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Saudi schoolbooks: What does it take to recontextualize Islam?

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Two decades of snail pace revisions of Saudi schoolbooks aimed at removing supremacist references to Jews, Christians, and Shiites suggest a willingness to delete offensive language while keeping in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

In a break with the past, Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported for the first time in two decades of post-9/11 pressure on Saudi Arabia that the kingdom had made significant progress in revising textbooks.

The reports focussed on explicit references to other religions but noted that further revisions were needed to eliminate language that disparages practices associated with religious minorities, particularly Shiite Muslims and Sufis, sects viewed as heretic by ultra-conservatives.

“As long as the texts continue to disparage religious beliefs and practices of minority groups, including those of fellow Saudi citizens, it will contribute to the culture of discrimination that these groups face,” said Michael Page, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director.

“They removed some of the more offensive stuff like pictures of Shiite shrines that were called shirk (polytheistic) and they removed some offensive language, but the kernel is still there… They are trying to make the language less offensive but the whole idea is offensive,” added Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Adam Coogle.

Implicit in the two reports’ conclusions, but at best only summarily mentioned, was the fact that the ultra-conservative interpretation of basic religious concepts as promoted by Saudi Arabia until the rise of King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, remain unaltered in the schoolbooks.

These interpretations relate to the ban on bida’a or religious innovation and shirk or polytheism as well as the rejection of supplication, a thinly veiled reference to the Shia practice of intercession.

Critics, including prominent Muslim scholars, argue that Saudi Arabia’s failure to address problematic concepts of Islam, that constitute the basis for ultra-conservative rejection of religious pluralism and supremacist and intolerant interpretations of the faith, call into question the kingdom’s projection of itself as a paragon of religious moderation and leader of the Islamic world.

The critics assert that the significant progress reported by Human Rights Watch and Impact-se constitutes part of Saudi Arabia’s effort to pre-empt pressure from the Biden administration as it recalibrates its relationship with the kingdom.

They also charge that the progress is designed to make Saudi Arabia, whose image has been tarnished by human rights abuse and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, palatable to foreign direct investors as well as boost pressure on international companies to shift their regional operations from Dubai to the kingdom.

Scholars in Saudi Arabia took issue with the Human Rights Watch report. “I do not know why the world is so busy with us. Although their countries are full of things that need attention, revision, arrangement, and organization,” said political sociologist Widad al-Jarwan, adding that “even their curricula in the West are full of mistakes against” Muslims.

Indonesian Muslim scholars argue that the Saudi interpretation of ibadah, the rules governing worship, constitute an innovation by defining aspects of worship practised by a majority of Muslims in ways that are viewed by ultra-conservatives as beyond the pale.

“What matters is how the Saudis interpret the teachings related to how Muslims should treat anybody of a different sect or faith. The problem is how they believe the other should be treated. It doesn’t matter what they call me. It doesn’t matter if they call me a kafir, an infidel, as long as they truly believe that I should be treated equally. The problem is that the Saudis don’t really want to change their established system of beliefs,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, a prominent Islamic scholar and secretary-general of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement.

Mr. Staquf was one of the major forces behind Nahdlatul Ulama’s charter of Humanitarian Islam that embraces the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and calls for reform of problematic or obsolete religious legal concepts that negate equal rights for all.

Ali al-Ahmad, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs that has long highlighted problems with Saudi textbooks, contended that “when it comes to bida’a and shirk, the Wahhabis are more guilty than other Muslims. Saudi Arabia will not be able to move forward with Wahhabism as its state religion. The concept of a state religion must be abolished before the country can move into the modern age.”

Mr. Al-Ahmed’s comment goes to the core of the debate about religious reform in the Muslim world and whether states like Saudi Arabia without the lead and buy-in of civil society can achieve real and lasting change.

“There’s no civil society. There’s no dialogue. Zero,” Mr. Coogle said.

Significant social reforms in recent years were primarily designed to cater to youth aspirations, enable economic diversification, attract foreign direct investment, and shore up the country’s tarnished image while ensuring state-control on the principle of absolute obedience to the ruler. They were not rooted in a recognition that the kingdom’s ultra-conservative mores were problematic in and of themselves.

Discussing the textbook revisions, Mr. Coogle noted that “it’s not like the Saudis looked at their textbooks and saw a problem. Other people didn’t like it and the Saudis are trying to quell those concerns.”

The stepped-up Saudi revision of schoolbooks was in part spurred by a draft bill in the US Congress that would require the Secretary of State to report annually “on religious intolerance in Saudi Arabian educational materials.” The draft was initially introduced in 2017 by a Republican sponsor who has since retired and reintroduced in 2019.

The Human Rights Watch report noted that although the revised schoolbooks no longer contain explicit references to Shia Islam, they still included harsh criticism of Shia practices and traditions, labelling them evidence of polytheism that threatens the existence of Islam.

