In his current Asharq Alawsat column, Amir Taheri says that trying to analyze the chaos of the Middle East in terms of religious sectarianism is a mistake. It’s not religious identity that’s at play, but politics that will use sectarianism as another tool.
Shi’ism may be a big tent, he writes, but Iran has certainly not welcomed Syria’s Awalawites or Yemen’s Houthis into the religious fold. Both of those groups are seen as heretical. But, they’re useful. Supporting those groups serves Iranian ends, not because they’re religiously pure, but because they and their issues allow Iran an entry into the region that would otherwise be closed to it.
Continuing to try and parse the current struggles as sectarian matters is to continue to miss the point: It’s politics, all the way down. And if you’re not correctly identifying the problem, the odds of fixing it are remote.
Faced with the growing threat of terrorism, Western officials and analysts seem hard put as to how to deal with something they find difficult to understand.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has advised the media not to use the term “Islamic State” for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—known as “Da’esh” in Arabic—because, he claims, the “caliphate” based in Raqqa in Syria is not Islamic. In other words, Cameron is casting himself as an authority on what is Islamic and what is not. At the other end of the spectrum, French Premier Manuel Valls speaks of “Islamofascism” and claims that the West is drawn into a “war of civilizations” with Islam.
Cameron continues Tony Blair’s policy in the early days of Islamist attacks on Britain. Blair would declare that although the attacks had nothing to do with Islam he had invited “leaders of the Muslim community” to Downing Street to discuss “what is to be done.”
As for Valls, he seems to forget that Islam, though part of many civilizations including the European one, is a religion not a civilization on its own. He also forgets that civilizations, even at the height of rivalry, don’t wage war; political movements and states do.
While it is important to understand what we are dealing with, it is even more important not to misunderstand the challenge.
To circumvent the hurdle of labeling the Da’esh-style terror as “Islamic,” something that runs counter to political correctness and could attract cries of Islamophobia, some Western officials and commentators build their analysis on the “sectarian” aspect of the phenomenon.
Thus, we are bombarded within seminars, essays and speeches seeking to explain, and at times explain away, the horrors of ISIS and similar groups as part of sectarian Sunni–Shi’ite feuds dating back to 15 centuries ago.
However, the “sectarian” analysis is equally defective.
Al Arabiya TV reports that cross-border attacks are still continuing in Jizan and Najran, Saudi Arabia’s southwesternmost provinces. The attacks are primarily artillery attacks on the part of the Houthis, while Saudi Arabia is responding with airstrikes.
Yemen’s Houthi militias on Saturday shelled various areas in Saudi Arabia’s Jizan and Najran, according to Reuters news agency citing Houthi sources.
Thirteen shells had been launched on Friday, targeting several areas including Jizan’s airport, the report stated, adding that military equipment had also been destroyed.
It is yet unknown whether there are casualties.
A Saudi-led alliance has been bombing Yemen’s Houthi militia and allied army units loyal to deposed leader Ali Abdullah Saleh since March 26 in an attempt to restore exiled President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi to power.
Saudi forces and the Houthis have been trading fire across the border since the Arab alliance began its military operations.
Asharq Alawsat reports that the government of Kuwait is looking into the possibility that the Saudi responsible for the suicide attack on a Shi’ite mosque may have ties with an Al-Qaeda affiliate, “Peninsula Lions.” The government believed it had crippled the group back in 2005, but documents found in the house from which the recent attack was staged show some relationship to the group. On the other hand, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack. It is, however, conceivable that the group has migrated toward ISIS, away from Al-Qaeda.
Kuwait City, Asharq Al-Awsat—Kuwait is investigating whether the perpetrator of last week’s deadly attack on a Shi’ite mosque had links to the “Peninsula Lions,” an Al-Qaeda-linked group that staged a series of attacks in the oil-rich country in 2005.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, a Kuwaiti security source said there were reports that jailed Peninsula Lions members shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) upon receiving the news of Friday’s deadly attack on the Imam Al-Sadiq Mosque in the neighborhood of Sawabir in Kuwait City.
The incident has prompted the authorities to investigate whether the perpetrator of the attack had any links to the Peninsula Lions group whose members have been killed, imprisoned or fled Kuwait.
Kuwait dismantled the group in 2005 and jailed 37 of its members on charge of belonging to Al-Qaeda.
Nine members were killed during clashes with Kuwaiti police in early 2005 and six were given death sentences.
Kuwait has identified the suicide bomber as Fahd Suleiman Abdul Mohsen Al-Qaba’a, a 23-year-old Saudi citizen who crossed into the neighboring country on the same day he carried out the attack.
