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Friday, March 23, 2018

Saudi Prince Mohammed’s religious moderation unlikely to change Asian realities

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be seeking to revert his kingdom to an unspecified form of moderate Islam but erasing the impact of 40 years of global funding of ultra-conservative, intolerant strands of the faith is unlikely to be eradicated by decree.

Not only because ultra-conservatism has taken root in numerous Muslim countries and communities, but also because it has given opportunistic politicians a framework to pursue policies that appeal to bigoted and biased sentiments in bids to strengthen their grip on power. Nowhere is that more evident than in Asia, home to several of the Islamic world’s most populous countries.

Examples of the fallout abound among recipients of Saudi largess. They include institutionalized discrimination In Pakistan against Ahmadis, a sect considered heretic by orthodox Muslims, as well as biased policies towards non-Muslims and Shiites in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. The amendment was a condition for Saudi recognition of the young republic and the promise of substantial financial support.

Reports that Prince Mohammed in a dramatic gesture to Shiites, who have been discriminated against for years in the kingdom and demonized by its religious and political leaders as part of Saudi Arabia’s public affairs war with Iran, plans to visit the Shiite religious citadel of Najaf in Iraq is likely to do little to change things on the ground in Muslim majority nations in Asia.

Neither will his meetings with Christian religious luminaries in Egypt and elsewhere even if they demonstrate that Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities, is, under Prince Mohammed’s guidance, embracing principles of inter-faith dialogue and religious tolerance.

Reporting on a visit to the ultra-conservative Indonesian region of Aceh, Islam scholar Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad noted that “supporters for anti-Shi’ah in Aceh are Wahabism, an Islamic political party, a group of young Acehnese who finished their study in the Middle East….They play their role in urban areas. After the Tsunami (in 2004), many of pesantrens (religious seminaries) from Wahabism were built in Aceh. They received funding from ‘outside’ Aceh.”

Bangladeshi journalist Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, who fled his country after a failed assassination attempt by religious militants, recently sketched Bangladesh’s migration from a nation founded with aspirations of “economic, political and intellectual emancipation” to one in which the “will of the military and its leadership was key in shaping politics towards selfishness and subornation” and “political parties are willing to go to any length to hold on to power.”

It was a process abetted by Saudi Arabia. Mr. Chowdhury noted that “the healthy trend of democratic and progressive politics was never able to regain a footing in Bangladesh” with freedom of speech and the press as one of its major casualties. Unlike human rights lawyer and writer Ikhtisad Ahmed, Mr. Chowdhury shied away from referring to the role of Saudi Arabia and Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism in his country’s political development.

One strand of ultra-conservatism, Salafism, that Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz wanted to elevate to an official Islamic school of thought shortly before his death in 2012, gained, according to  Mr. Ahmed, currency under the coalition government in the first years of the 21st century formed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, a controversial group that opposed the country’s independence.

Like in Pakistan, of which Bangladesh was part until, 1971, the military as well as political parties maintained opportunistic ties to militants such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Jihad that were often as opposed to secularism as they were to Saudi-style monarchy.

As a result, Bangladesh, the world’s fourth largest Muslim nation, is at the heart of a struggle between liberalism and ultra-conservatism that questions Saudi Arabia’s legacy and is about reforms that go beyond anything envisioned by Prince Mohammed. It is a battle in which free-thinking, journalists, writers and intellectuals have paid a heavy price.

In the latest incident earlier this month, prominent scholar, award-winning science fiction author and outspoken critic of religious militants, Muhammed Zafar Iqbal was stabbed and seriously injured in a knife attack in the north-eastern town of Sylhet.

Mr. Iqbal was the latest victim of more than 30 machete attacks, shootouts, and bombings in Bangladesh in the past three years, including last year’s assault on the Holy Artisan Bakery in Dhaka in which 22 hostages were killed.

The country’s battle was fuelled by a 2010 Bangladesh Supreme Court decision to roll back the Saudi-inspired amendment of the constitution and restore secularism as its basic tenant as well as the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for war crimes during the 1971 Pakistani-Indian war that gave birth to Bangladesh.

In response, ultra-conservatives and militants demanded death for “atheists and apostates” who had demonstrated in favour of the death penalties, stricter anti-blasphemy legislation and a crackdown on alleged un-Islamic cultural practices.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia, a country that is itself in transition, is unlikely to be backing the ultra-conservatives and militants. Yet, their struggle and deep-seated polarization in Bangladesh are offshoots of the kingdom’s past ultra-conservative support and the creation of an environment in which politicians and state organs can opportunistically exploit religious sentiment.

