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Qatari anger at criticism of its National Day 21, December 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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There is a mini storm brewing over various posts at the popular Qatari information forum and website Qatar Living. The website has reams on information on anything and everything Qatari. It is kept current by virtue of people constantly posting in details of new restaurants, reviews of films, cinema times and a plethora of other bits and pieces of information that can be useful. Occasionally, however, some comments posted on the site cause controversy and some Qataris are banding together to get the site banned. Here is sample of one of the latest ‘offending’ comments.

I just returned from a 3.5 hour journey from Qatar Decoration round-about to West Bay. It is Qatar National Day and what should be a time of celebration and pride, presented this country and Qataris in a terrible light of lawlessness, arrogance and disrespect for others, as well as property.

Young Qatari boys were completely blocking traffic; spraying expat’s cars with shaving cream and silly string; blasting their music so loud you couldn’t even carry on a conversation in your own car with the windows rolled up; but no problem because only Qataris matter on Qatar National Day.

Qatari boys in their Landcruisers were waving huge flags that blocked visibility and revving up their engines so high the gas fumes exploded from the tailpipe, hence destroying their engines and polluting the air; but no problem because they can just buy a new one and who cares if they pollute the air when they spend their lives in an air conditioned bubble.

One guy was even driving his car by standing on the door where the window was open with his left foot and steering with his right foot, while his buddy in the passenger seat reached across and operated the gas and break pedals. So what if they endanger their own life or the lives of others? As long as they show off for QATAR NATIONAL DAY!!!!

It took an ambulance 20 minutes to get through a single round-about with their lights flashing and sirens blasting, because these Qatari boys were so intent on showing off they blocked all traffic and couldn’t hear the sirens with their music blasting. No problem if anyone died because the ambulance couldn’t get to them; after all, it’s more important to have a HUGE display for Qatar National Day!

One Qatari kid directed his friends who were on a motorcycle to try to drive between my friend’s car and the one in front of her even though clearly there was not enough room to fit, and he hit her car. Then these arrogant creeps essentially told her to go to hell and drove off while the kid directing them disappeared in the crowd. No problem for my friend’s car, right?

This comment in particular has caused significant offense because it is deemed to be offending Qatar’s National Day. This is the inspiration for the Qatar daily newspaper The Peninsula to run a story seemingly based on “one young Qatari’s” sense of indignation. Thanks to this story, of course, there will be a lot more indignation fairly soon. Of course, it is hardly fair to blame the Peninsula for going for a populist, anger-mongering story: such stories are the daily fodder of tabloids.

Other posts take on more of a racist, abusive tone, viciously disparaging what is described as a lack of culture and other social mores in the small Gulf state.

Issues like this inevitably cause real problems. Qatar is a country that prides itself on mixing its traditions with modern views on education and a forward-thinking, largely humanitarian-based foreign policy. Banning Qatar Living would send a hopelessly negative signal to the ex-pat community and the region more widely about notions of Qatari tolerance.

Moreover, aside from the gratuitous and rude posts seeking explicitly seeking to disparage Qatar, some of these posts are based on a kernel of truth. On the 18th the whole corniche was blocked by young Qataris who, to put it kindly, let their exuberance at celebrating their National Day get the better of them. I do not say this as a disapproving Westerner: pride in one’s country and the desire to manifest that pride loudly is a thing to be admired if anything, but instances such as blocking the passage of an ambulance and the reckless damage of other people’s property is, of course, a different matter.

I do not suppose that there is much chance that Qataris will follow the old of adage of ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’

Indeed, it seems to me that Qatari Living is skating on exceedingly thin ice. Yes, Qatar is a mature Middle Eastern country when it comes to noble ideas of media freedom and the like, but insulting their traditions and – worst of all – the National Day itself, changes things significantly. It does not matter that the authors and editors at Qatar Living apologise and repeat that this was not the original intention. If Qataris believe that despite these protestations their national symbols or traditions have been attacked, I would expect a vigorous reaction. Indeed, all it takes is one powerful Sheikh to take offence and that, as they say, is that.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that if Qatar Living were to be banned this would reflect badly on the ‘strength’ of Qatari traditions and culture. I would have thought that a country comfortable with its history, its culture and its place more generally would not need such a petty reaction against a discussion forum. Indeed, this speaks somewhat to what I wrote yesterday. Qatar is currently engaged in overtly fostering its nationalism and basing it indelibly in its history. The fast pace of change, the influx of foreigners on a massive scale and breakneck modernisation in all areas of life is, I believe, a concern to some Qataris, in case it severs their links to their past. This topic is, therefore, sensitive at the moment, hence, I believe, the harsh reaction to a few paragraphs written by a mildly angry foreigner.

