be reformed.

The polls suggested further that public opinion would support the reconceptualization of Muslim jurisprudence to remove obsolete and discriminatory concepts like that of the kafir or infidel.

Responses by governments in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East to changing attitudes towards religion and religiosity demonstrate the degree to which they perceive the change as a threat, often expressed in existential terms.

In one of the latest responses, Mohammad Mehdi Mirbaqeri, a prominent Shiite cleric and member of Iran’s powerful Assembly of Experts that appoints the country’s supreme leader, last month described Covid-19 as a “secular virus” and a declaration of war on “religious civilization” and “religious institutions.”

Saudi Arabia went further by defining the “calling for atheist thought in any form” with terrorism in its anti-terrorism law. Saudi dissident and activist Rafi Badawi was sentenced on charges of apostasy to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for questioning why Saudis should be obliged to adhere to Islam and asserting that the faith did not have answers to all questions.

Analysts, writers, journalists, and pollsters have traced changes in attitudes in the Middle East and North Africa for much of the past decade.

Kuwaiti writer Sajed al-Abdali noted in 2012 that “it is essential that we acknowledge today that atheism exists and is increasing in our society, especially among our youth, and evidence of this is in no short supply.”

Mr. Arab argues nine years later that his latest survey “shows that there is a social basis” for concern among authoritarian and autocratic governments that employ religion to further their geopolitical goals and seek to maintain their grip on potentially restive populations.

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Sign of a Volcano Erupting in Iran

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Since its inception in 1979, the Iranian regime has relied on two pillars to sustain its hold on power: relentless repression at home, and terrorism and warmongering abroad. Since the regime is out of step with the modernity of the 21st century, it needs to resort to belligerent policies in order to impose itself upon the existing international order.

Regime leaders know that it is exactly their foreign transgressions that have now become a source of serious alarm for European and American interlocutors. Even if a new round of negotiations were to take place, both the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the President, Hassan Rouhani, understand that the nuclear issue will not be the only topic of conversation.

In a speech on January 8, Khamenei insisted on the regime’s regional adventurism and missiles program, saying that “the Islamic Republic has a duty to act in a way that strengthens its friends and supporters in the region.” Tehran has always made renouncing regional influence and its missiles program a red line. 

However, speaking on behalf of the European Union, German Foreign Minister Haiku Moss has said that a reinvigorated Iran deal must include new nuclear restrictions as well as an end to the testing of ballistic missiles. At the same time, he called for “limitation of Iran’s regional power” in the form of a “new agreement.”

Therefore, one of the pillars of the regime’s survival (foreign adventurism) has clearly been targeted by foreign powers. The other (domestic repression) is being challenged by the Iranian people.

A Social Volcano about to Erupt

In recent months, hundreds of centers controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the paramilitary Bassij, and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) have been targeted by young activists seeking to overthrow the regime. Simultaneously, posters and banners of regime leaders like Khamenei and eliminated Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani have been torched across the country.

The regime often blames these acts of dissent on “Resistance Units,” which are organized teams of young dissidents calling for the theocracy’s overthrowand reported to be affiliated with the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).A few short months before the massive November 2019 uprisings in Iran, the Minister of Intelligence Mahmoud Alavi claimed 116 of these “teams have been dealt with” in a matter of months. That is an indication that Tehran is witnessing a significant rise in such activities.

Time will tell if the trajectory of Iranian politics would experience a radical departure in the form of the regime’s ultimate collapse. All indicators are that the pace and depth of resistance appear to be increasing. Therefore, officials in Tehran may not be as optimistic as the rest of us about what lies ahead in 2021.

Warnings of Mass Uprisings

Practically every media outlet or official in Iran has been warning of a pending social explosion due to prevalent poverty and rampant unemployment. For example, one state-run daily refers to the worrying conditions and the lack of a “barrier against the volcano of the hungry” (Arman, December 26, 2020).

Another warns that “in an instant and with a simple spark of provocation, the Army of the Hungry may revolt.” (Hamdeli, December 20, 2020).The Iranian economy is collapsing andmore than 70% of society now lives below the poverty line.

Despite the supreme leader’s empty rhetoric and desperate show of power, he is well aware that he must negotiate and so that the sanctions on the sale of oil are eased, albeit in small quantities, in order to avoid more uprisings.

Khamenei is Weak and Vulnerable

Despite the danger of a social explosion, however, Khamenei and his regime are now at their weakest point since 1979. They cannot enter negotiations with US President Biden and Europe at this time. Khamenei can ill afford to look weak by backing down and engaging in such talks, especially prior to the presidential elections in June. So, he has decided to close ranks instead of opening up.

Khamenei is looking to limit rival factions’ power, including those supporting Rouhani. During the recent parliamentary elections, he pretty much purged so-called “reformist” candidates. Recent laws defining new conditions for presidential candidates have paved the way for Khamenei’s allies – like parliamentary speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf – to replace Rouhani. Khamenei calculates that once he has closed ranks and his faction controls all the levers of power, including the presidency, parliament, and judiciary, he would be able to entertain negotiations.

At the same time, he is trying to gain as much leverage in the nuclear arena in order to avoid giving concessions in other areas. Khamenei wants to boost the morale of his forces. Doling out regional or missile concessions would spell disaster for that strategy, leading to more defections in the ranks of the IRGC.Still, due to the sanctions, he is between a rock and a hard place. His regime is at its weakest point in history and extremely vulnerable.