Criticism of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s weak response to the violence, if not inaction, coupled with the battle for the soul of Bangladesh serves as evidence that reversing the fallout of four decades of Saudi promotion of ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal will take time and often be volatile. The same is true for efforts to counter creeping ultra-conservatism in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

In fact, what the struggles in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia suggest is that today’s culprits are not Saudi Arabia, even if it bears a responsibility, but politicians and/or national governments. Said Mr. Chowdhury: The failure to bring culprits to justice in many of the recent attacks in Bangladesh has “been the deliberate goal of the government. It supports their ambition to continue holding on to power by silencing critics and pandering to the religious right.”

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Saudi moderation: How far will Crown Prince Mohammed go?

No women at the table
By James M. Dorsey

In his effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s badly tarnished image and project the kingdom as embracing an unidentified form of moderate Islam, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hinted that he envisions a conservative rather than an ultra-conservative society, but not one in which citizens are fully free to make personal, let alone political choices of their own.

Prince Mohammed’s vision, although not spelled out in great detail, seemed evident in an interview with CBS News’ 60 minutes, his first with a Western television program, on the eve of a three-week trip that is taking him across the United States.

The trip is designed to cement relations with the Trump administration following the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who Prince Mohammed and his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, viewed as unenthusiastic about their hegemonic designs for a swath of land stretching across the Middle East from the Horn of Africa to South Asia, including the Saudi-UAE-led ten-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The visit comes barely a month before Mr. Trump has to decide whether to pull the United States out of the 2015 international agreement with Iran designed to curb the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. A withdrawal could lead to the agreement’s collapse and spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Prince Mohammed, who is locked into existential battle with Iran, told CBS.

It is also intended to project the kingdom as a beacon of moderation rather than a promoter of ultra-conservatism and cutting-edge modernity led by a young reformist but autocratic king-in-waiting.

In a meeting in the White House with Donald J, Trump, on the first day of his visit, both Prince Mohammed and the US president touted the economic benefits of the two countries’ relationship, with massive US arms sales and other deals, including nuclear sales that would involve reducing US safeguards by giving the kingdom the right to enrich uranium. Both leaders asserted that the deals would significantly boost employment in both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Besides Mr. Trump, Prince Mohammed is scheduled to meet members of Congress, think tanks and academics, oil executives, businessmen and representatives of Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry and Hollywood.

Both Prince Mohammed and Mr. Trump need to demonstrate economic progress to boost or cement their popularity at home. The crown prince needs to demonstrate to Saudis that he is feted as a leader despite mounting international criticism of his conduct of the ill-fated, three-year old war in Yemen, his domestic power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, the kingdom’s long-standing severe political and social restrictions, and its four-decade long global support for ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Beyond concern about the high civilian casualty rate in Yemen and the war having sparked one of the world’s worst current humanitarian crises, many fear that potentially destabilizing anti-Saudi sentiment in the ravaged country will persist long after the guns fall silent.

Those fears are reinforced by contradictory Saudi measures. While on the one hand pledging billions of dollars in aid and allowing at least some relief to get into the country, Saudi Arabia has aggravated the crisis in the country by expelling tens of thousands of Yemeni workers in recent months.

Prince Mohammed also needs to demonstrate that he can attract foreign investment despite the arbitrary nature of the arrest in November of hundreds of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family, prominent businessmen, and high-ranking officials, and reports that at least some of them were abused and tortured during their detention.

Most of the detainees were released after surrendering control of assets and/or paying substantial amounts of money. The government said it expects to raise $100 billion from the asset grab.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the most prominent detainees and the kingdom’s most-high-profile businessman, who seemed to put up a fight during his detention, has since his release in January said that he would be investing in some of Prince Mohammed’s pet projects.

Prince Mohammed bolstered his image by vowing to return Saudi Arabia to an unidentified form of moderate Islam; forcing the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment to endorse his reforms; suggesting that the kingdom may halt its massive global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to counter Iran’s revolutionary zeal; surrendering control of the Saudi-managed Great Mosque in Brussels; granting women the right to drive, join the military, and attend male sporting events; and creating a modern entertainment sector.

Despite the boldness of his moves, Prince Mohammed has sent mixed messages about how far he is prepared to go. Women and men mix at concerts and theatre plays but are segregated in the three sport stadiums that have been declared open to women.

While the crown prince has been decisive in his power and asset grab, he has yet to say a clear word about lifting Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship that gives male relatives control of their lives. Similarly, there is no indication that gender segregation in restaurants and other public places will be lifted.

Asked about the guardianship, Prince Mohammed evaded specifics. “Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don't have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go,” he said.

