Middle Eastern powers vie in shaping a next generation of Muslims
Education is emerging as a major flashpoint in competing visions of a future Muslim world. Rival concepts being instilled in a next generation are likely to shape what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam.
Reports earlier this year published by the Israel-based Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE) chart the divergence in educational approaches.
At one end of the spectrum are Pakistan and Turkey, two of the more populous Muslim countries whose claim to leadership of the Muslim world is rooted in conservative, if not ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, that increasingly shape their education systems.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reside at the other end with their reduced emphasis on religion in education and emphasis on science as well as religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.
Straddling the two approaches is Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state alongside Saudi Arabia even if it adhered to a more liberal interpretation long before the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Since coming to office, Prince Mohammed has significantly reduced the role of ultra-conservative religious figures and institutions, cut back on global funding of Wahhabi activity, enhanced women’s rights and built a Western-style entertainment sector.
Sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar sees global support of political Islam, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as its best defense against the Saudi and Iranian governance models.
Qatari textbooks reflect the tightrope the Gulf state walks between professing adherence to concepts of democratic freedoms, human rights, tolerance, and pluralism, yet refusing to break with anti-Semitic and anti-Christian notions as well as philosophies of jihad and martyrdom prevalent in political Islam.
What the different approaches have in common is what makes both problematic: an endorsement of autocratic or strongman rule by either explicitly propagating absolute obedience to the ruler or the increasingly authoritarian environment in which the Islamicised education systems are being rolled out.
Underlying the different approaches to education are diverging interpretations of what Islam represents and what constitutes a moderate form of the faith as well as seemingly haphazard definitions put forward by various leaders.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in contrast to the values propagated in Turkish and Pakistan school curricula, tackle issues that are widely seen as potentially contributing to breeding grounds for radicalism and extremism.
These include supremacist concepts, discriminatory portrayals of minorities, emphasis on rote learning and attitudes towards violence.
In an interview in early May, Prince Mohammed expressed seemingly contradictory definitions of what his version of moderate Islam entailed. On the one hand, the crown prince suggested that it involved a liberal application of Islamic law guided by principles of tolerance and inclusivity.
Yet, at the same time, when asked about tackling extremism, Prince Mohammed cited a hadith or prophetic saying that urges the faithful to kill extremists. Saudi dissidents charged that the crown prince was justifying the targeting of those who criticized him, such as Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
“Today, we cannot grow, attract capital, offer tourism, or move forward with the existence of extremist ideology in Saudi Arabia. If you want millions of jobs, decline of unemployment, economic growth, and better income, then you must uproot this project… Any person who espouses an extremist ideology, even if he is not a terrorist, he is still a criminal who must be held accountable before the law,” Prince Mohammed said, arguing that the days in which religious ultra-conservatism served a purpose were in the past.
The divergence in educational approaches takes on added significance because countries that vie for leadership of the Muslim world like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey as well as Iran, export their visions of what the faith stands for in a variety of ways. These include funding of religious, cultural, and educational institutions in third countries and lobbying for policies that bolster their approach and counter that of their rivals.
While cutting back significantly on its overseas funding and harnessing the Muslim World League (MWL), once a prime vehicle in the Saudi promotion of ultra-conservatism, to propagate the kingdom’s more recent message of tolerance and inter-faith outreach, Saudi Arabia at times does not shy away from employing those it now denounces as extremists.
Indonesia is a case in point. The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), another government-sanctioned non-governmental organization once used to further Saudi ultra-conservatism, prides itself on the funding of mosques in Indonesia built by the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or PKS), a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated group.
When MWL secretary general Mohammed al-Issa visited the headquarters in Jakarta of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim movement, he opted to take with him Hidayat Nur Wahid, a leader of the PKS, and a staunch rival of the National Awakening Party (or PKB) that is associated with NU.
The Saudi flaunting of its political Islamic Indonesian associate appears designed to counter Nahdlatul Ulama, the single most serious challenger to the various concepts of Islam put forward by Middle Eastern powers, including the kingdom.
Nahdlatul Ulama promotes a concept of humanitarian Islam that is rooted in a reinterpretation of religious texts, recognizes the need for reform to revise or remove what the group calls “obsolete” concepts such as that of the kafir or infidel, and is supported by a broad base of Islamic scholars.
For its part, Turkey’s religious authority, Diyanet, that resides in the office of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has seen its budget increase 23-fold in the last two decades, making it by far one of the best funded government agencies.
Diyanet has funded mosque construction from the nearby formerly Ottoman countries in the Balkans to Africa and even Cuba. The Maarif Foundation, a vehicle used to take control globally of schools once operated by followers of Fethullah Gulen, uses school materials supplied by Diyanet.
