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Chinese closure of Mosque in Xinjiang 24, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China.
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Reuters in Beijing is reporting that the Chinese authorities have closed down a Mosque in the Xinjiang region because it refused to put up posters supporting the Beijing Olympics. Aside from this initial fact, the story descends into something of a ‘who do you believe’ situation.

One the one side, the Chinese authorities trot out the familiar line about how there are terrorists in the area are “supported by Al Qaeda”. Obviously, China are not the first country in the world to take advantage of this new phrase in the political lexicon, which magically conveys gravitas, a suspension of questioning and  – by and large – human rights. Russia and the Central Asian states (not to mention countless Middle Eastern countries) frequently speak of Al Qaeda as a defensive barrier to Western human rights, international law and morality concerns.

And on the other had there is the World Uyghur Congress, who hit all their marks with their reply. They talk of how the government have seized their copies of the Quran, stopped allowing free worship, closed the mosque entirely, and have been torturing Muslims. Many of these instances could well be true, but the beseeching nature their diatribes, beseeching Muslim countries to intervene somehow (hence the buzz words: Quran, Mosque, pray, and torture) I feel takes away some of their gravitas.

Egypt: An autocratic state with a silver lining 21, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt.
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In the past few days there have been two saddening stories which testify to the unpleasant nature of the politics and daily life to which Egyptians are subjected by their government. Firstly, as reported in the Daily News English, an American woman handed in a video tape to be copied at the video shop in the Marriott Hotel. On viewing this material the manager of the shop immediately telephoned the Tourist Police who then contacted State Security and began a search for the American woman. On the tape was footage shot at recent clashes between Muslims and Coptic monks at the Abou Fana Monastery in Minya. Additionally, the police reaction to this event was also, apparently, caught on film. The tape also showed vivid scenes of some of the poorest slums in Egypt.

There are several disturbing and unpleasant reactions to this story. Obviously, the fact that they are searching for this woman now, for unspecified reasons, is a travesty. The images that the woman filmed would no doubt have been damaging to Egypt’s image, if (and this is a large if) they would ever have reached the surface or public consciousness. Yet now we will never know and the government, by reacting in this way, just announced to anyone paying attention that they are a repressive government who cannot remotely stand any scrutiny. People’s imaginations will now take over and paint a picture of what was on the footage, perhaps even worse than the original.

The second story comes from the Kuwaiti Arab Times. A 17 year old boy in Luxor, instead of completing his maths exam as he ought to have, decided to write a tirade abusing the Mubarak government and Egyptians generally. He castigates Mubarak as a ‘tyrannical leader’ and Egyptians as a ‘cowardly people’ for putting up with Mubarak’s tyrannical reign. Needless to say, taking a 17 year old boy into custody for writing a rant against the government when he is completing his life-changing Thanawiyya Al Aaam exams, with all the pressure that comes with such crucial exams, is hopelessly ridiculous. Out with the mitigating circumstances of a boy failing such exams and what this means for his future, he is just 17 years old: since when are they taken seriously? To elevate this minor, petty, insignificant and pathetic cathartic rant by a sacred teenager to where the story is covered by the International Press is madness.

Yet among these somewhat depressing stories, there is a glimmer of hope. Whilst such repressive measures are obviously in place, as evidenced by the first example, these actions are still freely reported. This provides a crucial difference to countries such as China or yet further along the scale, North Korea, where such incidents would be wholly denied or erased completely. The free press in Egypt is thus seemingly strong and resolute. Yet, the apparatus of the government itself does not appear to be wholly hell-bent on secrecy and stonewalling as one might think would accompany such repressive and oppressive acts. The quotes for the second story are directly from the Ministry of Education; not the sign of a government institution committed towing an unbelievable party-line or stooping to Soviet-era levels of absurd propaganda pushing. Thus, from these two examples, there is, in fact, more than a glimmer of hope.