Middle East Scholar As’ad Abu Khalil, whose blog is named The Angry Arab News Service, posted a picture of Prince Salman’s meeting with Mr. Trump, noting that there was not one woman on either side of the conference table.

Speaking Arabic despite having learnt to speak English by watching movies, Prince Mohammed appeared in his CBS interview to defend allowing a mingling of the sexes in the work place while shying away from ultra-conservative Islam's ban on a man meeting a woman unaccompanied by a male relative in non-professional or non-public settings.

“We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace,” Prince Mohammed said.

The crown prince conceded that women had the right to determine what to wear if their clothes were “decent, respectful clothing, like men.” He did not define what would constitute decent but insisted that it did not have to be a “black abaya or a black head cover.”

No doubt, Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and promised economic change provide him significant arrows in his multimillion dollar public relations blitz. That is getting him the support of the White House.

“Getting a strong presidential endorsement of the crown prince's trip to the U.S. to encourage investment in Saudi Arabia, that, I think, could be something that could be done,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Translating that into real policy and dollars and cent could, however, prove to be a harder sell.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, March 19, 2018

Shooting an Own Goal: China’s Belt and Road funding terms spark criticism

By James M. Dorsey

Steep commercial terms for China’s investment in infrastructure projects across Eurasia related to its Belt and Road initiative may give it control of key ports and other assets as recipients of Beijing’s largess find themselves trapped in debt. Yet, that comes with a risky price tag: potentially rising anti-Chinese sentiment, questioning of Chinese intentions, and a tarnishing of the image China is seeking to cultivate.

Cynically dubbed debt-trap diplomacy, multiple countries along China’s Belt and Road risk financial crisis. The Washington-based Center for Global Development recently warned that 23 of the 68 countries involved were “significantly or highly vulnerable to debt distress.”

The centre said in a report that eight of the 23 countries -- Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos. the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan – were particularly at risk.

Djibouti already owes 82 percent of its foreign debt to China while China is expected to account for 71% of Kyrgyz debt as Belt and Road-related projects are implemented.

“There is…concern that debt problems will create an unfavourable degree of dependency on China as a creditor. Increasing debt, and China’s role in managing bilateral debt problems, has already exacerbated internal and bilateral tensions in some BRI (Belt and Road initiative) countries,” the report said.

International relations scholars Robert Daly and Matthew Rojanski noted in a separate report on a recent trip to the Russia, Kazakhstan and China intended to gauge responses to the Belt and Road initiative that Eurasian nations were eager to benefit from Chinese investment but wary of Beijing’s intentions.

“We found an eagerness to participate in projects that support national development, but deep resistance to any westward or northern expansion of China’s practices, ideas, or population… Neither (Russia or Kazakhstan) hopes that China’s power will increase with its investments.,” the scholars said.

Outgoing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed the centre’s concerns on a visit to Africa this month. China “encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth, Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap, but its approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries,” Mr. Tillerson said.

China has sought in some cases to counter resistance by offering more concessional or, in the case of Pakistan. interest-free instead of commercial loans for some projects.

Nonetheless, China has used debt relief as a vehicle to gain control of assets. Tajikistan saw an undisclosed amount of debt written off in exchange for ceding control of some 1,158 square kilometres of disputed territory. Sri Lanka, despite public protests, was forced to give China a major stake in its port of Hambantota.

Djibouti, one of the eight countries most at risk and a rent-a-military-base East African nation that hosts a major US facility, is about to follow in Sri Lanka’s footsteps. Djibouti last month seized control of the Doraleh Container Terminal from Dubai-based DP World and reportedly intends to hand over its management to a state-owned Chinese company.

Marine General Thomas Waldhauser, the top US commander in Africa, warned that the consequences of a Chinese takeover “could be significant.” He said moves by China, described by the Pentagon as one of several “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models,” had prompted him to revise US military strategy in Africa.

For their part, Pakistan and Nepal withdrew last November from two dam-building deals. The withdrawal coincided with mounting questions in Pakistan, a crown jewel in Chinese geo-strategic ambition, about what some see as a neo-colonial effort to extract the country’s resources.

China's seeming obliviousness to the potential impact on recipients and its own standing of its funding approach appears to be rooted in President Xi Jinping's rewriting of history and spin on reality that threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Launching Belt and Road in a speech in Kazakhstan in September 2013, Mr. Xi suggested that the initiative constituted a revival of China’s centuries-old relationship with Eurasia. “More than 2,100 years ago … (Chinese) imperial envoy Zhang Qian was sent to Central Asia twice to open the door to friendly contacts between China and Central Asian countries as well as the transcontinental Silk Road linking East and West,” Mr. Xi told his audience.

