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Foreign policy background of the Iranian crisis

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Despite all the complexity and ambiguity of the situation now exiting in the world, the summer and fall of 2019 saw a certain degree of success, achieved by Iran’s Middle East policy both in the region and inside the country itself.

Tehran’s foreign policy achievements have also helped strengthen the “Shiite belt” spanning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Tehran’s influence remains very strong. However, the events of the past few weeks have shown that this belt is starting to “snap.”

Iraqis have for more than a month been holding rallies against the authorities, accusing the government of corruption and demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Many are chanting anti-Iranian slogans, because they believe that the government is getting a great deal of support from Tehran. In Karbala, considered a holy city for Shi’ite Muslims, protesters set ablaze the Iranian consulate, crying “Iran, go away!” in a violent flare-up that left more than 300 people dead.  The Iraqis blamed the killings down on members of the pro-Iranian militia.

The picture in neighboring Lebanon is much the same with the Lebanese actively protesting not only against corruption and low living standards, but also against the Iranian influence in the country, namely the Hezbollah, an Iranian creation, which plays an important role in Lebanon. According to observers, it is against this backdrop of anti-Iranian sentiment that Hezbollah has gradually been losing control of the situation there.

In Syria – this main link of the Shiite arc – the situation is equally alarming for Tehran, but this is a separate story that deserves a separate analysis.

What makes the situation so noteworthy though is that Iran is in various degrees influencing the domestic political situation in all these three Arab countries, with Iraq, Lebanon, and especially Syria each being an Iranian enclave in the Arab world.

However, it is precisely in these countries that initial “shocks” – the harbingers of serious upheavals for Iranian politics in this region – are being felt now. Moreover, these shocks dangerously resonate with the political situation in Iran proper, which has seen a recent wave of mass protests flaring up on November 15, 2019, sparked by an increase in gasoline prices.

Historical analogies

Over the 40 years of its existence, the Islamic Republic of Iran has seen a number of social disturbances, but they were usually of a local nature, caused by local problems and limited to rallies and strikes at individual enterprises. However, in the last decade, waves of mass discontent, already on a national scope, have risen repeatedly.

The first nationwide anti-government protests in post-revolutionary Iran happened in 2009, caused by alleged voting fraud and irregularities in presidential elections that resulted in a surprise win for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those protests are known as the Green Revolution.

The protests took place in several major Iranian cities, with middle-aged people, representatives of the intellectual elite and political opposition predominantly taking to the streets. At the height of the tensions, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the streets and squares of the relatively liberal Tehran, where the protests originated. The sole demand was to cancel the results of the 2009 presidential election, won by Ahmadinejad.  Presidential hopefuls Mehdi Karrubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi formally spearheaded the protests which, heated as they were, still remained within the framework of the political system of the Islamic Republic.

A distinctive feature of those protests was that Iranians used social networks not only to coordinate their actions, but also to let the rest of the world know what was going on in their country.

The second powerful wave of protests rocked Iran in late 2017 – early 2018, this time caused by a spike in food prices. The protests flared up in one of Iran’s most conservative cities – Mashhad – and almost simultaneously in more than 50 cities and numerous villages (where people traditionally support the government), and were much bigger in scope than the previous ones. Most of the protesters were young people with the rallies attended by representatives of various social and political backgrounds. What started as a purely economic protest, quickly acquired a political nature directed against the country’s leadership. The fundamental difference that set the second wave of protests apart from the previous one is that the protesters demanded a reform of the country political system and even the elimination of the principles of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian protest was rather chaotic too. as there were no single leaders and common demands being made to the powers-that-be. Another important feature of those events was that at a certain stage all Internet access was blocked. While in 2009 there were around 1 million Internet users in Iran, in 2017-2018 their number had jumped to 48 million, and this is in a country of 82 million people! The list of those detained during those protests included the country’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Events of November 2019

On November 15, 2019, Iran encountered a third wave of civil protests after the government of Hassan Rouhani announced that it was raising gasoline prices by as much as 200 percent.