One of the extremely unpopular moves he recently made was that he personally banned the import of coronavirus vaccines from France, Britain, and the US. Average Iranians, who have lost tens of thousands of loved ones to the virus and are reeling under the severe economic ramifications, are furious.

The Iranian society is growing more enraged at the regime by the day. Calls for overthrow, as indicated in the November 2019 uprising, are growing. Meanwhile, the regime has little leverage to demand the lifting of sanctions as both Europe and Washington target its regional interference and missiles program. With options severely narrowing, the regime may finally be at the end of its rope.

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Middle East

100th Anniversary of the Turkish Constitution

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Teşkilatı-Esasiye Law, the law provides for the establishment of the State of Turkey on January 20, 1921. This law also carries its status as Turkey’s first constitution.

The Ottoman State displayed a submissive understanding in the face of the occupations experienced in its last period. The people displayed an important struggle for independence by showing the necessary reaction and effort during the 1st World War against these invasions. After the war, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, exhibited a legitimate ground to fit this into the struggle for independence and contemporary, landed in Samsun on May 19, 1919 to establish a modern Turkey. This date was also the first step in the War of Independence launched against the occupations across the country.

After Samsun, Mustafa Kemal, who held various meetings and congresses in Amasya and Erzurum, respectively, went to Sivas from here and held the Sivas Congress with the representatives determined by the people from every province. September 4, 1919 at the congress held in Sivas with the participation of delegates from all over Turkey, Istanbul until the establishment of the new Chamber of Deputies of the general elections made the government decide to cut all formal ties. A Council of Representatives was established in order to establish a new administrative and political organization throughout the country.

As a result of the election held in 1920, the last Parliamentary Assembly of the Ottoman Empire was established, but on March 16, 1920, Istanbul was occupied by the British and the pro-National Struggle MPs were arrested. The parliament that convened on March 18 announced that it dissolved itself. With the dissolution of the last Ottoman Parliament, Mustafa Kemal announced in the statement he published on behalf of the Representation Committee that he wanted the MPs who could escape the occupation in Istanbul to come to Ankara.

The Grand National Assembly was Established

MPs who managed to escape secretly from Istanbul deputies from all over Turkey, Mustafa Kemal’s leadership in Ankara on 23 April 1920, which was collected and laid the foundations of the Republic of Turkey Grand National Assembly was opened. The next day, on April 24, 1920, Mustafa Kemal Pasha was elected president of the Grand National Assembly. The Assembly, which adopted the principle of unity of forces, thus started its work to ensure the independence of the nation and the liberation of the state.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha, as the Speaker of the Assembly, presented a draft on September 13, 1920 with the title “Populism Program” consisting of 31 articles. For the draft, Mustafa Kemal said, “The nature of our existence, the essentiality of the nation, has proved the general trend of the nation, it is populism and the people’s government. It means that governments fall into the hands of the people ”and stated that this is an obligation. On September 18, 1920, the Populism Program prepared by the government was read in the Parliament. Malatya Deputy Lütfi Bey “This statement contains many principles”. First of all, I recommend him to go to the Principles of Law ”. Trabzon Deputy Ali Şükrü Bey stated that this draft was not a draft law and did not want it to be sent to the committee. In his speech, Minister of Finance Ferit Bey underlined that the draft law is a draft law and said, “This program is the political program of the government.”

At the end of the discussions, it was decided to send the program to a special committee consisting of three people from each branch. The members of the special commission named Encümen-i Mahsus were determined on September 25 and started their work. The Council completed its first work on October 21, 1920, and the program was put on the parliament’s agenda on October 27. The Council made some changes in the Fundamental and Administration sections of the Government Program and arranged this as a draft Law of Organization. He presented the justification of the arrangement he made to the Parliament. The draft law prepared by the Encümen-i Mahsus, which was submitted to the Parliament as the Fundamental Law of the Organization, consisted of 23 articles and two sections as Mevaddı Fundamental and Administrative. Some of the articles in the Populism Program were not included in the Draft Law on the Organization-ı Esasiye, which was arranged by the Encümen-i Mahsus and submitted to the Assembly. Article 5, which includes the subject of caliphate and sultanate, Article 10, which includes the number of people in the Grand National Assembly, and Article 16 regarding the army, were not included in the Draft Law on the Principles of Organization. While 11 items were accepted as they are, changes were made on 12 items. An Article-i Individual was added by the Encümen-i Mahsus. It was requested that the articles and provisions of the Basis of the Law, which were not contradicted to the law at the time the draft Law on the Principles of the Organization was discussed in the Assembly. However, as the Speaker of the Assembly Mustafa Kemal opposed this request, such a provision was not included in the Constitutional Law of the Organization. Therefore, with the Law of Fundamentals of the Organization, his relationship with the Ottoman Empire’s Basis of Law was officially terminated.

These discussions lasted about five months. The Fundamental Organization Law was accepted in the Parliament on January 20, 1921. A special method and quorum was not sought in the adoption of the law. Mustafa Kemal sent the Law of Constitution to the Grand Vizier Tevfik Pasha by telegram. No. 85 “Organization Fundamental Law” Article 23, and also carries the distinction of being Turkey’s first constitution, which consists of discrete items. One of the most important features of this Constitution is that even though the Ottoman Empire did not come to an end, it was declared that it would be administered by the Grand National Assembly and that sovereignty belonged to the nation, and the system, which was actually implemented with the principle of unity of powers, was placed on a constitutional basis.

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