In Indonesia a month later, Mr. Xi reminded the country’s parliament that “Southeast Asia has since ancient times been an important hub along the ancient Maritime Silk Road.”

Messrs. Daly and Rojanski noted that the historic Silk Road was never centred on China and that it served both commercial and military purposes. “The term ‘Silk Road’ was coined in 1877 by a German geographer to connote the historic phenomenon of Eurasian trade rather than a particular route,” the scholars said.

They suggested that Eurasian nations had not forgotten that historically Chinese expansion westwards had often been violent,” a fact Mr. Xi chose to overlook in his projection of the Belt and Road initiative.

It was, moreover, not immediately clear “that China’s branding, cash, and ambition can overcome the uneven development, political and cultural diversity, age-old hatreds, and daunting geography” of the Belt and Road, Messrs. Daly and Rojansky said.

Mr. Xi’s projection of a China-centric world is reflected in the country’s media that positions the Belt and Road as a vehicle to cement the People’s Republic’s place in the world as well as Communist Party rule despite paying lip service to the principle of a win-win proposition.

Chinese ambitions are evident in its efforts to internationalize its currency, the renminbi, as well as the inclusion of elements of the Chinese surveillance state and the propagation of Chinese culture through local media in investment target countries, for example Pakistan. They are also apparent in the creation of special Chinese courts to adjudicate Belt and Road.

China this month announced the establishment of a new agency to coordinate its foreign aid program. The agency is part of an effort to project China’s global influence more effectively and increase Communist Party control.

Taking issue with the Chinese effort, the Washington-based centre suggested that China as well as recipients of Beijing’s largess would be better served if the People’s Republic adopted a multilateral approach to Belt and Road-related funding rather than insisting on going it alone.

Said Scott Morris, a former US Treasury official and co-author of the centre’s report: “The way forward demands a clear policy framework aligned with global standards, something that has been absent from China’s lending practices to date. Whether Chinese officials have the will to pursue this approach will be critical in determining the ultimate success or failure” of the Belt and Road initiative.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Countering Extremism: Jihadist Ideology Reigns Supreme

By James M. Dorsey

Edited remarks at India Foundation conference, Changing Contours of Global Terror, Gurugram, Haryana, 14-16 March 2018

The sad truth is that governments, law enforcement, security forces, intellectuals and journalists do not have an ideological response to political violence’s latest reiteration, jihadism. Moreover, the struggle against political violence, is not one that is predominantly ideological.

To add to this, mistakes are being repeated. Al Qaeda produced the counterterrorism industry in the context of a response that was focussed on law enforcement, security and military engagement. To be sure, that has produced significant results. It has enhanced security across the globe, stopped plots before they could be executed, driven Al Qaeda into caves, and deprived the Islamic State of its territorial base.

All of that, however has not solved the problem, nor has it fundamentally reduced the attraction of religiously-cloaked extremism. No doubt, social media has provided militants with a megaphone. But let’s be clear: social media are vehicles, media channels, they are not drivers. Yet, much like the terrorism industry, the call for a counter-narrative has produced an industry of its own. Like the terrorism industry, it has vested interests of its own: its sustainability is dependent on the continued existence of perceived real threats.

Further troubling the waters is the fact that the public and private anti-terrorism and counternarrative industries see human rights as second to ensuring security and safety; have little interest in addressing the problem through notions of alienation, marginalization, socio-economic disenfranchisement, youth aspirations and basic rights in which counterterrorism and counter-narratives would be embedded. Aiding and abetting the problem are the ever more evident campaigns by non-egalitarian and non-inclusive democratic societies as well as autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes that either have reduced interest in independent analysis and reporting, seek to restrict freedoms of expression and the press, or define any form of dissent as terrorism.

The notion that one can eradicate political violence is illusionary. Political violence has been a fixture of human history since day one and is likely to remain a fact of life. Its ebbs and flows often co-relate to economic, social and political up and down turns. In other words, counterterrorism and counternarratives will only be effective if they are embedded in far broader policies that tackle root causes.

And that is where the shoe pinches. To develop policies that tackle root causes, that are inclusive and aim to ensure that at least the vast majority, if not everyone, has a stake in society, the economy and the political system involves painful decisions, revising often long-standing policies and tackling vested interests. Few politicians and bureaucrats are inclined to do so.

Starting with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, militants have benefitted from the fact that the world was entering a cyclical period in which populations lose confidence in political systems and leaderships. The single largest success of Osama bin Laden and subsequent militants is the fact that they were able to disrupt efforts to forge inclusive, multicultural societies, nowhere more so than first in Europe, then the United States with the rise of Donald Trump, and exploit ripple effects in Asia.