Indeed, in many ways one of the nastiest aspects of these stories speaks to the question of informing in Egyptian society. The notion of a snitch is an insidious and corroding idea that instantly brings to mind Soviet Russia and the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Firstly, there is the manager at the Marriott’s film shop. He will argue that he was simply obeying the law, not wishing to reproduce slanderous material, but instead of simply refusing to copy the film, he chose to call the police. Secondly, there is the question of how the authorities found out about the teenager’s exam. Obviously, a teacher marking the exam informed the authorities of the dreadful, real, imminent and existential threat to society posed by the no doubt half-incoherent, hormone-fuelled, bitter ramblings of an angry and failing 17 year old boy. The meanness, pettiness and sheer stupidity of this act of informing makes the mind boggle.

So is there a problem with informing and snooping generally in Egyptian society? The biggest problem that this brings with it is that we’ll never know. I doubt very much that there are similar levels of snooping as the almost herculean efforts of GDR such as collecting people’s smells (yes, that’s what I mean), routine post interception and where one in thirty people were paid informers,  but you never know…

The end of Al Qaeda – heard it before? 11, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
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There have been many points at which various people have claimed that Al Qaeda and other such groups are on the wane. More often than not – indeed, just about every time so far – such predictions have been woefully early, plainly hopeful, poorly researched or just plain wrong. George Bush’s cringing ‘Mission Accomplished’ effort aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln is a moment that will surely live infamy. Nevertheless, experts, pundits, politicians, journalists and policeman are still tempting fate and prognosticating that Al Qaeda is something of a spent force, soon to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

One such article emerged this past week in The New Republic, authored by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank. Bergen especially is an acknowledged expert on Al Qaeda generally and Osama Bin Laden specifically. Despite his tactlessly and almost cringe-worthily titled book “The Osama Bin Laden I Know” Bergen is a knowledgeable expert who does not resort to hyperbole as quickly as many or even most Bin Laden experts, but instead relies on evidence and knowledge.

The crux of their argument is persuasive. In an extensive 5000 word article, they list several key former Al Qaeda supporters who have apparently seen the light and now campaign against Al Qaeda’s poisonous message. They extrapolate that the reasons for their changes are already persuading others to follow suit. However, it is the fact that such ‘experts’ and former Al Qaeda justifiers and supporters actually believe these reasons that it the key. Their conversions will, so goes the argument, convince many others to change.

Here is a brief summary of the protagonists:

– Sheikh Salman Al Ouda was one of the fathers of Saudi Arabia’s Sahwa (Awakening) movement in the early 1980s who riled against the presence of US troops in the Kingdom and indeed the House of Saud itself. He was thus an early inspiration for Bin Laden. Furthermore, he has repeatedly advocated attacks on US troops both in the Kingdom (in the past, obviously) and in Iraq today, castigating the US as occupiers and thus legitimate targets. Additionally, Al Ouda spent a considerable amount of time in jail in Saudi for his views and this would, therefore, enhance his credibility in certain circles.

– Sayyid Imam Al Sharif or Dr Fadh as he is better known was one of the ideological “Godfathers” of Al Qaeda as Bergen and Cruickshank put it. He laid down one of the central trysts that Al Qaeda and similar groups have used to designate swathes of people as legitimate targets: the notion of takfir and kuffar. Furthermore, Dr Fadh is well known for the time that he spent on the front lines of Jihad in Afghanistan in the 1990’s.

– Noman Benotman is the former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group whose avowed aim was to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. The article reports several meetings between Benotman and Bin Laden, indicating a close relationship. However, he – like Dr Fadh and Al Ouda – have since performed a 180 degree turn and are now avowedly anti-Al Qaeda.

The three protagonists here have changed their opinions largely because of the escalating nature of Al Qaeda’s violence. Bombings such as in London and on the wedding in Amman, Jordan killing purely Muslims are crucial turning points for them. The three former Al Qaeda sympathisers/ideologues/soldiers say much the same thing: that these barbarous acts are forbidden in Sharia law and thus illegal.