Turkey accuses Mr. Gulen, a preacher who lives in exile in the United States and an erstwhile ally of Mr. Erdogan, of engineering a failed military coup in Turkey in 2016. Turkey has since arrested thousands of alleged Gulen supporters and removed large numbers of suspected supporters from the government bureaucracy and the military.
Multiple countries have handed local Gulen-operated schools to the Maarif Foundation. At last count, the foundation operated 323 schools, 42 dormitories and one university in 43 countries.
By the same token, the UAE supported by Saudi Arabia, has employed its religious soft power and commercial and economic sway to lobby for a tougher French policy towards political Islam prior to the crackdown initiated by President Emmanuel Macron.
The lobbying emphasized common interests in countering political Islam and Turkey, with which France is at odds in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean as well as on the issue of political Islam. It gave the French leader welcome Muslim cover to target political Islam and Turkey as he gears up for an election in 2022 in which Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far right, nationalist and anti-immigration National Rally, looms large.
As part of the crackdown on political Islam, France required children to attend school from age three. It also all but eliminated options for home schooling or the operation of privately-funded schools.
Mr. Erdogan laid down the gauntlet declaring in 2018 that “the joint goal of all education and our teaching system is to bring up good people with respect for their history, culture and values.” Mr. Erdogan spoke of a “pious generation” that “will work for the construction of a new civilisation.” It’s that new civilisation that is at stake in the battle for the soul of Islam.
Can Erdogan repay the people’s trust?
The Turkiye nation has concluded the most important election in the country’s modern history. The people of modern Turkey came to determine their destiny at a time when their national economic condition is at a very deplorable level. The depreciation of the lira against the dollar has made the cost of goods and the cost of living more expensive. Inflation is now rampant in the country. Economists say inflation reached 85 percent last year.
The country’s currency, the lira, has fallen to a tenth of its value against the dollar over the past decade. Abnormal inflation causes the prices of goods to rise. Imports cost more as the lira depreciates. On the other hand, 11 provinces in Turkey are struggling to deal with the shock of two earthquakes recently. More than 50 thousand people died in this earthquake.
Despite this severe national crisis and economic instability, the majority of the Turkish people have not lost faith in Erdogan. This is an amazing event. Turkey’s 2023 national election reinstated Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the sultan in power for the past 20 years, as president. On the other hand, the main challenger, the presidential candidate of the Nations Alliance and the leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilizdarglu, was defeated.
Erdoğan was elected the first mayor of Istanbul in 1994. At that time, he took the initiative to solve various problems that arose in Istanbul due to rapid population growth, such as air pollution, waste collection, and a shortage of clean water. However, after four years, he had to stand in court for reciting a controversial poem. Erdogan was sentenced to four months in prison for spreading religious hatred. Basically, this event was the unforgettable beginning of the significant public opinion formation behind his rise.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power as the country’s prime minister in 2003. The people of Turkey trusted him in the 2018 elections as well. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been elected President of Turkey for the third consecutive term. He will lead the country in the international arena for the next five years. Turkey will create a new equation in geopolitics. An experienced Erdogan will negotiate well with international actors.
Erdogan comes from the conservative political camp. He entered politics with the Salvation Party of political guru Nazimuddin Erbakan. In 1976, he was elected head of the Beyoglu region of the youth wing. The National Salvation Party was headed by Nazimuddin Erbakan. He later served as Prime Minister of Turkey in 1996–97.
Modern Turkey emerged as a secular state under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s. Erdogan created a new national manifesto with a lot of new energy, new plans, and a new national manifesto in that country. The first decade of his AK Party rule saw democratic reforms in Turkey. It had to be done because of the country’s desire to join the European Union. During this time, Erdogan was praised by liberals at home and abroad for reducing the authority of the army in the country and working to protect the rights of women and minority ethnic groups. However, Erdogan was criticized for becoming more authoritarian over the next decade. According to many, Erdogan has exacerbated divisions in Turkey.
Basically, he became popular in the Muslim world by expressing his anti-US and especially anti-European attitude in the polls, winning the hearts of the voters, and developing relations with Muslim countries. He converted Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system in 2014. According to the opposition, Erdogan made such changes in the regime to enjoy sole power. Erdogan’s supporters regard him as ‘fatherly’, but opponents consider him an ‘authoritarian’ ruler. Its reflection can be seen in the international environment. During Erdogan’s regime, on the one hand, the distance between Turkey, an important member of NATO, and its allies, the United States and Europe, increased. At the same time, the closeness is increasing with anti-Western Russia and China.