The result is the rise of secular and religious nationalism, populism, greater acceptance of autocratic or illiberal rule, and the erosion of democratic values and institutions. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious prejudice that no doubt existed but lived under a cloud of primarily social taboos and have become socially acceptable and often politically convenient. Of course, the refugee crisis put oil on the fire. 

Nonetheless, what makes this cycle of lack of confidence more worrisome and goes directly to the question of the ideological challenge is how it differs from the late 1960s, the last time that we witnessed a breakdown in confidence and leadership on a global scale.

The difference between then and now is that then there were all kinds of worldviews on offer: anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, socialism, communism, concepts of extra-parliamentary opposition, and in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Today, the only thing on offer are militant interpretations of Islam and jihadism.

Human rights activist and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki was asked in a Wall Street Journal interview why it was not only those who lacked opportunity and felt that they had no prospects and no hopes but also educated Tunisians with jobs who were joining the Islamic State. His answer was: “It’s not simply a matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream—and we don’t. We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate.”

Its hard to build an ideological challenge or develop counternarratives without a dream. With democracy on the defense, free market enterprise having failed significant segments of the public, and newly found legitimacy for prejudice, bias and bigotry, democratic governments are incapable of credibly projecting a dream, one that is backed up by policies that hold out realistic hope of producing results.

Autocrats are in a no better situation. The mayhem in the Middle East and North Africa is not exclusively, but in many ways, due to their inability and failure to deliver public goods and services. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared to be holding out a dream for his kingdom. But that dream increasingly is being shattered both in Yemen and at home. Autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa are about upgrading and modernizing their regimes to ensure their survival, not about real sustainable change. Elsewhere, populists and nationalists advocating racial, ethnic and religious purity and protectionist economic policies are unlikely to fare any better.

What this means is that identifying the root causes of political violence demands self-inspection on the part of governments and societies across the globe. It is those governments and societies that are both part of the problem and part of the solution. It is those governments and elites that are at the root of loss of confidence.

Translating the need to tackle root causes into policy is proving difficult, primarily because it is based on a truth that has far-reaching consequences for every member of the international community. It involves governments putting their money where their mouth is and changing long-standing, ingrained policies at home that marginalize, exclude, stereotype and stigmatize significant segments of society; emphasize security at the expense of freedoms that encourage healthy debate; and in more autocratic states that are abetted by the West, seek to reduce citizens to obedient subjects through harsh repression and adaptations of religious and political beliefs to suit the interests of rulers.

The result is a vicious circle: government policies often clash with the state or regime’s professed values. As a result, dividing lines sharpen as already marginalized, disenfranchised or discriminated segments of society see the contradiction between policies and values as hypocritical and re-confirmation of the basis of their discontent.

Creating a policy framework that is conducive to an environment in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia that would favour pluralism and respect of human rights and counter the appeal of jihadism and emerging sectarian-based nationalism is not simply a question of encouraging and supporting voices in the region, first and foremost those of youth, or of revisiting assumptions of Western foreign policies and definitions of national security. 

It involves fostering inclusive national identities that can accommodate ethnic, sectarian and tribal sub-identities as legitimate and fully accepted sub-identities in Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian, as well as in Western countries. It involves changing domestic policies towards minorities, refugees and migrants.

Inclusiveness means, that victory has to be secured as much in militant strongholds in a swath of land that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean as in the dismal banlieues, run-down, primarily minority-populated, suburbs of French cities that furnished the Islamic State with its largest contingent of European foreign fighters; in the popular neighbourhoods in Tunisia that accounted for the single largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq; in Riyadh, seat of a government whose citizens accounted for the second largest number of foreign fighters and whose well-funded, decades-long effort to propagate a puritan, intolerant, interpretation of Islam has been a far more important feeding ground for jihadist thinking than the writings of militant Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb; and in Western capitals with Washington in the lead who view retrograde, repressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

In territorial terms, the Islamic States has been defeated but the problem remains unresolved. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. In the process, it weakened a jihadist force that increasingly had advocated a gradual approach to the establishment of its harsh interpretation of Islamic law in a bid to ensure public support. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, the largely military effort to defeat Al Qaeda produced ever more virulent forms of jihadism as embodied by the Islamic State. It may be hard to imagine anything more brutal than the group, but it is a fair assumption that defeating the Islamic State without tackling root causes could lead to something that is even more violent and more vicious.