H.A. Hellyer, writing at Al Arabiya TV, notes that there’s something wrong with the (partial) condemnations of sectarianism popping up in the regional media. Whether is obliviousness, disengenuity, or out-and-out machinations, what is condemned is only that which comes from the other guy. “Our guy” gets a pass, if not actual support.
The short-sightedness (to put it at its most gentle) is appalling. There seems to be utterly no conception of the possibility that today’s majority might not remain so tomorrow. And when that happens, all the methods, tricks, interpretations, and the like that are used to justify violence in the name of today’s majorities will be used to justify similar actions against them when they’re in the minority. Even the most cursory reading of history should inform one that things do not stay the same forever.
It’s Ramadan. Against the backdrop of Muslims observing the obligatory performance of the fast, sheikhs and religious authorities will remind the faithful of the saying of the Prophet: “There has come to you Ramadan, a blessed month which God has enjoined you to fast, during which the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, and the rebellious devils are chained up.” Sages in the past would comment – and warn believers that if there were sins they persisted in the month, they had to take them seriously. For in this month, the whispers and murmurs, beckoning souls to wretchedness – well, that’s all on them. Because the devils, as the adage goes, are locked up.
One would hope, then, that in this month, there would be an absence of truly horrendous actions – if from no one else, than from Muslims themselves, particularly those that claim to raise high the banner of Islam. Alas, the last few days show that while some human beings don’t require the murmurs and whispers of baser beings at all – they can do rather evil things all on their own.
… Is the principle really ‘sectarianism is bad’ – or is the principle ‘sectarianism is bad… until it is my side doing it?’
Is there anyone who will take seriously within the region that be it Sunni on Shiite sectarianism; or Shiite on Sunni sectarianism; or Sunni on Sunni sectarianism; or Muslim on Christian sectarianism; that these are all just bad ideas? That differences of views can, and should, be expressed – but that the incitement that finds itself in words will, far too often, be eventually conveyed in acts of violence and terrible consequences? Or have too few not reached the point of realizing that rotten discourse does not have rotten consequences?
Are there leaders in these communities who know they must rise, in order to be clear once and for all, not simply in rhetoric but in action, to avert further catastrophe by declaring – if you will seek to promote hate and incitement, you will not be tolerated? Are there leaders who will pursue that path, not as a way to crackdown on legitimate dissent and varying opinions that do not win favor with the palace – but as a way to ensure and develop the health of their communities and societies?
Saudi Gazette carries an Agence France Presse article reporting that Kuwait officials have identified a Saudi national as responsible for the bombing of a Shi’a mosque in Kuwait. The attack seems to have been well-planned, with the bomber entering Kuwait only on the morning of the attack. Others involved has been arrested, including the owner of the house from which the plan developed, as well as the driver and the owner of the vehicle used to transport the bomber to the mosque.
Kuwait mosque bomber a Saudi national, say probers
Omar Hasan | AFP
KUWAIT CITY: Kuwait on Sunday identified the suicide bomber behind an attack on a Shiite mosque as a Saudi national, after a series of arrests in connection with the blast that left 26 dead.
Friday’s attack also wounded 227 worshippers in the first bombing of a mosque in the tiny Gulf state, and Kuwait’s security services have vowed to catch and punish those responsible.
The Daesh (Arabic acronym for the group calling itself Islamic State) group’s Saudi affiliate, the so-called Najd Province, claimed the bombing and identified the assailant as Abu Suleiman Al-Muwahhid.
In his column for Asharq Alawsat, Mshari Al-Zaydi comments on Egyptian moves to burn the books written by those Islamists now deemed as extremist, including those by Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. The problem is that the ideas are already out there and you can’t destroy every exemplar of their writings. Further, by banning something, you only make it more attractive to many, particularly in a region that is more than happy to seize upon any sort of conspiracy theory to find justification.
While the past cannot be undone, the governments who are now aware of the dangers contained in these books, can and should stop promoting them. That they did in the past is clearly a mistake. But short of finding some sort of eraser that can undo history, they’ll have to deal with the monsters they created and do the best they can to close the monster factories that thrive in their mosques, schools, and government offices.
Burning the Books of Hassan Al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb
There have been insistent demands for the renewal of religious discourse in several Muslim countries, including Egypt, which is known as “the Mother of the World” and home to the Al-Azhar university, its highest religious authority.