Hat tip: Global Voices Online

Iran and Shiism: A misunderstood relationship 28, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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As usual there’s an excellent article over at the Middle East Institute’s blog, this time discussing the false association of Shiism with Iran. The article concisely explains that its roots are “as Arab as Sunnism” and that it is only since the 16th century or so when the ruling Safavids adopted Shiism that a closer association began. This Shia-Iran nexus was, of course, further entrenched with the 1979 revolution which began to pyrolyze across the region, worrying Sunni powers.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is the belief from the Sunni minority in Iraq (and who knows how many other people) that because the majority of Iraq’s population is Shia that they will somehow ‘side’ or be overly sympathetic towards Iran. This, as I have written about before, is just not the case. The MEI article adds another dimension to what I previously wrote and lends strength to the overall argument.

Backgrounder: Some Thoughts on Iraqi and Iranian Shi‘ism and Misperceptions

The attacks on the shrine of Al-Qazimiyya in Baghdad on Friday and on other Shi‘ite targets on Thursday and Friday threaten a renewal of sectarian conflict, as I noted at the time, but also spur me to talk a little about the role of Shi‘ism in Iraq, which is often misunderstood.

One fundamental misunderstanding is the idea that Shi‘ism is somehow intrinsically “Persian,” because of its contemporary association with Iran. Misunderstood by whom? I can think of at least three major groups:

  1. Westerners who know enough about Islam to understand the differences between Sunni and Shi‘a, but who have a fairly superficial knowledge;
  2. Most Sunni Arabs, at least those from countries without a large Shi‘ite population;
  3. Most Iranian Shi‘a.

The last one may be a bit unfair, and the second needs to be qualified, as it is above, to note that Sunnis from countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain or Kuwait usually have a more sophisticated understanding of Shi‘ism. But this is not just a rhetorical point: Shi‘ites in largely Sunni countries are sometimes portrayed as a pro-Iranian fifth column because of this misperception.

Shi‘ism was, in its origins, as Arab as Sunnism. It was born in Medina, nurtured in Kufa and had its great martyrdom on the field of Karbala’.

Of the 12 Imams of Twelver Shi‘ism, only one, ‘Ali al-Rida (‘Ali Reza), the eighth Imam, is buried in Iran (at Mashhad). The twelfth Imam disappeared in Iraq, and the other ten Imams are buried in Saudi Arabia or Iraq: ‘Ali, the central figure of Shi‘ism, is buried in Najaf, Iraq; Hasan, the second Imam, is buried in Medina; Husayn, the third, is buried where he fell at Karbala’ in Iraq; the fourth, ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin, is buried in Medina, while the fifth and sixth are also buried in Medina; the seventh and ninth are buried at the Qazimiyya shrine attacked last Friday in Baghdad; the tenth and eleventh are buried in the al-‘Askari shrine in Samarra’ (blown up in 2006, starting a wave of sectarian killing); the twelfth disappeared in Samarra’ as well.

The reason there were so many Iranian pilgrims killed in the attacks in Iraq (leading Iran to blame them on the US and Israel, though clearly Sunni radicals were responsible) is that most of the major shrine mosques of Shi‘ism are in Iraq, final resting place for six of the twelve Imams.

The close identification of Iran with Shi‘ism really only dates from the 16th century, when Safavid Iran officially adopted Twelver Shi‘ism as its faith. While there had been earlier Shi‘ite dynasties there, Shi‘ite dynasties of one kind or another flourished in many Arab countries. Cairo’s ancient Fatimid gate, the Bab al-Nasr, even has an inscription reading “There is no God gut God; Muhammad is the Prophet of God and ‘Ali is the wali of God,” the Shi‘ite formulation of the Muslim shahada. (The Fatimids, though, were Isma‘ili Shi‘ites, not the Twelver variety found in Iran, Iraq, etc.)

Until Saddam Hussein began really cracking down on the Shi‘ite clerical establishment during the Iran-Iraq war (again, the suspicion of Shi‘ites as a fifth column), Najaf was the most important scholarly center for Shi‘ite theology; it was where the Ayatollah Khomeni himself taught in exile from Iran. With the Iranian Revolution and Saddam’s crackdowns, the importance of Najaf declined and Qom, Mashhad, and other Iranian clerical schools became suppliers of clerics to Shi&lsquites in other countries; with that came some genuine Iranian influence (such as with Hizbullah in Lebanon), but most Arab Shi‘ites are Arabic-speakers, not Persian-speakers.