Defining repressive, autocratic rule and the Islamic State as the greatest threat to stability and security and the furthering of more liberal notions is problematic. In the case of the Islamic State, that definition elevates jihadism – the violent establishment of Pan-Islamic rule based on narrow interpretations of Islamic law and scripture -- to the status of a root cause rather than a symptom and expression of a greater and more complex problem. It is an approach that focuses on the immediate nature of the threat and ways to neutralize it rather than on what sparked it. It also neglects the fact that the ideological debate in the Muslim world is to a large extent dominated by schools of thought that do not advocate more open, liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam.

That is where one real challenge lies. It is a challenge first and foremost to Muslims, but also to an international community that would give more liberal Muslim voices significant credibility if it put its money where its mouth is. Support for self-serving regimes and their religious supporters, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reduces the international community’s choices to one between bad and worse, rather than to a palate of policy options that take a stab at rooting out the problem and its underlying causes.

There are no quick solutions or short cuts and the value of partial solutions is questionable. The key is the articulation of policies that over the medium term can help generate an environment more conducive to change rather than the continuous opting for knee-jerk reactions to events and facts on the ground.

One place to look for alternative approaches is Norway. In contrast to most reactions to political violence and expression of pro-jihadist sentiment, Norway’s response to right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s traumatic attacks in 2011 that killed 77 people stands as a model for how societies can and should uphold concepts of pluralism and human rights. Norway refrained from declaring war on terror, treated Breivik as a common criminal, and refused to compromise on its democratic values. In doing so, Norway offered a successful example of refusing to stigmatise any one group in society by adopting inclusiveness rather than profiling and upholding the very values that autocrats and jihadists challenge.

The result of exclusively security-focussed approaches, coupled with the exploitation of economic opportunity by autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes and Western governments, is an increasingly insecure region in which the creation of pluralistic societies that honour human rights seems ever more distant. Said an Egyptian Islamist militant, whose non-violent anti-government activism is as much aimed at opposing the regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as it is designed to persuade increasingly frustrated youth that there are alternatives to nihilistic violence: “The strategy of brutality, repression and restricting freedom has failed to impose subservience. It hasn’t produced solutions. Governments need to give people space. They need to prove that they can address the problems of a youth that has lost hope. We have nothing to lose if they don’t.” The Egyptian’s inclinations pointed towards peaceful protest in favour of a more liberal society, albeit bound by Islamic morality codes; his options, however, left him little choice but to drift towards jihadism.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Pakistan struggles to get a grip on militancy and ultra-conservatism

By James M. Dorsey

Seventy years after its birth, Pakistan is struggling to get a grip on Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and its militant offshoots that were aided and abetted by successive governments as well as Saudi Arabia and at times the United States. The stakes for Pakistan are high as it confronts mounting international pressure that includes China, its closest ally, to crackdown on militancy.

A string of recent events illustrates the government’s difficulty in shielding Pakistan from retaliatory action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism-finance body, as well as further sanctioning by the United States. FATF this month put Pakistan on notice that it could be blacklisted in June and face global banking isolation if it failed to demonstrate its ability to combat funding of militancy.

The US Treasury last year forced Pakistan’s Habib Bank to close down its US operations and fined it $225 million because there were flaws in its systems that “opened the door to the financing of terror.”

Former Pakistani caretaker finance minister Salman Shah told Asia Times that “there were payments originating in Saudi Arabia that came to Pakistan, but there was no proper documentation.” Mr. Shah said FATF had highlighted the fact that “the current banking mechanisms in place in Pakistan are enabling their usage for terrorists, money-laundering (and) narcotics smuggling, which has prompted the FATF grey-listing.”

Other recent setbacks include a court decision that bars the government from detaining or putting Muhammad Hafez Saeed under house arrest. Mr. Saeed, believed to be the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left some 170 people dead, was designated as a terrorist by the United Nations and the United States, which put a $10 million bounty on his head.

A Saudi-educated religious scholar, who associated with Saudis involved in the 1980s in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and went on to co-found Al Qaeda’s incubator, was widely seen as enjoying support of the Pakistani military because of his anti-Indian militancy.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry declared earlier this year that it welcomed Palestinian ambassador Walid Abu Ali’s “active participation in events organized to express solidarity with the people of Palestine” after the Palestine Authority recalled him for sharing a stage with Mr. Saeed.

While unable to act directly against Mr. Saeed, the government has banned his Jamaat ud-Dawa, believed to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, as well as one its associated charities, Falah-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), and has confiscated scores of their properties, including hospitals, in the provinces of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Interior secretary Arshad Mirza told a Senate panel that the groups had been barred from raising funds and have had their weapons licenses cancelled.