Protests against this decision engulfed the entire nation, flaring up in Tehran and then spreading to about 100 towns and villages elsewhere in the country, involving more than 100,000 people. Maybe not much for a country of 82 million, as previous protests were much bigger in scope, but certainly more radical. In a number of places, more than 100 bank offices, including those of the Central Bank, were set on fire, and 900 branches and 3,000 ATMs were damaged.

The protesting crowds attacked police officers, gas stations and public offices, with economic slogans quickly making way for demands for a new government.

The protesters also want Tehran to stop sponsoring Islamic movements abroad because they believe that it is exactly where the money from the gasoline price hikes will go, instead of helping the poor. “Not Gaza and not Lebanon – I sacrifice my life for Iran,” protesters chanted. Another demand is to change the country’s foreign policy, which, according to the protesters, is turning Iran into a rogue country, suffering under heavy economic sanctions.

Iran’s leaders put the blame for the social unrest on a mix of enemies, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as groups like the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the Kurdistan Free Life Party, the Islamic State (banned in Russia), and now also the clan of the ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and, above all, his son – heir to the throne Reza Cyrus Pahlavi.

I believe that although the countries opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, did of course provide moral and media support for the civil protest against the existing regime, they could still hardly be able to organize such anti-government rallies inside the country. As for Reza Cyrus Pahlavi, living in the United States, he often makes political forecasts and comments, but always avoids political activity. He has no ambitions to restore the monarchy, saying only that he would like to see Iran without theocracy. The current protests in Iran apparently stem from domestic, primarily social and economic, problems.

Economic background of the crisis

On November 15, the Iranian government announced an increase in retail gasoline prices. While motorists were previously allowed to buy 250 liters of fuel per month at a price of 10,000 rials (19.14 rubles), now they have to pay 15,000 rials (28.71 rubles) with the fuel quota reduced to 60 liters (up to 400 liters for taxi drivers). Iranians are now supposed to pay 30,000 rials (57.42 rubles) for every additional liter in excess of the quota at a price of 30 thousand rials (57.42 rubles). This is exactly what triggered much of the mass-scale protests.

Here are the three main points that need to be highlighted and emphasized:

First, Iran’s economy is in a very bad state now. And not only because of the US sanctions. According to Gholamhossein Shafei, President of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines & Agriculture (ICCIMA), the Iranian economy suffers from two key problems: corruption and stagnation …  Economists describe stagnation as a derivative of an ineffective  management, lack of financial discipline, and exhaustion of the existing model as a whole. According to some experts, this could eventually ruin the country’s entire political system.

Second, the aggressive financial and economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United States have cost the country tens of billions of dollars and contributed to its economic woes.

According to the IMF, as a result of a combination of multiple factors, Iran’s GDP this year is projected to decrease by 9.5 percent – the worst indicator since 1984. Annual inflation will exceed 35 percent (according to other sources, it could climb to 52 percent). Food prices are up almost 60 percent, and price increases for many non-food products exceed 80 percent.

Since January, the national currency, the rial, has lost 70 percent of its value against the US dollar. People and businesses have turned to the black market for currency and, as a result, the rial’s exchange rate finally detached from the official one. When the rial’s fixed exchange rate was introduced in April 2018, one US dollar bought about 60,000 rials. By July, the unofficial rate had jumped to 112,000 thousand rials, and by early September – to 145,000 rials. A year later, the “street” rate rebounded a bit to about 115,000 rials for one US dollar, but the gap with the official exchange rate, frozen at 42,000 rials per dollar, remains huge nonetheless.

Overall, the damage inflicted on the Iranian economy by the new US sanctions and the sixth-month devaluation-inflation spiral was officially estimated at 4.9 percent of the country’s GDP.

Meanwhile, employers are massively switching to short-term contracts, which adds to the sense of anxiety among the people.

According to the Statistical Center of Iran, a government agency controlled by the country’s president, the official unemployment rate in 2018 reached 27 percent among young Iranians, and 40 percent among university graduates.

Third, under the circumstances, the government had no other choice than to jack up fuel prices, because even though the IMF hadn’t discussed such a raise with the Iranian authorities, it had still advised Tehran to cut fuel subsidies, which means raising fuel prices. According to the Iranian government, fuel subsidies cost the state $2.5 billion a year and are an incentive for smuggling.

