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Rethinking accountability, revolution and challenging the status quo in Lebanon

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Political corruption in Lebanon traces its roots to the re-assembling in the post-civil war era, which entrenched a realm of politics dominated by war lords and militia-like mentalities operating through a sectarian discourse.  The waste resulting from “confessional governance” costs Lebanon 9% of GDP each year.[1] In the early 1990s, “Lebanese political bosses either coopted or gutted institutions such as unions, professional associations and opposition parties. Public schools and hospitals were defunded.”  Today, many Lebanese do not send their children to public schools or hospitals. Sukleen, the company contracted by the government to collect waste in Beirut and Mount Lebanon charges 4x more per ton of waste disposed in landfills compared to providers in the UK.[2]  Nearly 40% of electricity is produced by private generators established during the civil war and partially owned by various politicians today, profiting close to $1 billion a year. Electricite du Liban, the public electricity company collects payments for only half of the power it produces.[3]

Additionally, corruption and government inefficiency in collecting VAT has cost the state $5 billion a year, roughly 10% of GDP.[4] Historically known for its banking secrecy laws, 15 of 54 commercial Lebanese banks have politicians linked to their chair of the Board; four out of the top ten banks in the country possess over 70% of their shares due to crony capital,  and individuals linked to political elites control 43% of assets in Lebanon’s commercial banking sector.[5] In Lebanon, 46% of government revenue is dedicated to public salaries, which increased 7.5% each year for the last ten years.[6] Thirty years of this crony, capitalist decadence has expanded inequality in the country with public debt skyrocketing, as well as visible incompetence to deliver on basic social services. As a result, the majority of Lebanese find it increasingly impossible to buy their way out of such a system.[7]In exploring corruption in Lebanon through the discourse employed by recent social mobilization in October of 2019 that defined and vilified its role in politics and social life, we can begin to understand how Lebanese define or perceive corruption and how the political elite both consolidate and perpetuate this structure.

Re-defining corruption

               Sentiments expressed in the protest movement, affirmand greatly emphasize the notion of theft or “stolen money” or of resources not rightfully possessed as a primary component of corruption.  As the revolution began to evolve, evidence emerged that various political leaders had withdrawn sums equivalent to billions of US dollars in the span of 15 days, presumably fearing the fallout of economic collapse.[8] This development was echoed by conversations surrounding the many public work contracts, electricity budget and government salaries that have systematically resulted in the theft of state funds.  This pattern of corruption underscores not simply the mismanagement of government resources, but a reaction against the acquisition of something that does not rightfully belong to a person, with little to no consequences.  These sorts of actions have permeated down from the political class to the daily interactions that guide society.  This and countless conversations of this nature that occurred during my field work in December of 2019 and January, 2020 in Lebanon , including my discussion with Ayman Mhanna (executive director of the Samir Kassir foundation, a civil society organization dedicated to free press and democracy) in the summer of 2019 speak to this corrosion of trust both in political leaders, but also the system they operate in, which trickles down to quotidian experiences.  An “every man for himself” mentality has fueled and reproduced this notion of theft, in which at all levels, politician and citizen can or must take what is not theirs either to live how they desire or in order to survive respectively.  However, this action is denoted as theft, because what is taken is not rightfully earned.

               The reoccurring question of theft can also be extended beyond material needs.  With many Lebanese paying dual public and private electricity and water bills, for private schools and their children forced to work or study abroad, this idea was often framed around conceptions of dignity, echoed in many uprisings in the region since 2011.[9]  As this basic access to water, electricity, clean air, public transportation, and work has become increasingly harder and harder to come by, many Lebanese snapped under the mounting pressure, demanding their own dignity be recognized. Moreover, this dignity was deeply tied to the enormous brain drain currently plaguing the country, in which over 4,700 Lebanese continue to emigrate from Lebanon every month.[10]  With opportunities dwindling both due to the economic situation, but also the theft of state money and inability to find work without wasta[11], the future of generations to come has also been stolen. This theft was veiled time and time again behind sectarian politics and attitudes, in which individuals’ leaders evade accountability but also squarely place the blame on their counterparts for political stalemates or acts of corruption. The effects of these sectarian politics were underscored by the current movement through graffiti on the ground in Riad el Solh square facing parliament in Beirut reading “corruption=sectarianism”.  Finally, the symbiotic relationship between the political class, the private sector and the banks, particularly following the reconstruction of Lebanon after the civil war has produced a ruthless economic system that solely benefits political elites. Therefore, this structure is also perceived as a form of theft, and by extension corruption. Unpacking further the various symbols and organizing culture of this movement can help expand this understanding of these perceived links.