A schoolbook for 4th-grade nine-year olds advised that adherence to such practices would lead to the cancellation of a person’s good deeds, God’s rejection of their repentance, and eternal damnation.

The practices include praying to saints and visiting tombs and shrines of prominent religious figures that are rejected by Wahhabism as a form of idolatry. They also involve the Shiite supplication to God via intermediaries as well as kneeling to anyone other than God, building mosques and shrines on top of graves, and wailing over the dead.

“Any Saudi who reads this will understand what it means,” Mr. Coogle said.

Saudi Shiites noted that all Muslim students, including Shiites, were required to use these textbooks even if they were perceived as offensive.

“The textbooks are written under the close supervision of leading Wahhabi clerics led by Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan,” one of Saudi Arabia’s most senior ultra-conservative clerics, Mr. Al-Ahmad said.

Mr. Al-Fawzan “views Islam as a Wahhabi-only religion. This vision is what is reflected in Saudi textbooks and other religious literature. This means that Shia Muslims, Sufis, other Sunni Muslims –are polytheists and deviants,” Mr. Al-Ahmad added.

Mr. Page cautioned that “as long as disparaging references to religious minorities remain in the text it will continue to stoke controversy and condemnation.”

By the same token, Saudi Arabia’s failure to address ultra-conservative interpretations of religious concepts that justify a rejection of pluralism and religious tolerance challenge the kingdom’s claim to be a leading voice of moderation – a pillar of the country’s quest to be recognized as a, if not the leader of the Muslim world in a new world order.

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.

Middle East

China in the Middle East: Stepping up to the plate

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By defining Chinese characteristics as “seeking common ground while reserving differences,” a formula that implies conflict management rather than conflict resolution, Messrs. Sun and Wu were suggesting that China was seeking to prepare the ground for greater Chinese engagement in efforts to stabilize the Middle East, a volatile region that repeatedly threatens to spin out of control.

The scholars defined China’s goal as building an inclusive and shared regional collective security mechanism based on fairness, justice, multilateralism, comprehensive governance, and the containment of differences.

By implication, Messrs. Sun and Wu’s vision reflected a growing realization in China that it no longer can protect its mushrooming interests exclusively through economic cooperation, trade, and investment.

It also signalled an understanding that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through an inclusive, comprehensive, and multilateral reconstructed security architecture of which China would have to be part.

Messrs. Sun and Wu’s article, published in a prominent Chine policy journal, was part of a subtle and cautious Chinese messaging that was directed towards players on all sides of the Middle East’s multiple divides.

To be clear, China, like Russia, is not seeking to replace the United States, certainly not in military terms, as a dominant force in the Middle East. Rather, it is gradually laying the groundwork to capitalize on a US desire to rejigger its regional commitments by exploiting US efforts to share the burden more broadly with its regional partners and allies.

China is further suggesting that the United States has proven to be unable to manage the Middle East’s myriad conflicts and disputes, making it a Chinese interest to help steer the region into calmer waters while retaining the US military as the backbone of whatever restructured security architecture emerges.

Implicit in the message is the assumption that the Middle East may be one part of the world in which the United States and China can simultaneously cooperate and compete; cooperate in maintaining regional security and compete on issues like technology.

That may prove to be an idealized vision. China, like the United States, is more likely to discover that getting from A to B can be torturous and that avoiding being sucked into the Middle East’s myriad conflicts is easier said than done.

China has long prided itself on its ability to maintain good relations with all sides of the divide by avoiding engagement in the crux of the Middle East’s at times existential divides.

Yet, building a sustainable security architecture that includes conflict management mechanisms, without tackling the core of those divides, is likely to prove all but impossible. The real question is at what point does China feel that the cost of non-engagement outweighs the cost of engagement?

The Middle East is nowhere close to entertaining the kind of approaches and policies required to construct an inclusive security architecture. Nevertheless, changes to US policy being adopted by the Biden administration are producing cracks in the posture of various Middle Eastern states, albeit tiny ones, that bolster the Chinese messaging.

Various belligerents, including Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey, but not Iran or Israel, at least when it comes to issues like Iran and the Palestinians, have sought to lower the region’s temperature even if fundamentals have not changed.

A potential revival of the 2015 international Iran nuclear agreement could provide a monkey wrench.

There is little doubt that any US-Iranian agreement to do so would focus exclusively on nuclear issues and would not include other agenda points such as ballistic missiles and Iranian support for non-state actors in parts of the Middle East. The silver lining is that ballistic missiles and support for non-state actors are issues that Iran would likely discuss if they were embedded in a discussion about restructured regional security arrangements.

