The United Arab Emirates’ bold recognition of Israel, earning it valuable brownie points in the West, has come at a cost: a blow to its efforts to earn religious soft power in the Muslim world.
The setback raises questions about the UAE’s strategy of co-opting prominent Muslim scholars with financial incentives to project the Gulf state as a model of tolerance that seeks to promote a moderate interpretation of Islam in a global competition for religious soft power with Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia.
The UAE attempt to reap religious support for its opening to Israel encountered blowback when a statement by the Abu Dhabi-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies — one of several UAE-backed groups created to counter similar Qatari institutions and give the UAE effort religious cachet — sparked protests and resignations.
Members of the Forum’s board complained that the statement had been issued without a discussion in the Forum’s board of trustees. The board includes former Jordanian Islamic chief justice and minister of endowments Ahmad Hilayel and Abdullah Al-Maatouq, a Kuwaiti royal court advisor and former religious affairs minister and United Nations envoy.
Hamza Yusuf, the Forum’s vice president and a popular American Islamic scholar who heads Zaytuna College — the United States’ first accredited Muslim undergraduate college — distanced himself from the statement, asserting that he did “not engage in or endorse geopolitical strategies or treaties” and that his “allegiance is and has always been with the oppressed peoples of Palestine, whether Muslim, Christian, or otherwise.”
Similarly, while announcing her resignation from the Forum’s board, prominent American Muslim activist Aisha al-Adawiya, founder of the human rights group Women in Islam, said that there had been “no agreement on any kind of support for the UAE’s deal with Israel.”
So did Muhammad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. Mr. Hussein banned Muslims from the UAE from visiting and praying at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.
However, the statement issued by Abdullah Bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian politician, religious scholar, and the head of the Forum and president of the Emirati Fatwa Council, took a different tone.
Praising “the wisdom of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces,” the statement asserted that normalization of relations with the Jewish state had “stopped Israel from extending its sovereignty over Palestinian lands” and was a means to “promote peace and stability across the world.”
Mr. Bin Bayyah’s defense of the statement reflected the UAE’s definition of moderate Islam as one that is state-controlled and preaches absolute obedience to the ruler. He insisted that “international relations and treaties are among the initiatives that fall within the policy-making purview of the ruler.”
Despite longstanding relations with Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al-Nahyan family, Mr. Bin Bayyah was long aligned with their nemesis as vice president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) and the European Council for Fatwa and Research, that was established to provide guidance to European Muslims through the dissemination of religious opinions.
The two groups were headed and founded by Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the world’s most prominent living Islamic scholars who is widely viewed as a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatari support of the Brotherhood is a main driver of the more than three-year-old UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state. The Emirates and the kingdom earlier designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Members of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, including Crown Prince Mohammed and his foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, began courting Mr. Bin Bayyah in early 2013.
They invited the cleric to the Emirates the same month that Egyptian President and Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi – the post-2011 revolt democratically elected head of state — was toppled by a UAE-backed military coup.
In a letter Mr. Bin Bayyah sent three months later to the IUMS, he announced that he was resigning from the group. He wrote: “the humble role I am attempting to undertake towards reform and reconciliation (among Muslims) requires a discourse that does not sit well with my position at the International Union of Muslim Scholars.”
Mr. Bin Bayyah wrote his letter after the IUMS had bitterly denounced the Egyptian coup and condemned the subsequent brutal repression of the Brotherhood and he published it to demonstrate to Emirati leaders that he had ended his association with Qatari-supported Islamic groups.
The courting of Mr. Bin Bayyah emanated from Prince Mohammed’s realization that he needed religious soft power to justify the UAE’s wielding of hard power that started with the Egyptian coup and expanded with military interventions in Yemen and Libya.
The emergence in recent years of Mr. Bin Bayyah – a celebrated Islamic jurist whom Islam scholar Usamaa Al-Azami dubbed “counter‐revolutionary Islam’s most important scholar” – as the religious face of the UAE coincided with the 93-year-old Mr. Qaradawi’s withdrawal from public life.
The backlash sparked by Mr. Bin Bayyah’s statement highlights the Achilles heel, at least in the Muslim world, of the UAE’s religious soft power ploy.
“The counter‐revolutionary Islamic political thought that is being developed and promoted by Bin Bayyah and the UAE suffers from certain fundamental structural problems that means its very existence is precariously predicated on the persistence of autocratic patronage,” Mr. Al-Azami asserted. “Its lack of independence means that it is not the organic product of a relatively unencumbered engagement with political modernity that might be possible in freer societies than counter‐revolutionary Gulf autocracies,” he added.
Mr. Al Azami’s criticism goes to the heart of a debate, particularly in Turkey and Indonesia, on Islam’s ability to recontextualize itself and break away from the shackles of outdated concepts and traditions without being freed from control by states that seek to impose a self-serving vision of the faith.