Public space and knowledge production

               One of the most striking developments of the October 17th was the clear reclamation of public space and knowledge production. The reclaimed public spaces and transforming urban fabric challenged the agenda imposing a luxury oriented downtown Beirut catering to elites. Instead, the changing identity of this space now reflects the authority on the ground—the people.  The discussions that took place in these spaces through unlikely gatherings of people were revolutionary because they were unprecedented in the post-war context. Without access to public space, such conversations proved impossible. Moreover, there was an observable reclamation of trust in the fellow citizen and a reclamation of solidarity through the use of public space previously denied to the Lebanese people as a means of social control.  Now, the free exchange of ideas that threaten the established powers is possible. Though the protests of 2005, known as the Cedar Revolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces mobilized close to a million people in Beirut, there were no substantial efforts to actively claim space through the occupation of cultural centers and the establishment of tents, lectures, street art etc. like the current movement  The 2005 demonstrations had also reacted to the death of the then Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri who was responsible for the elite nature of the downtown area that provides virtually no public space.

               On New Year’s Eve, the movement organized a celebration in the downtown area, markedly different to the previous year where the municipality spent generous sums to maintain the glamorous image promoted by Solidere.[12] This year, however, the celebration proved to be far more “popular” in nature, focusing instead on the achievements of the movement thus far: the resignation of the sitting Prime Minister and a sense of national unity. During the evening, a recent acquaintance turned to me, offering another expression of identification with the space, saying that the atmosphere of working-class people enjoying the space is similar to how it was before the civil war.  This anecdote does not bear importance for its veracity, particularly as this individual was not alive before the civil war. Rather, it speaks to a perception that something about the general order today had robbed people of a common space that was inviting of all backgrounds. Reclaiming this space in this way, therefore is a direct rejection of the post war system and the authority legitimizing it on the ground. The public lectures and debates that had occurred in the first weeks of the revolution had shrunk significantly during the month I was present. However, across the interviews conducted, the various participants found that these initiatives created occasions for learning, a platform for self-expression, an opportunity to break up “bubbles” of typical confessional communities and to build cross-sectarian solidarity.  As one interviewee added, spaces of Beirut felt more connected to her now, as she explored and ventured into neighborhoods previously unknown to her in order to attend demonstrations.

Symbols, grievances and the politics of meaning

               Notions of public space reclamation, knowledge production, the visible links between corruption, sectarianism and the neo-liberal, urban reconstruction and the cartel-like economy materialized in various symbols throughout the movement. Street art and graffiti were incredibly effective tools in expressing the views of the movement. Moreover, the significance of the location of the street art strategically highlighted the decadence of the elitist reconstruction project, out of touch with the social fabric. This art often focused on issues of social injustice, social renewal (a statue of the phoenix rising), calls for a civil state as opposed to a sectarian state (“civil resistance”), the end of foreign interference (from Iran to Saudi Arabia to the United States) as well as various references to the far left (graffitied communist symbols, the Kuffiyieh—a symbol of Palestinian liberation and of leftist resistance more broadly, “down with bankism and classism,” “love, freedom and social justice” “liberation” “f**k Solidere”). Moreover, this art served as another form of reclamation of this space.  The artists and activists I interviewed asserted that this revolution would not have occurred at this point had Hariri “shared the wealth” with the Lebanese people, frequently referred to the political class as a set of cartels. During the “week of rage”, I repeatedly heard protestors singing a song entitled شيد قصورك or “Erect your castles on the farms,” a song by an Egyptian folk singer, known for composing political music sympathetic to working and oppressed classes. These images and sentiments were also reflected in chants outside the banking institutions:

الوطن ، العمال

تسقط سلطة رأس المال or “The nation, workers, down with the power of capital”

Many protestors from their balconies would bang pots and pans, a reference to the South American protest tactic, the cacerolazo. Perhaps a nod to an emerging global backlash against the many variations of this system around the world.

The locations and stops along marches and demonstrations also signified a rejection of extreme neoliberalism and the complicity of the financial system in the sectarianism and corruption of the state. Therefore, demonstrations typically became more targeted following the initial general mobilization, focusing on the banking districts, the Central bank and property of Solidere in the downtown area (Beirut Souks).  Along the path of many marches, protestors would not revert to looting or thoughtless vandalism, but would smash the storefronts of banks to crystallize the message. One day during a walk towards downtown, I observed the occupation of a branch of Bank Audi in the neighborhood of Achrafieh.  People had gathered in the bank, demanding the right to withdraw their funds, which had been limited to 200USD per week by the Central Bank due to the dollar liquidity crisis.  Contesting these restrictions, many stayed inside the bank until their demands would be met.  They were locked inside the bank, with one man placing sticky notes on the glass doors to inform outside observers of what was happening. Some of the notes wrote that they were forced to stay inside, and another wrote they were “prisoners of capitalism.”  