Indeed, the price of gasoline in Iran was one of the lowest around (about $0.3 or 19 rubles). And this provided fertile ground for large-scale smuggling of gasoline to Afghanistan (where it costs $0.65 or 41.5 rubles) and, to a greater extent, to Turkey (where the price of gasoline is $1.2, or 77 rubles.)

So, according to a report by the Iranian parliament’s research center, as a result of the economic downturn, caused by multiple reasons, objective and subjective, as well as external and internal, the living standards of the Iranian people keep falling.

Amid last month’s social unrest, on November 18, the Iranian government, in an effort to reduce tensions, announced additional payments to the poorest segments of the population, hit the hardest by the rising gasoline prices. They were promised up to 2 million riyals in the first week, followed by subsidies to be provided on a monthly basis. By the end of the first week of protests, the government had managed to somewhat dampen the tensions and restore a semblance of normalcy.

Conclusions

While analyzing the current situation in Iran, we should single out the following points:

Iran has over the past three years going through an internal systemic economic and political crisis, as the pace of development of the model of managing economic and social processes is falling behind the requirements of our time.

The past two years have seen a notable rise in social tensions, caused by the people’s general unhappiness about their socio-economic situation, the government’s foreign and domestic policy and certain fatigue from the framework of Islamic demands.

The mass protests of November 15-22 were not so much the result of ramped up gasoline prices, but rather of a consistent rise in the degree of general popular discontent. The gasoline price hike was merely a spark, which ignited the flames of protest.

The protests happened without concrete leaders steering them as both Internet and mobile phone communications were blocked by the authorities. Therefore, the protest actions were spontaneous and apparently not coordinated by external forces.

The protests did not and could not lead to a breakdown of the country’s Islamic statehood because, for all the flaws in the existing model of governance, the ruling elite and the specific state structure it has established still enjoy a margin of strength due to the balance of checks and balances.

The protests further undermined the positions of President Hassan Rouhani and his team. Trying to make the most of the situation, the radical conservative opposition accuses the president of inability to bring the situation and the whole country under control. Simultaneously, supporters of liberal reforms blame the president for being unable to create conditions for implementing these reforms, which would result in a lifting of international sanctions imposed on the country.

The events of the fall of 2019 will factor in very heavily in the outcome of the 2020 parliamentary elections as well as the presidential elections in 2021. Because it is unlikely that supporters of the liberal (by IRI standards) Hassan Rouhani will gain legislative and executive power, this will result in a toughening of Iran’s policy across the board, which in turn would complicate the country’s external and domestic situation and possibly exacerbate internal contradictions.

The protests of November 2019 demonstrated once again that the crisis-hit Islamic Republic of Iran needs radical reforms in almost every sphere of life.

From our partner International Affairs

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Lessons Learned: US Seek to Salvage their Relations with the Syrian Kurds

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The hasty retreat of the US troops from Afghanistan has left a sizeable dent in the reputation of the White House among the American public, in the Middle East and the world in general. Washington was criticised heavily for the betrayal of the Afghan government, which paved the way for Taliban to storm to power.

It’s only natural that such events created a breeding ground for uncertainty among US allies in the region. Some of them started to reevaluate their relationship with the White House after the Afghan fiasco; others were having doubts about the US’ commitment beforehand. Current situation forces Washington to take firm actions to validate their status as a powerhouse in the region. There are indicators that US leadership has found a way to regain trust from its allies starting with Kurdish armed units in Syria.

The Kurds became a key ally to the US in their quest to defeat ISIS in Syria. Washington helped to create the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consequently established control over oil-rich regions in the north-eastern Syria. However the rapid rise of Kurdish influence triggered discontent from other parties of the Syrian conflict: the Assad government and Turkey, who considers SDF an offshoot of the PKK, designated as a terror group by the Turkish authorities. Under this pretext Ankara conducted three full-scale military operations against the Kurds in spite of its membership in the US led coalition.

