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Islamophobia: A fungible prop for Muslim religious soft power

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Think the Muslim world is united in opposing Islamophobia? Think twice.

Rising anti-Muslim sentiment in countries like China, Myanmar, and India as well as the West against the backdrop of increased support for anti-migration and extreme nationalist groups, and far-right populist parties is proving to be a boost for contenders for religious soft power in and leadership of the Muslim world.

For Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, supporters of different expressions of political Islam, Islamophobia provides the backdrop for attempts to position themselves as defenders of Muslim causes such as Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and conflict in predominantly Muslim Kashmir.

Absent from the contenders’ list is China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang. China, which aggressively has sought repatriation of Turkic Muslims, recently ratified an extradition treaty that Turkey, home to the largest Xinjiang exile community, insists will not put Uighurs at risk.

By the same token, Islamophobia has proven a useful tool to influence efforts by men like French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to crack down on political Islam and shape the faith in the mould of Turkey & Co’s Middle Eastern rivals for religious soft power, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf monarchies advocate a vague notion of ‘moderate’ Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and is quietist and non-political. The two Gulf states have gone as far as legitimizing China’s crackdown and persuading the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to endorse Chinese policy as an effective way of countering political extremism and violence.

Economics and trade are powerful drivers for the Muslim world’s refusal to hold China accountable. But so are the brownie points that major Muslim-majority contenders for religious soft power garner in Beijing. Muslim criticism of the crackdown potentially could make the difference in pressuring China to change its policy.

Saudi and Emirati rejection of and campaigning against political Islam bolsters the rationale of not only China’s crackdown but also Russian efforts to control Moscow’s potentially restive Muslim minority. China may not like the propagation of political Islam by the Gulf states’ religious soft power rivals but values their silence.

Chinese Turkic Muslims is not the only issue over which contenders, including Asian states like Indonesia, irrespective of what notion of Islam they promote, stumble in their quest for religious soft power.

So is another litmus test of claims of a majority of the contenders to embrace religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue that raises the question of whether contenders should clean up their own house first to give credibility to their often-opportunistic embrace of ‘moderate’ Islam.

Among the rivals, the UAE, populated in majority by non-nationals, is one of only two contenders to start acknowledging changing attitudes and demographic realities.

Authorities in November lifted the ban on consumption of alcohol and cohabitation among unmarried couples. This week, the UAE opened the door to the naturalization of foreign nationals.

The other contender, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement, has begun tackling legal and theological reform of Islam with the encouragement of the government. The movement offered in October a platform for then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to lash out at China’s treatment of Turkic Muslims.

By contrast, Pakistan, in an act of overreach modelled on US insistence on extra-territorial abidance by some of its laws, recently laid down a gauntlet in the struggle to define religious freedom by seeking to block and shut down a US-based website associated with Ahmadis on charges of blasphemy.

Ahmadis are a minority sect viewed as heretics by many Muslims that have been targeted in Indonesia and elsewhere but nowhere more so than in Pakistan where they have been constitutionally classified as non-Muslims. Blasphemy is potentially punishable in Pakistan with a death sentence.

The Pakistani effort was launched at a moment that anti-Ahmadi and anti-Shiite sentiment in Pakistan, home to the world’s largest Shia Muslim minority, is on the rise. Recent mass demonstrations denounced Shiites as “blasphemers” and “infidels” and called for their beheading as the number of blasphemy cases being filed against Shiites in the courts mushrooms.

Pakistan’s rivals in the competition for religious soft power have largely remained silent about the worrying trend, raising questions about the integrity of their commitment to religious freedom and tolerance as well as their rejection of Islamophobia.

Newly appointed Indonesian religious affairs minister, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, a senior Nahdlatul Ulama official, is proving to be the exception that confirms the rule. Mr. Qoumas pledged in one of his first statements as a minister during a visit to a Protestant church to protect the rights of Shiites and Ahmadis.