The movement also chose to demonstrate in front of the newly appointed Prime Minister’s home and would identify politicians in public, frequently shaming them out of establishments. The occupation of “the ring” highway, the original site dividing East and West Beirut during the civil war underscores a repudiation of typical sectarian divisions. The use of the communist symbol along with the prevalence of the Kuffiyeh further signified renunciation of the status quo. A divisive symbol associated with the pro-Palestinian, leftist and pan-Arab faction of the Lebanese civil war, now appears an almost non-issue in the context of the revolution. Instead, this symbol was reclaimed to no longer signify this division but rather calls for greater justice across all identities and communities.  Finally, beyond grievances surrounding social injustice and inequality, their connection to the notion of dignity also revealed itself in these symbols.

Alterative exchanges and democratization of mobilization

After October 17th, the movement took a vested interest in promoting Lebanese products or alternative modes of commercial exchange, both as a form of reclamation against the exportation of human capital and importation of foreign goods, but also out of compulsion. In one interview conducted, the participant described her experience in founding an alternative market with fellow revolutionaries. In this market, a committee was formed to find ways to “make ends meet” in the current economic decline before structural changes occur and raising money for those in need in a sustainable fashion.  This implied vendors would have the freedom to exchange goods and build their own markets outside the formal economy.  Sometimes this implied an exchange of their goods as a sort of alternative currency. The products exchanged in this market ranged from books, clothes, hygiene products, food, post cards, jewelry etc.  She affirmed this alternative market was created by protestors to support those in need— “not as charity in neo-liberal sense but as act of solidarity.” She stressed the revolutionary nature of this market, because she found that Lebanese are so unaccustomed to a culture of exchange, especially in this space.  The market committee and vendors would often meet in the tents set up in the downtown area where various lectures and discussions had taken place. Despite some support from traditional civil society groups, this market proved to be an independent, grassroots and organic creation of the revolutionary moment.  After running into a street child she had formed a bond within the early weeks of the revolution, she reiterated the importance of these horizontal exchanges claiming this allowed her to meet people she otherwise would never have interreacted with. This organizing nature of the market and various initiatives of the movement—diffused, horizontal, accessible—reflect Lebanese society in reality and embody its demands for greater equality and social justice in a system which continues to benefit a select few.

New alternative, and independent media outlets also emerged (Akhbar el Seha, Megaphone, Daleel el Thawra etc.). These pages on Instagram and Facebook, served as a direct counter to the traditional, politically affiliated media outlets in the country, which often ignored events on the ground or vilified protestors.  These pages offered live coverage, updates and summaries of daily events through a new base of journalists and activists, free of traditional political persuasions or financial connections, instead empowered by the democratic nature of social media and like-minded individuals. Informal and grassroots organizations led much of the movement, particularly as the movement progressed, signifying a dispersed and decentralized approach guided by common goals and common anger. With the perception that typical civil society actors proving to be ineffective, individuals or new groups became legitimate representatives of the people. This also led to a more organic expression of inter-regional solidarity. Therefore, the democratization and individualization of the revolution emboldened Lebanese to claim their rights and reclaim trust in their fellow citizen. The individual participating in the alternative market explained that pride in her identity would not link to a romantic nationalist notion but rather to a functional system.  As a citizen with rights, this desire is what pushed her to act towards claiming these rights. Moreover, this process empowered new actors to lead.

 Many of those I spoke to commented that typical civil society actors they expected to be organizing during this period were more timid in their approach, often hindered by inter-personal disagreements or as one interviewee said, their inability to tangibly defy state power and continued negotiation with the system. Moreover, unions and syndicates face increasing pressure in the Lebanese context and are unable to enact change as they did in Sudan or Tunisia. Traditional institutions of this nature function less effectively because they are consistently politicized. Consequently, this failure led many individuals to mobilize in new forms. The “week of rage” was called in order to protest the appointment of the new Prime Minister and the delay in government formation.  This week of marches and demonstrations seemingly led by students, feminists, and leftist activists.  However, no one organizer seemed to take credit in organizing the week, instead citing social media as largely responsible for simply spreading the word that something needed to be done. As the new context demanded alternative approaches, several individuals and grassroots entities became aware of their agency, the informal feminist, leftist and student networks rose to the fore to fill the gap.