Conscious that militant violence could cast a shadow over Chinese investment in a $50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of China’s Belt and Road initiative, the military has recently invested heavily in development of North and South Waziristan, troubled hubs of militant activity, and a base for the Haqqani network, a group associated with the Taliban.

Nonetheless, authorities in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is governed by the political party of cricket-player-turned politician Imran Khan, who is also widely believed to have close ties to the military, gave $2.5 million to Darul Aloom Haqqania, a militant religious seminary.

Dubbed a “jihad university,” Darul Aloom Haqqania, headed by Sami ul-Haq, a hard-line Islamist politician known as the father of the Taliban, counts among its alumni, Mullah Omar, the deceased leader of the Taliban, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network. Asim Umar, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Mullah Omar’s successor who was killed in a 2016 US drone strike.

In yet another incident, a court ruled that Pakistanis should be identified by their faith and that applicants for public office or joining the military or the judiciary, declare their beliefs to be eligible. Failure to do so amounted to "betraying the State" and "exploiting the Constitution," the court said.

In a bow to a deeply-seated, Saudi-inspired 1974 amendment of the constitution that declared Ahmadis, a sect viewed by orthodox Muslims as heretics, the court asserted that it was "alarming" that "one of (Pakistan’s) minorities" was "often mistaken for being Muslims" due to their names and general attire.”

Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, the presiding judge, cautioned that this "can lead them to gain access to dignified and sensitive posts, along with benefits."

Another court recently summoned reporters from the country’s largest private television station on charges of “ridiculing” a ruling that banned Valentine’s Day celebrations and barred media from covering them.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is under pressure to curb its draconic blasphemy law that has fuelled extremism, moved the judiciary towards militant rulings, and undermined the country’s rule of law. The law was one reason the US State Department In January listed Pakistan as a country guilty of “severe violations of religious freedoms.”

The incidents reflect the fact that Saudi-inspired Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism has become entrenched in significant segments of the Pakistani state and bureaucracy as well as of the population.

The entrenchment is the result of successive governments’ playing with religion for political gain as well as long-standing Saudi efforts to bolster ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal in a country that borders on Iran and has a Shiite minority that accounts for approximately one fifth of the population.

Pakistan has been a focal point of the kingdom’s four decades-old funding campaign. Huge sums were pumped in the 1980s in cooperation with the United States, into financing and arming the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan as well as into religious seminaries that dot the country’s education landscape until today.

The United States in recent years has invested $65 million to rewrite schoolbooks it provided for Pakistani and Afghan seminaries that employed Saudi-style concepts of jihad and ultra-conservatism in support of the struggle against the Soviets.

Saudi Arabia, according to militant sources, has in the past two years pumped large sums into militant seminaries in Balochistan, a province that borders on Iran.

More recently, Saudi officials have suggested that the kingdom may halt its global funding of ultra-conservative educational, religious, and cultural facilities as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to return his country to an unspecified form of moderate Islam and improve its image tarnished by its sponsorship of ultra-conservatism.

That, however, may not have much immediate impact on Pakistan. Ultra-conservatism has struck deep roots in Pakistani society as well as the state and it will take years if not a generation to uproot it. That is the message that emerges from the recent string of judicial, societal, and policy developments that spotlight the difficulties in Pakistan’s uphill struggle with ultra-conservatism and militancy.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, March 9, 2018

Smoking and drinking: Churchill sets an example today’s Western leaders can learn from

By James M. Dorsey

To understand that Western emphasis on human rights is at best a fig leaf to do business with autocrats whose rule is based on repression, contrast Winston Churchill’s encounter with Mohammed bin Salman’s grandfather, King Abdulaziz, with British prime minister Theresa May’s recent talks with the crown prince.

Meeting the king for lunch in Cairo in 1945, Mr. Churchill suggested that it was the “religion of his majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol,” a reference to the king’s adherence to a puritanical strand of Islam that has dominated the kingdom since its founding in 1932.

Mr. Churchill, however, made clear that the king’s beliefs would not deter him from enjoying his smokes and drinks in the monarch’s presence. The prime minister’s rule of life “prescribes as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them,” Mr. Churchill said.

Enjoying tobacco and alcohol is certain not to have featured in Ms. May’s talks this week with Prince Mohammed. Human rights and the humanitarian cost of Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen did.

In contrast to Mr. Churchill, who, perhaps insensitively and arrogantly, refused to compromise on his principles and pleasures, Ms. May’s statements were no more than words in what has become a ritual in interactions between democratic and autocratic leaders. The autocrats understand democrats’ need to maintain a fig leaf. The public admonishment of their tarnished human rights records is a small price to pay for the ability to conduct political and economic business.