Said Indonesia scholar Alexander R Arifianto: “Qoumas’ new initiatives as Religious Affairs Minister are a welcome move to counter the influence of radical Islamists and address long-standing injustices against religious minorities. He now has to prove these are not empty slogans, but an earnest attempt at promoting equal citizenship for all Indonesians irrespective of their religious beliefs.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Why specific Muslim community bothering Indian BJP government

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India, a place with a strong political history governed and ruled by Muslims and colonial powers during their regime setup. Being a democratic state and a Majoritarian government it is currently pursuing a political ideology which unfortunately invites a great sum of criticism. Adopting a policy against the minorities particularly Muslims living in the vicinity is a matter of grave concern. It is not haunted by all Muslims worldwide. Only a specific Muslim community with a similar or somehow shared ethnicity is and has been  their target. It reflects its biased character in international system  which is again questioned by many experts concerning its legality and practicality. The gap between first world and third world states has always developed a sense which leads us to change our attitudes and ethical principles and so the same is being done by Indian regimes for decades. The in-build hate and hope is the strategy and a tactic to promote injustices.

Why subcontinent or south Asian region has been the epicentre for India as a state to express its worldly materialistic grudges. Why Middle east or Europe has not been its targets although they are officially recognised as Muslim dominated areas. Why its foreign relations are still functioning and progressing with them. On a serious note, the realistic hegemonic character is dominated to exert pressure better apt for their illegal interests. The trade relations also follow the same suit. It is power politics and that’s how it regulates the system while committing injustices and prejudices. Why UAE and Saudi Arabian Muslims are not targeted? Although they are the main offshoot of Islamic creed. They share historical bond with the religion which is considered as one of main the cause of conflict with rest of the Muslims.

India is one of the states that has seen worst political shifts while promoting so called democratic values which in its true essence is and never will be implemented in India. The elections of 2014 had invited Prime Minister Modi to exercise power and decide future of India. However his winning position clearly portrays the agenda of extremists Hindu nationalists. With that as a core element of their agenda they somehow bring in practice the revival of Hindu nationalism among Hindu masses because they are the majority. While looking at the concept of majoritarian state as foundation of political philosophy or an instrument being used by majority of the population and have a greater access to exercise the right to decision making which ultimately affect the society. His policy which is being opted and adopted as a governing body is directly affecting India’s society at every level. Not particularly the regime is targeting anti religious minorities but is also hitting anti nationalist and opponent government groups.

As depicted and seen Modi is a strong leader who is exercising all powers as a political figure and a leader. In any state elite is a small group involved in elite politics but fortunately Modi was lucky in backing all the arguments by the opponents. Symbolising the liberal democracy which in reality is illiberal and in nature is realistic approach. The mix blend of governance has been played well by Modi. By the support of large number of middle class he countered the politics of elites. These were those groups who were aware of the hegemonic role of the great elites and so was easily convinced and targeted by Modi. The policy adopted by Modi to impress local citizens and nationalists were more towards development forming an alliance aimed at promoting economic growth and it was evident through the continuous economic growth in his area Gujrat. The greater source of motivation for Hindus was linked with religion so they were influenced by Modi at first. Being a core Hindu dominating party the BJP introduced their mission by building a Hindu centric nation that is developed. Further the global hegemon recognition draws more attention to their majoritarian agenda.

In reality one could clearly observe the biasness and impartiality towards Muslims who are considered as the real perpetrators of the land division during partition times. It was evident by their issued statement and atrocities and along with their applied methodology in achieving agendas. Through the lens of normative culture being setup in this region it is unfolding many truths one would  like to ponder upon. Why Myanmar, Kashmir, Pakistan, Bangladesh has been its most awaited targets. Why their ethnic cleansing is not being taken into consideration. Why religion divides them and militancy is legitimised in this regard. The silence of international community is ultimately boosting their morale. Till the time Modi has remained a political leader of Indian state they will make Muslims suffer a lot either through policy making or direct confrontation. Be wise is a term that has never be taken into account while making and taking decisions at state level.

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The sunset of the West and Islam: From US bombs to the return of the Taliban

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With regard to the issue of Islamic proselytism in Europe, where some countries (Belgium, Great Britain, France, etc.) have large minorities of Muslim believers – who, according to many, should be Americanized with sheriff’s hats, miniskirts and reducing the faith to smartphone apps – some clarifications must be made regarding the ignorance that leads newspapers, television and social networks to absolutely not understand what Islam is, i.e. a religion that does not look at races, but aims at the universalism of the God of Abraham.