Turkey remains a major headache for the US in northern Syria as it obstructs the development of a Kurdish autonomy. US failure to act during the Turkish offensive on Al-Bab and then Afrin is still considered one of the most agonizing experiences in the recent history of American-Kurdish partnership. On the flip side, this relationship had its bright moments. US forces were persistent in their cooperation with the Kurds despite Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw US military presence from Syria. Furthermore, former Pentagon’s chief James Mattis increased funding of SDF in 2019 to a record high of $300 million.

Although the US cut back its support for the Kurds after proclaiming victory over ISIS, it’s still sufficient for SDF to stay among the most combat-capable forces in Syria. US provide machinery, equipment and ammunition, but most importantly teach the Kurds the skills to profit from their resources. Besides training SDF rank soldiers, the American troops prepare their special forces HAT (Hêzên Antî Teror, Anti-Terror Forces) primarily tasked with establishing security on oil facilities as well as detection and elimination of terrorists. In terms of their equipment they practically hold their own even against US troops. During their operations HAT fighters use standardized weaponry, night goggles and other modern resources.

Regardless of all the US aid military capabilities of SDF have one critical vulnerability, namely the lack of air defense. This weakness is successfully exploited by Turkey who uses their drones to bomb Kurdish positions. For the last couple of months the number of air strikes has significantly increased, which brought SDF to find new methods of deflecting air attacks.

There are good grounds to believe that Washington accommodated their partner’s troubles. Thus a source from an US air-base in Middle-East who asked to keep his name and position anonymous told us that on the 18th of September three combat-capable trainer aircraft T-6 Texan have been deployed to Tell Beydar air-base in Hasakah province, Syria. According to the source American instructors have begun a crash course in air pilotage with the candidates picked form the SDF ranks long before the airplanes arrived to their destination. This is implicitly confirmed by the large shipment of US weaponry, machinery and ammunition to Tell Beydar delivered on the 17th of September that included missiles compatible with Texan aircraft.

The sole presence of airplanes, even trainer aircraft, prompts a change in the already existing power balance. T-6 Texan can be used not only for air cover but also as a counter tool to Turkish “Bayraktar” UAVs especially if US grant Kurds access to intel from the radars situated on US air bases. Ultimately, from Turkey’s standpoint it must look like an attempt from the US military to create PKK’s own air force.

This being said the US are better off using political means rather than military if the goal is to handicap Turkish interests in Syria. The groundwork for this has been laid thanks to a reshuffle in the White House under Biden administration. First came the resignation of former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James F. Jeffrey infamous for his soft spot for Turkey, who has been openly promoting pro-Turkish views in the White House during his tenure. In addition to the loss of their man in Washington, Turkey has gained a powerful adversary represented by the new National Security Council coordinator for the Middle-East and North Africa Brett McGurk. McGurk is a polar opposite to Jeffrey and has sided with the Kurds on numerous occasions. He is well respected among the leaders of SDF because of his work as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS.

The only yet the most important question that is yet to be answered is the position of US president Joe Biden. So far Biden’s administration has been avoiding radical shifts regarding its Syria policy. Development of cooperation with the Kurds considering they have proven their reliability might come as a logical solution that will also allow the White House to show their teeth. Washington cannot endure another Afghanistan-like fiasco that will destroy their reputation figuratively and their allies literally. Even with all possible negative outcomes taken into account the enhancement of cooperation with the Kurds outweighs the drawbacks and remains the optimal route for the US.

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Turkish Geopolitics and the Kabul Airport Saga

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Image credit: Hurriyet daily news

The Taliban’s ultimate agreement to a prominent Turkish security presence at Afghanistan’s only airport completes an important power-play for the latter. Ankara wishes to establish itself as a dominant player in the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan affairs, ensuring that the U.S. looks to it as an ideal partner for its future policies in Afghanistan. It is in this context that Turkey having overcome the formerly heated rejections by the Taliban of its proposed role at the airport is highly significant as it portends the closer integration of Afghanistan into familiar Turkish geopolitical agendas.

Turkey’s Afghan power-play and the U.S.

Turkey’s announcement in June of plans to militarily manage the security at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport with U.S. financial support incensed the Taliban.