Jeffrey Mankoff, an analyst at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “Many officials and political leaders in Western countries are upset with Turkey’s Erdogan. They expressed disappointment in him. They believe that Erdogan is the main reason for Turkey’s growing distance from the West. He took everything personally and walked the path of cheap popularity.’
Therefore, with Erdogan ruling Turkey for the past 20 years, there has been a major change in Turkey’s foreign policy as well as socio-economic development. As a result of his long rule, he made many enemies and allies at home and abroad. Now it’s time to just watch, as Turkey’s economy is also seen as a big factor in this election. Will Erdogan be able to restore Turkey’s conventional economy, and how will he repay the public’s trust? These questions have become important.
The 32nd Arab League meeting will have a far-reaching impact
The Arab League is an alliance of states that currently has 22 member states in Northern Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula, which belongs geographically to Asia. All member countries together cover an area of 13.15 million km² (8.7% of the world’s inhabitable area). Significant parts are desert regions such as the Sahara and the Rub al-Khali sand desert. With about 456.52 million inhabitants, the area is home to about 5.8 percent of the world’s population.
On October 7, 1944, a “Protocol of Alexandria” was signed as a loose union. After elaborating on the ideas, the Arab League was founded the following year on 11 May 1945. The first member states were the kingdoms of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, as well as Lebanon, Syria, and the then Emirate of Transjordan.
The history of the Arab League since then has been marked by numerous political and military conflicts in the region. In the immediate post-war period, the growing Jewish population in Palestine played a major role. This led to the division of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state in 1949. With the withdrawal of the British Allies, there was also a lack of an overarching protective power and serious and recurrent conflicts with Israel arose.
The recent 32nd Arab League Meeting held in the magnificent city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has drawn to a successful close, leaving a profound impact on regional politics. High-ranking officials and diplomats from Arab nations gathered to discuss pressing issues and forge a path toward greater cooperation and unity. The meeting, which took place against a backdrop of evolving geopolitical dynamics, produced key decisions that are poised to shape the future of the Arab world.
Hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a staunch advocate of Arab solidarity and stability, the summit aimed to bolster inter-Arab relations and address the region’s most pressing challenges. Under the gracious patronage of His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, leaders and representatives from across the Arab League engaged in constructive dialogue, fostering an atmosphere of camaraderie and shared vision.
One of the major highlights of the meeting was the unanimous agreement on establishing a joint counterterrorism center. This significant step underscores the Arab League’s commitment to combating terrorism and maintaining regional security. The center will serve as a platform for intelligence sharing, coordinated efforts, and capacity building among member states, further enhancing the collective response to the ever-present threat of extremism.
In addition to counterterrorism initiatives, the Arab League delegates focused on revitalizing the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been instrumental in pursuing a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The participants expressed their unwavering support for the rights of the Palestinian people and called for renewed international efforts to resume meaningful negotiations. The Arab League’s stance sends a clear message that a comprehensive and equitable solution is imperative for sustainable peace in the region.
Moreover, discussions during the summit centered on the ongoing crises in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Arab League members pledged increased support and cooperation in finding political solutions and bringing stability to these war-torn nations. The delegates affirmed their commitment to the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference, emphasizing the need for inclusive dialogue to end conflicts and restore peace.
The political impact of the Arab League Meeting cannot be understated. It signifies a renewed commitment to Arab unity and cooperation amid a rapidly changing regional landscape. The decisions made in Jeddah hold the potential to shape the political dynamics of the Arab world, ensuring stability, security, and prosperity for its nations and peoples.
The meeting also provided an opportunity for member states to strengthen bilateral relations and engage in fruitful discussions on areas of mutual interest. In the spirit of constructive diplomacy, numerous side meetings and cultural exchanges took place, fostering greater understanding and cooperation among Arab nations.
As the Arab League Meeting drew to a close, the host nation, Saudi Arabia, expressed gratitude to all participating countries for their valuable contributions and emphasized its commitment to further collaboration in the future. The outcomes of the meeting will be diligently pursued and implemented, underlining the shared determination of Arab nations to overcome challenges and seize opportunities for progress.
This time the participation of Syria was a milestone, it happened after 12 years of absence. Another important aspect was the attendance of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. These two important aspects will have far-reaching impacts on regional politics and global peace, stability, and security.
Regional Connectivity in the Gulf Cooperation Council
The Gulf Cooperation Council consists of a region of some of the most formidable economies in the world that enjoy vast oil and gas reserves which have brought them immense wealth. The GCC have combined oil reserves of about 497 billion barrels which is 34% of the world’s supply, according to King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center. However, these countries also share similar problems, which have become increasingly apparent with the fluctuation and gradual decline in global oil prices as well as the impacts of climate change. Since gulf countries share similar economic issues, it means that they should take collaborative efforts to curb these problems as well. Enhancing regional connectivity is one way to achieve this. It will help improve the economies of all GCC member states in the future and allow them to connect with larger markets.