The Muslim law is a legal science of ancient tradition based on the Holy Koran. Islam is a religious, political and legal system of a reality that is a whole: dogmatic, moral, ritual, pertaining to private and public law (according to our Roman law categories).

A whole – as said above – stemming from the same sacred sources and bearing the overall name of šarī’a (following the straight path revealed by God), which, being based on the Old and New Testament (prophets of Islam: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mary, Muhammad), can be “translated” correctly into religious law of divine origin.

This is of absolute importance and it must be kept in mind – as a peculiarity of Islam – that this religion regulates – with very detailed positive precepts – every manifestation of the life of believers, even in those areas that might appear to be the farthest from the field of religion, according to the parameters of secularism.

The science of law (‘ilm al-fiqh) according to the Muslim jurists (fuqahā’, sing. faqīh) has a first bipartition in the sources of law (usul al-fiqh, sing. asl al-fiqh): the Koran, the Sunnah (ahadīt, sing. hadīt: sayings of the Prophet), the ijmā’ or consensus of the community (ummah) and the qiyās or deductive analogy.

The šarī’a, in turn, is divided into ‘ibādat and mu’āmalat. The former includes the five pillars of faith: acceptance of God, daily prayer, legal almsgiving, fasting and abstinence until sunset in the month of Ramadān (9th), pilgrimage to Mecca and its surroundings in the month of Dû l-Hijja (12th). The second covers all other aspects of the social, economic and political life of the community, and can be adapted to the varying needs of times and places, provided the results do not deviate from the word and spirit of the šarī’a itself.

Prof. Giorgio Vercellin (1950-2007) recalled that Westerners have always pretended not to see this fact, for contingent interests, first of colonial expansion – in trying to impose their own laws and exploit territories – and then of attempted internal assimilation (cancellation of national and fideistic individuality), and

«in essence, therefore, the Muslim world, and particularly the Islamic Near East (and in the manuals there is no trace of the presence of numerous and active Christian and Jewish communities in those territories over the centuries) is described as having an autonomous history worthy of attention only in the remote past. It is not by chance that the pages on Muhammad and his immediate successors follow the much more copious pages describing the Persians – i.e. the Achaemenids – the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, etc. In other words, Islam and the Muslim world are presented on the same “archaeological” level (and therefore devoid of evolution until today) as the ancient Greeks and Romans. […] The real crux is that the Society of Italian Historians has considered the “Muslim world”, so to speak, automatically as part of the “ancient world».

Instead, it is contemporary and present. Muslims are men and women of faith, and for them religion is also pure lawfulness. Islam is not just a confession, but a culture, a multicontinental and cross-sectoral civilisation, a way of life in which the relationship with the divinity is spiritual and temporal at the same time.

The history of Western thought, from the age of Enlightenment to the present day, is marked by the conflict between faith and science: there is a constant loss of ground of the areas of influence of religion in favour of the side hegemonised by technology.

By this we mean secularisation, rationalisation, relativism, etc. The most striking manifestation of all this is the recognition of the right to ‘believe’ but also to ‘not believe’. Tout court, it is the right to atheism, which Muslim jurisprudence – which, as seen above, is identified with faith – does not admit and which the West tries to impose with the violence of American weapons and with the soppy and cloying European do-goodism and political correctness. Whatever some well-meaning sociologists may say, Islam does not distinguish between religion and politics, between confession and law.

The trend that is being strengthened in the Islamic world consists in a reaffirmation of both regulations and general Shariah principles, which have been established either through legislation or as a practice in Muslim and Islamic countries, i.e. the places from where migrants come.

In the Islamic tradition, the principle that Islam as such must be both religion and State (dīn wa-dawla wa duniyā), and that the term secularism (‘ilmaniyya) is synonymous with atheism, materialism, permissiveness, moral decadence, etc., is fundamental, especially in the countries allied with the West (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, etc.), and in those which are not allied with it. In each of them the institutional presence of other faiths is rarely allowed – and this from a purely legal viewpoint.

The illusion with which weak-minded or mean-minded people (to say the least) and others pursue the so-called multiculturalism has no basis in the experience and beliefs of the other party. Therefore, imagining a Muslim who adheres to the canons and principles of the liberal system – which is atheist insofar as it turns faith from a value into a subjective choice or into an “evangelical” sociological solution and welfarism for the desperate or destitute people – is a deadly naivety: a historical suicide on the part of a society that no longer has anything to offer and on the part of a production system that is leading the planet to destruction.