Ever since the toppling of Egypt’s former Muslim Brotherhood-led government, which led to a surge in terrorist attacks and pro-Brotherhood propaganda campaigns, there has been much talk about the need for religious reform, whether inside or outside Egypt. The discourse the Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) employ to recruit people is based on specific religious texts and Islamic Shari’a concepts that lost touch with reality a long time ago.
Although easier said than done, asking Al-Azhar clerics to reform and revolutionize the Islamist discourse, as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi recently did, is not enough. The problem of religious discourse is too divergent and therefore solving it should involve several factors, most importantly addressing issues such as collective psyche and upbringing. The solution lies in revisiting the religious concepts and ideas people were brought up upon. Similar attempts have been done by many of the great Muslim scholars in Iraq, Egypt, and Andalusia.
It is understood that in such uncertain circumstances it is difficult to find the right point of departure for bringing about religious change and reform. Last week, Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments ordered mosques to remove from their shelves books that encourage extremism, particularly those authored by Brotherhood leaders. According to the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa has ordered the burning of all the books written by clerics who incite violence, such as Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.
Writing at Al Arabiya TV, Joyce Kalam argues that the growth of ISIS has meant the death of the map drawn up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement concluded in 1916. That agreement drew lines on the map of the Middle East that might have made sense for certain European powers — France, the UK, Russia — but made little sense to the people on the ground.
Syria and Iraq, main beneficiaries/victims of the Agreement, have now abandoned their joint border. Intent on the survival of their regimes, they have been forced to pull in toward their centers, Baghdad and Damascus, leaving a vacuum that is now being filled by the disaffected. New borders are going to result, though not any time soon.
When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi , the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) flaunted a year ago from the Great Mosque in Mosul the birth of his new “Caliphate,” it was both a statement of the organization’s brutal ambition and the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot map in both Iraq and Syria.
One year later, ISIS as a non-state actor and a terrorist organization is the loudest but not the only symptom of the de facto crumbling of the central nation state structures in Baghdad and Damascus. Understanding its threat and prospects cannot occur absent of this context of rising militias and autonomous groups in what was once “the beating heart of Arab nationalism.”
Hacking government computer systems is going on around the world and Saudi Arabia isn’t immune. Al Arabiya TV reports on Saudi government reaction to the release of tens of thousands of internal documents into the wild late last week, noting that the hack itself probably took place last month.
The government is engaged — as governments are wont to do — in various efforts at backing and filling: “Security is at a high standard.” “Investigation is proceeding.” And the admonitory, “Beware of false documents posing as real ones,” with absolutely no hints given on how to distinguish the two.
The government avows that whatever was released was only expected government policy: “nothing to see here, move along.”
As with any hacks like this, what’s out there might be interesting, but it’s largely lacking context.
The Saudi foreign ministry on Sunday described content of Wikileaks’ publications of more than 60,000 documents as showing no contradiction to its declared policies and warned against circulation of these documents as many were “fabricated,” Al Arabiya News Channel reported.
Head of Information Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Ousama Al Naqli confirmed to Al Arabiya News Channel in an interview that the organized electronic attack that targeted the ministry was not able to hack most classified documents which are in millions.
He also said “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses a system with very high standards. It also uses one of the best protection systems in the world.”
Ambassador Naqli said the current information is related to an earlier attack, and refers to the well-known policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Al Arabiya TV features a Reuters report on the 2014 Annual Report on Terrorism from the US Department of State. The report is global, but most interest is focused on the Middle East, primarily with the rise of ISIS. The report is based on State Dept. reporting conducted in 2014, but is published now.
The section on Saudi Arabia notes Saudi confrontations with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and with ISIS/ISIL, but does not include conflict in Yemen that broke out only this year. It does report on widespread Saudi anti-terrorism and anti-terror-financing efforts.
Big rise in deadly terror attacks, says U.S. report
Warren Strobel | Reuters Washington
Terrorist attacks worldwide surged by more than a third and fatalities soared by 81 percent in 2014, a year that also saw ISIS eclipse al-Qaeda as the leading jihadist militant group, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.
In its annual report on terrorism, the department also charts an unprecedented flow of foreign fighters to Syria, often lured by ISIS’s use of social media and drawn from diverse social backgrounds.
Taken together, the trends point to a sobering challenge from militant groups worldwide to the United States and its allies despite severe blows inflicted on al-Qaeda, author of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in Washington and New York.
Al-Qaeda’s leaders “appeared to lose momentum as the self-styled leader of a global movement in the face of ISIS’s rapid expansion and proclamation of a Caliphate,” the report said, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State.
