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Saudi Arabia targets banned ultra-conservative proselytisers

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Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh has ordered imams in the kingdom to identify one of the world’s largest Muslim movements as misguided, deviant, dangerous, and a breeder of militancy.

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s offensive against Tablighi Jamaat or Society for Preaching, a secretive transnational ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim missionary movement of South Asian origin long banned in the kingdom, came in response to members of the group celebrating the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and openly criticizing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social reforms.

The Twitter account of Mr. Al-Sheikh’s ministry instructed imams to point to the group’s “most prominent mistakes…mention their danger to society” and emphasize that Saudia Arabia forbids any “affiliation” with the group.

To be fair, the ministry last month waged a similar campaign against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the late scholar Muhammad Surur whose fusion of the Brotherhood’s political ideology with Saudi Wahhabism’s theological purity influenced prominent reformist clerics in the kingdom.

The Tablighi, the largest group of proselytisers of any faith, insist that they are religious and spiritual, not a political group, and have nothing to do with politics or militancy.

While largely accurate, it fails to explain why a fair number of Tablighi youth have over the decades joined Islamist and jihadist groups and/or been linked by intelligence agencies to acts of violence. Encouraging disengagement from material in favour of spiritual life, the Tablighi, a defuse and decentralized group, is believed to have up to 80 million followers in some 150 countries.

Zahack Tanvir, the Saudi-based editor of The Milli Chronicle, an online publication in Britain, who describes himself as an anti-Islamist “traditional Muslim,” noted that the targeting of the Tablighi followed the resurrection of a year-old tweet criticising the municipality of the holy city of Medina’s plans for a shopping mall with cinemas and western-style entertainment venues.

The controversial tweet was retweeted by Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, one of Pakistan’s most prominent Islamic scholars and a former Pakistani supreme court judge and ex-member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, the state-appointed body created to ensure that Pakistani legislation does not violate Islamic law.

Mr. Usmani heads Wifaq ul Madaris Al-Arabia, the most extensive grouping of religious seminaries in Pakistan with some 23,000 associated madrassas.

His membership in the Jeddah-based International Islamic Fiqh Academy that studies Islamic jurisprudence and law reflects his ties to Saudi Arabia. So does his chairmanship of the Sharia board of the Bahrain-headquartered Accounting and Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI) which promotes Islamic legal standards for Islamic financial entities.

Mr Usman’s criticism of the Jeddah development plan may have been particularly stinging, given his ties to the kingdom and status as a scholar.

The targeting of the ultra-conservative proselytisers comes as reformist Saudi clerics are either incarcerated or forced to remain silent at the risk of imprisonment, and those aligned with the government are reduced to publicly rubber-stamping Mr. Bin Salman’s policies.

Mr. Tanvir said that Mr. Usman’s retweet had sparked widespread criticism among conservative South Asian Muslims of the Saudi reforms, including lifting a ban on women’s driving, expanding women’s rights, and loosening of social restrictions and gender segregation, and greater professional opportunity for women.

“Taqi Usmani’s problem with Saudi reform reflects the anxiety of many Pakistani clerics who view themselves as bastions of Islam and having the right to act as caretakers of the Muslim world based on Pakistan being one of the first Muslim-majority countries to have been formed. The reforms also threaten the kingdom’s patronage of Pakistani clerics,” a Pakistani analyst said in an interview.

Mr. Tanvir said in an online text message interview that the ministry’s sensitivity was partly driven by the fact that the influential group, despite the ban, continued to raise funds in the kingdom and meet in private homes and hotel rooms. He did not hide his antipathy towards the Tablighi and the ultra-conservative Deobandi strand of Islam that shapes their worldview.

Mufti Akbar Hashmi, an Indian Tablighi Jamaat cleric, appeared to confirm the ministry’s concern in a head-on response to the campaign that denied the legitimacy of the kingdom’s ruling Al-Saud family.

“Why is Saudi Arabia afraid of Tablighi Jamaat? Why?… The Saudi government is extremely scared that people in the kingdom affiliated to the Taliban (Tablighi Jamaat) may rise against the government… I personally believe that there will be a great uprising. Mark my words. Whether I live or die, this revolution shall surely happen, especially in Saudi Arabia. This government will soon disappear,” Mr. Hashmi thundered.

In a seemingly contradictory gesture for a firebrand, Mr. Hashmi’s Facebook page features a picture of recently detained Indian cleric Kaleen Siddiqui saying, “inter-faith dialogue is not a crime.”

Mr. Siddiqui was detained in September by the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorist Squad on suspicion of running India’s “biggest (religious) conversion syndicate.” A British charity that helps deprived children and orphans in Pakistan allegedly funded two other clerics arrested on related charges.

Several Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, have enacted anti-conversion laws to tackle an alleged Muslim ‘love jihad’ in which Muslim men allegedly lure Hindu women into marriage to convert them to Islam forcefully. The conspiracy theory has helped fuel a wave of Hindu nationalist-inspired Islamophobia in India.

Two months later, the Tablighi Jamaat contributed to Islamophobia in India in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when cases in the country still numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. Nevertheless, thousands of Tablighi followers assembled at their Delhi headquarters, including travellers from virus hotspots Malaysia and Indonesia.