Expressed more bluntly, Yahya Birt, a scholar of British Islam and a convert to the faith, who has researched UAE-backed clerics, argued that there is discrepancy between how they project their sponsors abroad and the reality on the ground.
“The extracted price of government patronage is high for ulema (religious scholars) in the Middle East. Generally speaking, they have to openly support or maintain silence about autocracy at home, while speaking of democracy, pluralism, and minority rights to Western audiences,” Mr. Birt said.
The backlash to the support of the UAE recognition of Israel by the Forum and Mr. Bin Bayyah suggests a serious flaw in the Gulf state’s approach to religious soft power: It targets first and foremost Western corridors of power rather than the Muslim community at large.
An initial version of this story was first published by Inside Arabia
UAE schoolbooks earn high marks for cultural tolerance, even if that means praising China
An Israeli NGO gives the United Arab Emirates high marks for mandating schoolbooks that teach tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and engagement with non-Muslims.
“The Emirati curriculum generally meets international standards for peace and tolerance. Textbooks are free of hate and incitement against others. The curriculum teaches students to value the principle of respect for other cultures and encourages curiosity and dialogue. It praises love, affection, and family ties with non-Muslims,” the 128-page study by The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) concluded.
However, at the same time, the report appeared in its evaluation of Emirati textbooks to hue closely to Israeli policy towards the UAE and, more generally, most states that populate the Middle East.
As a result, the report, like Israel that seemingly sees autocracy rather than greater freedoms as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East, skirts the issue of the weaving of the principle of uncritical obedience to authority into the fabric of Emirati education.
That principle is embedded in the teaching of “patriotism” and “commitment to defending the homeland,” two concepts highlighted in the report. The principle is also central to the notion of leadership, defined in the report as a pillar of national identity.
Ryan Bohl, an American who taught in an Emirati public school a decade ago, could have told Impact-se about the unwritten authoritarian principles embedded in the country’s education system.
There is little reason to believe that much has changed since Mr. Bohl’s experience and every reason to assume that those principles have since been reinforced.
One of a number of Westerners hired by the UAE to replace Arab teachers suspected of sympathising with the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Bohl described in an interview teaching in Emirati classrooms as “following the autocratic method, very similar to the ruler and the ruled.”
It’s in classrooms, Mr. Bohl said, “where those political attitudes get formed, reinforced, enforced in some cases if kids like they do, decide to deviate outside the line. They understand what the consequences are long before they can become a political threat or an activist threat to the regime. It’s all about creating a chill effect.”
Seemingly to avoid discussion of the notion of critical thinking, the IMPACT-se report notes that students “prepare for a highly competitive world; they are taught positive thinking and well-being.”
The report’s failure to discuss the limits of critical thinking and attitudes towards authority that may be embedded in the framing of education rather than in textbooks raises the question of whether textbook analysis is sufficient to evaluate attitudes that education systems groom in their tutoring of successive generations.
It also opens to debate whether notions of peace and cultural tolerance can be isolated from degrees of social and political tolerance and pluriformity.
The report notes positively that the textbooks “offer a realistic approach to peace and security,” a reference to the UAE’s recognition of Israel in 2020, its downplaying of efforts to address Palestinian aspirations, and its visceral opposition to any form of political Islam with debilitating consequences in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
It would be hard to argue that intervention by the UAE and others, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France, and Russia, in whatever form contributed to peace and security.
The report notes that “support for the Palestinian cause continues but no longer (is) seen as key to solving the broader range of regional challenges. Radicalism and hate are the chief threat. Iranian expansionism is a threat.”
This is not to suggest that IMPACT-se’s evaluation of textbooks should judge Emirati policies but to argue that rather than uncritically legitimising them, it should explicitly instead of implicitly acknowledge that the country’s next generation is being shaped by a top-down, government-spun version of what the meaning is of lofty principles proclaimed by Emirati leaders.
To its credit, the report implicitly states that Emirati concepts of tolerance are not universal but subject to what the country’s rulers define as its national interests.
As a result, it points out that “the People’s Republic of China is surprisingly described as a tolerant, multicultural society, which respects religions” despite the brutal crackdown on religious and ethnic expressions of Turkic Muslim identity in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
IMPACT-se further notes that the textbooks fail to teach the Middle East’s history of slavery. The report insists that the Holocaust and the history of Jews, particularly in the Middle East, should be taught but makes no similar demand for multiple other minorities, including those accused of being heretics.
The NGO suggests that the UAE could also improve its educational references to Israel. The report takes note that “anti-Israeli material has been moderated” in textbooks that teach “cooperating with allies” and “peacemaking” as priorities.
However, UAE recognition of Israel does not mean that a map of Israel is included in the teaching of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
To be fair, Israel may not yet feature on Emirati maps, but Jewish life is increasingly part of public life in the UAE. Kosher restaurants are open for business, as is a Jewish cultural center. Large menorahs were lit in city squares to celebrate the Jewish feast of Hanukkah in December, and a government-funded synagogue is scheduled to open later this year.