Any person, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish, who puts forward his or her own viewpoint – either in writing or in a speech, which subsumes his or her thinking – clearly believes it to be right and true, and does not accept – on principle – a contrary or different opinion.

It is practically the parallel of a Westerner who, for various reasons, moves to a Muslim country and ex abrupto denies his way of thinking and living. Sometimes you do not understand whether this candid hope is the result of the Westerner’s ignorance or, worse, the absolute malice of a few, since cheap and profitable workforce and caregivers are much more needed than ethics, respect and safety and security of our citizens.

This shows that it is not the West that tolerates the Muslim presence in Europe, but the opposite. In a society such as ours – in full social and environmental deterioration (see the Laudato si’ by Pope Francis), which has denied the sacred and has mixed genders; which is based on consumerism, servitude to money, exasperation of profit, the race for the useless, the triumph of technologicism, the race for pleasure, hedonism, the reduction of the ruling class and of politicians to zero; which has relegated women to the role of sexual icons and has reduced the sense of heroism to fiction; a society in which liberal-free market thinking generates embarrassing choices – the believers, including Catholics, Christians in toto, Jews and Muslims here, are instead tolerating the system that hosts them.

This is proved by the fact that the criminal horrors and atrocities we witnessed on November 13, 2015 were carried out by an infinitesimal percentage of Muslims present on our continent – on top of it, European citizens and not emigrants, i.e. legal children of those States where they committed crimes. It is not for me to explain why they have done so. In a millennium and a half, what has been happening for the last sixteen years, since the “humanitarian” bombs began to devastate the Afghanistan of the Taliban in the past and of the Taliban today, has never happened.

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Muslim-Evangelical alliance strives to create religious and political middle ground

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A recent unprecedented alliance between Muslims and Evangelicals takes on added significance in a world in which human rights are on the defensive, religious groups tend to forge political as well as ideational partnerships, and the role of the clergy in multiple Muslim-majority countries has come under scrutiny.

The alliance potentially could create a platform for voices in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East, in which significant segments of the youth who constitute a majority of the population, increasingly reject state-controlled, ritualistic forms of religion and distrust clerics subservient to the government.

It could also offer a middle ground on which elements of the secular centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based values in deeply polarised parts of the world, particularly in the West.

International affairs and inter-faith scholar Michael Driessen suggested in an email to this writer that the recently forged alliance between Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one, if not the world’s largest Muslim civil society organization, and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), fits a pattern of partnerships between diverse religious groups that goes beyond seeking to protect minorities to promotion of social cohesion and fraternity.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Interfaith Forum of the Group of 20 or G20 that brings together the world’s largest economies, Tunisian Islam scholar Nejia Al-Ourimi seemed to anticipate the alliance when she argued that reform of Islam would have to be bottom-up and originate in civil society rather than top-down and directed and controlled by autocratic rulers who see it as a way of branding themselves and their nations as well as and one way of ensuring survival.

Ms. Al-Ourimi reasoned further that genuine inclusivity was precluded in much of the Middle East because most Arab constitutions assume that the state has a religion. She went on to say that “what we need to do is reframe the traditional approaches of linking religion to legislation. We must find leaders who are willing to withdraw from the traditional way of participating in the public sphere—through the legal and legislative dimensions—and return from a ‘values’ perspective to guide ethical efforts.”

In a contribution to a recently published report on Human Fraternity and Inclusive Citizenship issued by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and the Beirut-based Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity and Human Dignity (Adyan), Ms. Al-Oumiri points to a series of lofty, lovey-dovey inter-faith statements issued in the past decade by different combinations of Arab Muslim and non-Muslim clerics, religious and secular intellectuals, and politicians.

The statements constituted attempts by Muslim religious authorities and autocratic governments to keep ahead of the curb of youth aspirations and project themselves as voices of moderation by emphasizing religious freedom, religious pluralism, and inclusive citizenship irrespective of religious belief.