Authorities said the gathering had become a super spreader, asserting that it was responsible for one-third of the 4,000 positive cases in March of last year. As a result, some 25,000 Jamaat followers and their contacts in 15 states were quarantined within days of the authorities shutting down the headquarters.

Mainstream media accused the Tablighi of neglect and blamed India’s 200 million Muslims for spreading the virus.

The hashtag #CoronaJihad trended on Twitter, with ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials dubbing the religious gathering “corona terrorism.” They advised the public against buying fruit and vegetables from Muslims.

At about the same time, Tablighi mass prayers in Malaysia and Indonesia contributed to spreading the virus in Southeast Asia. Similarly, Pakistan quarantined 20,000 people in April of last year and searched for thousands more who attended a Tablighi congregation near the city of Lahore.

Eleven Saudi nationals detained in last year’s Indian government sweep of participants in the Tablighi gathering walked free after paying a US$130 fine for visa violations that included illegal missionary activity and attending a religious congregation. The Saudi minister’s targetting of the group suggests that they may not have had a warm welcome once they returned to the kingdom.

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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Iraq: Three Years of Drastic Changes (2019-2022)

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When the wave of the protests broke out at the beginning of October 2019 in Iraq, the Iraqi politicians did not realize the size of the gap between the demands of the protesters which were accumulated more than seventeen years, and the isolation of the politicians from the needs of the people. The waves of the protests began in a small range of different areas in Iraq. Rapidly, it expanded as if it were a rolling snowball in many regions of Iraqi governorates. Moreover, the platforms of social media and the influencers had a great impact on unifying the people against the government and enhancing the protest movement.

Al Tarir Square was the region where most protesters and demonstrators were based there. At that time, they stayed all day in this region and set up their tents to protest and demonstrate against the public situation of their life.

The protesters demanded their looted rights and asked for making economic reforms, finding job opportunities, changing the authority, and toppling the government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The protest stayed between ebb and tide, pressuring the political authority in Iraq.

A new period began in the history of Iraq where clashes between the protesters and the riot forces broke out in Al Tahrir Square and many governorates in the south of Iraq. Tear gas and ductile bullets were used against the protesters to compel them to retreat and disperse them. But the protesters insisted on continuing their demands. Many protesters were killed and wounded due to the intensive violence against them. The strong pressure with falling many martyrs gave its fruit when the Iraqi representatives of the Parliament endeavored to achieve the protesters’ demands by changing the election law into a new one. On 24 December 2019, the Iraqi Parliament approved of changing the unfair Saint Leigo election law into the open districts. The new law divided Iraq into 83 electoral districts.

Moreover, this violent protest led to the collapse of the Iraqi government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi. He was compelled to resign by the end of 2019. Many political names were nominated by the Iraqi politicians but the protesters refused them all because they were connected with different political parties.

Finally, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who worked in the Iraqi Intelligence Service and had no party, was nominated by the politicians to be the new Prime Minister. He was well-known for ambiguity and far from the lights of media.

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has become the Prime Minister in March 2020. The protests were over at the beginning of April 2020. With the taking of responsibility of helping Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised the protesters, who were called “Octoberians”, to hold a premature election, and the election was fixed on 10 June 2020.

Many politicians tried to postpone or cancel the premature election. Under their pressure, the premature election was postponed and fixed on 10 October 2020. During Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s period as a Prime Minister, he opened new channels with the Arab states to enhance the cooperation and held many summits to support Iraq in the next stage.

Attempts to postpone the premature election by the Iraqi politicians were on equal foot, but all these attempts failed and the election occurred on the due time.

Before the election, many Octoberians and influencers encouraged the people not to participate in the election. On the day of the election, it witnessed low participation, and people were convinced of not happening any change. These calls gave their fruits in the process of elections in Iraq where the election witnessed very low participation, and most Iraqis refused to participate and vote to the nominees even though there was a new election law. When the elections were over, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq announced that the results would be within two days. After announcing the results of the election partially and defeating many political factions in the Iraqi arena, many convictions were directed to the commission, and it was convicted by fraud and manipulation with the results. This aspect affected the activity of the Commission and led to put great pressure on it. After two weeks of pressure and convictions, the final results of the elections were announced and many political elite Iraqi leaders were defeated gravely.

The results of the election gave a new start through new leaders who were supporting the October revolution that happened in 2019. And most names of these winning movements and alliances were inspired by the October Movement. Those, who represented October Revolution, were also convicted by other Octoberians that Octoberian winners in the election deviated from the aims of the October Revolution.

A new struggle has begun between the losers in the election and the new winners who will have the right to be in the next term of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Representatives. Moreover, many independent individuals won in the election, and the conflict would deepen the scope of dissidence between the losers and winners. Finally, all raised claims of election fraud have not changed the political situation.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.  The Shiite Sadrist movement, which represents 73 seats, has wiped out its competitors. This aspect has compelled the losing Shiite competitors to establish an alliance called “Coordination Framework” to face the Sadrist movement, represented by the cleric Sayyed Muqtada al-Sader. On the other hand, Al-Takadum Movement (Progress Party), represented by the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives, Mohamed Al-Halbousi, has taken the second rank with 37 seats.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.

Finally, the first session of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council was held. Mohamed Al-Halbousi has been elected as the spokesman of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council. During the next fifteen days, the president of the republic will be elected.

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China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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