This is where China may have a significant contribution to make. Getting all parties to agree to discuss a broader, more inclusive security arrangement involves not just cajoling but also assuaging fears, including whether and to what degree Chinese relations with an Iran unfettered by US sanctions and international isolation would affect Gulf states.

To be sure, while China has much going for it in the Middle East such as its principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, its affinity for autocracy, and its economic weight and emphasis on economic issues, it also needs to manage pitfalls. These include reputational issues despite its vaccine diplomacy, repression of the Uyghurs in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and discrimination against other Muslim communities.

China’s anti-Muslim policies may not be an immediate issue for much of the Muslim world, but they continuously loom as a potential grey swan.

Nevertheless, China, beyond doubt, alongside the United States can play a key role in stabilizing the Middle East. The question is whether both Beijing and Washington can and will step up to the plate.

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Middle East

The US doesn’t deserve a sit on the UNHRC, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen

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A family in the Al Dhale'e camp for people displaced by the conflict in Yemen. YPN for UNOCHA

Last week, the US State Department communicated its intention of joining the UN Human Rights Council later this year. The UN General Assembly will be voting this October on who gets to join the 47-member UN Human Rights Council. 47 members is less than a fourth of all UN member states, so only very few countries get a seat and a say.

The United States does not deserve to join the UN Human Rights Council, with its complicity in the Saudi war crimes in Yemen.

The Human Rights Council is often criticized, especially by the right in the US, for having only bad human rights actors with atrocious records as members. But the US is not an exception to the atrocious human rights record club. 

In the seemingly war-less Trump period, the US nevertheless still managed to get engaged in war and war crimes in the completely devastated Yemen, which was hit by the worst humanitarian crisis and famine over the last years, after US-backed Saudi forces basically flattened the country. Over 13mln people suffered from starvation. Media and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch alike have pointed to US complicity in war crimes in Yemen.

Months ago, I criticized UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore for lauding the Saudis’ “humanitarian leadership” in Yemen for the price of USD 150mln. The UN blue-washing partnerships were possible after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres removed Saudi Arabia from the UN blacklist in 2020 to make sure the rivers of cash by the Saudi humanitarian heroes kept flowing in the UN’s direction. But in October this year, it is not Antonio-it’s not a big deal-Guterres that decides who gets on the UN Human Rights Council. It’s all the UN member states. And many of them will not be impressed by the Saudi humanitarian leadership.

And even though a month ago, new US President Joe Biden announced that the US is ending its support for the Saudi offensive – and in parallel the US intell revealed the Khashoggi report which outlined the Saudi prince’s involvement in the murder of the journalist – questions still persist about the US role in the Yemeni situation from now on. 73% of all Saudi arms imports come from the US. The US State Department will simply be playing on words from now on in redefining what constitutes “offensive” support for the Saudi coalition, as the State Department Spokesperson Ned Price seemed to suggest. Any military expert knows how difficult it is to differentiate between offensive and defensive capabilities. Unless it’s really barb wire standing on your border, it’s pretty hard to make the case that something will serve for only defensive purposes. Especially if the “defense-only” capabilities are for a war-driven Saudi-led coalition. So, basically the Biden policy is the Trump policy, but much more polished. The language is more technocraticly elegant, but the essence is the same – just like many of the other decisions by the Biden Administration in its first weeks. It’s basically Trump, only the phrasing is much more polished and professionally shrewd.

This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Yemen’s Houthies for breaking the peace in responding to the Saudi forces, but it is safe to say that there isn’t much peace to break in Yemen, and the US has also taken care of that. So, Blinken’s statement reveals a new doze of hypocrisy – hypocrisy, which also characterizes the US’s decision to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council.

Biden’s Syria strikes that left many Biden supporters quite surprised last week also indicated that many of us who thought Biden would be a classical Democrat centrist were actually wrong. Biden has much more in common with the right now, judging by his very first policy choices – at home and foreign policy wise.

The US government will have to try a bit harder than “we are not Trump”, if it wants to convince the rest of the countries in October that it deserves a sit on the human rights table. If the Biden Administration continues the same way, it’s not going to be able to do so.

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Middle East

Beyond the friendship diplomacy between Morocco and Mauritania

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Over the past decade or so, many politicians and diplomats have held that the most significant bilateral relationship has been between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. That remains true today, and it will be likely the case for long- term partnership to come, even as the sort of that relationship changes over time. Due to, diplomatic rapprochement between them and bilateral cooperation on several levels, Mauritania, tends formally to withdraw its full recognition of the Polisario Front “SADR” before the term of the current president, Mohamed Ould Al-Ghazwani, ends.

Yet, the truth is that Mauritania has unalterably shifted from the previous engagement with Morocco to the recent conflict with it on nearly all the key fronts: geopolitics, trade, borders security, finance, and even the view on domestic governance. To that extent, Mauritania was the most affected by the Polisario Front militia’s violation to close the Guerguerat border crossing and prevent food supplies from reaching their domestic markets. This crisis frustrated Mauritanian people and politicians who demanded to take firm stances towards the separatists.