Meanwhile, Arab Jews who once fled to Israel and the West are settling in the UAE, partly attracted by financial incentives.
Striking a mildly critical note, IMPACT-se research director Eldad J. Pardo suggested that Emirati students, who were well served by the curriculum’s “pursuit of peace and tolerance,” would benefit from courses that are “equally unrelenting” in providing “students with unbiased information in all fields.”
Mr. Pardo was referring to not only to China but also the curriculum’s endorsement of traditional gender roles even if it anticipates the integration of women into the economy and public life, and what the report described as an “unbalanced” depiction of the history of the Ottoman Empire.
Iraq: Three Years of Drastic Changes (2019-2022)
When the wave of the protests broke out at the beginning of October 2019 in Iraq, the Iraqi politicians did not realize the size of the gap between the demands of the protesters which were accumulated more than seventeen years, and the isolation of the politicians from the needs of the people. The waves of the protests began in a small range of different areas in Iraq. Rapidly, it expanded as if it were a rolling snowball in many regions of Iraqi governorates. Moreover, the platforms of social media and the influencers had a great impact on unifying the people against the government and enhancing the protest movement.
Al Tarir Square was the region where most protesters and demonstrators were based there. At that time, they stayed all day in this region and set up their tents to protest and demonstrate against the public situation of their life.
The protesters demanded their looted rights and asked for making economic reforms, finding job opportunities, changing the authority, and toppling the government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The protest stayed between ebb and tide, pressuring the political authority in Iraq.
A new period began in the history of Iraq where clashes between the protesters and the riot forces broke out in Al Tahrir Square and many governorates in the south of Iraq. Tear gas and ductile bullets were used against the protesters to compel them to retreat and disperse them. But the protesters insisted on continuing their demands. Many protesters were killed and wounded due to the intensive violence against them. The strong pressure with falling many martyrs gave its fruit when the Iraqi representatives of the Parliament endeavored to achieve the protesters’ demands by changing the election law into a new one. On 24 December 2019, the Iraqi Parliament approved of changing the unfair Saint Leigo election law into the open districts. The new law divided Iraq into 83 electoral districts.
Moreover, this violent protest led to the collapse of the Iraqi government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi. He was compelled to resign by the end of 2019. Many political names were nominated by the Iraqi politicians but the protesters refused them all because they were connected with different political parties.
Finally, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who worked in the Iraqi Intelligence Service and had no party, was nominated by the politicians to be the new Prime Minister. He was well-known for ambiguity and far from the lights of media.
Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has become the Prime Minister in March 2020. The protests were over at the beginning of April 2020. With the taking of responsibility of helping Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised the protesters, who were called “Octoberians”, to hold a premature election, and the election was fixed on 10 June 2020.
Many politicians tried to postpone or cancel the premature election. Under their pressure, the premature election was postponed and fixed on 10 October 2020. During Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s period as a Prime Minister, he opened new channels with the Arab states to enhance the cooperation and held many summits to support Iraq in the next stage.
Attempts to postpone the premature election by the Iraqi politicians were on equal foot, but all these attempts failed and the election occurred on the due time.
Before the election, many Octoberians and influencers encouraged the people not to participate in the election. On the day of the election, it witnessed low participation, and people were convinced of not happening any change. These calls gave their fruits in the process of elections in Iraq where the election witnessed very low participation, and most Iraqis refused to participate and vote to the nominees even though there was a new election law. When the elections were over, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq announced that the results would be within two days. After announcing the results of the election partially and defeating many political factions in the Iraqi arena, many convictions were directed to the commission, and it was convicted by fraud and manipulation with the results. This aspect affected the activity of the Commission and led to put great pressure on it. After two weeks of pressure and convictions, the final results of the elections were announced and many political elite Iraqi leaders were defeated gravely.
The results of the election gave a new start through new leaders who were supporting the October revolution that happened in 2019. And most names of these winning movements and alliances were inspired by the October Movement. Those, who represented October Revolution, were also convicted by other Octoberians that Octoberian winners in the election deviated from the aims of the October Revolution.
A new struggle has begun between the losers in the election and the new winners who will have the right to be in the next term of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Representatives. Moreover, many independent individuals won in the election, and the conflict would deepen the scope of dissidence between the losers and winners. Finally, all raised claims of election fraud have not changed the political situation.
The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives. The Shiite Sadrist movement, which represents 73 seats, has wiped out its competitors. This aspect has compelled the losing Shiite competitors to establish an alliance called “Coordination Framework” to face the Sadrist movement, represented by the cleric Sayyed Muqtada al-Sader. On the other hand, Al-Takadum Movement (Progress Party), represented by the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives, Mohamed Al-Halbousi, has taken the second rank with 37 seats.
The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.
Finally, the first session of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council was held. Mohamed Al-Halbousi has been elected as the spokesman of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council. During the next fifteen days, the president of the republic will be elected.
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
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