By not consulting or informing the powerful Islamist group on such a major issue in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey signaled its view of the Taliban as inimical non-state actors lacking the stature to act upon the pretext of Afghan sovereignty. Indeed, President Tayyip Erdogan accused the Taliban of the ‘occupation’ of the Afghan territory in response to their warnings that Turkey’s airport plan violated the Doha Accords in terms of the exit of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and that they would harshly react to it.

The Taliban’s near-effortless takeover of Kabul in mid-August seemed to close the chapter on the airport saga, but deadly ISIS bombings near the airport two weeks later forced the new regime to consider external help in filling the Afghan security vacuum.

Consequently, Turkey gained not only an acquiescence from Afghanistan’s strongest faction to its desired role at the airport but also an affirmation of its capacity to face down and override local actors as a foreign power seeking to guide its Afghan initiatives to fruition.

This may appeal strongly to the U.S., which has increased its geoeconomic interests in Afghanistan in parallel with the process of its military disengagement from the country. These interests take the form of large infrastructure trade projects of a regional scale and would benefit if shielded from the whims of domestic Afghan factions that tend to cripple governance and policy implementation. Ankara’s assertive posture during the airport tussle with the Taliban helps it pitch itself to Washington as capable of doing precisely this.

The Central Asia factor

These trade infrastructure projects in Afghanistan aim to develop it as a transit hub for Central Asian trade to extra-regional markets as outlined in the U.S. ‘Strategy for Central Asia 2019-25’. The U.S. affords considerable importance to this strategy both as a means of rebuilding Afghanistan and providing the Central Asian states with new trade routes that do not need to transit the territory of Russia, their former Soviet patron and America’s great-power rival.

Turkey shares the goal of increasing Central Asia’s global connectivity, whilst envisioning itself the natural leader and conduit for the Turkic Central Asian states’ growing socio-economic bonds with the outside world. By acting as a lead-from-the-front partner for the U.S. in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Turkey can persuade the U.S. to entrust it with the Afghan leg of the Strategy for Central Asia.

Turkey could then inculcate the progress of its own connectivity projects for Central Asia into the U.S. priorities as a premium of sorts for its services tackling Afghanistan-based risks and hazards to the U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. These Turkish-led projects include the East West Trans-Caspian Middle Corridor (connecting Turkmenistan-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan to Europe via the Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route) and its Eastern spur for Afghanistan, the Lapis Lazuli Corridor (connecting northwest Afghanistan via Turkmenistan to the same Caspian Sea-South Caucasus-Turkey route to Europe).

The text of the US Strategy for Central Asia does mention and pledge favourable visa and customs policies for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor, but does not mention the Middle Corridor or Turkey at all. The absence of the latter two key names indicates that U.S. backing for the Lapis Lazuli Corridor likely owed to the simple fact that it directly includes Afghanistan and has already been functional since December 2018. Thus, the U.S. does not formally endorse the East-West connectivity for Central Asia—which Turkey specializes at—under the rubric of its Strategy for Central Asia.

“Senior [Trump] administration officials have expressed support for specific infrastructure projects—such as, notably, Georgia’s deep-water port project in Anaklia—but without having cast them as part of a broader regional agenda,” commented Middle East Institute scholar Dr John Calabrese on the erstwhile Donald Trump administration’s position on the Middle Corridor months before the Strategy on Central Asia’s release.

All this greatly limits the pool of U.S. financial and political support that Turkey could tap into for developing and expanding the Middle Corridor, which is the lynchpin for its push for pan-Turkic leadership. Ankara’s remedy for this problem, however, may lie in gaining the mentioned lead-from-the-front ally status vis-a-vis the U.S. in Afghanistan.

As observed by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute’s Chairman and Director Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell, the present U.S. approach represents important shifts in the American conceptualization of Afghanistan and Central Asia relative to each other. These are a departure from the long-standing tendency to ‘view Central Asia as an appendix to Afghanistan policy’ and an embrace of Central Asia as a bloc. Both these shifts laid the basis for the U.S. Afghan policy to take its cue from Central Asia’s development. Officially mandating the development of an East-West transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe—in short, Turkey’s Middle Corridor—is the next logical step in this paradigm.