The statements include the 2012 Statement on Basic Freedoms issued by Al Azhar, Islam’s Cairo-based oldest institution of Islamic learning that has long been swayed by Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial support, the 2016 Marrakech Declaration that called for the development of a jurisprudence of that enshrines the concept of inclusive citizenship, and the Document on Human Fraternity signed in the UAE in 2019 by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

Referring to the 2012 Al Azhar statement, Ms. Al-Oumiri highlighted the fact that the statement was issued in the wake of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Saudi and UAE manoeuvres helped roll back the revolts’ achievements in all of the countries except for Tunisia.

The manoeuvres did not roll back what Ms. Al-Oumiri described as a “new awareness” among “all the components that participated in the protest movement, secularists, liberals, Christians, Muslims and others, (that) became aware of the fact that the bilateral polarization and exclusionary relations prevailing at that time were the main reason for the dispersion of forces capable of inducing positive change and extricating Arab society from its chronic crisis.” It is an awareness that expresses itself today among others in changing youth attitudes towards religiosity.

Ms. Al-Oumiri’s ‘new awareness’ is one factor that hampers autocratic efforts to shape a moderate form of Islam that serves the needs of social change and economic diversification without conceding democratic freedoms, projects autocrats as religious moderates as part of their nation branding and furthers their quest for religious soft power.

The ‘new awareness’ is borne out by research and opinion polls that consistently show that the gap between the religious aspirations of youth and state-imposed interpretations of Islam is widening. The polls and research suggest that youth are increasingly sceptical towards religious and worldly authority. They aspire to more individual, more spiritual experiences of religion.

As a result, Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity to turn its alliance with the WEA into a vehicle of change in both the Muslim world and the West is enhanced by the fact that religious reform in rival contenders for religious soft power like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Egypt is top-down by decree or changes in common or civil rather than, more sustainably, bottom-up and anchored in religious law and jurisprudence.

The point was highlighted when Nahdlatul Ulama’s religious leaders took the first step towards reform of religious law and/or jurisprudence in 2019 by replacing the notion of the kafir or infidel with the concept of muwathinun or citizens to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.

Leaders of the group say that they intend to tackle other outdated, intolerant, or supremacist concepts such as the dhimmi or People of the Book, and slavey that remain reference points even if large numbers of Muslims do not heed them in their daily life, as well as eventually blasphemy and apostasy.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s opportunity is further both bolstered and complicated by the fact that autocratic Muslim rulers wittingly or unwittingly reinforce Islamophobic tendencies in multiple ways by their often brutal abuse of human rights at home and their support of policies in various parts of the globe that encourage negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.

These policies include the blurring in countries like France and Austria of the lines between political Islam and piety as well as autocratic Muslim acquiescence, if not endorsement of the crackdown on Turkic Muslims and Islam in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Nahdlatul Ulama, despite its tangible adherence to principles of democracy, human rights, and tolerance, has yet to clearly distinguish itself from autocratic religious soft power rivals when it comes to its shared rejection of political Islam and identity politics. In other words, how it handles Islamophobia is likely to be a litmus test for Nahdlatul Ulama as well as its alliance with the Evangelicals.

Making that distinction clear is likely to also enhance the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s ability to bring together elements of the centre-right and centre-left could meet based on shared faith-based advocacy of human rights, democratic freedoms, and tolerance at a time that democracy is on the defence.

The linkage between the Nahdlatul Ulama-WEA alliance’s opportunity to serve as a bridge in both the religious and political domain is evident not only when it comes to countering religious supremacism but also far-right extremism. It is that linkage that adds a geopolitical dimension to the alliance’s potential.

Germany, where ultra-nationalist supremacists, despite recent electoral setbacks for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have infiltrated the security and armed forces, spotlights the importance of creating a religious and political centre that is driven as much by shared values as it is by interests.

Security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents in recent years. The German defence ministry last year disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and memorabilia of the Nazi’s SS were found on the property of a sergeant major.

The geopolitical significance of developments in Germany is enhanced by the fact that some German ultra-nationalists and members of the far-right are believed to have links to Russia and /or far-right Russian nationalists.

In the latest German incident, prosecutors are investigating an official of Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, suspected of helping plan the assassination of a Chechen dissident as part of a campaign across Europe that targets critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Kadyrov is widely viewed as an associate of President Vladimir Putin and maintains close ties to Middle Eastern autocrats.

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