Over the years, several steps have been taken by gulf countries to improve regional connectivity. For instance, since 1980s, there have been plans and several attempts to create a common GCC currency termed as Khaleeji or Dinar. The currency is expected to be valued at around 1 USD = 1.984 KHJ. Although since then, Oman and the UAE have withdrawn from the plans until further notice, this idea still enjoys popularity and GCC governments are still considering it. The region already meets many of the necessary criteria for a common currency as all seven of the countries have very similar economies, values, cultures, and histories. A common currency would bolster trade flows between the countries by removing border barriers, which will result in cheaper goods and services, particularly of healthcare, tourism, and education, and economic well-being of all the countries involved as a result of increased regional connectivity. A common gulf currency would also reduce exchange-rate uncertainties. Tourists and citizens would not need to constantly exchange currencies when visiting different countries in the region. A common currency will also reduce barriers for the transfer of people between gulf countries which will make it easy to exchange skilled labour, thus decreasing unemployment overall and also producing more opportunities for highly educated domestic workers being produced every year. It will also lead to greater economic integration in the GCC as regional connectivity grows stronger.
GCC countries have also begun to seriously explore strengthening transport links. After careful thought and deliberation, gulf countries have agreed to build a 2177km GCC railway in 2009 stretching from Kuwait, entering Saudi Arabia, connecting Bahrain as well as Qatar, then moving through the UAE and ending in Oman. The railway will also connect vast networks of existing and planned railway networks in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman, further improving regional connectivity in the gulf. The project is expected to be completed by 2025 and is expected to drastically improve trade costs, travel times, and connectivity between ports and cities. It will boost trade flows across the bloc and attract foreign direct investment. The GCC also aims to establish a common market and joint Customs union to further strengthen regional connectivity, which will result in greater economic growth and integration. The Saudis have already started expanding their already vast network of railway tracks. They have completed the al-Qurayyat station which connects Riyadh to Jordan and the rest of northern Saudi Arabia, stretching across 1215km. Moreover, the kingdom completed the Haramain speed train at Rabigh Station which connects the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah through a 450 km track. The UAE has also expanded its existing railway infrastructure, especially with a national rail network connecting 11 cities with trains travelling 200km per hour. Moreover, the Qataris have also built an extensive railway network as part of their efforts to organize the FIFA World Cup last year which consists of 26 projects. These railway lines will be connected with the GCC railway and they will boost regional connectivity in the region, facilitating the transport of people, information, and goods.
Other measures that the GCC could take to enhance regional connectivity would be to take steps to incorporate long term strategies of each member. All GCC member states have similar long-term goals as outlined by Saudi Vision 2030, Bahrain Vision 2030, Kuwait Vision 2035, UAE Vision 2030, Qatar Vision 2030, and Oman Vision 2040. The crux of these plans is to rid GCC states of oil dependence, combat climate change, and increase tourism and entertainment for more economic diversification. Integrating these efforts will increase collaboration, which will duly increase regional connectivity, resulting in more efficient execution of these plans. Moreover, other approaches include easing or eliminating border restrictions to enable free movement between GCC states for citizens and tourists. A major factor limiting trade is border restrictions as trade is less likely to happen if there is a border in between, even if the distance is negligible. If border restrictions are eliminated, then trade will become more frequent and there will be greater regional connectivity between adjacent countries. Furthermore, tourists will also be able to easily access other GCC member states and hence spend more money, cross border competition between markets would also increase, leading to more competitive prices, and finally, it will also reduce price differentials for people who live in areas that are near borders.
For this to happen, GCC countries need to improve diplomatic relations among themselves. This is particularly true after the diplomatic tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia between 2017 and 2021 which had forced the GCC nation to seek reroute flights and vessels. Such diplomatic crises will harm prospects for regional connectivity in the GCC and therefore need to be avoided. Moreover, the GCC’s economic growth is expected only at 3.2%, which is much lower than the 7.3% figure estimated in 2022. The figure is also a decline from the 5.8% growth in 2022. Furthermore, oil prices had been declining since many years, which poses a danger to the economies of the GCC. Although a cut in output by OPEC+ member states will boost oil prices in the short-run (they already helped oil prices cross $80 per barrel), this is not sustainable for the GCC economies. Therefore, GCC countries face a range of serious challenges when it comes to regional connectivity. However, the opportunities far outweigh the challenges and the GCC enjoys potential to become an economic powerhouse in the region.
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