Whilst this change of heart is to be encouraged, it must be questioned. I do not mean to suggest that they are lying to dupe ‘us’ into a false sense of security (we do not live in a Bond film, after all). Yet when those who fervently, passionately and concertedly preached, justified and carried out what many consider to be disgraceful acts of terrorism in the past suddenly ‘see the light’, I personally do not see why this is automatically a one-way street: what is stopping them from having another conversion back to the dark side?

In short, Bergen and Cruickshank’s article is, of its type, well reasoned, well argued and – who knows – perhaps prophetic, too. Yet the very nature of these peoples’ world and the values that they hold dear must not be forgotten. That is to say that they still have – theoretically – no problem with killing plenty of people, only now, they have shifted the goal posts and are much more selective, which is obviously a good thing. Yet nevertheless they still place scripture – now differently interpreted – above human life. This is something that I am deeply uncomfortable with and am thus not rejoicing just yet.

Saudi religious police to get firearms 8, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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A new study recommends that the Saudi religious police ought to be given extra training as well as firearms to protect themselves from the increasing number of attacks to which they have been subjected in the past few years. Somehow the study estimated that “82 percent of the members of all commission branches are incapable of defending themselves against assault during their fieldwork”. How they arrived at such a statistic and indeed what that statistic even means is unclear.

The apparent goal of these recommendations is to put an end to the “behavioral chaos within the Saudi society.” However, this is just looking at one side of the argument. If the religious police were being assaulted simply as they walk down the street, or something of this nature, then of course action would be needed to be taken. Yet surely the vast majority of cases of violence ensue from their actions as a starting point? Childishly put: they start it.

The general argument as to why attacks have gone up recently stems from a belief that Saudi society is getting less and less tolerant of the officious interference that that the police have in every day life. Thus whilst the police may well be performing the same actions as they were, for example, ten years ago, these actions are eliciting a different response. They could well argue that the ever extending and ever increasing reach of Western culture into Saudi society causes if not mandates that they – the police – act more to counter what they perceive to be increasing licentious behaviour. However, no matter the degree that this may or indeed may not be true, the fact remains that the Saudi population are changing and showing less adherence and less respect towards the police.

Their answer is to enable the police to defend themselves, which does not seen that unreasonable. Yet at the same time, there is no examination of the pertinence of the laws that they are enforcing or the way that they are doing so on modern day Saudi society. Obviously, some kind of far reaching overhaul of Saudi law is, to say the least, unlikely. Yet, the solution posed by the study is simply guaranteed to cause further problems and resentment between the two groups involved. Perhaps a dialogue would be a more fruitful and all together safer way to proceed. I doubt very much if by carrying firearms the religious police will suddenly be able to turn back to clock to the ‘good old days’ whenever they perceive them to have been.

Bahrain’s brave choice for its American Ambassador 6, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Not wishing to be outdone by America and their first female or non-White Presidential candidate, Bahrain have done their best to go one better, all be it in a slightly less prestigious role. Not only have they just announced that their new ambassador to America is going to be a woman, a forward move for the male dominated world of Gulf politics, but she is Jewish too.

This is a brave move by the small country. Those in the West will no doubt be pleased by such a more, some in the Middle East, less so. Particularly Iran who have a less than cosy relationship with Bahrain. Indeed, perhaps this is Bahrain’s way of pinning their colors to the Western mast, so to speak, much to the annoyance – no doubt – of Tehran. Yet despite this move and the fact that Bahrain have one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, they do not actually have diplomatic relations with Israel. Presumably, however, this is not that far off now.

The Saudi interfaith dialogue 6, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia has once again sought to assert its place as the de facto leader of the Muslim world. King Abdullah gave a speech at three day conference at Mecca on the future of Islam and other religions, following on from the much publicised Saudi call for an interfaith dialogue. The King called for unity among Muslims and for Islam to speak as one voice in its dialogue with other religions. An important corollary of this move would be that Saudi Arabia would command a prominent place at the heart of such a movement, controlling as it does the birth place of Islam and its two holiest sites at Mecca and Medinah.