Al Arabiya TV reports that Saudi Arabia and Russia have signed six agreements concerning the development and peaceful use of nuclear power in the Kingdom. This is in line with other agreements the Saudis have signed with the US, France, Korea, and others.
It’s a bit peculiar in that Russia is a strong supporter of Iran’s nuclear program, about which the Saudis have grave and negative suspicions. It could be that the Saudis think that pulling Russia on board might give Saudi Arabia some leverage vis a vis the Iranian program, but I wouldn’t count on that if I were they.
Saudi Arabia on Thursday signed six agreements with Russia including the peaceful use of nuclear technology, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.
The news comes after Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg on Thursday after arriving in Moscow late Wednesday in an official visit, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
Meanwhile, two sources told Reuters that the oil ministers of Russia and Saudi Arabia plan to discuss a broad cooperation agreement on Thursday at an economic forum in St Petersburg.
Saudi Arabia is the top producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the world’s top oil exporter, while Russia, which is not an OPEC member, is the second biggest oil supplier to the global markets.
Al Arabiya TV reports that the attitudes of Saudis about terrorism have changed over the past ten years. In the past, excuses would be sought to explain extremist acts; extenuating circumstances would be found to somehow make those acts reasonable. Now, the article (and accompanying video) say, there’s no tolerance for it. Even families are turning their young, extremist members to the authorities.
Saudi views shifting on Islamic extremism
Shounaz Meky | Al Arabiya News
More voices are making themselves heard in Saudi Arabia, expressing their rejection of terrorism and violence by extremist groups in the name of Islam, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.
The report notes how Saudi perceptions of extremist groups has changed over the last 10 years.
Saudis rushed to denounce two recent suicide attacks against Shiite mosques in the kingdom that killed at least 25 people.
However, when there were terror attacks in 2003 and 2005, the report said Saudis were much more inclined to justify terrorism and sympathize with extremist groups than they are now.
Another piece on the same webpage points to social media as a facilitator of extremist thought. While the article extols government efforts to contain it, it also calls for coordinated international action, on the parts of government but also by social media companies, to rein it in.
And here, even though Al Arabiya glosses over it, the time-worn argument rises: “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Having excused terrorism in the past because the supposed goals of the terrorist were acceptable, governments in the region are now faced with dealing with the terrorist methodology when the goals aren’t quite so in line with government policies. Not having a First Amendment as does the US, the Saudi government approach ignores the fact that differences in opinion are always going to exist. It’s not the opinions that matter most when it comes to terrorism, but the means through which people seek to call them into reality.
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed rails against the way religion is being used as a weapon of mass destruction in the Middle East. He tries to pin the blame on Iran and its regional surrogates, but I think he’s forgetting his history.
Religion has been a popular tool used to mobilize the masses for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We need only look at Afghanistan in the 1980s to see how government — including the US and Saudi Arabia — were willing to enlist religion as a weapon against the “godless Communists.”
Now, religion is being used to wage sectarian war and, of course, that’s a bad thing. But it was also a bad thing when it was used as a club against Israelis as Jews, as a stick with which to beat Baha’is, as a cudgel in the separation of India and Pakistan. The use of religion as a weapon is amazingly foolish because it’s a weapon that cannot be controlled, no matter what the manipulators think. Loosing non-rational dragons is and always will be a tactic that will turn on its masters.
The long-term fallout of religious warfare
We are going through a gigantic, chaotic war in the Middle East. It is worse than anything the region witnessed even during the two world wars. All kinds of weapons are being used, from primitive knives to the most advanced military hardware such as drones.
However, the most dangerous weapon of all is religion, because it is capable of mobilizing communities and controlling armies of young people willing to die, and because it is similar to a nuclear bomb: its toxic fallout will last long after the end of the war. Many were killed by radiation caused by the nuclear bombs years after they were dropped on Japanese cities in the Second World War. This is also the case with sectarian wars: their consequences will linger for decades.
Citizens are dragged into civil wars after centuries of coexistence because they are mesmerized by propaganda. If you want to understand your opponent, put yourself in their shoes. Ever since the failure of Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian government in the Syrian war, and the ever-worsening situation in Iraq, these three players have been keen on spreading sectarian bacteria to the Gulf states, which are modern and comprise a variety of social components.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has done the same, focusing its hate speech against Shi’ites. Uncivilized, religious-oriented people have been dragged into sectarian clashes; clerics, intellectuals and a large audience have fallen for this trick. They started accusing each other of reinterpreting history and settling scores. That is what Iran, the Syrian regime and ISIS want.