Starr and Cornell, leading proponents in the U.S. policy advocacy community for treating Afghanistan as part of Central Asia, identify the East-West transport corridor as crucial to the Strategy for Central Asia and criticize the document for not mentioning it.

Thus, from its position in Afghanistan, Turkey can orient the inputs it feeds back to its diplomatic and military partners in Washington around the case for the merger of the U.S. Afghanistan and Central Asia policies that Starr and Cornel advocate. The U.S. will expect actionable suggestions from its top consultative partner for Afghanistan to actualize this merger, paving the way for Turkey to impactfully pitch the Middle Corridor as the solution.

This could well become an elusive opening that Turkey has long needed to bridge the chasm between the Middle Corridor’s innate appeal to the U.S. great-power sensitivities underpinning its Central Asia posture and the U.S. seeming disinterest in the corridor. After all, the Middle Corridor bypasses Russia, challenging its monopoly over Central Asia’s trade routes. It also acts as what Starr describes as a ‘Land Suez’ for China to connect to Europe—reducing China’s reliance on transiting Russia for this purpose and offsetting, from Washington’s perspective, the prospect of its two great-power rivals’ geoeconomic priorities aligning too closely.

Subsequent U.S. endorsement of the Middle Corridor would stimulate greater U.S. investment in the mega-project, hitherto limited by the Strategy for Central Asia’s non-mention of East-West connectivity as explored prior.

In addition to this, the Middle Corridor could become an agenda item in multilateral platforms for Central Asia, such as the C5+1, set up by the U.S. with a focus on the Afghan-Central Asian connectivity. This would prop up advocates in Turkic Central Asia for a formal embrace of an Ankara-led Turkic bloc by enabling them to present this as part of the institutionalization of Central Asian affairs as opposed to a pro-Turkish tilt which might alarm Russia, who has a past record of reacting forcefully to external powers engaging in bloc-building in its former Soviet backyard in Eurasia. This will greatly benefit Turkey.

Restoring balance with the West

Afghanistan can arguably bring Turkey’s ideologically-driven desire to carve a Turkic bloc from Central Asia and its more general desire to mitigate the strains in bilateral ties with the U.S. closer together than any other foreign policy file in Ankara.

Linked to Central Asia or not, Afghanistan stands out as a vacuum left by American strategic miscalculations at the regional doorstep of several U.S. rivals. Turkish initiatives, such as the Kabul airport project, clearly designed to preserve U.S. stakes in Afghanistan—at a time when Russia, Iran and China appear poised to capitalize on the U.S. shrinking presence there—can inject fresh credibility into Turkey’s historical image as the West’s Eurasian vanguard.

This will help President Erdogan as he tries to stabilize relations with the U.S. against their list of disputes, from Turkey’s purchase of Russian air defense systems to the U.S. support for Kurdish groups near the Turkish-Syrian border and beyond. Additionally, President Joe Biden faces mounting public and political pressure at home over the rapid collapse of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government in the Taliban’s wake; in this context, Turkey volunteering itself as a new and coherent vehicle for U.S. interests in Afghanistan may prove the very ice-breaker Erdogan needs for his notably bleak relationship with Biden.

However much progress Ankara makes in these endeavours, its headstrong approach and eventual success in securing a role at Kabul’s airport points to strategic clarity and an expectation of Afghanistan’s seamless integration into Turkish geopolitics.

From our partner RIAC

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The Battle for the Soul of Islam: Will the real reformer of the faith stand up?

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Saudi and Emirati efforts to define ‘moderate’ Islam as socially more liberal while being subservient to an autocratic ruler is as much an endeavour to ensure regime survival and bolster aspirations to lead the Muslim world as it is an attempt to fend off challenges rooted in diverse strands of religious ultra-conservatism.

The Saudi and Emirati efforts to garner religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates build their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf states are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define what strand or strands will dominate the faith in the 21st century.