The empowerment of non-traditional actors can also be exemplified in the mobilization and contribution of women in the movement.  Mobilized women and feminist activists have played a central role in combatting the status quo, particularly motivated by the injustice of personal status laws permitting child marriage, severely disadvantaging them in the case of divorce and the current citizenship law.  Women participating therefore issued demands for an end to these practices, protection of their reproductive rights, protection from violence and harassment as well as greater government representation and the termination of the Kafala system (recognizing the intersections between race and gender for migrant female workers subject to some of the highest forms of violence and abuse in the country).[13]  The role of feminists in the mobilization is embedded in the rejection of corruption in this current iteration.  As described by the activist working in the alternative market, the political system is corrupt, racist, sectarian, unaccountable, and patriarchal. For her, patriarchy is in and of itself corruption, because men are able to advance before women in all aspects of social and political life.  The system, according to her claims to be neo-liberal and open but is in fact extremely illiberal in how it treats half of the population.  Therefore, it came as no surprise to observe feminists’ organizers at every single protest, march and demonstration, calling for social justice through an intersectional lens and producing alternative media content.

 These testimonies encouraged a sort of individualization and democratization of the mobilization since October, particularly because everyone possesses an issue at stake in the event of a transition. The discussions empowering individuals to take this step and to organize with like-minded individuals was made possible through public space reclamation. This recognition of individual agency lent itself to greater dialogue across cleavages in society normally unapproached.  The sort of grassroots, broad-based and egalitarian nature of the mobilization efforts, therefore, serves as a manifesto and reflection of the grievances and desires of the movement—a Lebanon that is accountable, meritocratic, equal, fair, united against sectarian division and infantilization, and serves its citizens. 

The sociological problematic and shifting mentalities

 Dedicated protestors exhibited a liberation from this infantilization imposed on them by the state—the Zaim/Zu’amaor the political elite.  Others noted that such a transition requires a revolution within, which they had begun to witness. An artist and activist I interviewed argued that they “must revolt against the father before (they) can revolt against the Zaim” because Lebanon possess a sociological problem that cannot be resolved in a top-down approach, beginning at the political level.  Therefore, the mobilization of Lebanese appeared to be an organic demonstration of inter-regional solidarity, at least momentarily. A student activist I spoke to called this process the “death of the Zaim” and a revolution within oneself.  Without this individual decision to question and revolutionize how they view governance, their identity and citizenship, they were unable to rid themselves of the dominance of the Zaim and go to the streets.  The empowerment of individuals in this process of self-liberation reflects for some the unfettering from traditional bonds coercing political or communal loyalty.  This transformation was illustrated across various individuals from different walks of life. 

These events must not be considered universal or complete.  Still, many individuals and generations are seeking to uphold the status quo, and the loyalists of the political class will not easily concede what remains of their power.  The mobilization has been sustained by various age groups, sects, and classes. However, it has become clear that Shia support for the movement has dwindled, along with the support of the middle classes and the generation formed in the civil war.[14]  Perhaps the rise of Sunni communities demonstrated by events occurring in Tripoli speak to a reaction to a crisis of leadership rather than a total upheaval of the political and social system. Yet, one cannot dismiss that’s this popular movement has created unprecedented linkages across typical cleavages in Lebanese society in a manner that is diffused, more democratic, somehow anarchic, and in this way a rejection of the elite, unequal and corrupt post-war order.


[1] “Lebanon’s Political System Leads to Paralysis and Corruption.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/04/19/lebanons-political-system-leads-to-paralysis-and-corruption.

[2] “One Year on, Lebanon’s Waste Management Policies Still Stink.” PressReader.com – Your Favorite Newspapers and Magazines., www.pressreader.com/lebanon/the-daily-star-lebanon/20160915/281741268880633.

[3]McDowall, Angus. “Fixing Lebanon’s Ruinous Electricity Crisis.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 29 Mar. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-economy-electricity/fixing-lebanons-ruinous-electricity-crisis-idUSKCN1RA24Z.; Nasnas, Roger. “Emerging Lebanon Towards Economic Growth and Social Welfare.” CES, www.ces.gov.lb/uploads/files/1570_Emerging%20Lebanon%20-%20Towards%20Economic%20Growth%20and%20Social%20Welfare%20.pdf.

[4]“Lebanon Economic Vision.” Economy.gov.lb, www.economy.gov.lb/media/11893/20181022-1228full-report-en.pdf. 600,613

[5]Chaaban, Jad. “I’ve Got the Power: Mapping Connections between Lebanon’s Banking Sector and the Ruling Class.” Economic Research Forum. 2016.