In the context of the fascinating development in relations between Rabat and Nouakchott, the Mauritanian government stated that President Ould Ghazwani is heading to take a remarkable decision based on derecognized the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Polisario Front as its sole representative and follow up the recent UN peace process through the case of Western Sahara conflict under UN Security Council resolutions.

Similarly, the United States announced that “Moroccan (Western) Sahara is an integral part of The Kingdom–a traditional Ally, and it supports the Moroccan government’s constitutional procedures to maintain Moroccan Southern provinces strong and united.” It was rapidly followed by all major countries of African, and the Arab Middle East also extended their supports to the government in Rabat. What a determined move against the Polisario Front separatism in a sovereign state!

During the Western Sahara dispute, the Moroccan Sahrawi was humiliated to the end by Polisario Front: it not only lost their identity but also resulted in the several ethnics’ claim for “independence” in the border regions within. currently, Morocco is the only regional power in North Africa that has been challenged in terms of national unity and territorial integrity. The issues cover regional terrorism, political separatism, and fundamental radicalism from various radical ethnic groups. Although the population of the “Polisario groups” is irrelevant because of Morocco’s total population, the territorial space of the ethnic minorities across the country is broadly huge and prosperous in natural resources. besides, the regions are strategically important.

In foreign affairs doctrine, the certainty of countries interacting closely, neighboring states and Algeria, in particular, have always employed the issue of the Western Sahara dispute in the Southern Region of Morocco as the power to criticize and even undermine against Morocco in the name of discredit Sahrawi rights, ethnic discrimination, social injustice, and natural resources exploitation. therefore, local radical Sahrawi groups have occasionally resisted Morocco’s authority over them in a vicious or nonviolent way. Their resistance in jeopardy national security on strategic borders of the Kingdom, at many times, becoming an international issue.

A Mauritanian media stated, that “all the presidential governments that followed the former President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidala, a loyal and supporter to the Polisario Front, were not at all satisfied with the recognition of the SADR creation due to its fear that it would cause reactions from Algeria. however, Mauritania today is not the state of 1978, it has become a well-built country at the regional level, and the position of its military defense has been enhanced at the phase of the continent’s armies after it was categorized as a conventional military power.”

This is what Mauritania has expected the outcome. Although neighboring Mauritania has weeded out the pressures of the Algerian regime, which stood in the way of rapprochement with the Kingdom of Morocco, and the Mauritanian acknowledged that Nouakchott today is “ready to take the historic decision that seeks its geopolitical interests and maintain strategic stability and security of the entire region, away from the external interactions.” Hence, The Mauritanian decision, according to the national media, will adjust its neutral position through the Moroccan (Western) Sahara issue; Because previously was not clear in its political arrangement according to the international or even regional community.

Given the Moroccan domestic opinion, there is still optimistic hope about long-term collaboration on the transformation between Morocco and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, even considering some temporary difficulties between the two in the Western Sahara conflict. For example, prior Mauritania has recognized the Polisario since the 1980s, but this recognition did not turn into an embassy or permanent diplomatic sign of the separatist entity in Mauritania, the Kingdom has a long-standing relationship with Mauritania and the recent regional politics would not harm that, because it’s a political circumstance.

Despite the strain exerted by the Polisario Front and Algeria on Mauritania, and intending to set impediments that avoid strategic development of its relations with Rabat, the Mauritanian-Moroccan interactions have seen an increased economic development for nearly two years, which end up with a phone call asked King Mohammed VI to embark on an official visit to Mauritania as President Ould Ghazwani requested.

For decades, the kingdom of Morocco has deemed a united, stable, and prosperous Maghreb region beneficial to itself and Northern Africa since it is Kingdom’s consistent and open stance and strategic judgment. Accordingly, Morocco would continue supporting North Africa’s unity and development. On the one hand, Morocco and Mauritania are not only being impacted by the pandemic, but also facing perils and challenges such as unilateralism, and protectionism. On the other hand, Rabat opines that the two neighboring states and major forces of the world necessarily established their resolve to strengthen communication and cooperation with each other. To that end, both states would make efforts to set up long-term strategic consensus including mutual trust, reciprocal understandings, and respect to the United Nations and the current international system based on multilateralism.

In sum, both Morocco and Mauritania are sovereign states with a strong desire to be well-built and sophisticated powers. Previous successes and experiences in solving territorial disputes and other issues have given them confidence, which motivated both countries to join hands in the struggles for national independence, equality, and prosperity. In sense of the world politics, two states promise to advance the great cause of reorganization and renovation and learn from each other’s experience in state power and party administration.

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