As I said though, many Sunnis assume Arab Shi‘ites are somehow more Persian than they are, and many Iranians are surprised when Arab Shi‘ites do not avidly follow the Iranian model of clerical rule. Iraqi Shi‘ites rightly and proudly consider their country the seedbed of Shi‘ite Islam.

Al Jazeera: Control Room 10, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iraq, Qatar.
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I’m not entirely sure how this passed me by, but here’s an excellent 2004 documentary on Al Jazeera and the American handling of the media in the Iraq invasion. The documentary is very interesting and raises a few excellent points.

– On 8th April 2003 the Americans bombed Al Jazeera’s office in Baghdad and killed their lead journalist. They had had the coordinates for weeks. On the same day they bombed Abu Dhabi TV too.

– On 9th April the statue of Saddam was pulled down among the crowd in Firdos Square. Critical Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV were not there too see it.

– It reminds the viewer just how quickly and effectively Bush galvanised large chunks of ‘the Arab street’ behind Saddam. The theory being that even if, for example, the UK and France hated a belligerent Italy and their tyrannical leader, were they to be invaded by a vastly powerful, bellicose, arrogant, foreign power of a different culture and religion, the UK and French ‘street’ would nevertheless most likely be angry and resentful towards the invaders.

– Al Jazeera plays to Arab nationalism just as Fox, MSNBC or CNN often play to US patriotism/nationalism.

– It eloquently but harshly juxtaposes the differences that Westerners often feel when seeing bloodied and gory images of Iraqi civilians versus similar images of US soldiers.

The strength of Middle East nationalism as a search for legitimacy 27, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Foreign Policies, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Since Napoleon raised his army on a diet of nationalistic fervour, flags and anthems, people in the West have been only too aware of the powerful nature of nationalism. This is not to say that it is not powerful elsewhere. However, from a Western perspective, since Western states have – on the whole – been established, bordered and Weshphalian entities for longer than elsewhere in the world, there is, it could be suggested, something of an implicit assumption that nationalism could be ipso facto stronger in the West. In the Middle East, for example, how could the forces of nationalism possibly be that strong, one might think, in such young states (some of which only became independent in 1971) where there is such a manifestly important and pervasive uniting element at the supra-national level in Islam?

Whatever the apparent logic of such a position, it is clearly wrong: nationalism in the Middle East is thoroughly entrenched and all too visible. During the Iraq-Iran war, many on the Iranian side expected that their Shia brethren in the Iraqi army (and the vast majority in the country) might switch sides to the Iranians or at least not fight. Eight years of bitter, attritional and epically costly warfare later and such notions were thoroughly disabused. In a talk given at Durham University, the Iraqi Ambassador to America echoed these sentiments when discussing Shia in power in Baghdad today: they did and do not ‘sell out’ Iraq to Iran in any way, shape or form, act as Iranian stooges or even fail to drive a hard bargain where necessary. They were Iraqi first and Shia second.

Exactly the same logic has been apparent in Bahrain recently. Bahrain, like Iraq under Saddam, is mostly Shia but ruled by a Sunni minority. In the Bahraini case the country is approximately 2/3 Shia. There have always been exceedingly close ties with Persia/Iran but some 230KM away. Indeed, the ruling al Khalifah family have always feared the closeness of Iran and their history of overlordship. Their fears are not eased by periodic hawkish remarks from various Iranian parliamentarians, such as last week’s comments by Ali Akber Nateq Nouri the speaker of Iran’s parliament bemoaning that Bahrain used to be the 14th province of Iran. Far from inciting his Shia, Farsi-speaking former country-men in Bahrain to stand up against the Sunni minority (whether that was what he was intending or not) such actions created a vociferous nationalist reaction and general opprobrium.

“Three Arab summits in response to the Gaza offensive.”

3-conferences-for-gaza-peaceAl-Quds Al-Arabi, London, January 17, 2009 (MEMRI)

The manifest strength of nationalism in the Middle East is one of the reasons that, despite most of the region having a common language, an over-achingly common religion, a common enemy in Israel, a common cause in the Palestinian situation and common social, cultural and political histories, so many divisions emerge when trying to come together over a given issue. The most recent example of this was in the establishment of conferences to deal with the Israeli invasion of Gaza: one involving Qatar, Iran and Syria, another with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a third in Kuwait. As Gregory Gause writes, however, these divisions are nothing new and indeed were even more divisive in the recent past.

It could be argued that the desire for each Arab country to be seen as ‘fixer in chief’ stems from their inherent lack of democratic legitimacy. Without a popular mandate, leaders have to justify their positions in a different way. Acting as a leading country in the region, one that is standing up to Israel or assiduously helping the Palestinians, is all currency that may help fill the democratic void.