The battle takes on added significance at a time that Middle Eastern rivals are attempting to dial down regional tensions by managing their disputes and conflicts rather than resolving them. The efforts put a greater emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than hard power confrontation often involving proxies.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE propagate a ‘moderate’ Islam on the back of significant social reforms in recent years that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and relegates the clergy to the status of the ruler’s clerics.

The reforms include Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving, enhancing of women’s professional and personal opportunities, curbing the powers of the religious police and introducing Western-style entertainment.

The UAE last November allowed unmarried couples to cohabitate, loosened alcohol restrictions and criminalised “honour killings,” a widely criticised religiously packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative to kill a woman accused of dishonouring her family.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist strands of the faith that are laced with nationalism.

The Gulf states’ state-led moderation of religious practices rather than of theology and Muslim jurisprudence is also challenged by some strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded.

“Wahhabism has refracted into three broad groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse of civic rights, a centre occupying official posts of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s clerics) that has put up some resistance to the loosening of their powers in the social, juridical and media spheres, and a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on questions of foreign policy,” said scholar Andrew Hammond.

While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, autocratic monarchical rule is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond dubs the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state player in the battle for the soul of Islam, that advocates and practices reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrests in recent years of Saudi scholars and preachers such as Safar al-HawaliSalman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran, and Hasan al-Maliki suggests as much.

Implicitly drawing a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defanging Wahhabism not dethroning it.”

The crown prince, since coming to office, has radically cut back on the investment of tens of billions of dollars in the propagation of religious ultra-conservatism across the globe, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and shave off the rough social edges of the kingdom’s austere interpretation of the faith. His subjugation of the clergy, and incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far-right, put an end to a 73-year long power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.

The left has entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, called for political liberalisation and civil rights and in some cases endorsed the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats.

The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging the conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the Muslim world’s grassroots beyond Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country as well as its foremost democracy. In its first outreach to grassroots elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than proposals put forward by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps better described as more liberal rather than an ideological left-wing of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts starkly with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation that involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ to religiously legitimise repressive rule under which protests, political parties and petitioning of the government are banned and thought is policed.

“The state has strengthened the Wahhabi centre through neutralising the Wahhabi left and right, which have each represented a threat to state authority and legitimacy … As for the civic rights innovations of the Wahhabi left exemplified by al-Awda, it is precisely this discourse that the state wants to shut down,” Mr. Hammond said, referring to the imprisoned cleric.

The track record of proponents of autocratic religious moderation is checkered at best. While the UAE has created a society that is by and large religiously tolerant, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight a soft power battle in the Muslim world but seeks to project itself as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.

Prince Mohammed has met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet, non-Muslims remain barred in the kingdom from worshipping publicly or building their own houses of worship.

In Egypt, Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old student, lingers in prison since February 2020 on charges of spreading false news and rumours for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Mr. Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the UAE. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.

By contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama secretary general Yahya Staquf recently told the story of Riyanto in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of American Evangelical anti-Muslim sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he removed it from a pew.

“To us in Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honour his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,” Mr. Staquf said.

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Millions in Yemen ‘a step away from starvation’

The crisis in Yemen, now in its seventh year of war, continues unabated, with thousands of people displaced and millions...

Economy6 hours ago

Turkish Economy as the Reset Button of Turkish Politics

Democracy has a robust relationship with economic growth.  Barrington Moore can be seen as one of the leading scholars focusing...

Africa Today7 hours ago

South Sudan ‘determined to never go back to war’

South Sudan is “ready to turn a new page” towards greater peace, development and prosperity, Vice-President Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior said in her speech in the UN General Assembly...

Health & Wellness10 hours ago

WHO backs Regeneron COVID-19 drug cocktail – with equal access, price cut

The Regeneron antibody drug cocktail – casirivimab and imdevimab – has been added to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of treatments for COVID-19 patients, the...

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At the UNGA, India’s first secretary Sneha Dubey said the entire Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh “were,...

Africa Today16 hours ago

Niger to Improve Women and Girl’s Access to Nutrition and Health Services

The Nigerien government will be able to provide its population with better health coverage with financing approved today by the...

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