[6] Lebanon Economic Vision.” Economy.gov.lb, www.economy.gov.lb/media/11893/20181022-1228full-report-en.pdf.

[7] El-Amine, Rayan, et al. “The Lebanese People Are Reclaiming Their Future. Can They Seize It?” Middle East Eye, www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/how-lebanese-people-are-reclaiming-their-future.

[8]Al Jazeera. “Lebanon: Banks Asked to Review Politicians’ Fund Transfers Abroad.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 16 Jan. 2020, www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/lebanon-banks-asked-review-politicians-fund-transfers-200116162617641.html.

[9] Lebanese citizens have long suffered from an inconsistent supply of certain public services, including water and electricity. Electricity is provided publicly to citizens in Lebanon, but at most will be available for two thirds of the day. Many Lebanese have reverted to private power generators, whose sellers are typically supported by politicians, who supply homes with power using the official pubic distribution networks in exchange for monthly subscription fees.  Due to the mismanagement by the government and the damage done to water systems following the 2006 war, most Lebanese receive water from their municipalities intermittently and often water that is contaminated. As a result, most are forced to pay two bills, one for municipal water and one for bottled water or some other private source, often associated with a particular political leader.   Such trends manifest themselves in the provision of practically all social services in the country.

[10] “Over 4,700 Lebanese Are Emigrating from #Lebanon Every Month.” Blog Baladi, blogbaladi.com/over-4700-lebanese-are-immigrating-every-month/.

[11] The term Wasta, loosely translates to an individual who finds themselves in the middle, between two actors or parties.  This term more specifically, is used to refer to the use of one’s connections for personal gain. Western readings of Wastaoften denote this concept as a manifestation of nepotism and for some, corruption. Wasta may include corrupt acts, but also captures a larger phenomenon in Middle Eastern societies. Some instances of Wasta are in fact legal. Such practices additionally, may be legally questionable but are in fact systematic, socially acceptable modes of behavior. Wasta is not a top down business but is diffused across society. 

[12]Solidere is a firm that was partially owned by the late Rafik Hariri, the Prime Minister in the 1990s, tasked with planning and reconstructing Beirut’s central district.  He centered his approach of the reconstruction on foreign investment and business interests. Yet, his approach allowed the warlords of the civil war to exploit the reconstruction economy. Additionally, Hariri focused largely on creating a “modern” and luxurious downtown rather than investing in infrastructure, transportation, hospitals or schools.

[13] « Under the country’s kafala (or sponsorship) system, the legal status of migrant domestic workers is in the hands of their employers. If the employer terminates their contract, the sponsorship gets automatically cancelled, turning these workers into illegal aliens and putting them at risk of arrest and/or deportation. In addition, although confiscating passports is forbidden by law, such violations continue to occur. In effect, this means that foreign workers, most of whom are women, have very little means to defend themselves should the employer abuse them in any way or refuse to pay their salary. “The Lebanese Revolution Must Abolish the Kafala System.” Middle East | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 14 Nov. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/lebanese-revolution-abolish-kafala-system-191114115435950.html.

[14] At times violent threats and acts were made against protesters from the Shiite Muslim community. As mentioned, this community relies on the group for protection, jobs, social services. Moreover, this community are often sidelined and neglected by state institutions and at times society at large. Therefore, a narrative from this community has emerged in which internal criticism may be permittedbut become defensive when their leadership is criticized externally. These videos seriously demotivated some from the community from participating in protests.  Yee, Vivian, and Hwaida Saad. “For Lebanon’s Shiites, a Dilemma: Stay Loyal to Hezbollah or Keep Protesting?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/world/middleeast/lebanon-protests-shiites-hezbollah.html.

Marie-Christine Ghreichi is a recent graduate of Sciences Po, Paris specializing in International Security with a focus on Diplomacy and the Middle East Region. After completing her studies in the United States where she supported a transitional justice research collaborative, she worked with Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, Lebanon before then coming to Paris to pursue her master’s degree. She is passionate about international conflict resolution, human rights, accountable governance, gender rights and the Middle East.

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Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields

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Copyright © Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Vatican Media

When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.

The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.

Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.

Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.

To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.

With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.

Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”

“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.

Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.

“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.

Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.

That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.

In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.

The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.

The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.

That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”

Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”

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Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit

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The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.

The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.

In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.

It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.

The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.

Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.

Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.

The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.

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Middle East

Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

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Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.

Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.

Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.

How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.

Consider three recent instances.

First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.

Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”

Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.

Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.

Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.

For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.

In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.

Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.

Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.

In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”

Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.

These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.

The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.

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