This is not the first time that the Kingdom has sought such a role. Indeed, this is but a reprisal of policies that go back to the reign of Ibn Saud. However, it was his successors Saud and Faisal that had to cope with Nasser’s powerful call for nationalism, the vogue concept of the age. Egypt’s and Nasser’s popularity in the early sixties posed significant problems for the Kingdom and any aspirations that they might have had of being a leading country in the region. Both Saud and later Faisal realised that Saudi could not hope to compete with Egypt and Syria in the nationalist stakes. Saudi’s relative distance from the Levant-Egypt axis, its small population and relatively poor military put paid to any such notions.

The best policy that they had to combat this was to champion their own credentials as a pan-Islamic religious leader and to portray these as inclusive Islamic values versus the splitism which pan-Arabism promoted. Internally, the Saudi ulama wrote, decreed and proteolyzed on behalf of the state’s new adopted goal and against its ‘competition’. For example, Al Baz, one of Saudi’s preeminent theologians wrote many denunciations of pan-Arabism as being “introduced by Christian Westerners to fight Islam and destroy it through trickery…it is known in Islam that the call to Arab nationalism, or any other form of nationalism, is false and a grave mistake.”[1]

Externally, the Kingdom began to organize Islamic meetings and conferences. For example, in 1956 Pakistan and Saudi agreed to set up a loosely defined ‘Islamic Conference,’ in 1962 Saudi organised a rather unsuccessful Muslim World League Conference and the so called ‘Casablanca group’ of Saudi, Morocco, Mali, Ghana and Guinea established a joint military command and common market in 1963.

However, Saudi did not have to cope for long with Nasser’s challenge which was severely curtailed with the humiliation of the 1967 war and his subsequent need to come to the Al Sauds, cap in hand, to bail Egypt out of the mess that it was in.

Fast forward some forty years and Saudi are doing the same thing again; seeking to use their central place in Islam as a means of securing and augment their status. This time they are not reacting against any nationalistic causes but against Iran and their recent hogging of the international limelight. Not only are they rumoured to be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons – a huge sign of prestige – but their clearly positioned anti-Western stance is attractive to many Muslims. Their support of Hizballah, alleged support of insurgents in Iraq, vociferous anti-American and Jewish rhetoric, not to mention their historic anti-American antipathy are an unfortunately powerful elixir which garners them not a small amount of prestige. Saudi, with their intertwined history and obvious dependency on America, can play no such cards. Thus, they have employed the same tactic again; uniting behind the banner of Islam where they are guaranteed to have a central place.

Can Mubarak offer anything to this Saudi challenge? Whilst Egypt will always command respect throughout the region owing to its history, population and soft power (i.e. films, music etc), with the economy precariously placed, the population severely displeased and the government far from popular, there appears to be little choice. Egypt must join the Saudis in their plan if they are to compete at the present time. Showing ones Islamic colours is the vogue trend in the Middle East at the moment and for Mubarak not to join in with Saudi’s interfaith dialogue would be a mistake. Indeed, the one card that Egypt can play lies in their recognition of Israel. How can the Saudi’s claim an interfaith dialogue if they will not recognise the only Jewish state in the region? Whilst this is no easy role for Egypt – in some quarters they may well be castigated as dealing with the devil – handled correctly it is a golden opportunity to (re)gain international prestige.

[1] P.11-14 Al Baz, Sheikh Abd al Aziz Ibn  Naqd al Qawmiya al Arabiya Ala Daw’a Al Islam wa al Waqi  (Beirut, al Maktab al Islami, 1385 (translated by Al Yassini) quoted in P.12 al Yassini, Ayman  ‘Religion and Foreign Policy in Saudi Arabia’  Discussion Paper Series – Centre for Developing Area Studies (No.2, McGill University, 1983)