The contrast between the two encounters is particularly significant in an environment in which abuse of human rights is on the rise and authoritarian and autocratic rule is spreading its wings across the globe from China to once liberal democracies. Democracy is on the defense.

It raises the question whether the refusal of democracies to stand up for their principles and pay a price will contribute to their demise and brutalization in a world in which the lessons of World War Two genocide and principles of good governance in warfare can be ignored with impunity. Russia and Iran-backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s gassing and starvation of non-combatant Syrian civilians is a case in point.

Ms. May’s fig leaf approach to standing by basic democratic principles is but the latest incident in a long-standing Western willingness to pay a heavy price for sleeping with the devil in a bid to gain short-term geo-political and economic advantage.

Guilt is widespread. Its not just governments. The same is true for non-governmental organizations such as international sport associations who for decades tolerated pre-modernity curtailing of women’s sporting rights in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran by restricting their criticism to words rather than deeds.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and author and long-time Saudi-watcher Robert Lacey noted in The Guardian that “the crown prince doesn’t listen to Saudis – why would he listen to Theresa May?”

Mr. Khashoggi, long closely associated with Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the US, who often voices opinions Prince Mohammed does not want to do so publicly, went into voluntary exile last year on the eve of the crown prince’s power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corrup0tion campaign.

One irony of Ms. May’s approach in her talks with Prince Mohammed is the fact that the kingdom is an exemplary case study of the price that democracies have paid for their toothless objections to a long-standing Saudi worldview that was intolerant, supremacist, and anti-pluralistic.

To be sure, Prince Mohammed has begun to shave off the rough edges of that worldview with his social and economic reforms but has yet to convey his willingness to achieve a clean break.

Holders of tickets for a concert in Jeddah by Egyptian pop sensation Tamer Hosny were recently surprised to receive vouchers that warned that “no dancing or swaying” would be allowed at the event. "No dancing or swaying in a concert! It's like putting ice under the sun and asking it not to melt,” quipped a critic on Twitter.

If anything, Prince Mohammed’s reforms have been underwritten by repression of any form of dissent.

Anti-death penalty group Reprieve reported that Saudi Arabia's execution rate had doubled since Prince Mohammed was appointed crown prince eight months ago. It said 133 people had been executed since June 2017 compared to 67 in the preceding eight months.

Equally fundamentally, the world is still reeling from at times short-sighted, opportunistic Western support for the export of Saudi-inspired Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and at others a willingness to ignore its impact on Muslim communities across the globe.

The same can be said for support of secular autocracies like the regime of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, whose repression, brutality and failure to deliver public goods and services offer extremism a fertile breeding ground.

It is also true for states like Baathist Syria and Iraq that fell into the Soviet orbit during the Cold War, with Iraq. after the demise of the Soviet Union, enjoying US support during its war against Iran in the 1980s.

Geo-strategist Robert D. Kaplan, writing in Foreign Policy, argued that Syria and Iraq had descended into the Middle East and North Africa’s worst mayhems that have caused enormous human suffering and cost the international community significantly in political, diplomatic, and security terms because they were artificial, colonial-era geographic constructs. They lacked the civilizational history, centuries of some kind of statehood, and deep-seated identities that have helped keep Egypt or Tunisia territorially intact.

In South Asia, the United States went during the era of conservative Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq and the US and Saudi-backed war against the Soviets in the 1980s waged by Afghan mujahedeen as far as to distribute schoolbooks that propagated Saudi-inspired jihad and precepts of ultra-conservatism. In doing so it played havoc with Pakistan, a country that since its birth has struggled with its identity.

Western democracies ignored the fact that Saudi Arabia invested heavily over decades to push its austere worldview as an anti-dote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.
While not the only factor, the Saudi campaign created an environment in Pakistan and elsewhere in which militant Islam flourished, societies became ever more conservative and intolerant, and political violence increased.

Western democracies as well as others, including the kingdom, are paying a high price in terms of people’s lives and vastly expanded security to counter extremism and political violence.

Its an open debate whether policies that had been built on democratic values rather than support for autocracy and intolerant worldviews could have achieved similar geopolitical victories such as the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan at a lower cost and a reduced threat to those values.

What is certain, however, is the fact that the fallout of the failure to stand up for democratic values comes at an ever-steeper cost and uncertainty of how the pendulum will swing.

The unanswered question is whether in terms of cost-benefit analysis short-term hits resulting from adopting a principled stand may ultimately be a more reasonable cost and produce greater long-term benefit than the price of dealing with the fallout of policies that effectively ignore democratic principles and ultimately are likely to produce ever greater threats.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom