Wahhabism vs. Wahhabism: Qatar challenges Saudi Arabia
by James M. Dorsey
As Saudi Arabia seeks to inoculate itself against the violence, civil disobedience and potential re-writing of colonial-era borders that characterize the Middle East and North Africa’s convoluted push for greater freedom, transparency and accountability, a major challenge to the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam sits on its doorstep: Qatar, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi and that adheres to the Wahhabi creed.
It is a challenge that is rooted in historical tensions that go back to Qatari efforts in the 19th century to carve out an identity of their own and long-standing endeavors by the dominant Al Thani family, who hail from same Bin Tamim tribal group as Wahhabism’s founder, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab to ensure its grip on power or what a US inter-agency assessment of Qatar described as “an unceasing evaluation by the Al Thanis of the domestic and international risks to their family’s 140-year grip on power.”
The Qatari challenge also stems from long-standing differences with Saudi Arabia in religious interpretations that hark back to Qatar’s geography, patterns of trade and history; and a partially deliberate refusal to groom a class of popular Muslim legal scholars of its own. More recently, Qatar’s pursuit of an activist foreign policy promoting Islamist-led political change in the Middle East and North Africa as part of a soft power strategy designed to reduce its dependence on a Saudi defense umbrella was prompted by a perception that it no longer could rely solely on the kingdom or the US defense umbrella for its protection. The Economist’s question, “Where is Globocop?” against the backdrop of the United States’ perceived weak response to Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, Chinese encroachments in the East and South China Sea, the civil war in Syria, and jihadist advances in Iraq, is prominent in the minds of Qatari strategic planners.
Although long existent, Qatar’s challenge to the kingdom was never as stark as at a time of massive change in the region. It has sparked an increasingly cold war among Gulf states as well as in Syria and Arab nations who have in recent years toppled their autocratic leaders, first and foremost among which Egypt. For all practical purposes, Qatar’s refusal to toe Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary line constitutes a litmus test for the kingdom’s ability to project itself as the region’s foremost Arab power capable of imposing its will. So does Bahrain, a festering wound in the Gulf’s backyard where discontent is boiling at the surface following the Saudi-backed brutal crushing of a popular revolt in 2011. A renewed crisis in Bahrain where frustrated youth are becoming increasingly militant and violent would also severely test Qatar’s policy. If there is one thing Qatar and its Gulf distractors agree on, it is a desire to ring fence their neck of the woods against the messy, volatile and bloody process of change sweeping the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.
A shot across the bow
Given their differences in social, foreign and security policies, Qatar, which hosts the largest US military base in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia supported by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have fought a tacit cold war often involving proxies for much of the of the last 25 years punctured by relatively short periods of good neighborly relations and cooperation albeit with clearly defined but unspoken red lines. Increasingly, those differences could no longer be papered over. A five-year period of relative calm in bilateral relations ended in March 2014 when Saudi Arabia together with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew its ambassador from Doha, charging that continued Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood amounted to interference in the domestic affairs of fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia fired a month before the withdrawal of Gulf ambassadors from Doha a shot across Qatar’s bow with the publication of a story in a London-based Arab newspaper warning of a possible suspension of diplomatic relations as well as other sanctions, including the closure of Saudi airspace to Qatar and the suspension of trade agreements. The UAE added its bit by rebuking the Qatari ambassador for allowing Doha-based Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, widely seen as a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to attack the Emirates for not supporting Islamic government. A UAE court convicted at the same time a Qatari national, dubbed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, for aiding a banned UAE Islamist group that the authorities claim was linked to the brotherhood.
In refusing to bow or pay at best lip service to Saudi demands that it cut its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar has put Saudi credibility on the line and targeted a key weakness of the kingdom – its inability to impose its will on the Arab world on its own steam. If anything, that weakness has prompted Qatar to adopt a more proactive and at times panic-driven foreign policy. Saudi support for the overthrow in July 2013 of President Mohammed Morsi was as much designed to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood as it was to compensate for its weakness by creating an Arab leader strong enough to push the Middle East and North Africa in the direction the kingdom would like to see it go. Analyst Barak Barfi argues that Saudi anger at US policies, including rapprochement of Iran, tacit support for the overthrow in 2011 of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and criticism of the coup against Morsi, a Muslim Brother, reflects Saudi frustration that the United States has been unwilling or unable to advance at least some of the kingdom’s goals in the absence of a strong Arab leader. For much of the period since World War Two, Saudi Arabia, relied on leaders such as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat prior to his peace treaty with Israel as well as Mubarak and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before his 1990 invasion of Iraq to drive elements of its agenda. The absence of such leaders has undermined Saudi Arabia’s efforts to lead from behind and threatens to highlight limitations to its power that is based primarily on financial muscle and moral authority as the custodian of Islam’s two most holy sites. Saudi Arabia’s weak was evident when interior minister Prince Mohammed Nayef failed shortly after the rupture in diplomatic relations with Qatar to persuade a gathering of Arab security chiefs in March 2014 to join it in banning the Brotherhood.
By defying the kingdom, Qatar, a country former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud denounced as “nothing but 300 people…and a TV channel” is shining the spotlight on the limits of Saudi power. Qatar drove the point home by responding to Saudi pressure with at best nominal concessions. In a conciliatory move, Sheikh Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born naturalized Qatari citizen and fierce critic of Saudi and UAE attitudes towards political Islam, who has long advised Qatari rulers, expressed his love for Qatar’s Gulf detractors. “My personal position does not reflect the position of the Qatari government … I do not take on an official position, but just express my personal opinion. I would like to say I love all the countries of the Gulf, and they all love me: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain. I consider them one country and one house. What I said, and I say, is a matter of sincere advice, which will prove its sincerity after a while,” Qaradawi said.
Saudi concern about Qatari policies went beyond the Gulf state’s support for the Brotherhood and its alignment with brewing discontent across the Middle East and North Africa. The kingdom feared that Qatari actions could undermine Saudi national security and policies. It saw Qatar’s facilitation in March 2014 of the release by Syrian jihadists of 13 kidnapped Greek Orthodox nuns by allegedly paying a $67 million ransom as a move that strengthened the very forces Saudi Arabia was seeking to combat. Similarly, Saudi officials saw Qatari support for Houthi rebels in northern Yemen near the kingdom’s border and Yemen’s Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party as a national security threat. The Houthis were among several groups listed by Saudi Arabia as terrorists in March 2014.
In defying Saudi Arabia, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Khalifa benefitted from his father and predecessor’s ability to turn his country’s lack of size and population into strategic assets that made its dispute with Saudi Arabia not quite a struggle between David and Goliath. Tamim unlike Saudi rulers is moreover relatively unencumbered by factional politics, geographical disparities, and sectarian differences. He enjoys relative domestic security and has no institutions like a parliament or an autonomous clergy that inhibit his ability to set policy. That has enabled Qatar to emerge as a rare example of a government that has successfully sought to harness the power of political Islam without losing control and seeing its effort backfire.
Recent decades are littered with failed government attempts at exploiting political Islam without becoming a target. These attempts include Israel’s tacit backing of Hamas in the 1980s in a bid to counter Palestinian nationalism, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s use of the Brotherhood against the left in his country, and the emergence of Al Qaeda from Western and Saudi backing of Islamist resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In contrast, “the influence of Islamism within Qatari society and politics has been very limited…which highlights the pragmatic and instrumental use of this ideology and movement by the regime in Doha in the pursuit of regime survival,” noted scholar Bernard Heykal. Qatar’s success is all the more remarkable given that the Gulf state and the Brotherhood are strange bedfellows. Qatar adheres to the Hanbal school of Islamic law that mandates obedience to a ruler while the Brotherhood propagates activism against secular regimes and has never favored what it views as feudal monarchies.
Moreover, Qatar’s Shiite Muslim minority estimated at between 10 and 20 percent of the Qatari population has been integrated economically and politically. As a result, Qatari decision-making is concentrated in a small, tightly knit circle of driven associates and advisors of the emir. The regime moreover has forged a relationship of mutual dependency with merchant families that makes it less likely that they would turn against the ruler even in times of stress or economic downturn.
33 year-old Sheikh Tamim took the long view with the bursting into the open of Qatar’s differences with kingdom as he confronted an aging and ailing Saudi leadership. Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who at approximately 90 reportedly needs a walker because of back ailments, uses oxygen tubes to breathe and allegedly lacks the energy to attend meetings that last more than two hours, appeared to recognize the advantage of youth when he issued his binding, unchangeable appointment of his 71-year old half-brother and deputy prime minister, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as deputy crown prince. Prince Muqrin is the youngest of the surviving sons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. His appointment appeared to confirm concerns about the health of 78-year old Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.
King Abdullah using oxygen tubes during meeting with US President Barak Obama (Source: Carrie Budoff Brown /Twitter)
Sheikh Tamim’s approach has served to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s view of Qatar as potentially subversive. Saudi Arabia’s aging leaders fear that Qatar could serve much more than freewheeling Dubai as an inspiration for a conservative Saudi society that acknowledges its roots but in which various social groups increasingly are voicing a desire for change. The subversive nature of Qatar’s approach is symbolized by its long-standing, deep-seated ties to the Muslim Brotherhood whose predicament serves as a serious litmus test for Sheikh Tamim barely a month after his father abdicated in his favor. In addition to the setback Qatar suffered with the successful Saudi counter-revolutionary campaign that helped topple the Morsi government in Egypt, Sheikh Tamim was confronted with Saudi efforts to curtail Qatari influence in the rebel movement opposed to embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. To some degree, pressure on Tamim has been alleviated by the region’s preoccupation with the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) territorial expansion from Syria into Iraq.
Sheikh Tamim’s refusal to cave into Saudi demands has forced Gulf states to lower the temperature and tone down the rhetoric in the realization that there was with little prospect of any real meeting of the minds. Those demands included not only the silencing if not the expulsion of Sheikh Qaradawi and the toning down if not the shutdown of Al Jazeera, Qatar’s global television network that frequently gives voice to opposition forces in the Middle East and North Africa including the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as of two Doha-based think tanks, the Brookings Institution, whose executives were barred from entry into the UAE because they were allegedly close to the Brothers, and the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). Dubai’s notoriously anti-Islamist security chief, Dhahi Khalfan has repeatedly denounced ACRPS head Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Palestinian and advisor to the Qatari emir, as an Israeli spy tasked with destabilizing the Gulf. In a further affront to the Qataris, Khalfan also called on the government in Abu Dhabi to assert the claim of the UAE, a federation of seven emirates, to Qatar as its eighth emirate.
Few attributed credibility to the announcement by a GCC foreign ministers’ meeting in late April 2014 that the difference between Qatar and the Saudi-led block had been resolved. The skepticism was reinforced by a refusal by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to return their ambassadors to Doha. “Without precisely the kind of meaningful change that Qatar cannot undertake, relations seem set for an extended cold snap, punctuated by personally-led spurts of anger, potentially peripatetically lurching relations from one mini-crisis to the next,” said Gulf expert David Roberts.
The UAE like Saudi Arabia has long resented the Brotherhood’s use of Doha as a base to expand into Dubai and other emirates. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Zayed warned US diplomats as far back as 2004 that “we are having a (culture) war with the Muslim Brotherhood in this country.“ The US embassy in Abu Dhabi reported that “Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers Hamdan and Hazza rarely miss an opportunity to talk to high-level USG (US Government) interlocutors about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on moderate-thinking Emiratis. In a meeting with Deputy Secretary Armitage on April 20, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed noted that UAE security forces had identified ‘50 to 60’ Emirati Muslim Brothers in the Armed Forces, and that a senior Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer is within one of the ruling families – a reference, we believe, to Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Sultan Al Qassimi, whose ties to Saudi Arabia are well known. Sheikh Mohammed has told us that the security services estimate there are up to 700 Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in the UAE. He also said that when the Armed Forces discovered Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers within their ranks, they were arrested and given a form of reverse brainwashing.” 
In 2009. Sheikh Mohamed went as far as telling US officials that Qatar is “part of the Muslim Brotherhood.” He suggested that a review of Al Jazeera employees would show that 90 percent were affiliated with the Brotherhood. Sheikh Mohammed charged that Qatar was facilitating Iranian inroads into the Arab world and that “he sees Iranian influence in the Brotherhood very clearly as both a way to agitate the Arab populace and render the traditional leaders of Arab society impotent.” Other UAE officials privately described Qatar as “public enemy number 3”, after Iran and the Brotherhood.
Because of the Brotherhood’s inroads into the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed said he had sent his son with the Red Cross rather than the Red Crescent on a humanitarian mission to Ethiopia to cure him of his interest in Islamist teachings. “His son returned from the mission with his vision of the west intact and in fact corrected. He was astonished that the Christians with the Red Cross were giving food and support to anyone who needed the support, not just to Christians. His son had only heard the stories of the west through the lens of Al Jazeera and others similarly aligned,” the embassy recounted Sheikh Mohammed as saying.
At the heart of differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies is the fact that Qatar has emerged as living proof that Salafism and even more importantly, Wahhabism, the puritan version of Islam developed by the 18th century warrior preacher and scholar Abdul Wahhab who forged an alliance with the Al Sauds that dictates life in contemporary Saudi Arabia since its creation, can be somewhat forward and outward looking rather than exclusively repressive and restrictive. Qatar has also demonstrated that adherence to Abdul Wahhab’s creed need not be threatened by regimes that cloak themselves in Islam and/or assert legitimacy through some modicum of free elections or by groups that adhere to alternative, at times politicized, interpretations of Islam. Writing in Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Ash Sharq al Awsat, Farag Abdel Fattah implicitly defined Saudi Arabia’s differences with Qatar as well as the Brotherhood as one between regimes whose policies are exclusively inspired by allegedly pure religion such as the kingdom and those whose interpretations of Islam were informed by politics. “We must first differentiate between a government that rules through religion, and one that infuses its political outlook with religion,” Abdel Fattah said.
An assessment of Qatar’s approach to religion by the US embassy in Doha concluded that “Qatar’s brand of Islam…is both traditional and progressive. It is traditional in that it is based on scripture and standing interpretations, but progressive in its tolerance for various Islamic schools of thought and moderate social strictures. Even though Amirs of Qatar have referred to themselves and their subjects as ‘Wahabi,’ use of this term is increasingly pejorative in Qatar today. The current Amir (Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani) several years ago made a point of using the Wahabi term as a descriptor in public, but his director of communications at the time believes he did so to make clear to Saudi Arabia that Qatar alone would dictate the terms of its religious practices and the vocabulary used to describe them.” The communications director, Adel al-Malki, according to the embassy, said that Sheikh Hamad made his comment at a time that Saudi Arabia was pressuring Qatar to adhere to Saudi interpretations of Islam, Al Malik said the emir’s use of the term Wahabi was his way of saying, ‘Thank you very much, but we Qataris will do things our way.’
The embassy’s cable to the State Department in Washington concluded that “judging by the extent to which Qataris seek to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia in all spheres, it should come as no surprise that even in religion Qataris define themselves by how they differ from their Saudi neighbors and yield to no one the right to define the terms or vocabulary by which Qataris live.”
Everything but a mirror image
Doha’s newest and biggest mosque, a multi-domed, sand-colored, architectural marvel, symbolizes Qatar’s complex and volatile relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as its bold soft power policy designed to propel it to the cutting edge of the 21st century. It’s not the mosque itself that raised eyebrows among critics of Wahhabism but it’s naming after Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, a warrior, cleric and scholar who founded contemporary Islam’s most puritan sect.
The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more traditional and Salafi segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia, which sees the tiny Gulf state as a troublesome and dangerous gadfly on its doorstep challenging its puritan interpretation of Islam as well as its counterrevolutionary strategy in the Middle East and North Africa. Qatar’s social revolution in the past two decades contrasts starkly with Saudi efforts to maintain as much as possible of its status quo while impregnating itself against the push for greater freedom, transparency and accountability sweeping the region. By naming the mosque after Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to 19th century Saudi support and the ultimate rise to dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary monarchs who account for an estimated twenty percent of the population.
Yet, despite being a traditional Gulf state, Qatari conservatism is everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s stark way of life with its powerful, conservative clergy; absolute gender segregation; total ban on alcohol and houses of worship for adherents of other religions, and refusal to accommodate alternative lifestyles or religious practices. Qataris privately distinguish between their ‘Wahhabism of the sea’ as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s ‘Wahhabism of the land,’ a reference to the fact that the Saudi government has less control of an empowered clergy compared to Qatar that has no indigenous clergy with a social base to speak of; a Saudi history of tribal strife over oases as opposed to one of communal life in Qatar; and Qatar’s outward looking maritime trade history. Political scientists Birol Baskan and Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a class of Muslim legal scholars.
The choice against grooming a powerful clergy of its own reflected Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that many viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: it served as a tool to legitimize domestic rule, but also constituted a potential monkey wrench that Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi clergymen to develop its own. That would have produced a clergy steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have advocated a Saudi-style, state-defined form of political Islam.
This is not to say that Qatar takes its adherence to Wahhabism lightly. Plotting an alternative course did not prevent tribal religious leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century under then emir Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani from shifting their frame of Islamic legal reference from the more liberal Maliki to the more restrictive Hanbal school of Islamic law.
The Al Thanis greater maneuverability by steering clear of the grooming an indigenous clergy that would demand a say in political and social affairs. Unlike Saudi rulers, the Al Thanis do not derive their legitimacy from a clerical class. Their ability to avoid grooming a local clergy was made easier by the absence of a strong merchant class and urban centers in the 19th and early 20th century. As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often hold the kingdom back and was slow and cautious in creating religious infrastructure. Religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has for example no Grand Mufti as do Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence. Qatar’s College of Sharia (Islamic Law) was established only in 1973 and the majority of its students remain women who become teachers or employees of the endowments ministry rather than clergymen. Qatari religious scholars on a career path to become sharia court judges were sent for further education to Egypt’s al-Azhar University rather than Saudi institutions like the Imam Mohammed Ibn Saud University in Riyadh. Similarly, Qatar does not have a religious force that polices public morality. Nor are any of its families known for producing prominent religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are mostly run by the ministry of education unlike Saudi Arabia where they resort under the religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates rather than Qataris and attended by less than one percent of the total student body of which only ten percent are Qatari nationals. Moreover, the majority of Qatar’s religious scholars are South Asians or Arabs hired as migrant workers who are wholly dependent on their employers and thus unlikely to challenge authority.
The lack of influential native religious scholars enabled Qatar to advance women in society, allow them to drive, and travel independently; permit non-Muslims to consume alcohol and pork, sponsor Western arts like the Tribeca Film Festival, develop world-class art museums, host the Al Jazeera television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled media landscape and has become one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters, and prepare to accommodate Western soccer fans with un-Islamic practices during the 2022 World Cup. While the absence of an indigenous clerical class gave Qatari rulers a freer hand it did not stop Saudi and other foreign scholars from gaining influence, particularly among more conservative segments of Qatari society.
Qatar nevertheless projects to young Saudis and others a vision of a conservative Wahhabi society that is less restrictive and less choking and grants individuals irrespective of gender a greater degree of control over their lives. Women who in the mid-1990s were like in Saudi Arabia banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs today occupy prominent positions in multiple sectors of society in what effectively amounted to a social revolution. It’s a picture that juxtaposes starkly with that in its only Wahhabi brother. The contrast was starkest when young Saudis took to social media to demand that they be recognized as citizens with rights and responsibilities rather than treated as subjects. Couching their criticism and demands in religious terms, they denounced the Al Sauds for stealing their country’s land and wealth and depriving unemployed youth of perks due to them in an oil-rich nation. They also took the clergy to task for failing speak out on behalf of the underdog.
In projecting a more compassionate interpretation of Wahhabism, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs. “I consider myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Alansari, the dean of Qatar University’s College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. Twenty years earlier Al Ansari was denounced as an “apostate” by a Qatari Saudi-trained chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. “All those people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep quiet,” Al Ansari said.
Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative is particularly sensitive at a time that Saudi Arabia is implicitly debating the fundaments of the social and political arrangements the Qataris question. The kingdom’s conservative ulema as well as Salafis worry that key members of the ruling family, including King Abdullah; his son, Prince Mutaib, who heads the National Guard; and Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and Britain, are toying with the idea of a separation of state and religion in a state that was founded on a pact between the ruling Al-Sauds and the clergy and sees itself as the model of Islamic rule. The clergy voiced its concern in the spring of 2013 in a meeting with the king two days after Prince Mutaib declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” The notion of a separation of state and religion first emerged when Prince Turki a decade earlier cited verse 4:59 of the Quran: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Prince Turki suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority rather than both religious and political authority. Responding to Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Tarifi warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”
To be sure, Qatar’s greater liberalism hardly means freedoms as defined in Western societies. Qatar’s former emir Sheikh Hamad silenced opposition to reforms. Hamad, for example, arrested in 1998 religious scholar Abdulrahman al Nuaimi who criticized his advancement of women rights. Al Nuaimi was released three years later on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine.” It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Recent media-related legislation reflects the Al Thani’s effort to maintain tight control. A new media law prohibits publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators face stiff financial penalties of up to one million Qatari riyals (US $275,000). In rare public criticism of the law, Qatari journalists demanded in June 2013 greater freedoms and criticized the absence of a media law and press association. Journalists further expressed concern that a draft cybercrime law would restrict freedom of expression and the press. The draft “stipulates punishment for anyone who exceeds any principles of social values,” according to state-owned Qatar News Agency. It would also ban the publishing of “news or pictures or audio-video recordings related to the sanctity of the private and family life of individuals, even if they are correct, via libel or slander through the Internet or an IT device.”
Ring-fencing the Gulf
Qatar shares with Saudi Arabia a firm will to ring-fence the Gulf against the popular uprisings in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The two countries’ diverging world views have however manifested themselves in different approaches towards the popular revolts, protests and violence sweeping the region. While Saudi Arabia initially adjusted to regional change on a reactive case-by-case basis and has more recently launched a successful counter-revolutionary effort in Egypt and has tried to counter the Brotherhood’s influence among Syria rebels, Qatar has sought to embrace it head on as long as it is not at home or in its Gulf neighborhood. For that reason, Qatar supported the dispatch to Bahrain in 2011 of a Saudi-led force to help quell a popular uprising in its own backyard but backed regime change elsewhere in the region.
Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood nonetheless meant by implication that it supported, the most organized, albeit clandestine, opposition force Saudi Arabia, Al Sahwa (The Awakening), a powerful Islamist network nurtured by members of the Brotherhood. Adding insult to injury, Qatar also funded to the tune of $50,000 a month two prominent London-based Saudi dissidents: Saad al-Faqih, who was blacklisted until 2012 by the United Nations Security Council on suspicion of terrorism, and Mohammed al-Masari.
Al Sahwa’s support for the Brotherhood was not an issue for the Saudis for much of the second half of the 20th century during which the kingdom accommodated the group. Saudi Arabia as far back as the 1950s offered refuge to thousands of Brothers who fled repression in Egypt and Syria. Over time, they integrated into Saudi society, occupied key public sector positions, including in the education sector, and blended their politicized Islam with Wahhabism. The Brothers were nevertheless careful to avoid friction with the kingdom’s rulers. That changed during Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Al Sahwa and the Brotherhood hoped to utilize opposition to Saudi support of the US-led coalition that forced the withdrawal of Iraqi troops as a vehicle for pushing for political reform.
Their position sparked a Saudi crackdown and renewed strains in the kingdom’s relations with Qatar. Prominent Brothers including, Mohammed Qutb, the brother of the group’s onetime militant ideologue, Said Qutb, were expelled. Saudi anger at the Brotherhood because of its ties to Al Sahwa erupted in a rare public condemnation in 2002 as the kingdom came to grips with the fact that the majority of the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were Saudi nationals. Then Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud charged that the group was the “source of all evils in the Kingdom.” A Saudi human rights activist and former member of the Brotherhood described how security services told him during an interrogation that they had been monitoring all members of his cell in an indication of how serious Saudi authorities took the potential threat posed by the group,.
The eruption of popular revolts in early 2011 in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen again sparked tension with Al Sahwa which demanded in petitions and open letters political change in the kingdom and fuelled fears among Saudi rulers that they too could face rebellion at home. Concern about the Brotherhood and Qatari support of the group mounted in August 2013 when Saudi imam Hamad Al-Hoqail denounced the Egyptian military overthrow of Morsi during a Friday prayer sermon in Riyadh’s Al-Ferdous mosque as did prominent Al Sahwa figures using both religious and political terminology. The comparison of Egyptian strongman General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to embattled Syrian president Bashar al Assad echoing from pulpits in mosques in Qatar resonated with many Saudis who echoed Islamist sentiment on Twitter and other social media as clips of sermons went viral. Qatar’s challenge to the kingdom was spotlighted with the death of Mohamed AlHadlaq, a nephew of Abdulrahman AlHadlaq, the director of the kingdom’s terrorist rehabilitation program. Mohamed AlHadlaq died in Syria fighting as part of a Qatar-supported jihadist rebel group.
Saudi rulers initially opted to tread carefully in response to Al Sahwa’s sense of empowerment by the Arab revolts. Islamists like Sheikh Mohammed el-Arefi and Mohsen al-Awaji who signed a petition against Morsi’s removal were warned to back off but not detained. Similarly, Sahwa leader Salman leader Salman Al-Audeh’s popular television show was cancelled but no further steps were taken against him. Al-Audeh’s popular television show was cancelled as were several of his public appearances but no further steps were taken against him. That changed anti-Egyptian coup sentiment at home mounted and Brotherhood protests in Egypt continued. Saudi fears fed on suspicions that the Brotherhood with Qatari backing would stir the pot in the Al Sauds own backyard and even forge an alliance with the kingdom’s arch rival Iran. Throwing away caution, the kingdom went on the offensive. Brotherhood sympathizers in Saudi universities and schools were threatened with losing their jobs. Brotherhood literature was in early 2014 banned for the first time at the Riyadh Book Fair. Ultimately, the kingdom followed Egypt in banning the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Qatar’s refusal to fall into line with the crackdown in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and its continued endorsement of political Islam constituted a challenge not only to Saudi efforts to cement regional hegemony but also to what political scientist Stephane Lacroix sees as a Saudi move to ensure that a quietist and politically subservient strand of Salafism reemerges to replace political Islam as the kingdom and the Muslim world’s dominant trend. “Seen from Riyadh, the solution is to turn the clock back to the pre-1970s era, when the official religious establishment’s quietist brand of Salafism had a monopoly over Saudi Islam,” Lacroix argued.
Qatar on the other hand appears to be banking on the hope that replacing political Islam with quietist Salafism may be easier said than done. Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of a generational change in leadership with an ailing king in his late 80s and a crown prince in his late 70s who may not be able to stymie the mobilizing power of political Islam in an era in which winds of change are blowing through the region.
Qatar had already kindled the fire in 2013 with its concession to human rights groups not to extradite a dissident Saudi diplomat to the kingdom. Instead, the diplomat, Mishal bin Zaar Hamad al-Mutiry, who accused his government of involvement in terrorism, was allowed to go into exile in Morocco. “The spotlight shone on this case resulted in the Qatari authorities curtailing their plans to deport Mishal al-Mutiry long enough for him and his family to leave of their own accord, and the assistance of the NHRC (Qatar’s National Human Rights Commission) was crucial to ensuring they could travel,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
Abd al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the general manager of Al Arabiya, the Saudi network established to counter Qatar’s Al Jazeera, further signaled the growing rift with Qatar in a commentary in the summer of 2013. Accusing Qatar, the only Gulf state critical of the Egyptian military’s crackdown. of aggravating tension as the Muslim Brotherhood campaigned against the Egyptian military’s toppling of Morsi, Al-Rashed wrote: “We find it really hard to understand Qatar’s political logic in a country (Egypt) to which it is not linked at the level of regimes or ideologically or economically. Egyptians in Qatar moreover are only a minority. Qatar’s insistence that the moving force of the army and Egyptian political parties accept the Brotherhood’s demands is not only impossible but also has dangerous repercussions. Supporting the Brotherhood at this current phase increases (the Brotherhood’s) stubborn insistence to stick to its guns and creates an extremely dangerous situation. So why is Qatar doing it? We really don’t understand why! Historically and over a period of around 20 years, Qatar has always adopted stances that oppose the positions of its Gulf brothers, and all of Qatar’s opposing policies have ended up unsuccessful.”
In scathing remarks days later criticizing those opposed to the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi Saudi King Abdullah fired a further shot across Qatar’s bow without naming it. “Let it be known to those who interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs that they themselves are fanning the fire of sedition and are promoting the terrorism which they call for fighting, I hope they will come to their senses before it is too late; for the Egypt of Islam, Arabism, and honorable history will not be altered by what some may say or what positions others may take.” the monarch said.
Al Jazeera journalists have paid a heavy price for Egyptian and Saudi anger at Qatari policy. Egypt charged a score of mostly Al Jazeera journalists or ones whom authorities alleged were associated with the network with spreading false information, endangering national security and being members of a terrorist organization, a reference to the Brotherhood. Three journalists of the network’s English-language service were sentenced to lengthy prison terms even though pro-Brotherhood sympathies were reflected more in the network’s Arabic broadcasts than on its English-language channel.
Egyptian and Saudi chagrin was further fuelled by the fact that Al Jazeera Arabic provided post-Morsi the Brotherhood and Islamist leaders their foremost platform on a major global network. Doha, home to Sheikh Qaradawi, moreover emerged as a potential base for a Brotherhood and Egyptian Islamist leadership in exile that included men who were wanted in Egypt and the kingdom. Among those sited in Doha and featured on Al Jazeera was Essam Abdel Majid, a member of the hardline Gema’a al-Islamiyya. Abdel Majid, who is wanted by Egypt on charges of incitement to murder, spent 25 years in prison for his role in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Other Islamist leaders operating from Doha included Gema’a activist Tarek el-Zomor; arrest, Ehab Shiha, chairman of the Egyptian Salafist al-Asala party; and wanted Brothers Gamal Heshmat, Ashraf Badr el-Din, Amr Darrag, Ashraf Badr el-Deen, Mohammed Mahsub and Hamza Zawba.
In Syria, Qatari backing of the Brotherhood as well as jihadists contradicted Saudi support of secular and Salafist rebel in its bid to defeat what it sees as an Iranian-backed heretic Alawite (read Shia) regime. Saudi Arabia saw defeat of Bashar al Assad by a combination of secularists and Salafis as a way to weaken Iran and Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah and thwart a power grab by the Syrian Brotherhood. The Qatari- Saudi rivalry helped undermine the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces whose organizational structure was dependent on Brotherhood networks and complicated the group’s relationships with rebel groups inside Syria. It exacerbated tensions within the coalition as groups and figures aligned with Qatar fought a rearguard battle against Saudi encroachment and prevented opposition efforts to create a functioning government-in-exile from getting off the ground.
In contrast to the kingdom, Qatar has been more willing to risk engagement with jihadi groups on the grounds that its priority was to see the Assad regime overthrown sooner than later and that their exclusion would only aggravate Syria’s grief. “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al‑Qaeda. What we are doing is only creating a sleeping monster, and this is wrong. We should bring them all together, we should treat them all equally, and we should work on them to change their ideology, i.e. put more effort altogether to change their thinking. If we exclude anything from the Syrian elements today, we are only doing worse to Syria. Then we are opening the door again for intervention to chase the monster,” Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah told an international security conference in Manama in late December 2012. The official played down the jihadi character of some of the Syrian rebel groups. “They are only close to God now because what they are seeing from blood – and I am saying this for all of Syria. Muslims, Christians, Jews – whenever they have a crisis, they come close to God. This is the nature of man. If we see that someone is calling Allahu Akbar (God is great), the other soldier from the regime is also calling Allahu Akbar when he faces him. This is not a sign of extremism or terrorism,” Al-Attiyah said.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s fundamentally different strategies of self-preservation are rooted in a Qatari perception that the role of the Saudi clergy in policy making has resulted in Saudi Arabia failing in its ambition to provide the region with the vision and effective leadership that would have allowed it to preempt the wave of change and resolve problems on its own. That perception has reinforced Qatar’s raison d’etre: a state that maintains its distinction and tribal independence from the region’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia, with whom it is entangled in a regional shadow boxing match.
While the ruling families of both have sought to buffer themselves against protests by boosting social spending, Saudi Arabia has opted for maintenance of the status quo to the degree possible and has graduated from limited engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood to open confrontation with the group. Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards the Brotherhood is informed by a fear that Islamic government in other nations could threaten its political and religious claim to leadership of the Muslim world based on the fact that it is home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, its puritan interpretation of Islamic dogma, and its self-image as a nation ruled on the basis of Islamic law with the Quran as its constitution. The threat posed by the Brotherhood and Qatari promotion of political activism is reinforced by the fact that concepts of violent jihad have largely been replaced by Islamist civic action across the Middle East and North Africa in demand of civil, human and political rights that hit too close to home.
By contrast, Qatar’s pragmatic relationship to Wahhabism eased the early forging of a close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s ties to the Brotherhood may be less motivated by ideology than by a determination to distinguish itself from the kingdom and back what at times appeared to be a winning horse and what remains a force to be reckoned with. The marriage of convenience between Qatar and the group was enhanced by the appeal of the Brotherhood’s fusion of Wahhabi Salafism with the thinking of Western educated Egyptian jurist and religious scholar Muhammed Abduh, widely regarded as the father of Islamic modernism, and even more so his disciple Rashid Rida who struck a more nationalist, anti-colonial tone than his teacher. It was Rida’s push for a political movement that favored Islamic empire over nation states, sought to restore purity to Islamic society and wanted to revive the Caliphate that made the Brotherhood attractive to Qatar. It allowed Qatar to create a challenge to Saudi claim to leadership of the Muslim World.
Ironically, Qatar was joined by Bahrain, one of, if not the Gulf state closest to Saudi Arabia, in bucking the region’s trend and maintaining close ties to the Brotherhood even as the kingdom led a charge against the group. The Bahraini Brotherhood’s political arm, the Al-Minbar Islamic Society, has been allowed to operate openly even if Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in withdrawing its ambassador from Doha in protest against Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood… The group, which has largely supported the government, is widely believed to be funded by the island’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling family and Islamic finance institutions in a bid to counter political forces that represent its Shiite Muslim majority.
Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood was facilitated by the fact that key figures from the group like Qaradawi, a major influence in a country with no real clergy of its own, Libyan imam Ali Al Salabi, and Egyptian Sheikh Ahmed Assal and Sheikh Abdel Moez Abdul Sattar have had a base in Doha for decades. Among the first Brotherhood arrivals was Abdul-Badi Saqr, an Egyptian who came in 1954 at the invitation of the Qataris to help set up their education system. Saqr had been recommended by Muhib al-Din al-Khatib, the proprietor of a Salafi bookshop in Cairo. To fill the need for teachers, he invited Brothers who according to scholar Abdullah Juma Kobaisi “stamped the education system with their Islamic ideology since the education department was under their control.”
In his doctoral thesis, Kobaisi noted that “for a period of three years (1953/54 to 1955/56) most of the teachers who were brought in to run the Qatari schools were ideologically in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood Party.” The teachers’ siding with the Brotherhood when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was widely popular among Qataris because of his Arab nationalism, cracked down on the group, put them at odds with both their hosts and their students. As a result, Saqr was fired and replaced by an Arab nationalist. The setback was only temporary. A second wave of teachers associated with the Brotherhood and embedded in Cairo’s Al Azhar University began to arrive in 1960, including al-Assal who formed Brotherhood groups in Qatar using his status as an instructor and preacher in mosques. Al-Sattar who served in the mid-1940s as the personal envoy to Palestine of the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, started as a school inspector in Qatar before he became director of Islamic Sciences at the Qatari ministry of education. Al-Sattar co-authored many of the initial textbooks used in the country’s school system.
The Brothers were joined in 1961 by Qaradawi who freshly out of Egyptian prison became director of the Religious Institute before graduating to founding dean of Qatar University’s Sharia College. Qaradawi, who became a Qatari citizen in 1969, rose to become one of the world’s most prominent and controversial Islamic religious leaders and a particular eye sore to the Saudis. With Qaradawi Qatar had created a global mufti in much the same way that it built a global television network and a global airline and hosts global sporting events. He represented in the words of controversial Islam scholar Yahya Michot the three dimensions of a spiritual leader that many in the global community of faithful were looking for: independence as a Muslim scholar and activist, representation of a transnational movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and association with an international organization such as the Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) that Qaradawi chairs. Qaradawi constituted a powerful shield for the Al Thanis against religious criticism. The Brotherhood’s pledge to dismantle its Qatari branch provided further assurance that Qatar would be spared the emergence of a home-grown Islamist movement. Diverting the Islamist focus away from Qatar was further facilitated by Qatar’s funding of Brotherhood media outlets, including a show for Qaradawi on Al Jazeera, Islamweb.net and Islamonline.com. Qaradawi’s show, Al Sharia wal Hayat (The Shariah and Life) that reaches a global audience of tens of millions of Arabic speakers, helped give Al Jazeera its Islamist stamp. It is also a fixture on Qatar state television which broadcasts his Friday prayer sermons live. The Qatari media strategy offered the Gulf state influence across the Middle East and North Africa where Brotherhood off-shoots were active including Gaza with Hamas, which Qatar lured away from Syria and Iran, as well as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.
In the run-up and immediate aftermath of the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt, Qaradawi sought to counter calls by conservative Al Azhar clerics seeking to persuade Egyptians not to protest by pointing to Islam’s quietist legal tradition that commands Muslims to obey their ruler even if he is unjust because it could lead to civil strife. Qaradawi strove to develop a new strand of legal thought that he described as fiqh al-thawra or jurisprudence of the revolution. He argued that protests were legitimate if they sought to achieve a legitimate end such as implementation of Islamic law, the release of wrongly incarcerated prisoners, stopping military trials of civilians or ensuring access to basic goods. Yet, in line with Qatari policy, Qaradawi rejected around the same time a request by a fellow IUMS member to support on those grounds the predominantly Shia uprising in Bahrain.
Describing Qaradawi’s importance to Qatar, former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi said; “Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi — and all his daughters drive cars and work.” Qaradawi and other Brothers, helped Qatar develop its own fusion of Salafist and Brotherhood thinking that was initially expressed in publications such as Majalat al Umma. They counterbalanced the influence of local Saudi-influenced clergymen and Salafis who controlled the ministries of justice and religious endowments.
With the eruption of the protests in various Arab countries in 2011, Qaradawi was instrumental in persuading Qatar to use its political and financial muscle to support the Brotherhood in Egypt; the revolt in Libya against Col. Moammar Qaddafi; the post-Ben Ali Ennahdha-led government in Tunisia; an assortment of Islamist groups in Libya, Yemen, and Morocco and opponents of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Three days after a triumphant appearance in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011, Qaradawi issued on Al Jazeera a fatwa or religious opinion authorizing the killing of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Qaddafi. He asserted further that historic links between Egypt and Syria put Syria in protesters’ firing line. In response, Syrian officials accused Qaradawi of fostering sectarianism.
Qaradawi took his advocacy of resistance to Assad a significant step further by effectively endorsing the sectarian Sunni-Shia Muslim divide in a speech in late May 2013. Initially, Qaradawi’s remarks a month before the ascension of Tamim, who under his father was Qatar’s main interlocutor with the kingdom, were seen as a hint at a possible aligning of Qatari policy with that of Saudi Arabia. Qaradawi appeared to back Saudi encouragement of the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He urged Muslims with military training to join the anti-Assad struggle in Syria. His condemnation of Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah (Party of God) as the “party of Satan” was immediately endorsed by Saudi grand mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh as was his assertion that al-Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, was “more infidel than Christians and Jews.” In a surprisingly overt gesture to Saudi Arabia, Qaradawi went on to say that “I defended the so-called (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah and his party, the party of tyranny… in front of clerics in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me.”
It however did not take long for Qaradawi to revert to his fiery self and burying suggestions that Tamim would be more accommodating than his father towards the Saudis. In a blistering attack on Egypt’s military-backed government and armed forces, Qaradawi charged in November 2013 that Egypt was being ruled by thugs who kill people and steal their money.” Speaking in Doha’s Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque, he said that “those oppressors have killed worshipers, fasters, pious people and readers of Quran who did not harm anybody. The military, police, thugs, and snipers killed thousands in Rabaa al-Adawiya which was obvious injustice,” a reference to the Cairo Square on which the Brotherhood camped out for weeks to protest against the removal of Morsi. Hundreds of people were killed in August 2013 when security forces brutally broke up the protest. In January 2014, Qaradawi further distanced himself and Qatar from the pro-Saudi camp in the Gulf by condemning the UAE as a country opposed to Islamic rule.
Promoting Islamist activism
Ironically, the setting up of Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network which at times handles Gulf states with velvet gloves, parallels the structuring of the Gulf state’s ties to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, like Al Jazeera, which more often than not is the last to report on controversial domestic Qatari issues, cut a deal in the late 1990s with the Al Thanis which guaranteed it continued Qatari support in exchange for the dismantling of its operations in Qatar and a pledge that it would operate everywhere except for in Qatar itself. For its part, Qatar moved to fund institutions designed to foster a generation of activists in the Middle East and North Africa as well as guide the Brotherhood in its transition from a clandestine to a public group.
One such institution, the Al-Nahda (Awakening) Project to promote Islamist activism within democracies, was established by Jassim Al-Sultan, a former Qatari Brother. A medical doctor, Al-Sultan has since the dissolution of the group in Qatar advised the Brotherhood to reach out to others rather than stick to its strategy of building power bases within existing institutions. He also criticized the Brotherhood for insisting on its slogan, ‘Islam is the Solution.’ Al Nahda cooperates closely with the London and Doha-based Academy of Change (AOC) that focuses on the study of “social, cultural, and political transformations especially in the Arabic and Islamic region.” AOC appears to be modelled on Otoper, the Serbian youth movement that toppled President Slobodan Milosevic and has since transformed itself into a training ground for activists from across the globe in non-violent protest. The Brotherhood campaigned for AOC founder Hisham Morsy’s release after he was detained during the popular revolt in 2011 that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The threat to Saudi Arabia posed by Qatari fostering of popular protest was compounded by the nature of the social contract in the kingdom and other energy-rich rentier Gulf states. The state’s generous cradle-to-grave welfare and social and no taxation policy approach in exchange for the surrender of political rights meant that the Brotherhood challenged ruling families on issues where they were most vulnerable: culture, ideology and civic society. As a result, Qatari government support of Al Nahda and AOC was part of its effort to control the world of national non-governmental organizations by creating and populating its own NGOs.
In doing so, Qatar targeted what according to scholar Hootan Shambayati effectively amounts to the Gulf states’ Achilles Heel. “The rentier nature of the state limited the regime’s ability to legitimize itself through its economic performance… Consequently, culture and moral values became sources of conflict between the state and segments of the civil society,” Shambayati wrote. The government’s support for activists paralleled Qatar’s earlier bypassing of Arab elites by initially appealing to the public across the region with its groundbreaking free-wheeling reporting and debate on Al Jazeera that at its peak captivated an Arabic speaking audience of 60 million.
Sharpening the rivalry
Beyond historic differences in religious experience and practice, two events sharpened the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar: the 1991 US-led expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the rise to power in a 1995 bloodless coup of Sheikh Hamad. The US-led invasion called into question Qatar’s alignment with Saudi Arabia since its independence in 1971, which involved Saudi guarantees to protect the tiny emirate. To the Qataris, the invasion demonstrated that it could not rely for its defense on a country that was not capable of defending itself. That realization coupled with Kuwait’s ability to rally the international community to its assistance reinforced Sheikh Hamad’s belief that Qatar’s security was best enhanced by embedding and branding itself in the international community as a cutting-edge, moderate, knowledge-based century nation.
To that end Sheikh Hamad adopted not only a soft power strategy but also one of subtle power which scholar Mehran Kamrava defines as “a new form of power and influence, one less obvious and more discreet, rooted in a combination of contextual opportunities and calculated policies meant to augment one’s influence over others.” Kamrava argued that the replacement of Saudi Arabia by the United States as the guarantor of Qatari security enabled Qatar to build its subtle power on the positioning of itself as s good citizen by mediating in regional disputes, revolutionizing the Arab media landscape through Al Jazeera, financial generosity and a doses of marketing, and high profile acquisitions. Qatar could “devote its attention to issues that are not strictly security-related and to instead pursue goals and strategies that enhance its diplomatic stature and strengthen its political economy both at home and abroad,” Kamrava wrote. Qatari soft and subtle power highlighted a shift of regional power in the Middle East and North Africa away from the traditional behemoths Egypt, Syria, Iran and Iraq to Gulf states in which in the words of scholar Giacomo Luciani oil is more important than weaponry and financial muscle tops population.
Qatar’s emphasis on soft and subtle power did not mean abandoning a semblance of hard power involving 12,000 most foreign men under arms and another 8,000 in the security forces. In what was primarily a symbolic gesture that was also adopted by the UAE, Qatar adopted in November 2013 a law making military service of up to four months compulsory for its mail citizens aged 18 to 35. A Qatari official said the move was intended to create a reserve force and enable Qataris to rely on themselves. Similarly, the Kuwait parliament was debating reintroducing compulsory military service abolished after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Qatar’s first 2,000 recruits were drafted in April 2014.
At the same time Qatar announced it was purchasing $24 billion in military hardware, one of the larger buying sprees in its history. Qatari realization that its defense would have to be built on soft rather than hard powers was nevertheless highlighted in an earlier US embassy cable that described the Gulf state’s requests for advanced weaponry as modest and said that Qatar had a number of times backed out of arms deals. The embassy said it felt that Qatar lacked a national military strategy and seemed reluctant to draw one up. It concluded that “the QAF (Qatar Air Force) could put up little defense against Qatar’s primary perceived threats – Saudi Arabia and Iran – and the U.S. military’s presence here is larger and far more capable than Qatar’s forces.”
The rift with Saudi Arabia deepened in the mid-1990s with Saudi rejection of the notion that a son could revolt against his father as Sheikh Hamad did with the overthrow of his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Muhammed Al Thani. Saudi outrage translated into efforts to undermine if not unseat the new ruler by sabotaging Qatar’s endeavors to export natural gas to other states in the region and build a bridge linking it with the UAE. By all accounts, Hamad’s voluntary abdication in favor of Tamim should have provoked similar ire from the Saudis in a region in which rulers hang on to power until death even if they at times have experienced a deterioration of health that has incapacitated them not only physically but also mentally. One reason it did not is the fact that Saudi officials had hoped that Tamim’s more accommodating interaction with them as crown prince would result in a reversal of the activist and adventurist nature of his father’s foreign policy.
Relations between the two countries however had already almost ruptured before Hamad’s 1995 coup because of border skirmishes in 1992 and 1994 that were rooted in long-standing disputes over Saudi projection of itself as first among the region’s Bedouins. They further deteriorated as a result of several allegedly Saudi-backed coup attempts in the late 1990s designed to restore Sheikh Khalifa to power. The attempts prompted Qatar almost a decade later to strip some 6,000 members of the Al-Ghafran clan, a branch of the Al Murra tribe, of their Qatari nationality because they had allegedly patrolled the border on behalf of the Saudis. The Al Thanis have long had a complex relationship with the Al Murra who populate northern and eastern Arabia and are believed to be Qatar’s largest tribe. Qatari officials asserted at the time that they had lost their nationality because they had refused to renounce their Saudi nationality in line with Qatari law that does not allow dual citizenship. All but 200 of the Al Ghafran regained their Qatari citizenship a year later at the request of Saudi King Abdullah. 21 of those arrested in connection with the failed coup attempts were released in 2010 after 14 years in prison and immediately flown to Saudi Arabia.
The deteriorating relationship with its big brother made it even more imperative for Qatar to strike out on its own – the very thing Saudi Arabia thought to preempt. A struggle for a multi-billion dollar Qatari project to supply gas to Kuwait reflected the Saudi effort. Asked in 2003 why the Kuwait project was stalled then Qatari industry and energy minister Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah said: “We have received no clearance from Saudi Arabia. Hence it is not feasible.” It took a rollercoaster of repeated Saudi denials and approvals for the project to be finally completed in 2008.
If the natural gas deal was emblematic of Qatari-Saudi relations, so was a London libel case in which the wife of former emir Sheikh Hamad and mother of new emir Sheikh Tamim, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, sued Saudi-owned Ash Sharq al Awsat newspaper for falsely reporting that her husband had secretly visited Israel. In her petition to the court, the Sheikha charged that the paper was “controlled by Saudi intelligence paymasters who used the newspaper as a mouthpiece for a propaganda campaign against Qatar and its leadership.”
Saudi and Qatari national interests diverge further when it comes to Iran with whom Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a major rival that is instigating civil unrest in the region. It is also the spiritual home of the Shiites, the sect most despised by Saudi Wahhabis. To navigate this minefield, Qatar has projected itself as the mediator par excellence of the wider region’s conflicts. To do so, it has forged relationships with other Saudi nemeses such as Hamas and Hezbollah and Israel.
The kingdom has since forged its own alliance with Israel in response to a potential rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Qatari relations with Israel initially however provoked Saudi ire. Then Saudi Crown prince Abdullah refused to attend an Arab summit in 2000 because of the presence in Doha of an Israeli trade office. The appearance on Al Jazeera two years later of Saudi dissidents persuaded the kingdom to withdraw its ambassador to Qatar much like it did again in 2014. In 2009, Saudi Arabia and Qatar held rival Arab summits within a day of each other despite an improvement in relations in the two preceding years that included a deal allowing Al Jazeera to open a bureau in Riyadh provided it did not air dissident Saudi voices.
The improvement was nonetheless a reflection of relative Saudi leverage that ironically was enhanced by Qatar’s own success in deploying soft power. The winning of the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup meant that Qatar needed to project stability in its backyard. Its ability to do so independent of Saudi Arabia was enhanced with the eruption of the Arab popular revolts that allowed Qatar to project itself as an island of stability, modernity and progress in a sea of volatility and conservatism. While a majority of Qataris would likely back improved relations with Saudi Arabia, they also appear to be ambiguous about their country’s relationship with the kingdom. Qataris participating in a 2009 broadcast of the BBC’s Doha Debates overwhelming described their country’s relations with the kingdom as a ‘cold war.’ Students in universities often glorify past Qatari tribal defense of Qatar’s only land border that separates it from Saudi Arabia. Their distanced attitude to the kingdom reflects a resentment among young Qataris of the fact that Sheikh Hamad’s ousted father, Sheikh Khalifa, had to pay homage to the Saudi king in exchange for security guarantees.
If Saudi Arabia’s goals – maintenance of the status quo to the degree possible, retention of its leadership role, limiting the rise of Islamist forces, preservation of monarchial rule and restrictive political reform – seem straight forward, Qatar’s idiosyncratic policies have at times raised questions about what it is trying to achieve and how it went about it.
Politicians and analysts struggled, for example, to understand how Qatar’s competition with Saudi Arabia for influence was playing out in Yemen, a strategic nation at the southern tip of the peninsular. Qatar maintains close ties to the powerful Islamist Brotherhood-related Al-Islah movement, supports Al Houthi rebels in the north, and emerged at one point as a mediator in Yemen. It succeeded for a brief period of time in superseding Saudi Arabia as the go-to-address in a country in which kidnapping for political and criminal purposes are a fixture of life as was evident with the release of a kidnapped Swiss teacher. Qatar’s influence was both remarkable and sensitive given long-standing Saudi bankrolling of the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh as well as the country’s major tribes, including that of the president, the Hashid tribal confederation.
Qatar built its inroads in a country Saudi Arabia viewed as its preserve on its relationship with the Brotherhood as well as a history of mediation in Yemen that dated back to the 1990s. In competing in Yemen, Qatar initially benefited further from the fact that it was a tiny nation rather than the region’s giant and was not a supplier of jihadists to Yemen-based Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Gulf (AQAP). Qatar’s influence was sufficiently significant to prompt tribal leaders, including prominent businessmen and politician Hamid al-Ahmar, to balance their relations between the two Gulf rivals after they broke with Saleh during the 2011 popular uprising against him and joined the opposition. The divergence of Qatari and Saudi goals in Yemen was also evidenced by Qatar’s ties to Nobel Prize winner and prominent Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karma, who emerged as the face of the popular revolt against Saleh
On the back of its relationship with the Brotherhood, Qatar garnered popularity among Saleh’s opponents by becoming the first Arab country in 2011 to call on the president to step down in response to the demand of protesters camped out on the capital Sana’a’s Change Square. It forged close ties to Nobel Prize winner and prominent Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karma, who emerged as the face of the popular revolt against Saleh. It further capitalized on its relationship with Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Muslim Brother and powerful advisor to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi who succeeded Saleh in 2012 in a deal with the opposition mediated by Gulf states under Saudi leadership that was designed to preserve the core structure of the outgoing president’s regime.
Al Ahmar’s first armored division which joined the mass anti-Saleh protesters in early 2011, played a key role in the Saleh’s ultimate demise after 30 years in office, when it attacked the presidential palace in 2012, killing several senior officials and severely wounding the embattled Yemeni leader and various of his key aids. Qatar relationship to Al Ahmar dated back to 2008/9 when the general was negotiating on behalf of Saleh an end to armed confrontation with rebel Houthi tribesmen in north Yemen..
Qatar initially participated in the Saudi-led diplomatic effort to resolve the Yemen crisis but later pulled out because of what it described as “indecision and delays in the signature of the proposed agreement” and “the intensity of clashes” in Yemen. More likely is that Saudi Arabia pushed Qatar out. In an interview with Russia Today, Saleh had warned a month earlier that “the state of Qatar is funding chaos in Yemen and in Egypt and Syria and throughout the Arab world. We reserve the right not to sign (the Gulf-negotiated deal) if the representatives of Qatar are present” at the ceremony. Earlier, Saleh had thundered in a speech: “We derive our legitimacy from the strength of our glorious Yemeni people, not from Qatar, whose initiative we reject.”
Qatar’s success in breaking the Saudi political monopoly in Yemen was evident to all in July 2013 when Hadi stopped in Doha on his way to Washington for an official visit. Hadi was accompanied by General Al-Ahmar. Similarly, when Al Islah leader Muhammad al-Yadumi travelled to Doha in 2012 to thank the government for its support he did not include Saudi Arabia on his itinerary. It was a glaring omission given Saudi Arabia’s key role in brokering the agreement that eased Saleh out of office.
Turning the page?
When Tamim took over the reins of power in June 2013, he inherited a state that his father ensured was tightly controlled by his wing of the Al Thanis. Hamad created institutions and government offices that were populated by loyalists as well as his offspring and bore the characteristics of autocracy: centralized and personalized decision-making, reliance on patronage networks and an absence of transparency and accountability.
Few Qataris question the achievements of Hamad. Those accomplishments notwithstanding, conservative segments of Qatari society with whom Sheikh Tamim at times appeared to empathize, have questioned some of the effects of the former emir’s policies, including:
n Huge expenditure on a bold foreign policy that put Qatar at the forefront of regional demands for greater freedom and change but also earned it significant criticism and embarrassment. A survey conducted in 2013 by the Doha campuses of Northwestern and Georgetown University concluded that 77 percent of Qataris polled believes that more resources should be invested domestically rather than overseas. Only 13 percent wanted increased spending on “international affairs and investments,” while 10 percent said they were content with the current balance;
n Unfulfilled promises of change at home that would give Qataris a greater say in their country’s affairs;
n A stark increase in foreign labor to complete ambitious infrastructure projects many of which are World Cup-related and have exposed Qatar for the first time to real external pressure for social change;
n More liberal catering to Western expatriates by allowing the controlled sale of alcohol and pork;
n Potential tacit concessions Qatar may have to make to non-Muslim soccer fans during the World Cup, including expanded areas where consumption of alcohol will be allowed, public rowdiness and dress codes largely unseen in the Gulf state, and the presence of gays.
A discussion in Qatar about possibly transferring ownership of soccer clubs from prominent Qataris, including members of the ruling family, to publicly held companies because of lack of Qatari interest in “the sheikh’s club” suggests a degree of sensitivity to popular criticism.
Ali Khalifa al Kuwari, a prominent government critic and author, traces opposition to Qatari policies to a set of 35 demands articulated in a 1963 petition at a time of strikes to which the regime initially responded by imprisoning and expelling its opponents but ultimately promised to enact reform and ratify the majority of the petition’s demands. “Demands for reform did not stop there, however, but continued at a lower intensity, urged on in carrot and stick fashion for the next two decades, before finally emerging into the light in 1992 in the form of two petitions. The most important of these petitions’ demands was the election of a consultative council, appointed and tasked to draw up a permanent constitution. As a consequence of this, the signatories were punished with prison sentences, travel bans, the denial of their rights and the threat to rescind their Qatari citizenship,” Al Kuwari said. Al Kuwari lists five obstacles to reform in Qatar: concealing and preventing the publishing of information related to public affairs; a lack of transparency; the absence of freedom of opinion and expression, the absence of clearly defined boundaries between public and private interests and inadequate public administration. Reform, he argues, has to address the long-term population imbalance in Qatar and other GCC nations; imbalances in the economy, the country’s social contract and the transition from autocracy to democracy in the region.” There are five starting points for reform, as follows: halting and reforming the rising imbalance in the population; reforming and developing the public administration; transitioning to a democratic political system; revising and completing the National Vision and the National Strategy documents; continuing to strengthen the institutions of the judiciary and ensuring the right to a court of law,” Al Kuwari said.
Tamim has nonetheless managed to enhance his popularity through his close relationship to Qatari tribes, his upholding of Islamic morals exemplified by the fact that alcohol is not served in luxury hotels that he owns, and his accessibility similar to that of Saudi King Abdullah. Even before becoming emir, he banned the serving of alcohol in 2011 on Pearl-Qatar, an artificial island popular with expatriates, after Qataris complained about foreigners appearing intoxicated in public. Tamim was also the driving force behind the replacement in 2012 of English by Arabic as the main language of instruction at Qatar University. He is further believed to have been empathetic to unprecedented on-line protest campaign in recent years by Qatari activists against the state-owned telecommunications company and Qatar Airways. Hamad appeared to anticipate a potentially different tone under Tamim by urging Qataris “to preserve our civilized traditional and cultural values.” If Hamad used initial promises of greater liberalization to garner support within his fractured tribe, one of the first to settle in Qatar in the 18th century, Tamim may well employ his conservatism to rally the wagons.
The underlying theme of Tamim’s accession speech was one of Qatari independence and of the Gulf state being distinct from others. Tamim praised his father and predecessor for transforming Qatar from “a country that some people could hardly locate on the map to a principal actor in politics, economics, media, culture, and sports at a global level… We should not become arrogant. The humility that Qataris are known for is a sign of the strong who are sure of themselves, and arrogance leads to committing mistakes… We don’t live on the edge of life, lost without direction, and we are not answerable to anyone or wait on anyone for instructions. Qatar is known for its independent behavior now, and those who deal with us know we have our own vision.”
The Saudi counter-revolutionary campaign in Egypt and Syria barely a month after Tamim’s ascension followed by the near-rupture in diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and a Saudi-led campaign to isolate Qatar in the Middle East and North Africa constituted a serious foreign policy crisis for the new emir. Saudi Arabia supported by Egypt sought to increase the pressure by exploiting the threat to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup posed by its treatment of foreign workers. Egged on by the kingdom and Egypt, Arab trade unions and non-governmental organizations added their voices to criticism by international trade unions, human rights groups and world soccer body FIFA. The criticism coupled with allegations of corrupt practices in Qatar’s bid could potentially lead to Qatar being deprived of its right to host the 2022 World Cup, one of the world’s largest sporting events.
Arab trade unionists conceded that their criticism was motivated more by political divisions in the Middle East and North Africa than concern for workers’ welfare. In an interview with Al Monitor, Abdul Wahab Khudr, said that the trade union moves were motivated primarily by a Saudi-led effort to isolate Qatar. “Qatar has a bad record with the Egyptians because of its role in the January 2011 and June 2013 revolutions. Qatar played a clear inciting role and sought to create confusion and support terrorist groups in Egypt,” Khudr said. He was careful not to mention in his criticism of Qatar’s labor policy the Gulf state’s kafala or sponsorship system that puts foreign workers at the mercy of their employers and is at the core of international pressure on the Gulf state because Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have similar sponsorship systems and do not allow the formation of independent trade unions. In fact, the outlawing of strikes and banning of independent trade unions in much of the Gulf is part of an almost region-wide policy to maintain political control through segmentation and dominance of various population groups, first and foremost among which the majority of migrant workers..
The labor issues touches the Achilles heel not only of Qatar but also other smaller Gulf states in which the citizenry constitutes a minority of the overall population. In Qatar, the numbers are the most extreme with Qataris accounting for only ten to twelve percent of the Gulf state’s more than two million inhabitants. In other words, Qatar has the highest percentage of migrants in the world. As a result, the labor controversy puts Qatar in a Catch-22. It undermines achievement of a key goal of the Gulf state’s heavy investment in sports, including the World Cup: the development of the kind of soft power that would compensate for the absence of the hard military power to defend itself. That soft power is dependent on its ability to embed itself at multiple levels in the international community.
Yet its public image has been tainted by the labor controversy as well as the corruption allegations. Reversing that involves existential and painful decisions that go to the very nature of society. Granting political rights and greater freedoms to workers and other foreigners would significantly alter the character of a state in which nationals are a small minority. While these are issues which most of the Gulf states have been grappling with for years without coming up with acceptable solutions, Qatar has become the battleground because of its hosting of the World Cup which gave leverage to trade unions with real clout – 175 million members in 15 countries – as opposed to human rights groups that have long criticized the Gulf’s foreign worker region but have only moral authority.
Qatar has responded to the criticism, fuelled by reports of hundreds of deaths annually of predominantly Asian workers allegedly as a result of working conditions, by issuing improved safety, security and welfare standards, pledging to step up enforcement of existing rules and regulations, and developing plans to cut corruption out of the recruitment process that puts foreign workers into debt even before they arrive in the Gulf state. The moves are designed to protect Qatar’s projection of itself as a cutting edge 21st century nation, fight off calls that it be deprived of its right to hold the world’s foremost sports tournament, and fend off demands that it dismantle its controversial sponsorship or kafala system that subjects workers to the whims of their employers, and allow labor to freely organize and engage in collective bargaining.
Qatari critics of the government charge that they are also designed to ensure that Qatari nationals remain a small minority of the total population. Al Kuwari, the government critic and democracy activist, reflects sentiment among a wide swath of Qataris with his repeated call for the halt to the import of foreign labor. If adopted, that would threaten the government’s effort, including the hosting of the World Cup, to turn Qatar at break-neck speed into a 21st century city state.
In a twist of irony, Al Kuwari argues that Qatari rulers as well as other rulers in the Gulf benefit from a growing population imbalance in which foreigners account for an ever larger percentage of the population. “The great influx of immigrant workers, regardless of how necessary they are, is a benefit to the ruler, who is keen to treat people as temporary and readily disposable, rather than as citizens with all their attendant rights,” Al Kuwari said in an interview with Germany’s Heinrich Boell Stiftung. He noted that the number of Qatari nationals as a percentage of the total population had dropped from 40 percent in 1970 to 12 percent in 2010. As a result, Qataris dropped from accounting for 14 percent of the work force in 2001 to a mere six percent in 2014. If population projections of five million inhabitants in 2022 used, according to Mr. Al Kuwari, for Qatar’s multi-billion dollar metro and railway projects are correct, the percentage of Qatari nationals would drop even more dramatically.
Demographic fears as well as concerns that Qatar’s still evolving national identity could be eroded have at times prompted conservative responses to government liberalism. An online boycott campaign against Qatar Airways was sparked in part by its decision to sell pork in a shop it owns in Doha that is already licensed to sell alcohol. The objection to pork had little to do with religious conservatism and everything to do with fear that Qatari culture was on the defensive against the mores of a majority population that is not Qatari. “Ppl don’t get it. It’s not about the pork – it’s about us feeling more and more like a minority in our own county,” said one Qatari on Twitter.
Al Kuwari warned that “if Qataris are unable to apply pressure to halt this growing imbalance and begin gradual reform, their natural position at the head of society will fall away and they will be rendered incapable of reforming the other and newer problems. Indeed, they will be transformed into a deprived and marginalized minority in their own land. The perpetuation of this growing imbalance threatens to uproot Qatari society, to erase its identity and culture, to take its mother tongue, Arabic, out of circulation, and erode the role of its citizens in owning and running their own country.”
Noting that the government is careful not to refer to Qataris as a minority, Al Kuwari charged that government policy “transforms Qataris from citizens, with corresponding rights, to a dwindling class of the population, forced to compete with immigrants for job opportunities, education and social services, all in a language not their own, even as they remain deprived for one reason or another of their political rights.”
Al Kuwari’s assertion could apply just as well to the UAE where Emiratis are about 15 percent of the population. With Dubai hosting the 2020 World Expo, the controversy over foreign labor in Qatar has put the UAE too in the firing line as has criticism of the condition of workers building world class museum on Saadat Island as well as the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University.
The Saudi-backed coup in Egypt in July 2013 was Saudi Arabia’s third successful counter-revolutionary strike in a matter of weeks against the wave of change in the Middle East and North Africa and its most important defeat of Qatari support of popular revolts and the Brotherhood. As the anti-Morsi protests erupted in Egypt, Qatari-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) Prime Minister-in-exile Ghassan Hitto resigned under Saudi pressure and Saudi-backed Ahmed Assi Al-Jerba defeated his Qatar-supported rival, Adib Shishakly, in SNC presidential elections. Earlier, Saudi Arabia succeeded in restricting Qatari support for the Brotherhood within the SNC and the Free Syrian Army as well as for more radical Islamists by suggesting that it had allegedly reached agreement with the Obama administration that it would be allowed to supply non-US surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels as long as distribution was handled by the rebel Supreme Military Council to ensure that weapons did not flow to jihadist forces. Qatar had little choice but to follow into line.
As a result, Qatar sought to rejigger its role by exploiting the subsequent Russian-brokered agreement on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and efforts to achieve an end to the Syria war in peace talks in Geneva by repositioning itself as a mediator between Assad and his opponents much like it had done at the very beginning of the conflict. Sheikh Hamad at the time prior to the emergence of an armed resistance that he had convinced Assad to strike a reconciliatory note by promising reforms. In return, Sheikh Hamad pledged his support, including positive reporting on the Gulf state’s Al Jazeera network. Hours before he was scheduled to publicly confirm the strategy agreed with Hamad, Assad discarded the conciliatory speech that had been drafted for him by Syrian Vice President Farouk Alsharaa and opted instead for a hard line against the demonstrators.
To position itself again as a mediator, Qatar after a two-year lull revived its contacts with Hezbollah. A senior Qatari official met in November 2011 with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. That meeting was followed by consultations between Qatar’s ambassador to Lebanon Ali bin Hamad Al Merri and Naim Kassem, a senior official of the Shiite group. Qatar’s about face was further evident in remarks made by Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah at a conference in Bahrain in which he called for humanitarian intervention in Syria rather than military struggle. Al Attiyah’s comments contrasted starkly with his call a year earlier at the same conference for expanding the Syrian Military Council and ensuring that it includes Islamist and jihadist groups.
Qatari setbacks in Syria were the result of an underestimation of the diversity and complexity of Syrian society, an overestimation of the abilities of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a misreading of Syrian Kurdish aspirations and an over-reliance on tribal links forged through marriage and geography. As a result, Qatari hopes were dashed that the Brotherhood would be able to dominate the SNC and re-establish itself in the country after having been driven into exile with the 1982 crackdown in Hama by Bashar’s father, Hafez al Assad, in which some 20,000 people were killed.
Like in Syria, the stakes for Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Egypt were high. A successful Brotherhood-led democratic transition would have cemented the success of popular uprisings and the role of Islamists in implementing change. It would have also restored Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, to its traditional leadership role in the region in competition with Saudi Arabia. Thwarting the revolt and the Brotherhood would not only eliminate these threats but constitute a substantial body blow to Qatari encouragement of change in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Saudi moves left Qatar with little choice but to congratulate the Egyptian military on its intervention asserting that it accepted the will of the Egyptian people. But unlike Saudi Arabia and the fiercely anti-Islamist UAE, who remained silent about the killings of Brotherhood supporters in the wake of the coup, Qatar in a bid to retain its independent position expressed regret at the incidents and urged self-restraint and dialogue. At about the same time, Qaradawi called on Al Jazeera and in a fatwa issued in Doha for Morsi’s reinstatement. He declared the coup unconstitutional and a violation of Islamic law. Ironically, Qaradawi’s own son, Abdelrahman Al-Qaradawi, took his father to task on his support for Morsi. Abdelrahman noted that Qaradawi had long argued that a ruler is bound by the opinion of a majority of those who swear loyalty to him. He argued further that the sheikh had taught him that freedom superseded Islamic law.
Saudi countering of Qatari policy coincided with a turning of the tide in countries where Doha had helped topple an autocratic leader. Yemeni President Saleh’s rejection of Qatari participation in the Saudi-led Gulf effort to resolve the crisis in his country was but one setback. Qatari funding of multiple armed Islamist groups in Libya sparked outrage after documents were discovered disclosing the extent of its support. The outrage wiped out the initially sympathy for the Gulf state that was evident when rebels hoisted the Qatari flag on ousted Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi’s palace in Tripoli the day it fell. Then Libyan oil and finance minister Ali Tarhouni made a thinly veiled reference to Qatar when he declared in October 2011 that “it’s time we publicly declare that anyone who wants to come to our house has to knock on our front door first.” A month later relations with Algeria turned sour after Hamad, according to Arab media, warned Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medleci to “stop defending Syria because your time will come, and perhaps you will need us.” Hamad further broke off a visit to Mauritania in January 2012 hours after arriving in the country after President Mohammad Ould Abdel Aziz rejected his demand that he initiate democratic reform and a dialogue with Islamists.
Qatari foreign policy setbacks were paralleled by Al Jazeera’s mounting problems resulting from perceptions that it was promoting the Brotherhood and changes in the pan-Arab television market. The network experienced a boom as the primary news source in the heyday of the Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, but has since seen its viewership numbers decline with Arabs turning increasingly to a plethora of newly established local news broadcasters. Market research company Sigma Conseil reported that Al Jazeera’s market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7 in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012 and that the Qatari network was no longer among Egypt’s 10 most watched channels. Tunisia’s 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies said that Al Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network that ranked in January among the country’s five most watched channels.
Al Jazeera reporters were increasingly harassed as they sought to do their jobs in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Protesters in Tunisia charged in the wake of the 2013 assassination of prominent opposition leader Shukri Belaid that “Al Jazeera is a slave of Qatar.” They accused it of biased reporting on the murder because of the Gulf state’s support for Ennahada, the country’s dominant Islamist grouping. Egyptian colleagues expelled in July 2013 Al Jazeera Cairo bureau chief Abdel Fattah Fayed from a news conference organized by the military and the police. The prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant for Fayed on charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news. Twenty-two journalists resigned from Al Jazeera’s Egyptian affiliate days earlier in protest against its alleged bias towards the Brotherhood. Three Al Jazeera reporters were convicted in June 2014 to lengthy prison terms on charges of collaborating with the Brotherhood and disseminating false information.
In his new role as emir, Sheikh Tamim has so far proven capable of sustaining Qatar’s activist support of popular revolts and endorsement of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. Like his father, Tamim appears determined to insert Qatar into as many regional and international power structures as possible despite growing Saudi opposition. He has not backed away from the Brotherhood or succumbed to Saudi pressure to expel Islamist clerics like Qaradawi. Tamim’s refusal to bow resembles his father’s rejection of demands that he rein in the freewheeling style of Al Jazeera. Financial muscle coupled with the Gulf state’s key role in the projection of American military power in the region and the fact that Qatar’s vast natural gas resources ensure its importance to the energy security of countries across the globe help guarantee that it will remain a key partner for world powers. Support for the Brotherhood and other Islamists moreover positions Qatar as an important interlocutor with a significant segment of Arab public opinion and one of the region’s important albeit embattled political trends.
Tamim, despite significant differences in style, approach and policy, takes inspiration from Sultan Qaboos of Oman, a leader who also came to power at a young age and has carved out a niche of his own within the GCC. Qaboos was three years younger than Tamim when he assumed power in 1970, becoming at the time like the Qatari leader today, the youngest ruler in the region. Qaboos, much like Tamim was regionally isolated and moreover faced a rebellion at home. Over the years, he has succeeded in charting his own course, declining to break with Egypt after it signed a peace treaty with Israel, establishing relations with Israel, opposing sanctions against Iran, refusing to join the Gulf in its support for Iraq during the Ian-Iraq war, and more recently mediating contacts between the United States and Iran and thwarting attempts to militarize the GCC under Saudi leadership, Today, Qaboos is the only founder of the GCC still alive and the Arab world’s longest-reigning ruler.
Tamim could not have been oblivious to Qaboos’ experience when he was dressed down for his country’s policies and confronted with demands that he halt support for the Brotherhood, extradite Qaradawi and other Islamists and close down Doha-based think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, in November 2013 at a meeting in Riyadh by 89-year old Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and 84-year old Kuwaiti emir Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.
In Riyadh, Tamim had two options: buckle down and effectively subject himself to Saudi Arabia’s diktat or risk isolation and possible Gulf sanctions in anticipation of the inevitable rise of a new generation of Gulf rulers among whom he might emerge as the region’s elder statesmen. Tamim appears to have taken the long view and opted for a course that maintains his ability to conduct his own, independent foreign, defense and security policy. For Tamim, the road may prove to be bumpier than the one Qaboos travelled. Oman was not threatened with sanctions as it charted its own course. It had the advantage of being bigger than Qatar, geographically better situated at the bottom of the peninsula and having a larger Omani national population. Qaboos moreover made his moves at a time that rulers were not on the defensive against a tidal wave of change that threatened their very existence. It is that wave of change that Tamim hopes to ride. In doing so, Tamim, like the UAE challenges as Kristian Coates Ulrichsen noted, traditional academic wisdom on the limits on the ability of small states to project power and the assumption of an automatic link between size and power.
Sports, a double edged sword
Qatar’s soft power strategy puts it at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia and has raises concerns in the kingdom on how far Qatar may go. The hosting of the 2022 World Cup has already made it more vulnerable to criticism of restrictions on alcohol consumption, the banning of homosexuality, and working conditions of foreign labor. Moreover, Qatar’s identification with sports and the role of soccer fans in the popular revolts in North Africa has reverberated in the sports sector in the kingdom particularly with regard to fan power and women’s sports. In doing so, it has reaffirmed the role of sports in the development of the Middle East and North Africa since the late 19th century.
Qatar alongside Jordan was a driving force in the launch of a campaign in 2012 by Middle Eastern soccer associations grouped in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) to put women’s soccer on par with men’s football in a region in which a woman’s right to play and pursue an athletic career remains controversial. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at the launch. The campaign defined “an athletic woman” as “an empowered woman who further empowers her community.” In a rebuttal of opposition to women’s soccer by the kingdom and some Islamists in the region, the campaign stressed that women’s soccer did not demean cultural and traditional values. Contradicting Saudi policy, it endorsed the principle of a woman’s right of to play soccer irrespective of culture, religion and race; a women’s right to opt for soccer as a career rather than only as a sport; and soccer’s ability to promote gender equality and level the playing field on and off the pitch.
To be sure, Qatar has been slow in encouraging women’s sports at home and like Saudi Arabia was pressured in 2012 by the International Olympic Committee to for the first time field women at an international tournament during the London Olympics.
The WAFF campaign came nonetheless on the back of a Human Rights Watch report that accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country’s powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute “steps of the devil” that will encourage immorality and reduce women’s chances of meeting the requirements for marriage. The charges in the report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came as Saudi Arabia backtracked on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.
Qatar’s endorsement of women’s sports has made Saudi Arabia the only Arab and virtually the only Muslim state that refuses to embrace the concept. Spanish consultants developing the kingdom’s first ever national sports plan were instructed to develop a program for men only. Opposition to women’s sports is reinforced by the fact that physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools. Public sports facilities are exclusively for men and sports associations offer competitions and support for athletes in international competitions only to men.
Saudi opposition to women’s sports and participation in international tournaments was further challenged by a decision by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) backed by Qatar and other Middle Eastern soccer associations to allow women to wear a hijab that met safety and security standards in international matches. It also came as Saudi women encouraged by the winds of change in the region, the advancement of women’s sports in Qatar and elsewhere and the support of liberal members of the royal family were pushing the envelope despite being slammed in Saudi media “for going against their natural role” and being “shameless” because they cause embarrassment to their families.
Similarly, fan pressure forced the resignation in 2012 of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF) in an unprecedented move that echoed the toppling of Arab leaders in which militant soccer fans were front row players. Nawaf was replaced by a commoner, renowned former soccer player Ahmed Eid Alharbi, as the first freely chosen head of the SFF in a country that views free and fair polling as an alien Western concept. The fan pressure erupted after Australia’s defeat of the kingdom in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. Nawaf’s resignation broke a mold in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of soccer as a key tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, distracting attention from widespread grievances and manipulating national emotions. It also marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team’s failure as a risk to be avoided rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya brutally punishing players.
The Saudi royal family like autocratic leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa have associated themselves with soccer, the only institution in pre-revolt countries that traditionally evokes the same deep-seated passion as religion. Nawaf’s resignation constituted the first time, an autocratic regime sought to put the beautiful game at arm’s length while maintaining control. The ruling family nonetheless retained its grip on sports with Nawaf staying on as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and as the senior official responsible for youth welfare on which the SFF depends alongside television broadcast rights for funding. Major soccer clubs moreover continue to be the playground of princes who at times micro manage matches by phoning mid-game their team’s coaches with instructions which players to replace.
“Words such as freedom of choice, equality, human rights, rational thinking, democracy and elections, are terms we came to view with high concern and suspicion. We treat them as alien ideas that are trying to sneak within our society from the outside world. But last week an amazing and irregular event took place, in one of our sporting landmarks. The members of the General Assembly of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) have elected through popular voting, their first president,” wrote columnist Mohammed AlSaif in the Arab News.
Alharbi, a former goalkeeper of Al Ahli SC, the soccer team of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, who is widely seen as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer narrowly won the election widely covered by Saudi media. “Saudis were witnessing for the very first time in their lives a government official being elected through what they used to consider as a western ballot system. People eagerly followed a televised presidential debate between the two candidates the previous day,” AlSaif wrote.
Sports also serves as a tool to mold a Qatari national identity very different from that of the kingdom that started in the late 1970s with the establishment of the Qatar National Olympic Committee. The notion of employing sports in nation-building built on the fact that Doha focused early on the sports becoming in the 1960s the only Gulf city with a stadium that had a grass field. Similarly, the tradition of hosting sports events dates back to the visit of boxer Mohammed Ali to Qatar 1971 and the hosting two years later of first international friendly between Santos FC from Brazil with Pele as its star and Qatar’s oldest sports club, Al-Ahli SC as well the Gulf Cup in 1976.
Whether the Saudi-Qatari rivalry that has evolved into a cold war with the virtual breaking of diplomatic relations will contribute to sparking change in the kingdom or reinforce monarchial autocracy in the region is likely to be as much decided in Qatar itself as by the political rivalry between the two elsewhere in the region. Saudi-backed Qatari conservatives have questioned the emir’s right to rule by decree, organized online boycotts of state-run companies and forced Qatar University to replace English with Arabic as the main language of instruction. As crown prince, Tamim was often seen to sympathize with those domestic conservative concerns leaving Qataris guessing whether those were his true political instincts or an attempt to garner favor.
Whatever the case, Tamim has proven to be unwilling to back away from Qatar’s embrace of the Brotherhood and effort to put itself at the cutting edge of change in the region despite setbacks in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Fault lines in Egypt have deepened with the toppling of Morsi, weakened Qatar’s regional influence and made its Brotherhood allies in other Arab nations in the throes of change reluctant to assume sole government responsibility. Jordan’s Brotherhood-related Islamic Action Front (IAF) boycotted parliamentary elections in January 2013 officially because of alleged gerrymandering. Privately, the IAF, with an eye on Egypt was believed to have shied away from getting too big a share of the pie for their taste. Mounting opposition to the Brotherhood’s Tunisian affiliate, Ennahada, and the assassination in 2013 of two prominent opposition politician prompted the Islamists to allow the formation of a government of technocrats.
Similarly, Qatar’s winning of the right to host the World Cup may have opened a Pandora’s Box of demographic change that could reverberate throughout the Gulf, a region populated by states whose nationals often constitute minorities in their own countries. Under increasing pressure from international trade unions who have the clout to make true on a threat to boycott the 2022 World Cup, the status of foreign nationals could become a monkey wrench for social, if not, political change.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, a syndicated columnist and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. A veteran, award-winning foreign correspondent whose career focused on ethnic and religious conflict, James focuses at RSIS on political and social change in the Middle East and North Africa, the impact of change in the Middle East and North Africa on Southeast and Central Asia and the nexus of sports, politics and society in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia.
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 Simeon Kerr. 2014., ‘Diplomatic Crisis as Gulf States Withdraw Ambassadors from Qatar, Financial Times March 5, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5e8103c4-a45b-11e3-9cb0-00144feab7de.html#axzz2weoSWpYP
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Robert Fisk. 2014. Qatar pays Syrian rebels £40m ransom to free nuns – or did it? It depends what rumours you believe, The Independent, March 18, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/qatar-pays-syrian-rebels-40m-ransom-to-free-nuns–or-did-it-it-depends-what-rumours-you-believe-9200527.html
Bernard Heykal. 2013. Qatar and Islamism, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, February, http://www.peacebuilding.no/var/ezflow_site/storage/original/application/ac81941df1be874ccbda35e747218abf.pdf
Yousef Kamal, a Qatari Shiite, served as finance and economy minister from 1998 until XX. Moreover some of Qatar’s richest merchant families including the Al Fardans, Darwish and Fakhru are Shiites.
The Straits Times. 2014, ‘Saudi Arabia demands Qatar shut down Al-Jazeera broadcaster: Source,’ The Straits Times, March 14, http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/world/story/saudi-arabia-demands-qatar-shut-down-al-jazeera-broadcaster-source-2014031
 Gavriel Fiske. 2014, ‘Dubai police: Ex-MK Azmi Bishara is Israeli spy,’ The Times of Israel, March 11, http://www.timesofisrael.com/dubai-police-ex-mk-azmi-bishara-is-israeli-spy/#ixzz2vfYW05rA
Arab News. 2014. ‘Qatar is part of UAE: Dubai security official,’ Gulf in the Media, April 2, http://www.gulfintheedia.com/index.php?id=693287&news_type=Top&lang=en
 David Roberts. 2014. How Personal Politics Drive Conflict in the Gulf, From the Potomac to the Euphrates, May 6, http://blogs.cfr.org/cook/2014/05/06/how-personal-politics-drive-conflict-in-the-gulf/
US Embassy Abu Dhabi. 2004. ‘UAE Minimizing Influence Of Islamic Extremists,’ November 10, http://cablegatesearch.wikileaks.org/cable.php?id=04ABUDHABI4061
US Embassy Abu Dhabi. 2009. ‘Strong Words in Private from MBZ at IDEX — Bashes Iran, Qatar, Russia.’ February 25, http://cablegatesearch.wikileaks.org/search.php?q=Strong+Words+in+Private+from+Mbz+at+Idex&qo=0&qc=0&qto=2009-02-26
Ibid. US Embassy Abu Dhabi
Ibid. US Embassy Abu Dhabi
US Embassy Doha (Qatar). 2007. ‘Qatar Forges Its Own “Wahabi” Path,’ November 8, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2007/11/07DOHA1052.html
Ibid. US Embassy Doha (Qatar)
Ibid. US Embassy Doha (Qatar)
 Alan J. Fromherz. Qatar, A Modern History, London , 2012, I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, p. 91
 Birol Baskan and Steven Wright. 2011. Seeds of Change: Comparing State-Religion Relations in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Arab Studies Quarterly, 33(2), 96-111
 Mehran Kamrava, ‘Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar,’ 2009, Middle East Journal, Vol:63:3, p. 401-420
 Ibid. Baskan and Wright
Madawi Al-Rasheed. 2014. ‘Marginalized Saudi youth launch virtual protests,’ Al Monitor,
April 9, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/saudi-protest-youtube-social-media-economy.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=b7e72c8856-January_9_20141_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-b7e72c8856-93078213 / Fouad al-Ibrahim. 2014. ‘Saudi rulers face growing rumblings of discontent,’
 Yaroslav Trofimov 2002, ‘Qatar Is Eschewing Saudi Arabia’s Brand Of Wahhabi Islam in Favor of Modernization,’ The Wall Street Journal, October 2, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1035412141534780791
 Ibrahim Hatlani, ‘Saudi Arabia wrestles with its identity,’ July 12, 2013, The Daily Star, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Commentary/2013/Jul-12/223366-saudi-arabia-wrestles-with-its-identity.ashx#axzz2Yu58z44W
 James M. Dorsey, ‘Persian Gulf Futures,’ Global Brief, March 5, 2013, http://globalbrief.ca/blog/2013/03/05/persian-gulf-futures/
 Journalists call for overhaul of QNA, July 14, 2013, The Peninsula, http://thepeninsulaqatar.com/qatar/244976-journalists-call-for-overhaul-of-qna.html
Matt J. Duffy. 2014. ‘Journalists concerned over Qatar’s revised cybercrime law,’ Al Monitor, March 17 , http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/qatar-al-jazeera-cybercrime-twitter-danger.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=27027b7e52-January_9_20141_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-27027b7e52-93078213#ixzz2wKEyS2js
 Interview with private investigator, November 11, 2013
 Interview with the author February 10, 2002
 Sheikh Salman al Audeh et al. 2011. نحو دولة الحقوق والمؤسسات (About state of rights and institutions), February 23, الحوار المتمدن (Civilized Dialogue), http://www.ahewar.org/debat/show.art.asp?aid=24%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1%20%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%867642; Sheikh Salman al Audeh. 2013. ‘An Open Letter, Twitmail, March 16, http://twitmail.com/email/78010944/6/
Marc Lynch. 2013. ‘Gulf Islamist Dissent Over Egypt,” Foreign Policy, March 18 http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/18/gulf_islamist_dissent_over_egypt
Al Jazeera Arabic. 2013. ‘بيان العلماء السعوديين حول أحداث مصر,’August 8, http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/21f77113-6847-48a5-9d59-9ca704bdc1e2
 The Gulf Institute, ‘Close Relative of Senior Saudi Counterterrorism Official Killed Alongside AlQaeda in Syria,’ Washington, 19 August 2013, press release by email
Stephane Lacroix. 2014. ‘Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament,’ Project on Middle East Political Science, March 17, http://pomeps.org/2014/03/20/saudi-arabias-muslim-brotherhood-predicament/
 James M. Dorsey, FIFA reviews, Qatar’s World Cup bid, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 26 January 2013, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2013/01/fifa-investigates-qatars-world-cup-bid.html
 Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, , انقسامالخليجحولمصر (Why Is The Gulf Divided Over Egypt?), Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, August 18, 2013, http://www.aawsat.com/leader.asp?section=3&issueno=12682&article=740325&search=%DA%C8%CF%20%C7%E1%D1%CD%E3%E4%20%C7%E1%D1%C7%D4%CF:&state=true#.UhLDHJLfC_8
 Abdullah bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Saud, ‘Saudi King Abdullah declares support for Egypt against terrorism,’, 16 August 2013, Al Arabiya, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2013/08/16/Saudi-King-Abdullah-declares-support-of-Egypt-against-terrorism.html
 Abigail Hauslohner, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood finds havens abroad, 6 November 2013, The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/egypts-muslim-brotherhood-finds-havens-abroad/2013/11/05/438f2dfe-463a-11e3-95a9-3f15b5618ba8_story.html
Yezid Sayegh, The Syrian Opposition’s Bleak Outlook, Carnegie Middle East Center, 17 April 2014, http://www.carnegie-mec.org/2014/04/17/syrian-opposition-s-bleak-outlook/h8e0#
 International Institute for Strategic Studies, Priorities for Regional Security: Q&A Session,” 8 December 2012, http://www.iiss.org/en/events/manama%20dialogue/archive/manama-dialogue-2012-f58e/second-plenary-session-f3e9/qa-3d28
 Lori Plotkin Boghardt, ‘The Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf: Prospects for Agitation,’ 10 June 2013, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-muslim-brotherhood-in-the-gulf-prospects-for-agitation
Ibid. Kobaisi, p. 123
Ibid. Kobaisi, p. 123
 Ibid. Kobaisi, p. 125
David Roberts. 2014. ‘Qatar, the Ikhwan, and transnational relations in the Gulf,’ Project on Middle East Political Science, March 18, http://pomeps.org/2014/03/18/qatar-the-ikhwan-and-transnational-relations-in-the-gulf/
 Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen and Bettina Graf (Editors). 2012. Global Mufti: The Phenomenon of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, New York: Columbia University Press
 Yahya Michot, 2011. ‘The fatwa of Shaykh Yûsuf al-Qaradâwî against Gaddafi,’ 15 March, http://www.scribd.com/doc/51219918/The-fatwa-of-Shaykh-Yusuf-al-Qaradawi-against-Gaddafi
 Yusuf al-Qaradawi. 2011. ‘شرعية المظاهرات السلمية (The legitimacy of peaceful demonstrations),’Qaradawi.net, March 13, http://qaradawi.net/fatawaahkam/30/4929-2011-08-08-08-17-10.html
 Ibid. Trofimov
 Ibid. Michot
 Qaradawi backs Syrian revolution, The Peninsula, March 26, 2011, http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/qatar/146915-qaradawi-backs-syrian-revolution.html
 Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, ‘Syria and the ‘Resistance’ Bloc: Buddies No More,’ May 22, 2011, American Thinker, http://www.americanthinker.com/2011/05/syria_and_the_resistance_bloc.html
 Qaradawi admits Saudi clerics are more mature than him on Hezbollah, June 1, 2011, Middle East Online, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=59139
 James M. Dorsey, 2013. ‘Qatar launches politically sensitive survey into low soccer match attendance, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, November 24, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2013/11/qatar-launches-politically-sensitive.html
Al Jazeera English.2014. UAE summons Qatar envoy over Qaradawi remarks’, February 2, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/uae-summons-qatar-envoy-over-qaradawi-remarks-20142215393855165.html
 Hootan Shambayati, ‘The Rentier State, Interest Groups, and the Paradox of Autonomy: State and Business in
Turkey and Iran,’ Comparative Politics, 1994, Vol 6:3, p. 307-331
 Mehran Kamrava.2012. Qatar. Small State, Big Politics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, Kindle edition, Loc 178
 Ibid. Kamrava. Loc
Giacomo Luciani. 2009. ‘Oil and political economy in the international relations of the Middle East, in Louis Fawcett (ed), , International relations of the Middle East, Oxford
 Gulf News,. 2013. Qatar to make military service compulsory for 4 months, 14 November 2013, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/qatar/qatar-to-make-military-service-compulsory-for-4-months-1.1255124
Nada Badawi. 2014. ‘Qatari men report for first day of mandatory national service,’ Doha News, April 1, http://dohanews.co/first-day-mandatory-national-service-kicks-2000-recruits/
Peter Kovessy. 2014. ‘Qatar’s military build-up continues with $24bn in new arms deals,’ Doha News, March 28. http://dohanews.co/qatars-military-build-continues-24bn-new-arms-deals/
US Embassy Doha. 2010. ‘Scenesetter for U.S. – Qatari Military Consultative Commission, Wikileaks, January 7, http://cablegatesearch.wikileaks.org/cable.php?id=10DOHA8&q=commission%20consultative%20military%20qatari
 Ibid. US Embassy
US Embassy Doha. 2009. “The Move toward an Interagency Synchronization Plan: The Results of Embassy Doha’s Third Field Assessment, November 19, http://cablegatesearch.wikileaks.org/cable.php?id=09DOHA677&q=an%20interagency%20move%20synchronization%20the%20toward
 Mona Lisa Freiha, 2011. ‘Saudi refuses Qatar gas project,; An Nahar, July 23,
 Lawrence Smallman. 2005 ‘Qatar’s first lady wins UK libel case,’ January 5, , Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/archive/2005/01/200849139943889.html
 The Doha Debates, This House believes that after Gaza, Arab unity is dead and buried, February 15, 2009, http://www.thedohadebates.com/debates/item/?d=47&mode=opinions
 Jill Crystal. 1995. Oil and Politics in the Gulf, Cambridge, p. 164-165
 Michael Peel, Rivals make play for power in Yemen, Financial Times, April 15, 2013
 Middle East Online, ‘Qatar pulls out of Gulf’s Yemen mediation,’ 13 May 2013, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=46106.
 Ibid. Middle East Online
 Al Sharq, ‘ Doha’s influence in Sana’a spring forces taking accounting of new allies (ربيع الدوحة في صنعاء يثمر نفوذاً لحساب حلفائها الجدد), 12 December 2012, http://www.alsharq.net.sa/2012/12/12/620296
 Ibid. Kamrava
Walaa Hassan, Egypt fears backlash if it cuts ties with Qatar, 12 March 2014, Al Monitor, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/egypt-fears-repercussions-cutting-ties-qatar-gcc-decision.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=add77a0743-January_9_20141_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-add77a0743-93078213
Andrew Michael Gardner. 2005. City of Strangers: The Transnational Indian Community in Manama, Bahrain, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Arizona, http://arizona.openrepository.com/arizona/bitstream/10150/195849/1/azu_etd_1283_sip1_m.pdf
 Qatar’s 2010 census figures reported 74,087 economically active Qataris over the age of 15 and 1,201,884 economically active non-Qataris. Census 2010, pp.12-13, 19, Qatar Statistics Authority, http://www.qsa.gov.qa
Ali Khalifa al Kuwari, The People Want Reform in Qatar…Too, 4 November 2012, Perspectives, Heinrich Boell Stiftung, http://www.il.boell.org/downloads/perspectives_MENA_4_Nov_2012_Qatar.pdfhttp://www.il.boell.org/downloads/perspectives_MENA_4_Nov_2012_Qatar.pdf
Ibid. Al Kuwari
 Ali Hashem, Qatar resets its Syria policy, Al-Monitor, 14 December 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/12/qatar-resets-syria-policy.html?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=8739
 Ibid. Hashem
 Yusuf al-Qaradawi, القرضاوي يفتي بوجوب تأييد الرئيس المصري المنتخب محمد مرسي, July 7, 2013, http://www.qaradawi.net/component/content/article/6744.html
 Hassan Masiky, ‘Qatar Chastises Algeria for defending Assad in Syria,’ Morocco News Board, November 15, 2011, http://www.moroccoboard.com/viewpoint-5/68-hassan-massiki/5495-qatar-chastises-algeria-for-defending-assad-in-syria-
 Al-Mokhtar Ould Mohammad, ‘Dispute Mars Emir of Qatar’s Mauritania Visit,’ Al Akhbar English, January 9, 2012, http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/dispute-mars-emir-qatar%E2%80%99s-mauritania-visit
 Sultan Al Qassemi, ‘Al Jazeera’s Awful Week,’ July 11, 2013, Foreign Policy, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/07/11/al_jazeera_egypt_qatar_muslim_brotherhood?page=full; The Economist, ‘Must Do Better,’ January 12, 2013, charges of threatening national security and public order by airing inflammatory news, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21569429-arabs-premier-television-network-bids-american-viewers-must-do-better; Alain Gresh, ‘Gulf cools towards Muslim Brothers,’ November 2102, Le Monde Diplomatique, http://mondediplo.com/2012/11/02egypt
 James M. Dorsey, ‘Al Jazeera targets Spain amid dropping viewer numbers in its heartland,’ April 4, 2013, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/search/label/Qatar?updated-max=2013-04-30T16:37:00%2B08:00&max-results=20&start=5&by-date=false
 Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, ‘Small States with a Big Role: Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the Wake of the Arab Spring, 2012, HH Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Publication Series, Kuwait, October 2012
 Shaun Lopez, On Race, Sports and Identity: Picking Up the Ball in Middle East Studies, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 41, 2009, p. 359-361
 James M. Dorsey, January 14,2013, Middle East soccer associations campaign for women’s right to play, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2013/01/middle-east-soccer-associations.html
 Human Rights Watch. 2012. Steps of the Devil, Denial of Women’s and Girls’ Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/saudi0212webwcover.pdf
 Ibid. Dorsey
 Author interviews with the consultants
 James M. Dorsey. March 4, 2012. Muslim players win hijab battle in their struggle for women’s rights, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2012/03/muslim-players-win-hijab-battle-in.html
 James M. Dorsey, December 26, 2012. Ground-breaking election of Saudi soccer chief masks Arab revolt fears, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, http://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2012/12/ground-breaking-election-of-saudi.html
Luis Enrique Rolim Silva. 2014. ‘The Establishment of the Qatar National Olympic Committee: Building the National Sport Identity,’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.31:3, 306-319
 Bouazza Ben Bouazza, ‘Tunisia Compromise May Head off Gov’t Crisis,’ 22 August 2013, AP/ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/tunisia-compromise-head-off-govt-crisis-20032542
Iraq in Crisis
By Peter Sluglett
Current events in Iraq pose one of the greatest threats that an almost endemically unstable region has experienced for many years. In fact, the apparent suddenness of the capture of Mosul, and of Tikrit should not have come as a great surprise. As the map shows, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Sham),  many of whose fighters are of Iraqi origin (although some are the sons of immigrants from the Middle East to Europe), has been occupying cities, and creating economic and political fiefdoms, in northern and eastern Syria at least since April 2013. In addition, everyday violence all over Iraq has greatly worsened over the last year or so. For a better understanding of all this, one needs to go back several decades, to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf war in 1990-91, and the thirteen years of UN economic sanctions, all of which set the stage for the additional and even more terrible disasters that would befall Iraq with the US invasion of 2003. Let me begin with the invasion.
In 2003, Saddam Husayn had been President of Iraq since 1979, and its de facto ruler for many years before that. Thirteen years of sanctions (imposed after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990) had impoverished the middle class, devastated the country’s infrastructure and created a generation of semi-literate, unemployed and generally unemployable young people. In addition, the state had virtually ceased to function in large swathes of the Iraqi countryside, leading (with more than tacit government encouragement) to the retribalisation of much of Iraqi rural society–in which the tribal leadership assumed many of the functions of the state. In addition rural to urban migration on an even larger scale than in the past had swollen the population of the outer suburbs of Baghdad.
The Iraqi state of the late 1990s and early 2000s was the classic Middle Eastern authoritarian dictatorship. As Joseph Sassoon’s compelling study Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party–based on captured Party documents–has shown, Iraq was run on a day-to- day basis by a number of highly centralized and extremely brutal internal security services, all reportedly to the president or to a member of his inner circle. Any potential internal opposition had been quelled, and its members exiled, imprisoned, or executed. In ways comparable to contemporary Syria, all significant power lay in the hands of the ruler and his trusted lieutenants, the majority of whom were members of his extended family, or his childhood acquaintances, or fellow members of the Ba‘th Party from its early days of secrecy and clandestinity.
Although the sectarian factor was less significant in the 1970s and 1980s than it is now, both Saddam Husayn and his immediate predecessor Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (President from 1968 to 1979) came from Tikrit, a town on the Tigris some 90 miles north west of Baghdad, located in an area whose population is entirely Sunni. The regimes of al-Bakr and Saddam Husayn thus continued the ‘tradition’ of Sunni dominance to which Iraqis had been accustomed since the foundation of the state. The population of Iraq is about 20 per cent Kurdish and 80 per cent Arab (there are other small minorities, but I’m painting with a broad brush), with some 55 per cent of the non-Kurdish population Arab Shi‘i and the remaining quarter Arab Sunni.
For much of the period between the foundation of the state in 1920 and 2003, the Sunni minority, who inherited its position of dominance from the Ottoman period, behaved as if it were a majority, and generally resisted power-sharing with the Shi‘is, a fact which caused increasing irritation to the ‘real’ majority, especially in the general context of the rise of secular politics after the Second World and of the wider spread of education throughout society. Sunni dominance was also furthered in the ideology of Iraq Ba‘thism, which presented the history of Iraq and the Arab world in entirely Sunni Arab terms with little or no reference to the Shi‘is and Kurds.
Sectarian affiliation began to matter more after Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. The shock waves of the Iranian Revolution, and its ambitious claims to represent or at least to further the interests of Shi‘is everywhere, caused great anxiety to the Iraqi regime, while Shi‘i political organizations in Iraq drew inspiration from it in equal measure, however much they were persecuted by the Ba‘th regime. Almost overnight, Iraq’s very powerful, generally conservative-secular and pro-Western neighbour had completely changed its nature. Some inkling of what Saddam Husayn’s regime in Iraq was ‘really’ like was its very close relationship with the Shah since 1975. Like many newly minted revolutions, the Islamic republic of Iran was eager to export its ideology, and did so to considerable effect, first in Lebanon, and later in Iraq. While Shi‘is form only ten per cent of the world population of Muslims, in the Middle East they form 90 per cent of the population of Iran, 55-60 per cent of the population of Iraq and about 40 per cent of the population of Lebanon (and smaller proportions of the population of Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan).
At this point it should be stressed that in spite of the evident ethnic and sectarian mix of Iraqi society, there had never been any attempt to create the kind of officially sanctioned and recognized sectarianism that has long existed in Lebanon. It was only with the US invasion that sectarian quotas were introduced for the first time, with devastatingly negative effects. That this was done reflects the fact that most of those involved with planning or participating in the invasion had little understanding of Iraqi or indeed Middle Eastern politics, and thought that the US would endear itself to the people of Iraq simply by overthrowing the tyrant and instituting some sort of majority rule, whatever they thought that meant. Of course, neither the Sunnis nor the Shi‘is formed monolithic blocs, and both quickly split into factions, with an important division between those who had sat out the last years of Saddam Husayn’s rule in Damascus, London, Teheran or Washington and those who had had little choice but to endure the dictatorship at first hand. And while many Sunnis occupied positions of privilege, the wrath of the regime had fallen on all its opponents, Sunnis and Shi‘is alike.
The Coalition Provisional Authority, which lasted from April 2003 to April 2004, was generally held to be a disaster; it was also weighed down by notions of sectarian quotas, and was headed by Paul Bremer, a career diplomat with no experience of the Arab world. Bremer is probably best known first for his extraordinary decision to disband the Iraqi Army, and second for his almost equally impulsive implementation of a policy of de-Ba‘thification, which enabled those whom the administration favoured to get rid of their potential rivals. Bremer’s immediate predecessor, General Jay Garner, had advised handing over authority to Iraqis as soon as possible, but this did not find favour with the neo-cons at the Pentagon, who thought they knew exactly how to build democracy in Iraq.
I cannot, obviously, give a blow by blow history of the US occupation, and our former colleague ‘Ali ‘Allawi knows far more about it than I do, having served as Minister of Trade and Minister of Defence in the cabinet appointed by the Interim Iraq Governing Council from September 2003 until 2004, and then as Minister of Finance in the Iraqi Transitional Government between 2005 and 2006. These were terrible years in terms of death and destruction; an insurrection against the occupation began in 2004, peopled largely by former members of the army that Bremer had been so quick to disband. Sectarian elements were there from the beginning, since the officer corps had been almost entirely Sunni, but by 2006-07 the insurrection had developed into a sectarian civil war. Estimates of civilian deaths vary widely, but the findings of the Iraq Body Count are as follows:
2009-11: under 5,000 p.a.
Most of the deaths occurred in 2006-2007. There was something of a lull between 2009 and 2012, but in 2013, 9,517 people were killed, and the figure for the first five months of this year has already reached 4,638–and according to the UN High Commission for refugees, half a million people have fled their homes in Iraq in the last few weeks.
One of the main problems leading up to the most recent outbreaks of violence has been the dictatorial tendencies of Nuri al-Maliki, who occupies the positions of Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Minister of Interior. Maliki’s government is corrupt, profoundly sectarian and deeply unpopular among Shi‘is as well as Sunnis, although particularly vilified by the latter. As well as mismanaging the economy, Maliki’s overt sectarianism and his assumption of more and more power in his own hands have been disastrous. For many observers, Maliki’s removal from the political scene is regarded as a necessary precondition for any efforts at national reconciliation. Maliki came to power in a deal brokered by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Iraq, and the British and American governments. Of humble birth (b. 1950) from the Shi‘i middle Euphrates, and a staunch member of the Da‘wa Party, Maliki left Iraq in 1980, and did not return until 2003. He spent the intervening years in Damascus and Iran, during which, according to a recent article, he was responsible for all Da‘wa operations in Syria and Lebanon (including, most probably, the suicide bomb attack on the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut in 1981) and was later in charge of a camp of Iraqi fighters in Iran, financed and controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  He is often described as paranoid, although in fairness he has survived several assassination attempts. Maliki is close to Iran and instinctively anti-American; his collaboration with the Americans was a marriage of convenience. He was and is regarded disparagingly by the more cosmopolitan Shi‘i politicians who spent their own years of exile in Britain or the United States. The author of the article that I have just mentioned recalls seeing Maliki on television in Iraq in December 2013: ‘His long face conveyed, as it almost always does, a look of utter joylessness.’
During his first couple of years in power Maliki did little to endear himself to the Iraqi public. He was largely responsible for the arrangements leading to the botched execution of Saddam Husayn, and the sectarian civil war deteriorated steadily on his watch. Things only began to improve with the US-inspired ‘surge’, the deployment of some 20,000 additional troops to Baghdad, announced in the President Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2007. It took until mid-June, when all the additional troops had arrived in Iraq (eventually numbering some 28,000) for major counter-insurgency efforts to begin. In March 2008 Maliki showed a degree of energy by ordering the Iraqi Army to attack Basra, which had just been occupied by his Shi‘i archrival Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Eventually, with massive American support, the Iraqi Army prevailed over the Mahdi Army, which was chased out of Basra. Although this certainly strengthened Maliki’s position and his reputation, the incident also marked the beginning of his efforts to establish his personal authority, with no power sharing either with Kurds, Sunnis, or even with other Shi‘is.
In the parliamentary elections of March 2010 Maliki’s State of Law alliance lost seats to ‘Iraqiya, a multi-sectarian alliance led by Ayad ‘Allawi. However, neither had a majority, and the Americans reluctantly concluded that they had little choice but to back Maliki again. For their part the Iranians obliged Muqtada al-Sadr to support Maliki in exchange for some key ministries and the appointment of the pro-Iranian Kurd Jalal Talabani as President. The Iranians also insisted, via Maliki, that the Americans should leave, and on 18 December 2011, they did, in spite of the fact that most political parties, and most Iraqi commanders, wanted some Americans to remain to continue training Iraqi forces and to help fight the kind of insurgency the Iraqi Army is facing at the moment. As President Obama was almost equally keen for all US forces to leave, there was no real contest. In general US army and diplomatic officials were not pleased at what they saw as their administration’s too ready acquiescence in Maliki’s wishes.
Since the departure of the Americans, some of whom acted as a restraining influence, Maliki has continued his anti-Sunni campaign, purging all Sunnis from the National Intelligence Service, and dismissing anyone of any integrity who ties to stand up to him, including the governor of the Central Bank, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, and the popular (Sunni) Finance Minister Raf‘i al-‘Issawi in 2012. He has also subverted the independence of the judiciary by obtaining a decision from the High Court that gives him the exclusive right to draft legislation. There are many stories of bribery, extortion, and the siphoning off of Iraq’s oil revenues, often involving Maliki’s son Ahmad, to which Maliki apparently turns a blind eye.
Such activities have increasingly caused Sunnis to lose whatever confidence they might once have had in the government. In the most recent elections on 30 April 2014, Maliki’s State of Law coalition got less than 25 per cent of the vote; in spite of this, he cobbled together a parliamentary alliance that ensured him another term.  He has been Prime Minister for eight years, and his third term will in theory last until 2008. He has also apparently resurrected a Saddam-era law that makes it an offence to criticize the head of state. As well as alienating the Iraqi Sunnis, he has also managed to alienate most of the Kurdish leadership, and it is likely that the Kurds will not be ready to give up Kirkuk and the Kurdish parts of Arab Iraq, which they have occupied in the last few days.
In November 2013, as Islamic militants strengthened their hold on several towns in Syria and the security situation in Iraq began to deteriorate further, Maliki felt obliged to turn to Washington for help. The White House gave him Hellfire missiles and some 25 Apache attack helicopters. This situation, and the occupation of Falluja by Sunni extremists in January, seems to be the result of a combination of the fall out of the situation in Syria and Maliki’s dogged pursuit of ever more extreme authoritarianism. According to Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq between 2007 and 2009, things have broken down within Iraq because the system the Americans created made them indispensable brokers or middlemen both between Shi‘is and other Shi‘is (although here the Iranians also played an important role) and between the Shi‘i and Sunni leaderships.
In a recent article in the Guardian (13 June) Toby Dodge argues that the present crisis is the result of a combination of the ‘failure to build a sustainable and inclusive political system after regime change in 2003’ and Maliki’s authoritarianism. In all probability the US will simply go on supplying military hardware to Maliki rather than insisting that he either leave power or change his approach, and the 250 US troops sent in mid-June are unlikely to make a significant difference. My own sense is that while the activities of ISIS in themselves cannot pose much of a threat (given that there are only at most 10,000 militants spread out across northern and eastern Syrian and northern Iraq), a far more serious aspect of the situation is that a large proportion of the army and police in northern Iraq have, at least temporarily, handed over themselves and their weapons (including tanks and other heavy artillery supplied by the Americans) to ISIS. In addition, many tribal militias and local commanders in Anbar and other Sunni areas have also thrown in their lot with ISIS, whether out of disgust at the ineptitude, corruption, and sectarianism of the government in Baghdad, or out of fear of what ISIS might do if they do not cooperate (and there have been reports of mass executions by ISIS over the last few days)–or perhaps a combination of both. For its part, ISIS has proclaimed that it wants to set up an Islamic emirate, even an Islamic caliphate, in Syria and Iraq, and has ambitions to march on and capture Baghdad, tearing up the post World War One settlement in the process. Let us hope that those eager volunteers whom Ayatullah Sistani has called up to defend the homeland can stop them in their tracks–but at the same time, a change of direction, and a change of emphasis, is desperately needed from Baghdad.
Peter Sluglett is Visiting Research Professor and Director–Designate at MEI. He has taught Middle Eastern History at the University of Durham (1974-1994) and at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City (1994-2011), where he was Director of the University’s Middle East Center. He has published widely on the modern history of Iraq, including Iraq since 1958: from Revolution to Dictatorship, 3rd edn., (2001, with Marion Farouk-Sluglett), and Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country (2007). He has also edited and contributed to The Urban Social History of the Middle East 1750-1950 (2008), Syria and Bilad al-Sham under Ottoman Rule: Essays in Honour of Abdul-Karim Rafeq, (2010, with Stefan Weber), and Writing the Modern History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges (2012). He is currently co-authoring a book on the modern history of Syria.
 al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi’l-‘Iraq w’al-Sham broke ranks with al-Qa‘ida in 2004.
 Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
 Dexter Filkins, New Yorker, 28 April 2014.
Singapore Middle East Paper
Violent communication in Iraq: intended and unintended consequences
by Charles Tripp
This paper was part of MEI’s “IRAQ TEN YEARS AFTER: A RECKONING AND A BALANCE SHEET” session in July 2013.
Two days in January 2014 witnessed acts of violence by insurgents across Iraq that cost the lives of over one hundred Iraqis, civilians, military personnel and militia members. On 14 January, a fuel tanker was detonated by a suicide bomber under a major road bridge at Saqlawiya, near Fallujah in northwest Iraq. The main road from Baghdad to the west was cut and two army tanks destroyed, killing a number of army personnel. The police station at Saqlawiyah was then attacked and captured by the insurgents, causing the deaths of some two dozen policemen and soldiers. Attempts by the Iraqi army to retake the police station failed and it was only after the insurgent forces withdrew towards Fallujah that it was reoccupied. The next day, however, saw a dramatic spread and escalation of the violence. In Shatub, a village near Baqubah in northeast Iraq, a bomb was detonated at the funeral of a member of one of the government-sponsored tribal militias drawn from the Sunni Arab population. Nearly twenty people were killed and almost as many were wounded. Across the country, in the northwest at the bridge of Ain al-Jahash, a series of roadside bombs exploded killing numerous soldiers and civilians. Meanwhile at Ma`amil, a largely Shi`i district in the east of Baghdad, gunmen killed seven lorry drivers, kidnapped two and set the lorries on fire. All in all, eight bombs exploded across the capital that day, mainly in Shi`i districts of Baghdad, killing forty people and wounding more than twice that number. Shi`i Iraqis were also targeted by a car bomb in Dujail, a town north of Baghdad, with at least three fatalities.
These events, terrible as they were, are not at all unusual in the violence and counter-violence that have marked the landscape of Iraq. They form part of a recognisable pattern of violence in Iraq since the US-led invasion and military occupation of the country in 2003. The scale of the violence has varied throughout this period, measured by the lives lost and the damage caused to infrastructure. Sometimes this has been due to variations in the capabilities of those organising the violence, both insurgent and government sponsored; sometimes it depends on the political context of opportunity, resentment and revenge exploited by all actors on the stage of Iraqi politics. Nevertheless, the patterns of violence, the rationales, as well as the aims and purposes of those using violence against the citizens, militias and armed forces of Iraq draw upon well-established repertoires. There are features and histories specific to the Iraqi context, as well as rhythms that are particular to the ways in which the passions and ambitions of Iraqi actors play themselves out. However, the use of violence in multiple registers, against a variety of targets and for a range of motives shares much in common with situations elsewhere. This suggests that it is important to reflect upon how violence is commonly perceived, both in Iraq and elsewhere, in order to establish the communicative logic of this seemingly most radical and terminal of human practices.
Violence has often been characterised both by its practitioners and by those who have analysed its uses as a pre-eminently instrumental act. Indeed, one of its attractions as a method is that it is believed to have an immediate and dramatic capacity to redress or to respond effectively to imbalances of power. This has often blinded people to its long-term consequences but as wars, insurgencies and political struggles across the world demonstrate only too well, the instrumental aspect of violence has been to the fore. For established power, it promises to bring order, to instil discipline, to ensure political quiescence and, even if not deployed but only suggested, its threat is seen as a guarantor of stability and guardian of the existing division of labour and resources. For insurgent power, by the same token, it can be seen as the principal means by which the existing order can be undermined, even overthrown, and through which a new balance of power can be created, altering the calculations of advantage within a particular arena. In short, violence takes on a pre-eminently realist image in the practice as well as the understanding of politics.
This has been reinforced for some by the metaphor of the weapon itself. Whether it is the image of Alexander the Great using his sword to cut through the Gordian Knot, or the dictum of Mao Zedong that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’, the idea is that violence not only produces realist solutions to intractable problems, but is central to the construction of power itself. In this respect, Mao and others have given an instrumental gloss to Carl von Clausewitz’s famous statement that ‘war is the continuation of politics [or policy] by other means’, even if von Clausewitz intended this more as a commentary on the complexity of the political and the dangers of taking a reductionist view of violence.  Appropriately enough, it was a former prime minister of Iraq, Fadhil al-Jamali, on trial for his life before the ‘People’s Court’ in September 1958 who drew attention to the fascination of violence for those who see themselves as decisive realists on the stage of politics. As part of his ironic commentary on what was in effect a military tribunal, where the Military Public Prosecutor ostentatiously wore his revolver on his hip, al-Jamali cited the lines of the 9th century Iraqi poet at the court of the Abbasid Caliphs, Abu Tammam (Habib bin Aws al-Ta’i): ‘The sword is a more trustworthy form of communication than books; in its cutting edge lies the boundary between seriousness and frivolity’.
Such metaphors, as well as being tokens of a realist approach to power, can also be euphemisms to hide or to overcome the moral scruples that violence inevitably evokes. In doing so, they nevertheless draw attention to the moral economy of violence, underlining the norms surrounding its use and its effects not only on the targets of violence, but also on the perpetrators. This means thinking of the place of violence in the imagination, understanding how it may amplify but also transform the political, how it can conjure up images, intensifying the experience. In particular, it obliges us to think about the ways in which violence may be seen as appropriate or fitting to specific settings, geared to a variety of ends. In the nature of things, some of these will be largely assessed in utilitarian and instrumentalist ways. Others, however, will be symbolic in nature, where the violence is against people or against material structures that represent, or stand in for some larger imagined entity. This is the real target – a collectivity, a system of power, a set of ideas or values – and the violent act is specifically intended to resonate in the mind’s eye of the practitioners, of the potential and actual targets, as well as of the wider publics for whom the act has meaning. In this connection, it is therefore incumbent to think about the larger normative and political setting in which violence ‘makes sense’ when used by and against particular human and material targets.
It is for this reason that it is important to bring out the complicating consequences of the use of the seemingly unanswerable power of violence, to recognise the fact that its use sets in motion processes of enormous complexity and ambiguity. As the recent history of Iraq has made all too plain, violence may be met, or ‘answered’ by even greater violence, ensuring that there is no final outcome, but a chain of consequences of ever increasing brutality but also complexity. Its normative features, as well as its imaginative and cultural resonance, ensure transformative reverberations throughout the country that are unlikely to be stopped by, but may well be responded to by the further use of violence. The violent act is in this sense the beginning of a conversation whose end cannot be predicted. In thinking about violence in this way, it is possible to see it as a form of communicative action. It is born of political thinking, but violence also generates ideas relating to identity, justice, resistance, state and authority that go far beyond any specific political objectives that might be achieved through its use. Retaining the image of the conversation that violence introduces, one can ask whether there is a common grammar of political violence and, further, whether there is a communicative logic of violence that shapes the ways in which its use and its effects are conceived.
It is here that one returns to the case of Iraq to see firstly, whether the notion of violence as a form of communication helps to clarify the forms, the targets but also the pace of violence in the country. Secondly, and related to this, the case of Iraq may provide an opportunity to understand the ways in which the grammar of communicative violence is inflected by specific, local contextual ideas and concerns. This can in turn provide an opportunity to assess whether these are the factors that are likely to shape the moral economy of violence, rather than simply its perceived utility, whilst recognising the inevitable entanglement of the two. These are the themes to be explored here. Based on the premise that violence in Iraq is a communicative process grounded in the contentious politics of that country, it argues that there are three major ‘conversations’ taking place between different sets of interlocutors, pursued by a variety of means and with a series of effects, some intentional and others less so.
About the State: power, control, direction
Many of the main violent exchanges in Iraq have concerned the state, its reach, its authority and the principles as well as the people it represents, or should represent. It is an object of debate and dispute – the endpoint of many of the conversations – and, through its agencies, is both instrument and target of violence. It is also a creation of massive and violent military intervention by US-led forces when they invaded Iraq in 2003. From this process there emerged a reconstructed state under foreign military occupation and the conditions of widespread insurgency. It is not surprising therefore that the coercive aspects of the state have been the focus of considerable attention, expenditure and development. In the circumstances, extending and reinforcing the reach and coercive capacity of the state have been seen as vital precursors to the rebuilding of its infrastructure, the renewal of its oilfields and the establishment of its governmental institutions.
The governments first of Iyad Allawi, then of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and of Nuri al-Maliki presided over this process and were born of foreign military occupation. They came into the world amidst escalating violence between various sections of the Iraqi population and the forces of occupation and their Iraqi allies. Encouraged and assisted by the United States, these were the governments charged with reasserting the power of the state, using coercion in the first instance against all who defied the process of state reconstruction. In this task, all the refurbished forces of the Iraqi state were pressed into service, proliferating among a number of agencies that included the regular armed forces, the Baghdad Brigade attached to the office of the prime minister, the forces of the ministry of the interior, as well as partisan and tribal militias and death squads that owed their existence to their powerful patrons in the executive. These forces were deployed to carry the state – and the violence of the state – into the lives of citizens across Iraq, with the promise of protection for those who subscribed to the new political order and retribution for those who defied it.
Initially, and most ambitiously, once the US forces had suppressed the worst of the insurgency by the end of 2007, the prime minister, al-Maliki, used the more effective units of the Iraqi army to embark on a ‘reconquest of the provinces’. Thus, 2008 witnessed a campaign to impose central government control by force of arms first on Basra, then on Diyala Province, on Mosul and the northwest and finally on Sadr City in east Baghdad. This control was never total and has been continually contested, but it created sufficient impetus to lay the groundwork for the re-emergence of the state in areas from which it had been effectively absent for over five years, paving the way for some stability and predictability in the local environment.
Nevertheless, the violence of state agencies was not confined to these military campaigns. In their wake, the coercive aspects of state power reasserted themselves, with thousands taken into custody without trial, incarcerated in prisons run by the ministry of defence, the ministry of the interior and even by the office of the prime minister, as well as in the institutions formally run by the ministry of justice. Conditions in these places were rarely monitored and indeed some of the prisons were themselves secret, unknown to all save those who ran them and those who had the misfortune to find themselves within their walls, subject to regimes of abuse and violence that were familiar expressions of state power in Iraq. The occasional release of batches of prisoners was meant to signal not only the magnanimity of the state, but also its power, reminding people that they could easily be detained once more with as little explanation or due process.
As an accompaniment, state television channels would air public confessions of those accused of acts of violence, giving expression to the symbolic power of the state. It also reminded Iraqis – in an idiom long familiar to previous regimes in Iraq – that the state’s violence was justified to protect the population from the violence of others. The visible signs of mistreatment, even torture on the bodies of some of those who made these public confessions, and the doubts about the establishment of their guilt, only served to reinforce the message of the state’s capacity for violence. This was certainly something that was driven home by the large numbers of executions carried out by the state authorities – 129 in 2012, 151 in 2013 and 38 in the first three weeks of 2014. The latter spate of executions coincided with the unrest in Anbar province, the capture of Fallujah by insurgent forces and the continued bomb attacks on security forces and civilians throughout Iraq. The resolve and determination of the government were being asserted through the use of state violence, even though it was spectacularly failing to protect the citizens from the violence of the continuing insurgency.
Some might have questioned the government’s methods, but there was no denying the fact that it and the Iraqi people more generally were facing an active and ruthless insurgency during these years. This was the other side to the conversation. The idiom of violence was prominent in the repertoire of those who opposed the government. From the time of the invasion and the defeat of the army of Saddam Hussein’s Ba`thist state, there had been mounting attacks on the forces of occupation. Initially disorganised, fragmentary and coming from a variety of groupings – Ba`thist, nationalist and Islamist – the insurgents had focused on the foreign forces that occupied Iraq. They also increasingly used violence against all those Iraqis who seemed to be collaborating with the US and its allies. As the Iraqi armed forces and state institutions began to take shape under US guidance and supervision, they too became the targets of insurgent attack. They were seen as the instruments of foreign or infidel rule, but they also represented for many in the insurgency the unacceptable supremacy of the Shi`i community, backed by Iran. This became a constant theme of repeated attacks not only against government institutions, but also against members of the Shi`i community more generally.
Just as the state was building up its institutional networks for the organisation and delivery of violence, so too were the various branches of the insurgency, using and extending the social networks of community and local association. These facilitated the delivery of violence in two senses. Firstly, they provided the communities of trust that could be relied upon to carry out widespread attacks across the country, supplying the necessary infrastructure of diverse networks – some tribal, others ideological and others locational – that could exploit the abundance of arms and explosives in circulation in the country in the years after the fall of the old regime. Secondly, they also constituted ‘moral communities’ that could endorse and support the use of violence, overcoming any possible scruples since they shared a common loathing of those now identified as the fitting targets of just retribution.
Such violence took many forms and played itself out as a series of performances in the roads and streets of Iraq’s towns and villages and, by association, in the theatre of Iraqi politics. Violence was used against state infrastructure, government institutions, and the efforts to reconstitute Iraq’s economy, private as well as public. Furthermore, sectors of the economy and apparently mundane professions would be targeted, leading to the murders of dozens of teachers, doctors, bakers, hairdressers, booksellers, café owners and others in an effort to disrupt the return of any kind of normality under the new political order. Those who used such forms of violence appeared determined to prevent the re-emergence of the kind of stable and secure social order that might underpin acceptance of the status quo. Unsettling and defying the government, even when targeting ordinary Iraqi citizens, was a way of undercutting the authority of that government since it seemed to impress on the population of the country the limited reach and capacity of the state itself.
The same could be said of the creation of no-go areas, a common strategy in insurgencies to underline the powerlessness of established power, fostering a sense of solidarity within a community by ensuring its isolation and the antagonism of the state authorities. This was a strategy carried out by diverse Islamist and nationalist insurgents particularly in Ramadi and in Fallujah, both in 2004 and in 2014. It also came out of, spoke to and helped to reinforce a sense of beleaguered community – in this case the Sunni Arabs of northwest Iraq. They felt increasingly alienated from a government that appeared to be in the hands of al-Maliki and his associates, many of whom came from his own political organisation – al-Da`wa – and most of whom were from different Shi`i communities across the country. The violence – reciprocated by the government agencies – thereby graphically illustrated the argument put forward by Salafi Islamists and Iraqi nationalists that Iraq was in the hands of a clique of Shi`i sectarians, backed by Iran.
In all of this, symbolic cruelties were used to reinforce these same messages: the alien nature of a government that embodied ‘the Other’ and the license which this now gave those prepared to use violence to uproot it and humiliate it and its supporters. Since millions of Iraqis have now voted for the parties that constitute the government in two general elections (2005 and 2010), this has vastly extended the numbers of potential targets, labelled as agents of foreign powers, adherents of foreign ideologies or apostate Muslims. The performative aspects of this insurgent violence have been as vivid and as well publicised as that carried out by the state itself. They have ensured that the victims and their deaths are under the public gaze, either in streets, squares or open spaces, or captured and broadcast on the internet. This latter practice has even produced a distinct aesthetic that is meant to draw attention both to the virtue of those practising violence and to the cruelty of the act itself.
Such practices are intended by some to underline the incommensurable nature of the two sides to the ‘conversation’ and the gulf that separates them. However, the insurgency is by no means monolithic. It is comprised of various groupings, some of which may cooperate for ideological or pragmatic reasons, but all of which work to their own agendas. This has led to divergent views on the utility of violence, the purposes it should serve, its appropriate targets and therefore the forms it should take. In some cases, violence has clearly been seen as a means not of eradicating ‘the Other’, but rather of entering into a conversation with established power, forcing it to recognise those prepared to use violence. The immediate results were often catastrophic, given the imbalance of forces, but recognition could and often did follow. It was this which began the process of recruiting and co-opting insurgents in 2005/6 and which resulted in the establishment of the militias grouped under the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq (sometimes known as the ‘Sons of Iraq’, the ‘Sahwah [awakening] Council’ or the ‘Anbar Awakening’). Originally an American initiative, the formations were handed over to Iraqi government control after 2008, in an uneasy relationship of mutual mistrust that had disintegrated in some parts of Iraq by 2012/3. It was then that anti-government violence began to escalate in some of the areas hitherto controlled by these units, re-establishing the pattern of pressure and bargaining that had been so marked before.
The legacies of these violent conversations about state power and the authority of the government have been many. Most obviously, there has been the human cost: the loss of life of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens, caught between the violence of both sides, or used in some fashion to stand in for and thus to die for what one side takes the other to represent. There have also been institutional legacies: the rapid build up of the Iraqi security forces, now standing at well over half a million men, as well as the sometimes less visible organisations of a re-established ‘shadow state’. These are the networks emanating from the various oligarchs at the heart of state power in Iraq that control the lives of millions of Iraqi citizens, implicating them in systems of patronage, and often violence, that stand behind the public institutions of the state. The effect of the violent conversation between the government and its enemies has been, equally, to deepen and extend the networks of trust that underpin the delivery of insurgent violence, equally implicating millions of Iraqis in systems of sedition that have set themselves up against those who command the state.
In addition, there are the less tangible legacies, important in framing the practices and narratives that surround the use and the justification of violence. Underlining the realism of the enterprise, violence becomes both a means of establishing the state in an instrumentalist sense, but is also a way of symbolising and ‘standing for’ the state. Violence therefore becomes the token of state seriousness and the determination of those who govern. By the same token, its often spectacular use is meant to underline the seriousness and the commitment of those who are resisting established power. These complementary features inform general attitudes whereby violence is commonly regarded as both normal and fitting in an increasing variety of contexts and against ever widening categories of people. Violence in this sense comes to represent what power is about, as well as what it means to engage with and to challenge power. In such a context, the norms relating to its deployment will mainly be determined by the unforgiving criteria used to judge the categories of people against whom it is used.
About community and identity: communal violenc
It is not only communication between the Iraqi government and the resistance organisations that has been marked by violence. Entangled with this, but also in some cases reinforcing it and certainly deepening the bitterness and amplifying its destructive power, have been the forms of communal violence in Iraq. Mainly, but not exclusively sectarian in nature, with Shi`i Muslims targeted by certain groups of Sunni Muslims because of their sectarian identity, and vice versa, the violence has also engulfed members of other communities in Iraq, such as the Christians, the Mandaeans, the Yezidis, the Kurds, Turcoman and Assyrians. Violence has fed upon inter-communal prejudice, in the sense that a whole community of Iraqis may be categorised as deserving the violence inflicted on its members. However, it is not merely a product of inter-communal hatred. The enmity has been fuelled in large part by the perception of the relationship of that community to power – state, foreign, insurgent – and this has in turn been reinforced and reproduced by the violence used by both insurgent and government forces.
The placing of bombs in markets in largely Shi`i quarters of Baghdad, or in other towns and villages inhabited by Shi`i Iraqis, especially in mixed areas, the attacks on Shi`i pilgrims and the abductions and assassinations of even nominally Shi`i Iraqis have been constant features of the past ten years, causing tens of thousands of casualties. But equally, violence by the security forces of the Iraqi state against ‘problem communities’, or ‘communities of sedition’ has led to the deaths of many Sunni Iraqis, especially in the northwest and northeast of Iraq, in Anbar and in Diyala. Strongly suspected police involvement in the abduction and murder of Sunni Arab inhabitants of villages in these areas, as well as south of Mosul, has been compounded by incidents such as the shooting of over 50 demonstrators by an Iraqi army unit at a protest camp in Hawijah near Kirkuk in April 2013. Their deaths and the perception that violence of this kind was used against them not only because they were against the government, but also because they were Sunni Arabs protesting about discrimination against people such as themselves by a sectarian administration helped to intensify the communal blood-letting that then escalated throughout 2013.
Inevitably, violence aimed at any members of a given community, inspires thoughts of revenge and breeds counter-violence. It also creates the demand for measures to protect the community and to neutralise the dangers represented by other communities. In an urban landscape, as much as in a rural setting of mixed villages this can lend lethal significance to the geographies of security. Districts, hamlets and villages inhabited by members of another community become strategic liabilities for their neighbours and thus, regardless of how those inhabitants have been traditionally viewed, take on a new aspect as direct or indirect threats to their very existence. In this sense, the logic of violence and its strategic deployment between communities takes over, as it has with lethal effect in other divided societies, such as Bosnia, Lebanon, Syria and Ulster. So in Iraq, the devastation of Diyala, the division of Kirkuk and the ‘clearing’ of areas of Baghdad with the loss of hundreds of lives have been the outcome of this grimly familiar process.
The escalation of inter-communal fighting, and of intra-communal conflict in some circumstances, produced the armed formations that shaped the militia-dominated landscape of Iraq, openly until 2008/9 and in more disguised form thereafter. Simultaneously, it produced communal leaders, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political ambitions were furthered by their apparent willingness to command the means of violence. This was due in part to their need to establish their credibility within a community that felt itself to be physically threatened. But it was also because the environment was such that the ability and willingness to use violence was taken as a token of serious intent, the means by which a leader was recognised as one of the chief players in the game of politics.
The nature of inter-communal violence encourages symbolic acts of various kinds, in which the site, form and nature of the violence itself takes on added meaning, intended as a powerful means of conveying messages of threat, loathing, contempt and humiliation. Thus, attacks on places of worship belonging to another religious community became familiar incidents in the escalating violence of Iraq’s sectarian conflicts. Most spectacularly, in February 2006 the great al-Askari mosque in Samarra – revered by the Shi`a as a key shrine associated with the Shi`i imams – was bombed. This triggered a wave of retaliatory attacks in which some three dozen Sunni mosques across Iraq were damaged or destroyed, in turn triggering reprisals against Shi`i mosques. In addition, over 1500 people were killed in the week that followed, unleashing inter-communal violence that amounted to civil war and that was to persist at this level of intensity for nearly two years.
The legacies of this violence have been communal mistrust and the fracturing of Iraq spatially, as well as imaginatively. Indeed the continuing violence and its escalation in 2013/4 to levels not witnessed since 2007 is a vivid testimony to the ways in which its practice has entered into the lexicon of political practice in Iraq, normatively and strategically. During the past decade, violence has not simply perpetuated and intensified communal enmity, but has also brought with it structural advantages for some, opportunities for ambitions to be realised and for the entrepreneurs of communal violence to flourish. It has also seen the acknowledged and sometimes unacknowledged deployment of supposedly ethical arguments in favour of the use of violence against certain categories of Iraqi. This has been visible in the rationales used by some of the Sunni Islamist groups to justify the killing of other Muslims, especially members of the Shi`i community, which has been declared infidel and thus meriting death through a selective reading of hadith and fiqh. Similarly, in 2014 the warnings by prime minister al-Maliki to the population of Falluja (seized by a combination of Islamist and tribal insurgents, defying the Iraqi government) to expel the ‘terrorists’ from their city or face military bombardment by the Iraqi army sounded like a threat of collective punishment. These are the ideas about ‘the Other’ in Iraq that have leant new and violent meaning to what had hitherto been unremarkable social difference.
A further disturbing legacy has been the ways in which violence, its reach and its logistics have encouraged regional entanglements. Iraq has thus become a terrain of proxy conflicts where local Iraqi communities and organisations collaborate with outside forces to destroy a perceived ‘common enemy’ within the country itself. It is a pattern of behaviour common to civil wars and reinforces the view held by one community that the other is in the service of an outside power, a powerful distancing device that can license unspeakable violence. It feeds into mutual mistrust and can be used to justify such violence in the name of communal or indeed national defence. In this context violence presents itself as the most effective way of eliminating an immediate threat, suited to the urgency of the task, presenting a ‘realist’ grasp of necessary strategies, but also stigmatising the enemy by placing the community in question firmly in a narrative that designates it as fundamentally ‘un-Iraqi’. The enduring imaginative legacy of this for any future notion of Iraqi citizenship or of a common Iraqi political space is disturbing.
About Wealth: seizing and guarding the spoils
In such an environment, it is not surprising that violence can easily be seen as the best way of handling any number of political issues. One of the most prominent in post-2003 Iraq, and one that is intimately tied up both with questions surrounding the reach and control of the state, as well as with the communal division of political society, is the question of accountability. Beginning with the US-run CPA of 2003/4 and carrying on in a similar fashion in the years that followed, this has taken a number of forms. There has been the systematic evasion of accountability by those in positions of power for the appropriation of funds that nominally belong to the Iraqi people. In addition, ruthless competition has flourished in a setting where hidden forms of violence are embedded in the coercive force that sustains a certain order of property favouring those with political and military clout, as the forcible seizure of real estate and commercial enterprises has shown. Equally, it is evident in a patronage system where communal leaders seize and selectively redistribute to members of the community goods that should be theirs by right as citizens. None of this could be achieved without the threat or the use of violence to maintain such systems in place.
The violence of free enterprise has shown itself in other ways as well. In the period when inter-communal violence had declined prior to 2011 many of the acts of violence were targeted at people who had no clear political role and were not obviously selected because of their sectarian identity. Sticky bombs and silencers became the means whereby individuals were eliminated or warned. Some of this violence may have been a symptom of continuing political conflicts, but some was due more to business rivalries and the determination to eliminate competition. In an environment where guns and explosives were freely available, where those skilled in using them were plentiful and cheap to hire, and where the security forces were preoccupied with insurgency, or could be persuaded through higher connections, or through bribery to look the other way, violence became a kind of currency in the emerging market of Iraqi business. In some cases, there was clearly a suspicion that these acts were indeed closely connected to the networks of political privilege, power and self-enrichment that had come to dominate the hollowed out public services in Iraq.
In many respects, posts in the public service of the state, from that of minister down, had become gifts of those in power, entrenching a renewed patrimonialism that characterised the premierships of all occupants of the post since 2004. In these circumstances, the state provided not only the financial resources, but also the coercive means to ensure that the division of the spoils should not challenged by those outside the magic circle. Preventing proper scrutiny of such processes and appropriations has been a recurring theme of the violence witnessed over these years. The case of the Commission of Public Integrity (since named the Commission of Integrity – hay’at al-nasahah) illustrates well this intertwining of misappropriated public funds and the use or threat of violence to prevent scrutiny. The Commission had been set up in 2004 and was incorporated into the Iraqi Constitution of 2005. It had been headed initially by Judge Hamza al-Radhi, an independent figure who took the commission’s task of impartial scrutiny seriously. However, he came up against an increasingly obstructive government under Nuri al-Maliki, accompanied by unattributable death threats and an attack on his house that he suspected was organised by the state security forces. This led him to resign in 2007, to flee Iraq and to seek asylum in the US, while the Iraqi government, without apparent irony, threatened to sue him for corruption. His successor, Judge Rahim al-Uqaili did not last much longer. Having come up against the same obstructive and menacing forces as those faced by his predecessor, he too resigned in September 2011, citing official obstruction and the fact that his employees felt physically threatened when they tried to enter ministries to carry out investigations. His departure finally allowed the prime minister to appoint his own protégé to ensure that the Commission would henceforth serve rather than scrutinise government.
Similar campaigns of menace and physical violence have taken their toll of investigative journalists in Iraq. The country is one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists, both print and broadcast, with over 150 killed in the decade after 2003. Many of them died as a result of the insurgency and the widespread danger it has represented. But some have been intimidated or killed because of the ruthless determination of those who have appropriated public funds to avoid investigation. Such was the fate of the investigative radio broadcaster Hadi al-Mahdi who was killed in September 2011 almost certainly for his outspoken criticism of the government, his investigation of the widespread corruption by public figures and his denunciation of the betrayal of Iraq’s citizens by authorities who could not even ensure minimum public services. He had also been involved in the protests that had erupted in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and other cities in 2011, inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world, but voicing their own criticisms of the failings of the Iraqi government. These efforts to hold the government to account were no more successful and were met with sustained and brutal force, where the agents of the security services were disguised as ‘concerned citizens’, wielding knives and iron bars to disperse the protestors.
The corruption that has been such a feature of the emerging parliamentary republic in Iraq has placed it near the bottom of the league of virtually any index of global corruption. As the examples above indicate, this scale of corruption is both an outcome of, but also drives the violence with which Iraqis are confronted whilst their country is being plundered. The two are intertwined since one prevents effective investigation of the other, whilst establishing access to the resources that have become the prize. At the same time, ownership of the means of coercion evidently opens up opportunities for self-enrichment whether nominally in the service of the state, or ostensibly dedicated to one of the ideological groupings that make up the varied insurgency. As a report of 2012 of abuses in the prison service made startlingly clear, prison officers had worked out a disturbing tariff for the torture of detainees, with a higher pay off ensuring less pain. Indeed, regardless of the rulings of the judiciary, there was equally a tariff for the release of detainees, with those who failed to pay up being kept incarcerated, regardless of court orders.
The same might be said of the various branches of the insurgency where kidnapping, protection rackets, extortion and theft have been enabled by the powerful weapons in the hands of the insurgents and by their very credible threat to use violence if people do not submit. Economic opportunities have been created in a field of violence and the insurgents have not been slow to seize them. Whether this is to raise funds for the cause or for purposes of self-enrichment is a clouded question and in some senses immaterial – a cycle has been created that links the use of violence to the extortion of funds. This in turn increases the sphere of influence of the group, in part because it allows them to buy more weapons in the thriving Iraqi and regional market, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
This is not a cycle exclusive to the Islamist or nationalist groupings with – ostensibly – larger political agendas. A ruthless determination to use violence in the pursuit of wealth has been a feature of Iraq’s thriving criminal underworld – although given the openness with which some its members operate, that might be a misnomer. They have targeted foreigners as well as wealthy Iraqis, especially those returning from abroad, as lucrative kidnap victims. Sometimes they have been operating with the complicity of the security forces, and at other times and places they have cooperated with insurgent and also tribal groupings. The latter, because of their location along the porous borders of Iraq, have been particularly active in the smuggling trade in drugs, arms and people that have been so much a feature of Iraq, based on networks that go back to the sanction-busting years of the 1990s. In all of these dangerous and enterprising activities, violence is implicit, and sometimes used to terrible effect.
Nevertheless, the persistence, ubiquity and effectiveness of violence in achieving at least short term demonstrable, material gains have reinforced the political economy of violence. Its legacy in this sphere has been to establish its normality as a practice. Like the corruption to which it is closely connected, violence becomes a part of the everyday economy, sustaining a certain kind of order and underpinning the openings for enterprise that are created, however much this might be resented by many. Violence can thus become a way of carving out and protecting business interests. Of course, it is not practised by all members of the emerging entrepreneurial class, but they must take it into account, if only to allow for defensive measures and even a kind of insurance that may be indistinguishable from a protection racket. This in turn can perpetuate the entanglement of those involved with the networks of state power, the ‘shadow state’ standing behind the public institutions and declarations. The behaviour of state agencies, whether threatening or using violence, or indeed failing to investigate its occurrence, entwines the state elites with these practices, driven as much by the prospect of financial gain and extended power as by the declared goal of stability and social peace. It would suggest that those in power see violence as a way of avoiding systematic accountability. By turning a conversation about rights and answerability into one of violence, they ensure that their actions, their handling of public funds, or indeed their use of violence itself remain free from effective scrutiny.
Understanding violence in Iraq as a series of linked conversations with and about power refocuses attention on the processes by which the developing polity in Iraq is coming into being. In some respects, it harks back to the original Clausewitzian dialectical notion of the interplay between the forms of violence and the imaginative and structural political contexts in which they take place. However, in other respects the logic of communicative violence is better understood as a dialogic process, whereby ideational and strategic elements combine to produce outcomes that lead not to closure, but to the possibly temporary salience of one set of structures or ideas. Such an understanding provides a perspective on the enduring violence in Iraq that brings out a number of its key features and may help to clarify the forces that generate it, but also the processes that it has in turn set in motion.
The terms of the conversation reveal not only the intentions of the interlocutors, but also the grammar or idioms through which they believe it appropriate to carry on their exchanges. In this sense, the multiple uses and forms of violence in Iraq, the varied settings and the often terrible methods employed can be read as a language that conveys the political thinking of those who use it. In part this may be derived, like any language, from the subject’s experiences of the latent or explicit violence to which they or their community may have been exposed. Given the history of war, state repression, punitive sanctions and military occupation to which Iraq has been subjected in the past few decades, it is not difficult to understand why violence should have become so readily understandable as a form of communication. In part, the language may also be learned by instruction through texts, both virtual and literal, that are produced to make sense of a bewildering, chaotic and seemingly predatory environment. When reinforced by experience, these can anchor the uses of violence in a political and moral economy that determines, or at least that suggests the targets, the methods and the messages of violence, and in doing so helps to form the subject, defining and giving meaning to agency.
Like speech acts themselves, acts of violence are powerfully performative. The actors engage with an audience, or a number of audiences, depending upon the stage and the setting. The repertoires upon which they draw follow certain conventions, amplifying the meaning of solitary acts of violence, shaping the staging and the nature of those acts to communicate the messages of defiance, determination, cruelty, contempt or rejection that have formed the stock in trade of military occupiers, government forces and insurgents in Iraq since 2003. Nor can there be any denying the dramatic power of these performances, heightened by the deaths inflicted, the deliberately spectacular nature of suicide bombings and military bombardments, the demonstrative cruelty of punishments and tortures inflicted in the public gaze, as well as the wilful destruction of sites, buildings and symbols dear to those intended to be the main audience. In this way narratives are reproduced and strengthened through the conventions of a drama in which actors and audience participate.
The effects of these processes in Iraq have been most marked in the violent exchanges and performances that have revolved around the forms of power – state, communal and economic – that been the subject of this essay. In each of these interconnected spheres, the practice and ‘language’ of violence have caused unprecedented loss of life, human misery and destruction. They have also brought into being, or helped to construct, narratives about state, identity and class that will shape the course of Iraqi politics for some time to come. In this sense, therefore, violent communications, despite their destructive effects, are also socially constructive. This has been evident in the reconstruction of an authoritarian political order the leaders of which justify their hold on power and frequent use of coercion with reference to the terror spread by the insurgency. This is a rationale that resonates well amongst those who feel themselves threatened in their everyday lives by the continuing violence of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq (more recently the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). Despite public criticism of those who presently rule Iraq, the very circumstances of the state’s emergence have tended to reinforce the common sense of granting it a broad licence to use whatever violence is thought necessary to eliminate this ever-present threat, even if its very use may be a contributing factor.
In terms of Iraq’s society and its communal life, violence has brought about significant demographic and attitudinal changes. Forcible displacements in Basra, Baghdad and Baqubah have altered the character of these cities, as well as the relationships between their inhabitants. The Iraqi Christian community that numbered over one million in 2003, has been depleted by violence and the threat of violence, leaving less than half a million still in the country. Equally, the powerful, often murderous prevalence of the sectarian imaginary has transformed social difference, making it the basis of life and death choices, as well as determining the unequal distribution of power and resources in a confessional state. Furthermore, the scale and extent of corruption, the misappropriation of public funds and the emerging class order, bear witness to the continuing effects of violence as empires of privilege are carved out of the domain of public goods and criticism is silenced. As Fadhil al-Jamali suggested, the logic of violent communication does indeed introduce a note of deadly seriousness. As the past decade of Iraq’s modern history demonstrates, these processes can eliminate people and possible alternatives, substituting for them structures and attitudes that have redefined Iraq’s institutions, spatial arrangements, as well as its geographies of the imagination.
Professor Charles R. H. Tripp is a professor of politics, lecturing on government and politics of the Middle East for both undergraduates and postgraduates at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Tripp’s main areas of research include the study of state and society in the Middle East, especially Iraq, and Islamic political thought. Professor Tripp is a world class specialist on Iraq and has contributed as regional expert to media broadcasters including the BBC and NPR, as well as to print media such as Foreign Affairs, The Guardian and the New Statesman. In the run up to the war against Iraq, Professor Tripp was part of a small team that visited 10 Downing Street in order to advise the prime minister, Tony Blair, on the consequences of going to war. His newest book is ‘The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East’ (2013).
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Nir Rosen, In the belly of the green bird – the triumph of the martyrs in Iraq (New York: Free Press, 2006), 36-69
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 Toby Dodge, Iraq: from war to a new authoritarianism (London: Routledge for IISS, 2012), 157-163; ICG Alert, ‘Iraq after Hawija: recovery or relapse?’, International Crisis Group, 26 April 2013 http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/alerts/2013/iraq-alert.aspx [accessed 17 July 2013]
 Mohammed M. Hafez, ‘Martyrdom mythology in Iraq: how jihadists frame suicide terrorism in videos and biographies,’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 19 (2007): 95-115; Hanne Miriam Larsen, ‘Hostage videos: tropes of terror as social practice’, P.O.V. – Filmtidskrift, 20 (December 2005) http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_20/section_1/artc2A.html [accessed 15 September 2013]
Nir Rosen, Aftermath (New York: Nation Books, 2010): 221-271, 301-329
The relatively conservative Iraq Body Count that relies on published sources for information estimates that up to 134,000 civilians were killed during the period 2003-2013 http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/ [accessed 6 February 2014]. Other estimates have put the number of civilian dead much higher at roughly 500,000 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24547256 [accessed 6 February 2014]
 Minority Rights Group Reports, Assimilation, exodus, eradication: Iraq’s minority communities since 2003 (11 February 2007) and Still targeted: continued persecution of Iraq’s minorities (10 June 2010)
 Amnesty International, ‘Iraq: rein in security forces following the killing of dozens at protest in al-Hawija,’ 25 April 2013 http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE14/006/2013/en/9e32213c-789c-48a7-81ca-083659d185e6/mde140062013en.html [accessed 24 May 2013]; Human Rights Watch, ‘Iraq: protect Anbar residents from abuses,’ 9 January 2014 http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/01/09/iraq-protect-anbar-residents-abuses [accessed 18 January 2014]; BBC News Middle East, ‘Bodies of 14 Sunni men found in Iraq orchard,’ 16 January 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25770486 [accessed 18 January 2014]
 Claudio Guler, ‘Baghdad divided,’ International Relations and Security Network – ETH Zürich 9 November 2009 http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=109316 [accessed 27 January 2014]; Tim Arango, ‘Sectarian violence reignites in an Iraqi town,’ The New York Times 18 September 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/19/world/middleeast/sectarian-violence-reignites-in-an-iraqi-town.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 [accessed 27 January 2014];
 Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada al-Sadr and the fall of Iraq (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 159-232
 Robert F. Worth, ‘Blast destroys shrine in Iraq, setting off sectarian fury,’ The New York Times, 22 February 2006 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/22/international/middleeast/22cnd-iraq.html?_r=0 [accessed 18 September 2013]; Patrick Cockburn, ‘Destruction of holiest Shi`i shrine brings Iraq to the brink of civil war,’ The Independent 23 February 2006 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/destruction-of-holiest-Shi`i-shrine-brings-iraq-to-the-brink-of-civil-war-467454.html [accessed 18 September 2013]
Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide bombers in Iraq: the strategy and ideology of martyrdom (Washington DC: USIP, 2007), 117-140; Abdullah Salem, ‘Serial killings: Mosul protest leaders targeted by both Sunni and Shiite extremists?’ Niqash, 16 January 2014 http://www.niqash.org/articles/?id=3366 [accessed 17 January 2014]
 BBC News Middle East, ‘Iraq violence: PM urges Fallujah to oust militants,’ 6 January 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25620538 [accessed 8 January 2014]; Ali Abel Sadah, ‘Anbar province headed towards isolation,’ Al-Monitor, 3 February 2014 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/02/anbar-province-iraq-military-operations-isolation.html [accessed 6 February 2014]
Fanar Haddad, ‘Identity politics in Iraq: how much of it is about identity?’ Near East Quarterly, Issue IX (11 December 2012) http://www.neareastquarterly.com/index.php/2012/12/11/identity-politics-in-iraq-how-much-of-it-is-about-identity/ [accessed 4 October 2013]
 Johnny West, Iraq’s last window: diffusing the risks of a petro-state, Working Paper 266 (September 2011) Center for Global Development http://www.cgdev.org/publication/iraq%E2%80%99s-last-window-diffusing-risks-petro-state-working-paper-266 [accessed 18 January 2014]
 Phil Williams, ‘Illicit markets, weak states and violence: Iraq and Mexico,’ Crime, Law and Social Change, 52:3 (September 2008): 323-336
See Judge Radhi Hamza al-Radhi’s testimony before the US Senate Committee on Appropriations ‘Corruption in the Iraqi Government and its Costs’, 11 March 2008 Senate Hearing 110-673 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 2008): 77-85
 ‘Ex-Iraq official slams leaders over graft’, Iraq Business News, 13 September 2011 http://www.iraq-businessnews.com/2011/09/13/ex-iraq-official-slams-leaders-over-graft/ [accessed 25 January 2014]; Dana Hedgpeth, ‘$13 billion in Iraq aid wasted or stolen, ex-investigator says,’ The Washington Post, 23 September 2008 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/22/AR2008092202053.html [accessed 25 January 2014]
Human Rights Watch, ‘Iraq: radio personality shot dead,’ 9 September 2011 http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/09/iraq-radio-personality-shot-dead [accessed 7 January 2014]
Patrick Cockburn, ‘Iraq 10 years on: how Baghdad became a city of corruption,’ The Independent, 4 March 2013; Transparency International’s Global Corruption Index for 2013 placed Iraq 171st out of 177 countries – http://www.transparency.org/country#IRQ [accessed 25 January 2014]
Ghaith Abd al-Ahad ‘Corruption in Iraq: “Your son is being tortured. He will die if you don’t pay”’, The Guardian 16 January 2012 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jan/16/corruption-iraq-son-tortured-pay [accessed 20 June 2013]
Ahmad Salama, ‘Kidnapping and Construction: al-Qaida turns to big business, mafia-style,’ Niqash, 6 April 2011 http://www.niqash.org/articles/print.php?id=2815&lang=en [accessed 25 January 2014]
 Phil Williams, Criminals, militias and insurgents: organized crime in Iraq (SSI & USAWC Press, 2009) August 2009 http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=930 [accessed 25 January 2014]
 Pete Moore, ‘Making big money on Iraq,’ Middle East Report, No 252 Vol 39 (Fall 2009); Bilal Wahab, ‘How Iraqi oil smuggling greases violence,’ The Middle East Quarterly, 13:4 (Fall 2006): 53-9; Robert Looney, ‘Reconstruction and peacebuilding under extreme adversity: the problem of pervasive corruption in Iraq,’ International Peacekeeping, 15:3 (June 2008): 424-440
Hanna Rogan, ‘Abu Reuter and the e-jihad: virtual battlefronts from Iraq to the Horn of Africa,’ Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 8:2 (Summer/Fall 2007): 89-96. But see also the FBI training documents that suggest that the more ‘devout’ a Muslim, the more likely that person is to be violent – Spencer Ackerman, ‘FBI Islam guide pushed highly controversial views of Muslims,’ The Huffington Post, 27 September 2011 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tag/fbi-islam-guide [accessed 25 January 2014]
MUSLIMS AND THEIR RELIGION IN A POST-ISLAMIST WORLD
by Carool Kersten
The term ‘critical Islam’ can mean a host of things and therefore needs to be qualified. Here it will be used to describe a strand of contemporary Muslim thinking arising and developing both in parallel with–and in contrast to–what scholars of Islam from different academic disciplines refer to as the ‘Islamic Resurgence’ beginning in 1970s. The exponents of this other current are called turāthiyyūn, or ‘heritage thinkers’, because they do not take Islam as a narrowly defined and fixed set of doctrines and tenets, nor do they regard it as offering a set and concrete political model that works as a panacea against all the ills affecting Muslims and Muslim societies. Instead, they regard Islam as a civilizational concept with a rich legacy of religious, philosophical, and cultural expressions. This is not to imply that the advocates of political Islam, or Islamists, can’t be critical too. In fact, a case could be made that their views of the role of religion in human life refers to another meaning of ‘critical’; in the sense of considering it crucial or critically important to human felicity. However, rather than projecting Islam as an ideal, the heritage thinkers–depending on their disciplinary backgrounds–take religion as an idea or a social fact.
Critical Islam, heritage thinking, and post-Islamism
This paper is intended as a meditation on the contributions of Islamic heritage thinking to the critical examination of religion as part of the intellectual history of the Muslim world. The interlocutors in this discourse work as academic scholars of Islam and act as public intellectuals–often at the same time. The significance of this stream of Muslim intellectualism is evinced by three important meetings held in the same time frame during which the reactive (and often reactionary) forms of political Islam began to be noticed: The 1971 Cairo Conference on Authenticity and Renewal in Contemporary Arab Culture; the forum which took place three years later in Kuwait on the Crisis of Civilizational Development in the Arab Homeland; and another conference held in Cairo, in 1984, convened under the title ‘Heritage and the Challenges of the Modern Age in the Arab Nation: Authenticity and Modernity’.
In assessing the significance of these meetings, Issa Boullata, a veteran observer of the intellectual history of the Arab world, distinguished three main trends of what he called a ‘painful introspection’ into the state of affairs of Muslim thinking about the role of their religion and wider intellectual legacy. The variety of perspectives is relatively broad. On the one end of the spectrum are the proponents of a radical cultural revolution in which the religious outlook is jettisoned in favour of a secular one. On the other end is a very vocal cabal wishing to eliminate all ‘external’ intellectual and cultural influences from Arab society. In between these opposing camps is a group advocating a renewal and intellectual-cultural adaptation of the Islamic heritage rather than its transformation, because they believe that contemporary Arab-Islamic civilization is capable of dealing with modernity. Although raising more questions than providing answers, Boullata considered the Kuwait forum to be ‘one of the most important cultural events to occur in the Arab world’ during the early 1970s. Over the next decade it gave rise to what Leonard Binder, another long-time student of the modern Muslim world has called a rich, varied, and growing turāth literature.
‘Despite the still wide range of definitions of turāth’, the Italian sociologist of Islam Armando Salvatore considers the conference of 1984 as the high point in ‘the collective Arab intellectual endeavour to invest the conceptual couple “heritage/authenticity” in a conscious project of reconstruction’ based on ‘a broadly accepted, communicatively effective term of political-intellectual discourse’. Adding to Salvatore’s observation, I want to suggest that the 1984 conference also heralded a changing of the guard. While the meetings of 1971 and 1974 were still dominated by thinkers such as Zaki Naguib Mahmud (1905-1993), Mahmud Amin al-ˊAlim (1922-2009), and Anouar Abdel Malek (1924-2012), by 1984 they were being replaced by scholars born in the 1930s. This generation was less timid in terms of pushing renewal in the direction of a transformation of existing Islamic epistemes.
Although I have only mentioned three gatherings of intellectuals from the Arabic-speaking part of the Muslim world, it is important to stress that the development of this form of critical Islam is not restricted to the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, in Indonesia–located on the south-eastern periphery of the historical Dār al-Islām, but at the same time the world’s largest Muslim nation state–there is not only a voracious appetite for the writings of the turāthiyyīn, but also a thriving local Muslim discourse in Indonesian. Its origins go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when student leader Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005) and a number of like-minded budding intellectuals started the ‘Movement for the Renewal of Islamic Thinking’ (Gerakan Pembaruan Pemikiran Islam). With this initiative and their own subsequent appreciation for the ‘intellectual treasures of Islam’, they prepared the ground for the often controversial ideas expounded by the heritage thinkers from the Middle East, ideas that are often met with a more welcoming reception in Indonesia than in their originators’ home countries.
Despite varying academic backgrounds, different points of entry and concentration areas when dealing with the civilizational heritage of Islam, what I also want to note is that the approaches chosen by this type of Muslim intellectual prefigure what is now becoming known as ‘Post-Islamism’. While, in the 1990s, Olivier Roy and Asef Bayat were the first to put the term on the map as a historical and analytical category respectively, I believe that its intellectual beginnings can be traced to the work of the Arab turāthiyyūn and Indonesian renewal thinkers of the early 1970s. To back up this claim, I draw on those parts of my earlier and current research into the intellectual history of the contemporary Muslim world where I focus primarily on a quartet of Arab thinkers who have been particularly influential among young Muslim thinkers in Indonesia. For the framing of this discursive exchange I draw heuristically on recent writings about cosmopolitanism and cultural hybridity, the circulation of ideas in the intellectual histories written by South Asianists, and Edward Said’s notion of ‘travelling theory’, which was originally intended for literary criticism but which has also been fruitfully applied in the study of global Islam in the context of international relations.
Notwithstanding considerable differences in how they engage the Arab-Islamic heritage, Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935), Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri (1936-2010) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) share an intellectual profile characterized by intimate familiarity with the Islamic tradition and an equally solid acquaintance with the achievements of Western academe in the humanities and social sciences. While intellectuals from the Maghreb countries tend to incline towards historical approaches, Egyptians, such as the literary and Qur’anic studies expert Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and the philosopher Hasan Hanafi, lean towards a more conceptual focus. Although al-Jabiri too was trained as an academic philosopher in both his native Morocco and in Damascus, there is an affinity between his work and that of his fellow Moroccan Abdallah Laroui (b. 1933). Meanwhile, Algerian-born historian of Islam Mohammed Arkoun sees great merit in drawing on the social sciences for the study of the Islamic past, sharing an interest with, for example, his Tunisian colleague Hichem Djaït (b. 1935) in the historical transformations of the notion of ‘basic personality structure’ developed by the American sociologist Avram Kardiner and introduced to a Francophone readership by the philosopher Mikel Dufrenne.
Both Binder and Boullata regard Laroui’s The Crisis of the Arab intellectual: Traditionalism and Historicism (1974) as a key contribution to the turāth literature. According to Laroui, Arab intellectuals are eclectics who must be disciplined into a historically more responsible way of thinking. However, Binder contends that Laroui himself is also eclectic, calling him a ‘superb dialectician, whose rhetoric includes both phenomenal and pragmatic tropes’, which turn him into a ‘cultural and philosophical hybrid, capable of interpreting Europe to the Muslim world and the Muslim world to Europe’. Thus Laroui was able to engage critically with historiographies that are unsympathic towards Islam, such as those written by the Austrian-American Islamicist G.E. von Grünebaum. However, he thought it unlikely that a meaningful dialogue with the texts of the turāth by Arab intellectuals could occur because of the disjunction between existing Arab-Islamic historiography and contemporary Muslim worldviews. These frustrations over the lack of appreciation for historicism among Arab intellectuals remains detectable in Laraoui’s later work as well, including The Concept of Reason (1997) and Sunnah and Reform (2008). However, notwithstanding his disappointment at the progress of Arab critical-historical thinking, Boullata thinks Laroui’s propositions have exercised an influence through which a more comprehensive view of the Arab-Islamic past is becoming ‘an imperative for many Arab intellectuals’.
Phenomenological investigations, text criticism and discourse analysis: Critical Muslim intellectuals in Egypt
Just before the outbreak of the Suez War in 1956, Hasan Hanafi was one of the last Egyptians to reach France for postgraduate studies at the Sorbonne. He went there with the ambition of developing an ‘Islamic method of philosophical investigation’. For this he turned to the traditional field of Islamic learning that dealt with jurisprudence or fiqh. The reason for this was that law holds centre stage in Muslim intellectual activity and the particular domain with the most sophisticated methodological apparatus and greatest potential for providing the necessary academic rigour was a subfield of traditional Islamic legal studies known as uṣūl al-fiqh or the ‘foundations of Islamic jurisprudence’. In order to extract its most fundamental principles and transpose these into a contemporary idiom, Hanafi decided to subject this particular scholarly specialism to a critical examination along the lines of Husserl’s philosophical phenomenology in order to transform a specialist field within legal studies into a philosophical method that could be universally applied to any domain of Islamic thinking. Although he was a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan Hanafi’s enthusiasm for thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb was tempered by the trauma caused by the Brotherhood’s persecution under Nasser. While retaining the Qutbian perspective of seeing Islam as a comprehensive method or minhaj, the impact of events in the 1950s and 1960s cured Hanafi from following the trajectory of radical Islamism. Instead he abandoned his fellow Egyptian for the spiritual father of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal. Rather than drawing on Milestones, he turned to Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam with its focus on subjectivity and creativity, using this as the template for an anthropocentric reconstruction or liberation of man as ‘the central proposition which regulates the structure of Islam’. Hasan Hanafi considered Iqbal’s writings as the third phase of Islamic reformism after the awakening of the Muslim spirit by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh’s institutional reforms.The first project in which Hanafi developed what he called his minhaj fiqhī or ‘juristic method’ for transforming a legal jargon into a general philosophical idiom was later published under the title Method of Exegesis.
After his return to Egypt in 1966, Hanafi was soon side-tracked by events in the Arab world, especially after the disastrous outcome of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Throughout the 1970s, his writings became increasingly political, even including a brief infatuation with the transformative potential of the Iranian revolution of 1979. He published some of the writings of Ayatollah Khomeini in Arabic translation, while in 1981 he also launched a manifesto for an ‘Islamic Left’ (al-Yasār al-Islamī). Although this initiative did not really take off, the ideas behind it drew the attention of the Indonesian Muslim leader (and future president) Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009), who introduced them to his followers among the country’s young Muslim intelligentsia after he became the head of the largest traditionalist Islamic mass organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) in 1984. By then, Hanafi had returned to his philosophical studies, embarking on a very ambitious undertaking that would occupy him for the remainder of his scholarly life. Expanding the scope of his research to other fields of Islamic learning, he named this comprehensive project after the programmatic blueprint he published under the title al-Turāth wa’l-Tajdīd–‘heritage and renewal’. On the back of translations of the ‘Islamic Left’ manifesto and Kazuo Shimogaki’s critical study of that document, Indonesia’s progressive Muslim intellectuals also came to develop an interest in Hasan Hanafi’s philosophical writings. Since the 1990s he has become a regular visitor to the country where his lectures draw large audiences.
The trajectory of Hasan Hanafi’s intellectual journey also provides a good example that Islamism/Post-Islamism must not be thought of in terms of a sequential temporal order. Even though he eventually traded Sayyid Qutb’s writings for the philosophical ideas of Muhammad Iqbal, Hanafi retained part of the vocabulary of the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue. The search for a method of Islamic thinking with general applicability and validity still carries echoes of Sayyid Qutb’s all-encompassing and comprehensive abstraction of Islam as a universal concept, method, and system. Although Hanafi interprets religious traditions from an anthropocentric perspective instead of Sayyid Qutb’s theocentric orientation grounded in the notion of divine sovereignty (ḥākimiyya), the latter’s fiqh al-wāqʽī or ‘new realist science’ continues to resonate in Hanafi’s ‘fiqhi method’ as the best way of analysing Muslims’ attitudes towards their present-day reality. While it may be true that the impact of Islamist ideology devised by Sayyid Qutb did not become really apparent until the late 1970s, my discussion makes clear that his writings of the 1950s and 1960s definitely affected younger contemporary Muslim intellectuals such as Hanafi. In fact, his generation was probably more acutely aware of the multifaceted dimensions of Sayyid Qutb’s legacy than either their reactionary Salafi or progressive-minded intellectual successors. Hanafi’s example shows the porosity of discursive formations: theories travel and ideas circulate not just among like-minded individuals, or from one part of the Muslim world to another, but also between Islamist thinking and the counter-currents that give rise to alternative discourses which attach greater weight to a critical reflection on Islam’s heritage.
As a one-time student of Hasan Hanafi, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd relates in his autobiography, how his philosophy teacher convinced him to move from the study of Arabic to a hermeneutical analysis of Islam’s own ‘Q’ document–the Qur’ān. As a scholar of language, Abu Zayd retained an interest in linguistics and literary criticism, resolving to apply the methods developed in these fields to the study of Islam’s sacred scripture. With this, he continued a scholarly approach that had emerged in Egypt around the Second World War, beginning with Amin al-Khuli (1895-1966) and Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah (1916-1997), but also featuring in the early writings of Sayyid Qutb. In Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam, Rachid Benzine presents this duo as the ‘two precursors of modern literary analysis of the Qur’an’. Before becoming a professor at Cairo University, al-Khuli had received both a religious and secular education, and spent time in Rome and Berlin (1923-27), learning Italian and German, and studying the works of Western orientalists. In 1948, his career was seriously compromised when the doctoral thesis of his student Khalafallah on narrativism in the Qur’ān was rejected, because offense was taken at the suggestion to treat stories in the Qurān as myths and legends rather than as accurate accounts of historical events. Fifty years later, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd found himself in similar hot water when his application for a full professorship was denied because of the controversial eclectic methodological framework he had adopted in his research, that combined the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger and Ricoeur, the contextual study of the Qur’ān by Fazlur Rahman and Toshihiko Izutsu, with text criticism and discourse analysis drawing on the work of Eastern European semioticians such as Yuri Lotman and Algirdas Greimas.
Eventually, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s case became a cause célèbre, when a group of Islamist activists initiated legal proceedings arguing that since Abu Zayd’s treatment of the Qur’ān amounted to apostasy, and that therefore he could no longer be legally married to his wife, a Muslim. When the court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, Nasr Abu Zayd and his wife did not await the implications of this for their lives and opting instead to go into voluntary exile. Initially moving to Germany and then to the Netherlands, Abu Zayd took up a position at Leiden University, where he worked until his untimely death in 2010, during a very low-key visit to his homeland. Whereas Abu Zayd’s publications on the study of the Qur’ān text remained anathema in Egypt, not unlike the writings of Hasan Hanafi and others, they drew positive attention in Indonesia so that Abu Zayd also became a regular visitor to the country and a key collaborator at the International Institute for Quranic Studies (IIQS) established in Jakarta in 2008 under the patronage of the late Abdurrahman Wahid.
In the mid-1950s, Mohammed Arkoun, a Berber from Kabylia educated in French and Arabic institutions in Oran and Algiers, moved to France for postgraduate studies at the University of Strasbourg and later in Paris. Arkoun arrived during a time of political and intellectual turbulence. The beginning and end of his studies coincide not only with two major milestones of the Cold War Era, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the ill-fated Prague Spring: the same time period also saw the eruption of Algeria’s war of independence and the student uprisings of 1968. Prefiguring these latter events was the rise of thinkers and engaged intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, as well as more staid academic developments in the fields of structural linguistics and anthropology, quickly followed by poststructuralist challenges in the form of discourse analysis and deconstructive text criticism.
Although Arkoun’s inquisitive mind took many of these new strands of thinking on board, he fell initially under the influence of Claude Cahen, a medievalist and proponent of a new way of writing history known as the Annales School. By the time Arkoun arrived, the school had already progressed from a minor heresy into the main church of French historiography in the mid-twentieth century. The propositions of its founders, Marc Bloch’s ‘histories of mentalities’ and Lucien Febvre’s notion of ‘unthinkability’, would find their way into Mohammed Arkoun’s writings, often via a detour or under the guise of postmodernist concepts developed by Michel Foucault and especially Jacques Derrida. For his doctorate, Arkoun decided to engage what was largely a text-historical project on the court culture of the tenth-century Buyid viziers of the Abbasid Caliphate. Instead of concentrating on the deeds of great men, he focussed on the intellectual milieu, incorporating the distinctions made by the leading figure of the second generation of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel, between historical events, mid-term conjunctures, and the longue durée of civilizational and environmental influences. The final product, a case study of the philosopher and man of letters Miskawayh, presented as an analysis of Arab humanism, also betrayed the influence of Louis Massignon’s encouragement to invest scholarly writings with a ‘personal intonation’. Tied up with what Arkoun called his own existential experiences on both sides of the Mediterranean, this humanist orientation and a perception of the Middle East and North Africa as an integral part of the Mediterranean as a single geopolitical formation and shared space, have become constant aspect in Arkoun’s academic work.
Disappointed by the lack of response from fellow (Muslim and non-Muslim) historians of the Muslim world and other scholars of Islam, Arkoun resolved that the suggested methodological innovations would need to be articulated even more explicitly. After another ‘detour through a vast field of interdisciplinary investigations’, he came up with an alternative research programme for Islamicists which he presented under the heading ‘Applied Islamology’. Even though he had already coined the term in 1973, it would take him another ten years to compile a comprehensive agenda which was first presented in his most influential essay collection, Critique of Islamic Reason. Arkoun proposed a survey of the Islamic heritage as an ‘exhaustive tradition’, quarrying the intellectual legacy of the Muslim world and excavating what had been ignored, rejected or not critically interrogated. Betraying both the influence of Febvre and Derrida he called this neglected part of turāth ‘the unthought’ and ‘the unthinkable’. Leap-frogging through recognizable ‘cognitive fields and moments’, his fourteen-point agenda of ‘Applied Islamology’ included examinations of the inception of the Qur’an, the ‘Medina experience’ of the embryonic Muslim community, the institutions of the Sunni Caliphate and the Shi’i Imamate, and the emergence of the various disciplines of Islamic learning. It continues with the transformation of this body of scholastic knowledge into the positivist rationalism that dominated during the early Muslim experiences with modernity known as the Nahda, and the new social imaginaires of the postcolonial revolutionary period. Critical of the obsession of contemporary Middle East watchers with short-term events, Arkoun contrasts their ‘pragmatic Islamology’ with the demanding horizon of the plurality of meanings opened up by his own alternative ‘Applied Islamology’, whereby epistemological questioning is pushed to its limits.
The initial inspiration for ‘Applied Islamology’ came from an unlikely direction: Roger Bastide’s Applied Anthropology, which had grown out of the latter’s field work experiences in Brazil, but the book was conceived as a social theory for dealing with the phenomenon of acculturation. Although Bastide had been influence by Emile Durkheim’s view of religion being embedded in social structures, his own interest was far more geared towards transformation and change than the constancy of structures. Bastide’s theory also leaned heavily on the writings of the Brazilian social scientist Giberto de Mello Freyre about Lusotropicology or Lusotropicalism, which privileged experiential knowledge as promoted by the American pragmatist John Dewey and which was also regarded as the indirect outcome of the interactions between Muslims, Christians and Jews of the Iberian Peninsula before the Age of Discoveries. I suggest that this last point, together with the fact that Bastide considered ‘cultural marginal as leaders in the gambit of the acculturative gambit’, resonated strongly with Mohammed Arkoun’s biography as a cultural and intellectual border crosser.
Aside from the influence of Bastide’s Applied Anthropology, Arkoun’s research agenda was also informed by the ethnohistoire or historical anthropology developed by third-generation Annales historians Jacques Le Goff and Georges Duby, and their successors Roger Chartier, Pierre Nora and Jacques Revel. They argue that cultural relations are not simply determined by economic and social factors; in fact, the latter are ‘fields of cultural practice and cultural production themselves’. Finally, as in the cases of Hanafi and Abu Zayd, there is the catholicity of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics which has also shaped Arkoun’s ambition for a comprehensive research agenda encompassing the full range of Islamic turāth. Reading Arkoun’ s observation that ‘accurate description must precede interpretation, but interpretation cannot be attempted today without a rigorous analysis using linguistics, semiotic, historical, and anthropological tools’, is not simply an appropriation of Ricoeur’s slogan that ‘to explain more is to understand better’, it is also an attempt to emulate the latter’s generous or charitable interpretations through which Ricoeur tried to reconcile conflicting philosophical positions on knowledge and understanding. It is this omnivorous quality of Mohammed Arkoun’s scholarship that appeals to innovative-minded Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia who have comparable voracious appetites, absorbing ideas from a wide range of strands of Muslim and non-Muslim thinking, which are then fashioned into a heuristic apparatus for the critical study of Islam.
By the mid-1990s, Hasan Hanafi and Mohammed Arkoun had been overtaken by Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri as the key ‘person of interest’ for Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia. Instrumental in the introduction of al-Jabiri’s ideas were prominent scholars and religious leaders such as M. Amin ‘Abdullah (b. 1953), who went on to serve as the rector of the State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, and the current head of the NU, Said Aqil Siradj (b. 1953). At the turn of the century, al-Jabiri’s ideas began to gain wider circulation when a selection of his essays was translated and published for the first time in Indonesian under the title Islamic Post-Traditionalism. A year later, in 2001, this name was also used to designate an alternative Islamic discourse formulated and introduced by a number of young NU cadres in a special issue of what would become their flagship periodical: Tashwirul Afkar.
Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri’s intellectual trajectory certainly betrays the eclecticism that his fellow Moroccan Abdallah Laroui had identified as a hallmark of contemporary Arab intellectualism. His early interest in Marxism and the sociological approach to world history of Ibn Khaldun have coloured his elaborations of turāth. In his introduction to the Indonesian translation of al-Jabiri’s essays, Ahmad Baso relates how al-Jabiri’s discovery of Yves Lacoste’s comparative study of Ibn Khaldun and Marx made him realize that the Muslim world has its own version of a socially determinist and historical-materialist analysis predating the work of Marx by several centuries. al-Jabiri also used his newly developed awareness of the Muslim world’s former intellectual prowess to challenge the Orientalist tradition in the study of Islam, even criticizing sympathetic scholars such as Louis Massignon and Henry Corbin for their ‘egocentric’ interests in controversial Sufis such as al-Hallaj and Suhrawardi. This foreshadowed a realization al-Jabiri shared with Arkoun, that many classical Orientalists accepted and adopted the same uncritical glorification of the Islamic past propagated by Muslim writers of the classical era, while others fell into the same reductionist trap as nineteenth and early twentieth-century Muslim reformists and revivalists by dismissing the classical Islamic tradition as stultified or decadent. Baso goes on to explain how al-Jabiri insisted that the Islamic heritage must be understood as a broad concept, in which religion is seen ‘not just as truth, facts, words, concepts, language and thought, but also myth, legends, ways of behavior, and methods of thinking’–words reminiscent of Arkoun’s critique of Islamic reason. Also al-Jabiri found the methodological cues for this alternative reading of turāth in the work of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists and philosophers like Ferdinand Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jean Piaget, as well as their poststructuralist successors Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. From them he learned that reason can no longer be conceived in Cartesian terms as a coherent, conscious and transcendent process. Instead, the achievements of structural linguistics and psychoanalysis teach that reason is more accurately described as a collective understanding shaped by culture and by what Piaget called the ‘cognitive unconscious’.
al-Jabiri applied this heuristic apparatus in his magnus opus written during the 1980s and published as a trilogy dedicated to what he calls a ’Critique of Arab Reason’. Dissecting the intellectual history of the Arab world through critical-historical and structural analyses combined with an ideological critique of its dominant political discourse, the oeuvre presents a comprehensive deconstructionist reading of Islam as a historicized and objectified civilizational heritage that needs to be set free from a priori assumptions and the authoritative dominance of a supposedly fixed tradition which shackles the autonomy of Muslims as freethinking human beings. Al-Jabiri’s Indonesian translator appears to disagree with Laroui’s characterization of heritage thinkers as eclectic thinkers, because according to Ahmad Baso, al-Jabiri’s return to the tradition is not a matter of picking and choosing, but a holistic appropriation for the purpose of analyzing Arab-Islamic thought in its theological, linguistic, juridical as well as philosophical and mystical aspects.
In contrast to the textual criticism of Arkoun and Abu Zayd, the Moroccan thinker al-Jabiri has opted for the historical-philosophical approach of the academic philosopher. To articulate the link between modernity and tradition, he rejects the view that this implies a break with tradition. Indicative of al-Jabiri’s awareness of the relativity and historicity of each and every tradition is his insistence that modernity must be developed organically from within Arab-Muslim culture instead of just copying from European modernist methods.
In analyzing defects in the ways in which Muslims have studied their history, al-Jabiri distinguished three different readings of tradition: The fundamentalist reading employed by Islamists presents the past as a means of reconstituting an imaginary that confirms a ‘pure’ Islamic identity. Taking the form of a retreat into a defensive stand, it projects ‘a “radiant” future fabricated by ideology–upon the past’. Then there is a liberal reading of the tradition. This intepretation is clearly derived from European thinking and endeavors to read one tradition through the lens of another. However, with a nod to Pierre Bourdieu, al-Jabiri cautions that adopting such an ‘orientalist habitus’ harbours the risk of a ‘dangerous identity alienation’. The third–Marxist–reading is qualified as a ready-made dialectical method that must be considered as scientifically unsound because it posits an outcome before engaging in the analysis. al-Jabiri points out that all three readings suffer from two major weaknesses: one methodological, as a result of a lack of objectivity flowing forth from a flawed epistemology; the other visionary, evincing a lack of historical awareness and a skewed perspective in which the past is projected as transcendental and sacral, thus rendering it a-historical.
To escape from this deadlock requires an epistemological break along the lines of Louis Althusser and other post-structuralists. al-Jabiri stresses that this does not constitute a break from tradition itself at the level of knowledge, emphasizing that it takes place in the form of a mental act: ‘This break must transform us from beings “taken by tradition” to beings who have embraced their tradition’. The systematics of al-Jabiri’s philosophy continue to draw on post-structuralist thinking, suggesting a ‘disjunctive-“rejunctive” reading’. By this he means the disruption of the subject-object relation in order to get rid of a biased understanding of tradition based on that tradition itself. This type of discourse analysis requires a meticulous three-tiered dissection of texts, consisting of a structuralist approach which searches for the constants in a text tradition; a historical approach linking the author’s thinking to its historical context; and an ideological approach synthesizing the structuralist and historical readings of the text. So far modern students of Islamic philosophy have failed to make such a distinction between the cognitive and ideological perspectives of this reading, rendering Islamic thinking an ‘immobile void of progress and of dynamics’. This three-phased analysis of the discursive formations which together constitute the Arab-Islamic intellectual heritage is elaborated in a trilogy that forms the core of al-Jabiri’s Naqd al-‘Aql al-‘Arabī or ‘Critique of Arab Reason’. The first volume on the ‘formation of Arab Reason offers a historical analysis of the start of the ‘era of recording’ (‛asr tadwīn) in the eighth century, during which the data for constructing both pre-Islamic and early Islamic history were collected. This rich storehouse of orally transmitted knowledge was put into writing and then gradually structured into the discrete disciplines of Islamic learning such as tafsīr (Qur’an exegesis), fiqh (jurisprudence), and kalām (discursive theology). When analyzing this period of data collection and codification, al-Jabiri stresses that it is as important to pay attention to what is said as to what is not said if one wants to understand how knowledge receives its epistemological and ideological validity and authority. In The Structure of Arab Reason, al-Jabiri distinguishes three epistemes: bayānī (discursive); ‛irfānī (intuitive or illuminationist), and burhānī (demonstrative) reason. He argues that from the tadwin period onwards, discursive reason has held centre stage in Arab-Islamic thinking.Texts become authoritative through epistemological protocols and practices that rely predominantly on emulation and reasoning by analogy (qiyās)–an epistemological method developed to its greatest level of sophistication in the field of legal studies. As discussed above, this was the reason for Hasan Hanafi’s concentrating on the transformation of the ‘foundations of jurisprudence’ into a generally applicable method of philosophical thinking.
In order to shake Arab-Islamic thinking free of its atrophy and restore its dynamism, al-Jabiri had his hopes pinned on demonstrative reason. In effect this meant a rejection of much of the intellectual legacy of the eastern parts of the Muslim world. He dismissed figures such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, because, in al-Jabiri’s mind, ʽirfān is not illuminationist, but amounts to obscurantism. Also the discursive theology of al-Ghazali is condemned on grounds of the latter’s instrumentalization of Aristotelian logic. Instead, al-Jabiri proposes a reintegrated epistemology resting on a systemic understanding of the Hellenic heritage. An essay entitled ‘The Andalusian Resurgence’ provides an apt illustration of al-Jabiri’s revisionist view of Islamic philosophy as an intellectually militant discourse. Sketching the specific pluralist setting of medieval Muslim Spain, he shows that the thinkers there were uniquely well positioned and prepared to tackle complicated philosophical questions. Far removed from the ideological and political controversies raging in the central and eastern parts of the Islamic world, the philosophers in Iberia and the Maghreb could almost at their leisure internalize foundational scientific disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, and logic before engaging with metaphysics.
The critiques of Ibn Hazm and al-Shatibi, but especially the rationalism developed by Ibn Rushd (Averroes), form the basis of al-Jabiri’s panacea for both the bayānī tendency to ground authority in texts and for the speculativeirrationalism of the ‘irfānī tradition. Speaking as an academic philosopher, al-Jabiri claims the Islamic tradition reached the height of its sophistication when it was suffused with the ruḥ rushdiya, or ‘spirit of Averroism’, because it advocated a proper use of Aristotelianism in the way it embraced the methods of both induction and deduction, and interpreted the concepts of universal validity and historicity. This leads al-Jabiri to end the brief outline in his Arab-Islamic Philosophy with the provocative conclusion that ‘the future can only be Averroist’.
The Indonesian Islamic post-traditionalist Ahmad Baso notes that al-Jabiri’s approach hinges on the somewhat chauvinist privileging of ‘rationalist’ thinking in the Maghreb over the ‘irrational’ tendencies of the Muslim world East. Whereas Mohammed Arkoun felt the same affinity with the Maghreb as an integral part of the Mediterranean World until its northern and southern shores each went their separate ways , his ‘Critique of Islamic Reason’ retained broader scope than al-Jabiri’s ‘Critique of Arab Reason’ As yet another instance of the circulation of ideas, past and present, the suggested epistemological break between the Eastern and Western Arab world was further explored by al-Jabiri in a two-volume study he co-authored with Hasan Hanafi, aptly entitled ‘East-West Dialogue’ (Hiwār al-Mashriq w’al-Maghrib).
Critical Islam: From historicized heritage thinking to concerns for a post-Islamist future
This discussion has shown that the critical discourses of the heritage thinkers emerged in the same time frame in which proponents of overtly Islamic political agendas came to the fore as well. Even though the proper domains of these new Muslim scholars of Islam are situated in academic fields such as epistemology, intellectual history, and the sociology of knowledge, as public intellectuals their ideas have political implications too. Meanwhile, in many Muslim countries, political and intellectual conditions remain constrictive to the point of suffocating any chance or opportunity for thinking freely. This is why Muslim intellectuals operating outside the historical geography of the Muslim world remain central to the further advancement of critical Islamic thinking initiated by the heritage thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s. These include not only exiled intellectuals (both involuntary and voluntary), but also nomadic expatriate academics based in metropoles in Europe, North America, and Australia, as well as scholars and activists descending from erstwhile migrants from different–formerly colonized–parts of the Muslim world. To my mind, they have an increasingly prominent role to play in the critical reworking of turāth.
I have tried to demonstrate that the alternative readings of the Islamic past by the heritage thinkers and their innovative interpretations of the significance of turāth for Muslims in the resent, first developed in the late 1960s and coming to fuller intellectual fruition from the 1980s onwards, prefigure the understandings of today’s younger critical intellectuals presented under the heading of ‘post-Islamism’. Its development in parallel with Islamist thinking with varying signatures shows that post-Islamism is best understood as an analytical rather than a historical category. Instead of a chronology heralding post-Islamism as a new phase that follows on from the alleged demise of Islamism, as posited by French observers of the contemporary Muslim world such as Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, it seems more accurate to opt for the conceptual understanding of post-Islamism found in the eponymous publication edited by Asef Bayat. Just as postmodern and postcolonial thinking do not signify the end of modernity or the persistence of colonial conditions, so also the concept of post-Islamism allows for the possibility of multiple strands of thought and a diversity of ideas to co-exist and influence Muslim minds at the same time. However, given the temptation to assume a sequential order of Islamism and Post-Islamism, perhaps it is better to forfeit the introduction of another ‘post’ and settle for the alternative term ‘critical Islam’. Reflecting on the actual political and intellectual realities in the Muslim world, the conclusion from such critical analyses should be that what we are dealing with is not an abstract called ‘Islam’, ‘Islamism’, and now supposedly ‘Post-Islamism’, but real people: Muslims capable of critical engagement with their religion.
Carool Kersten is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London. He is also a Research Associate of the Centre for South East Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), from where he obtained his PhD in the Study of Religions. Earlier he received an MA (cum laude) in Arabic Language and Culture from Radboud University Nijmegen (The Netherlands), and a Certificate in Southeast Asian Studies from Payap University in Thailand.
 There are earlier instances in the twentieth century where the reverse is also true. This belies Armando Salvatore’s suggestion of a temporal asymmetry between the Islamists’ conflation of din wa dawla and its challenge by their opponents, claiming that there had been an effective absence of the former during the latter’s dominance over the political domain in the Muslim world between the 1920s and 1970s, cf. Armando Salvatore, Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity, Reading, Ithaca Press, 1997. Salvatore’s contention can be challenged by pointing at the dissonant emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1920s and the rise of Sayyid Qutb in the 1940s and 1950s. Meanwhile, during the supposed heyday of ‘deconflationist’ (secular) thinking in the 1930s and 1940s, Calvert and Shepard have also noted a shift towards Islamic themes in the writings of intellectual icons such as Taha Husayn and ‘Abbas Mahmud al-‘Aqqad: cf. John Calvert, ‘“The World is an Undutiful Boy!” Sayyid Qutb’s American Experience’, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 11(1), 2000, pp 90; William Shepard, Sayyid Qutb and Islamic Activism: A Translation and Critical Analysis of Social Justice in Islam, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1996, p. xiii.
 Conveniently captured in the Islamist slogan ‘al-Islām huwa al-ḥall’ (‘Islam is the solution’).
 Issa Boullata, Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought.Albany, State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 3
 Boullata, Trends and Issues, p. 25
 Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1988: 298.
 Armando Salvatore, ‘The Rational Authentication of Turāth in Contemporary Arab Thought: Muhammad ‛Abid al-Jabiri and Hasan Hanafi’, Muslim World 85(3-4), 1995, p.199; cf. also Boullata, Trends and Issues, pp.14-16.
 Cf. Nurcholish Madjid, Khazanah Intelektual Islam, Jakarta, Bulan Bintang, 1984.
 It also predates Iran’s ‘Alternative Thought Movement’ of Abdolkarim Soroush and other new religious intellectuals, which Asef Bayat identifies as the starting point of his understanding of ‘Post-Islamism’, cf. Asef Bayat, ‘The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society’, Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 9, 1996, pp. 43-52.
 Cf. Sugata Bose and Kris Manjapra, Cosmopolitan Thought Zones: South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas. London and New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010; Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic. London, Faber & Faber, 1984; Peter Mandaville Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London, Routledge, 2001.
 Sometimes also spelled as ‘al-Jabri’.
 Cf. Carool Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam, London and New York, Hurst and Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 185, 212-13; Abdou Filaly-Ansari, ‘Hichem Djaït ou la Tyrannie du Paradigme’, in Collectif, Penseurs Maghrébins Contemporains. Casablanca, Editions Eddif, 1993, pp. 104-105. For details of ‘basic personality structure’, see Mikel Dufrenne, La Personnalité de Base: Un Concept Sociologique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953 and Avram Kardiner, ‘The Concept of Basic Personality Structure as an Operational Tool in the Social Sciences’, in Ralph Linton, The Science of Man in the World Crisis, New York: Columbia University Press, 1945, pp. 107-22.
 The French original appeared in 1974, and an English translation two years later.
 Binder, Islamic Liberalism, p. 317.
 ‘Les Arabes et l’Anthropologie Culturelle. Remarques sur la Méthode de Gustave von Grunebaum’, in Abdallah Laroui, La Crise des Intellectuels Arabes: Traditionalism ou Historicisme? Paris, François Maspero., 1974, pp. 59-102. Mohammed Arkoun too has explicitly addressed Grünebaum’s work in his writings: Cf. ‘L’Islam moderne vu par le Professeur G.E. von Grunebaum’ in Mohammed Arkoun, Essais sur la pensée islamique 1e éd. Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 1973, pp. 283-96.
 Boullata, Trends and Issues, pp. 26-27.
 Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics, p.111.
 Hasan Hanafi was introduced to Husserl through his teacher Paul Ricoeur.
 Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics, p. 127.
 Hasan Hanafi, Les Méthodes d’Exégèse: Essai sur la Science des Fondements de la Compréhension “‘Ilm Usul al-Fiqh”, Cairo: Conseil Supérieur des Arts, des Lettres et des Sciences Sociales, 1965. For an assessment of this project, cf. Carool Kersten, ‘Bold Transmutations: Hasan Hanafi’s Early Writings on Fiqh’, Journal of Comparative Islamic Studies 3(1), 2007, pp. 22-38.
 Hasan Hanafi, al-Yasār al-Islāmī: Kitābāt fī’l-Nahda al-Islamīyya, Cairo, Self-published, 1981.
 Hasan Hanafi, Al-Turāth wa’l-Tajdīd: Mawqifuna min al-Turāth al-Qadīm, Cairo, al-Markaz al-Arabi li’l-Bahth wa’l-Nashr, 1980.
 Kazuo Shimogaki, Kiri Islam Antara Modernisme dan Postmodernisme: Telaah Kritis Pemikiran Hasan Hanafi, Yogyakarta, LKiS, 1993. Originally published as Between Modernity and Post-Modernity: The Islamic Left and Dr. Hasan Hanafi’s Thought: A Critical Reading (Tokyo: The Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, International University of Japan, 1988). The Indonesian Translation has gone through seven editions.
 Cf. Ahmad S. Mousalli Radical Islamic Fundamentalism: The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb. Beirut, American University of Beirut, 1992, pp. 69-70
 For a detailed discussion, cf. Ronald A.T. Judy, ‘Sayyid Qutb’s Fiqh al-Waqi‘ī, or New Realist Science’, Boundary (3)2, 2004, pp. 113-48.
 Nasr H. Abu Zayd, Mijn Leven met de Islam. Haarlem, Becht, 2002, p. 100. So far this autobiography has appeared in a number of European languages but not yet in English
 Cf. Sayyid Qutb’s Al-Taswīr al-Fannī fī’l-Qur’ān of 1945, discussed in: Rachid Benzine, Les Nouveaux Penseurs de l’Islam, Paris: Albin Michel 2004, pp. 176-177.
 Benzine, Les Nouveaux Penseurs, p. 149.
 Benzine, Les Nouveaux Penseurs, pp. 155-156.
 Eventually the study was published anyway in 1951 as a book under the title al-Fann al-Qasasī fī al-Qur’ān al-Karīm (‘The Art of Narrative in the Holy Qur’ān’). Ten years later al-Khuli published his own literary analysis of the Qur’ān: Manāhij Tajdīd fī al-Nahw wa’l-Balāgha wa’l-Tafsīr wa’l-Adab (‘New Methods in Grammar, Rhetoric, Interpretation and Literature’).
 Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929–89. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 31.
 Cf. Burke, The French Historical Revolution, pp. 9-30; Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft. Translated by Peter Putnam and with an introduction by Peter Burke. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004, p. 24; Stuart Clark, ‘The Annales Historians’, in Quentin Skinner (ed.), The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 191; Patricia O’Brien, ‘Michel Foucault’s History of Culture’. In Lynn Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, p.37.
 Mohammed Arkoun, L’humanisme Arabe au 4e/10e siècle: Miskawayh, Philosophe et Historien. 2nd edition, Paris, Vrin, 1982; Mohammed Arkoun, Humanisme et Islam: Combats et Propositions. Paris, Vrin, 2005 p. 7.
In the introduction to the second edition of L’humanisme Arabe, p. 13.
 Mohammed Arkoun, Pour Une Critique de la Raison Islamique, Paris, Éditions Maisonneuve et Larose, 1984, pp. 43-64.
 Mohammed Arkoun, Essais sur la Pensée Islamique, Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 1973, p. 10.
 Mohammed Arkoun, ‘The Study of Islam in French Scholarship’, in Azim Nanji (ed.) Mapping Islamic Studies: Genealogy, Continuity and Change. Berlin and New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 1997, p. 40
 Arkoun, Essais sur la Pensée Islamique, p. 9 ; Roger Bastide, Applied Anthropology. London, Croom Helm, 1973.
 Gilberto Freyre, Portuguese Integration in the Tropics: Notes Concerning a Possible Lusotropicologywhich would Specialize in the Systematic Study of the Ecological-Social Process of the Integration in Tropical Environments of Portuguese, Descendants of Portuguese and Continuators of Portuguese, Lisbon, Realização Grafica da Tipografia Silvas, pp. 37-38.
 Bastide, Applied Anthropology, p. 94: For Arkoun as a border crosser, cf. Kersten, Cosmopolitans and Heretics, pp. 177-192
 Lynn Hunt, The New Cultural History. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1989, p. 7.
 Arkoun, The Study of Islam in French Scholarship’, p. 43; Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative.Volume 1. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. x.
 Muhammad Abed Al Jabiri, Post Traditionalism Islam. Translated and edited by Ahmad Baso, Yogyakarta, LKiS, 2000. Only a few of al-Jabiri’s writings have been translated into English: Mohammed ʽAbed al-Jabri [sic], Arab-Islamic Philosophy: A Contemporary Critique. Translated from the French by Aziz Abbassi, Austin, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the University of Texas at Austin, 1999; Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009; For a review of this last publication cf. Carool Kersten, ‘Reconfiguring Politics, Law and Human Rights in the Contemporary Muslim World’ American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 28:2, 2011, pp. 106-119
 Abdul Mun’im DZ a.o., Post Traditionalisme Islam: Ideologi & Metodologi. Tashwirul Afkar: Jurnal Refleksi Pemikiran Keagamaan & Kebudayaan, Jakarta, Lakpesdam NU, 2001. For more extensive discussions of this relatively new strand of Muslim thinking in Indonesia cf. Carool Kersten, ‘Islamic Post-Traditionalism in Indonesia: Revisiting Tradition and the Future of Islam’, Carool Kersten and Susanne Olsson (eds.), Alternative Islamic Discourses and Religious Authority , Farnham and Burlington, Ashgate, 2013, pp.137-158 and Carool Kersten, ‘Islamic Post-Traditionalism: Postcolonial and Postmodern Religious Discourse in Indonesia’ Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics, 2014 [forthcoming].
 Ahmad Baso, ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam: Kontribusi Metodologis “Kritik Nalar” Muhammad Abed al-Jabiri’, in al-Jabiri, Post Traditionalisme Islam, pp. xix-xx. This is elaborated in al-Jabiri’s own study of Ibn Khaldun, Fikr Ibn Khaldūn: Al-Aṣabiyya wa’l-Dawla. Maʽālim Naẓariyya Khaldūniyya fī’l-Tarīkh al-Islāmī, Beirut, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-Arabiyya, 1992.
 Baso ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam’, p. xxiii.
 Baso, ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam’, pp. xxx-xxxi.
 Baso, ‘Posmodernisme sebagai Kritik Islam’, p. xx.
 al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 9.
 al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 12-13.
 al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 24.
 al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 22.
 Al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 42
, Consisting of Takwīn al-‘Aql al-‘Arabī (The Formation of Arab Reason’), Beirut, Dar al-Tali’a, 1984; Bunya al-‘Aql al-‘Arabī (‘The Structure of Arab Reason’), Beirut, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1986; and al-‘Aql al-Siyāsi al-‘Arabī (‘Arab Political Reason’), Beirut, Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1990.
 Al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, pp. 63-119.
 This is also the interest al-Jabiri holds for Indonesian intellectuals such as Baso (Pos Traditionalisme sebagai Kritik Islam, p. xxv) and M. Amin Abdullah (see his Islamic Studies di Perguruan Tinggi, Pendekatan Integratif-Interkonektif, Yogyakarta, Pustaka Pelajar, 2010.
 Al-Jabri, Arab-Islamic Philosophy, p. 120.
 Baso, ‘Pos Islamisme sebagai kritik Islam’, p. li.
 Hasan Hanafi and Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, Hiwār al-Mashriq-Maghrib, Casablanca, Dar al-Tuqbal, 1990.
The Meaning of the 30 March 2014
Local Elections in Turkey
By Ergun Özbudun
The 30 March 2014 local elections in Turkey were held in one of the most polarized and confrontational atmospheres in Turkish political history. They took place in the footsteps of such traumatic events as the Gezi Park demonstrations (May-June 2013), the revelations of major corruption charges involving four cabinet ministers (December 17 and 25 2013), the start of an internecine fight between the AKP government and the Gülen movement (an influential Muslim community), the government’s strong reactions to these events and its efforts to carry out a large-scale purge of pro-Gülen elements within the judiciary, the security forces and other bureaucratic agencies. Consequently, local elections campaigns focused on national rather than local issues and the elections turned into a vote of confidence or no-confidence for the governing AKP.
Under these circumstances, both the government and the opposition considered the elections results as extremely significant politically. Public opinion was so deeply divided that throughout the election night, the two main/largest news agencies reported highly different figures. Thus, while the semi-official, pro-government Anatolian News Agency showed the AKP’s overall national vote at around 46 percent, the pro-Gülen Cihan News Agency put this figure at around 43 percent. Mutual recriminations of intentionally misrepresenting the election results continued long after the elections.
Finally, with the official announcement of the final election results by the Supreme Council of Elections on 6 May, it had become possible to make a more realistic evaluation. In earlier elections, it was easier to compare the results of provincial general assemblies with those of previous parliamentary elections and to calculate the parties’ losses or gains, since the voting public was exactly the same in both. However, certain recent changes in the Turkish administrative system made the job somewhat more complicated. A law dated 12 November 2012 (Law No. 6360) created “metropolitan municipal administrations” in 13 provinces; later on the number of such provinces was raised to 30. In these provinces, provincial general assemblies were abolished, and the scope of metropolitan municipal administrations were extended to the entire province. In the process, village administrations within the same province were abolished and they were made neighborhoods that were part of the metropolitan city. However, within the metropolitan provinces, the county (prefecture, ilçe) municipal administrations were preserved. In the remaining 51 provinces which were not metropolitan municipal administrations, the old system of provincial general assemblies, mayors, and municipal councils was maintained.
Thus, to make a meaningful comparison with the previous parliamentary elections (those of 12 June 2011), one has to add up the results of the 30 metropolitan and 51 non-metropolitan provinces and calculate the party vote shares accordingly: AKP, 45.5 percent; CHP (Republican People’s Party, the main secularist opposition party), 27.8 percent; MHP (ultra-nationalist Movement Party), 15.2 percent; BDP-HDP (Kurdish Nationalist Peace and Democracy Party and the Democratic Party of the Peoples, 6.0 percent).
The Supreme Board of Elections also announced the results of the elections for mayors and municipal councils. The figures are different from the above, since they do not include village voters in settlements with less than 2,000 inhabitants (under the Law, only settlements with more than 2,000 inhabitants have municipal administrations). Thus, while the total number of registered voters for the entire country (the total of metropolitan and non-metropolitan provinces) is 52,637,047, the total number of registered voters for municipal council elections is 48,843,157. This has caused a slightly different distribution of party shares of votes: AKP (43.13 percent for mayors and 42.87 percent for municipal councils); CHP (26.45 and 26.34 respectively); MHP (17.78 and 17.82); BDP plus HDP (slightly over 6 percent). Clearly, meaningful comparisons with the parliamentary elections can only be made with the first set of figures as it includes all Turkish voters.
Parties’ Electoral Performance
Compared with the results of the 12 June 2011 parliamentary elections where the AKP got 49.8 percent of the vote, it registered a loss of 4.3 percent in 2014. This was a source of deep disappointment for the opposition, since they were expecting a much more radical fall after the revelation of corruption charges and the authoritarian drift of the AKP government. Apparently, the AKP and Mr. Erdoğan were able to maintain the support of the great majority of their constituency by carrying out an exceedingly polarizing electoral campaign, depicting their opponents as foreign enemies and their domestic tools trying to oust the elected government by non-democratic means. The AKP won 18 out of 30 metropolitan municipalities and 799 out of 1,351 mayoralties in total.
The second strongest party, the CHP, got 27.8 percent of the vote which is a slight improvement from 26.0 percent in 2011. In a number of municipalities the CHP nominated the former members of the right or center-right parties (in places like Ankara and Hatay) or a candidate that appealed to center-right voters (Istanbul), thus somewhat softening its militant secularist stand. This “opening to the center-right” strategy worked successfully in Hatay, but not so successfully in Istanbul and Ankara, even though its candidates increased the proportion of CHP votes in the two largest metropolitan cities.
The ultra-nationalist MHP also increased its proportion of votes from 13.0 percent in 2011 to 15.2 percent, seemingly having benefitted from the Turkish nationalist reaction to the AKP government’s overtures to the Kurdish political movement. The Kurdish nationalist BDP, which contested the elections under the name HDP in non-Kurdish parts of the country, registered a slight fall from 6.7 percent to 6.0 percent. All other minor parties performed very poorly.
A quick glance at the electoral map after the 30 March local elections presents a deeply divided country both in the geographical and the socio-political sense. Out of 13 provinces (six of which are metropolitan provinces) where the CHP won, eight were in the Thrace and the Aegean coast region, three were in the Black Sea, one was in Central Anatolia, and one was in the Mediterranean regions. Of eight provinces (three metropolitan provinces) where the MHP won, three were in the Mediterranean, two were in the Black Sea, two were in inner-Aegean, and one was in the North Eastern regions. The BDP dominated the Kurdish-majority Southeastern region winning all of its ten provinces (in Mardin while presenting an independent candidate) and heavily Kurdish Tunceli in the East Central region. The AKP, on the other hand, emerged as the only truly national party, being the first party in 49 out of 81 provinces including 18 metropolitan provinces. Even in places where it was not the winning party, in almost all provinces it came in second with over 20 percent of the vote. In the south-eastern region, the competition was only between the BDP and the AKP, the other two parties being practically non-existent.
This geographical distribution points to a socio-political and cultural cleavage. The CHP’s strongholds seem to be essentially limited to the Thrace and the Aegean coast, where a secular way of life is predominant and the opposition to the AKP’s religiously- inspired conservatism is most marked. The MHP is strongest in areas where Turkish nationalism is a major force, and the BDP’s domination in the heavily Kurdish- populated Southeast is self-explanatory.
This pattern is confirmed when we look at the distribution of party votes in urban and rural areas. While the distribution of the AKP’s vote in the heavily urban 30 metropolitan provinces and the more rural 51 other provinces are about the same (45.54 and 45.43 percent, respectively), there is a huge gap between the two for the CHP (31.04 and 16.87 percent respectively). In fact, the CHP is behind even the MHP (with 20.71 percent) in the non-metropolitan category. This finding supports the CHP’s image as a party that holds much appeal for urban, better-educated, middle and upper-middle class, secular voters. Conversely, the MHP seems to have a stronger appeal in rural than in urban areas. Its distribution of votes is 20.71 in non-metropolitan provinces and 13.65 in metropolitan ones. Similarly, the BDP/HDP performed better in the former category than in the latter (8.11 and 5.43 percent, respectively).
The same picture emerges when we look at the distribution of party votes in the counties (prefectures, ilçe) of the three largest metropolitan cities; İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir. In the İstanbul province, the AKP and CHP won 25 and 14 country mayoralties respectively. The CHP’s strongholds were the older, more established, coastal neighborhoods of better-educated, middle and high income residents with a distinctly secular way of life. The AKP, in contrast, won in the poorer neighborhoods of largely recent urban migrants, who were more religiously conservative and less well-educated. The same pattern is observed in Ankara, and İzmir. The results show that the basic differences between parties that appeal primarily to the educated, urban, secular central elites and those that appeal to the forces of the conservative periphery is still the major determinant of party choices.
Implications for the Future
The results of the local elections are neither a defeat nor a clear-cut victory for the AKP. It lost more than 4 percent of the total vote which may have implications for the coming presidential (August 2014) and parliamentary (June 2015) elections. The presidential elections will be the first popular election of the President of the Republic in accordance with the constitutional amendment of 2007 that introduced popular election of the President instead of election by Parliament. At the time of writing it seems almost certain that Prime Minister Erdoğan will run for presidency. However, to be elected, a candidate must get more than half of the total valid votes either on the first or the second round. The present showing of the AKP is short of the required majority, which makes the outcome of the race uncertain. The Kurdish vote is critical in this respect. Even though the spokespersons of the Kurdish political movement often express dissatisfaction with the modest gains they obtained from the AKP’s Kurdish opening which involved negotiations with Kurdish insurgents with the aim of finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem (“peace process” as it is often called) they may still consider Erdoğan as their best bet, because the opposition parties are less sympathetic toward Kurdish demands. On the other hand, if Erdoğan goes too far in meeting these demands, he will run into the risk of losing some of his more nationalist supporters. Indeed, Turkish Islamic movements have always had a marked nationalist streak.
A second reason why the presidential elections will have major implications for the future course of Turkish politics is that Erdoğan has publicly declared that, if elected, he will be an active president and will exercise his constitutional powers to the maximum. Given that the current constitution that was enacted in 1982 deviates from the standard parliamentary model by endowing the president with significant constitutional powers, this will mean that the regime will function like a de facto semi-presidential or even a presidential system. Indeed, the AKP has been insistent on such a system, but since they are short of a three-fifths parliamentary majority required for constitutional amendments, they cannot put it into practice. The party spokespersons declared openly that they will attempt to do so if they obtain the necessary majority in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015. If not, it appears likely that Erdoğan as president will try to realize this aim in a de facto way by appointing a cooperative prime minister and designing a docile parliamentary party group. In the eyes of the opposition, this scenario will lead to a dangerous drift toward autocratic rule and authoritarianism. In short, the local elections have raised more questions than they have answered.
Ergun Özbudun is Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law at İstanbul Şehir University, Turkey. He has also taught at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and Princeton University. His books in English include Party Cohesion in Western Democracies: A Causal Analysis (Sage, 1970); Social Change and Political Participation in Turkey (Princeton University Press, 1976); Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation (Lynne Rienner, 2000); Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey: The Case of the AKP (with William Hale) (Routledge, 2010); and The Constitutional System of Turkey: 1876 to the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He has also coedited five books and contributed to such international journals as Comparative Politics, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Democracy, European Constitutional Law Review, European Public Law, South European Society and Politics, Democratization, and Representation.
©, MEI Singapore 2014.
 Ergun Özbudun, “ ‘Gezi Park’ Events and the Prospects for Turkish Politics,” Middle East Insights, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, MEI Insight No.101, 16 September 2013.
 Resmi Gazete (Official Gazette), 6 May 2014, no. 28992 (mükerrer).
 For an electoral map, Gökçer Tahincioğlu, “2014 Yerel Seçiminde Türkiye Oy Haritası,” Milliyet (Daily), 1 April 2014.
 “İstanbul’da Çekişmeli Geçen Yerel Seçimin Sonuçları,” Milliyet (Daily), 3 April 2014.
 On the importance of the center-periphery cleavage in Turkish politics, Ergun Özbudun, Party Politics and Social Cleavages in Turkey (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 2013).
5 June 2014
Another key factor which helps shed light on the nature and longevity of the Syrian-Iranian partnership is the role of ideology. Ironically, a crucial element in the relative success and durability of the alliance is that the political elites of these two authoritarian regimes espouse different ideologies; and herein lies the paradox. Often, alliances between states that adhere to the same trans-national ideology are more likely to be short-lived than those in which ideology plays a secondary role. This is particularly true in the Middle East where authoritarian regimes predominate, and frequently use ideology as a tool to boost their political legitimacy and power base domestically and in neighboring countries. Revisionist ideologies such as pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism have quite frequently been divisive, because they are used to project power and influence, and to destabilize rival states.
In the Middle East, the record clearly shows that states sharing a common ideology compete for the mantle of leadership rather than form durable alliances. Each state may claim to be the legitimate leader, and may even demand others to relinquish their rights and sovereignty to form a single political entity. This was quite evident in the rivalries between the pan-Arab regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq between the 1950s and 1990s, including the competition between the rival wings of the Ba’th Party in Syria and Iraq. Another poignant example of rivalries between states with similar ideologies was the animosity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan until 2001. It should not be forgotten that Tehran almost went to war with the Taliban in August 1998 after the massacre of thousands of Afghan civilians and a dozen Iranian consular officials in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, when more people were killed than in the September 11 attacks. Iran deployed over 100 thousand troops on the Afghan-Iranian border and held ground and air maneuvers. Overall, the historical record in the post-1945 era demonstrates that alliances among Arab states and communist countries that sought to form a single, centralized movement have been unstable and short-lived. In the final analysis, common ideologies have often served as obstacles to unity, prompting states to compete with one another rather than form durable alliances.
When looking at Iran and Syria, it is evident that Iran (a non-Arab country) is not trying to be the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism, unlike Syria, which considers itself “the beating heart of Arabism.” Syria, for its part, is not vying for leadership of the Islamic revivalist movement in the Middle East. Overall, there has been neither ostensible competition on the ideological level (except in Lebanon during 1985 to 1988) nor fear that one partner might upstage the other, precisely because of distinctly different ideological platforms.
At the same time, it should be noted that both Ba’thist Syria and Islamist Iran have been fiercely independent states, whose political elites share certain perceptions and world views, and in fact their secular and fundamentalist ideologies overlap in certain respects. While Iran has tried to use its brand of revolutionary Islam to transcend nationalism, demonstrate its solidarity by actively participating in the Arab-Israeli struggle, and create Muslim unity in the region by surmounting Arab-Iranian political divisions and Shia-Sunni religious differences, Syria, as the self-proclaimed birthplace and heartland of Arabism, has striven to overcome the political fragmentation of the Arab world by acting as a vehicle for Arab unity. Hafez Assad, Ruhollah Khomeini and their successors have viewed the Middle East as a strategic whole and regarded their alliance as a vital tool to assert themselves, to further what they see as in the Arab and Islamic interest, and to increase their room for maneuver by diminishing foreign–particularly American–influence in the region. As a result, to advance their common agenda over the years and decades, both regimes have put longer-term interests before short-term gains. This was clearly manifested in the period between 1985 and 1988 when the temptation to terminate the alliance may have been great, particularly for Syria (at a time when both had conflicting agendas in Lebanon, Iran was not forthcoming with oil deliveries to Syria, and Tehran was enraged by Damascus’ attempts to thaw relations with Amman and Baghdad), but instead the alliance was consolidated due to overarching strategic concerns and long-term interests.
As staunchly independent states, it is important to understand the main foreign policy priorities and key objectives of the ruling elites in Damascus and Tehran. The core priority of course for both the Iranian Islamist and Syrian Ba’thist governments, in view of their authoritarian nature, is regime survival. The second priority is national security, which in general terms means the maintenance of the territorial integrity and independence of their respective countries. With regard to national security, for Iran, its two main policy objectives are: 1) to be the primary regional player in Persian Gulf affairs; and 2) to ensure that a government hostile towards Tehran does not eventually emerge in Baghdad. With respect to Syria, its two major policy aims are: 1) to regain the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967; and 2) to have (at minimum) veto power over Lebanese affairs in order to ensure the government in Beirut does not adopt policies detrimental to Damascus’ interests. Finally, the third priority is the aim to protect and promote, in the case of Tehran, what it perceives as Islamic interests in the region, and in the case of Damascus, what it sees as Arab interests. With regard to the former, this entails backing the Shia Lebanese Hezbollah and Sunni Palestinian Hamas movements, among others.
The Syrian-Iranian Axis and the Impact of the Arab Uprisings
When the Arab Uprisings first began in the winter of 2010-2011, with the initial wave of popular protests in Tunisia, which subsequently spread to neighboring Arab countries, Tehran declared its support for the demonstrators, who largely challenged the authority of conservative, pro-Western regimes. Portraying the opposition movements as Islamist, the Iranian leadership confidently declared that the Arab Uprisings would usher in a new pan-Islamic era in the Middle East and North Africa, in which authoritarian regimes would be supplanted by Islamist governments. From Tehran’s perspective, the tide had finally turned against the West and its regional allies. History seemed to favor Iran and its supporters.
All this changed with the eruption of the protests in Syria, which caught Iran off guard and put it in an extremely awkward position. Tehran faced Hobson’s choice–two unattractive options. If it chose to stand by its most valuable, longstanding Arab ally, it would be viewed as hypocritical and opportunistic by the masses in the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, if it stood by idly and refrained from supporting the Assad regime, there was no guarantee that if a new government came to power in Damascus it would cultivate close ties with Tehran. Given the circumstances, Iran chose to throw its weight behind the Syrian regime. One senior Iranian official talking about the Arab Uprisings in the context of the US-Iranian rivalry in the region commented: “Bahrain tripped up the Americans, while Syria tripped us up.” This decision not only tarnished the Islamic Republic’s reputation in the Middle East, but that of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which also backed the Syrian government. Moreover, it had far-reaching consequences for Iran’s power and influence in the region as the crisis unfolded in the two years that followed. By 2013, as the conflict in Syria increasingly assumed a sectarian dimension pitting Sunnis against Shias in Syria and the Middle East, the prominent Egyptian Sunni cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called on all Sunnis to join the fight in Syria against Shia Iran and Hezbollah–to which he referred as the “Party of Satan.” Others depicted Shias as a greater threat to the Arab world than Israel. The popularity of Iran and Hezbollah which had peaked in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon conflict reached an unprecedented nadir in the Arab-Muslim world due to their steadfast support for the suppression of the Syrian revolt. Furthermore, relations between Tehran and Hamas became strained by the winter of 2011-2012 when the leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement, Khalid Mashal, left Damascus and declared his support for the Syrian opposition.
Tehran initially hoped that by assisting the Ba’thist regime, Damascus would be able to ride out the crisis within a short time. As a result, Iran staunchly supported Assad’s efforts to crush the protests by providing technical support and expertise to neutralize the opposition. The Iranians provided advice and equipment to the Syrian security forces to help them contain and disperse protests. In addition, they gave guidance and technical assistance on how to monitor and curtail the use of the internet and mobile phone networks by the opposition. Iran’s security forces had plenty of experience and had learned valuable lessons in this regard since the violent crackdown against the opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following the disputed Iranian presidential elections of June 2009. At the same time, according to reports, the Iranians disapproved of the clumsy and heavy-handed approach adopted by the Syrian regime to quell the initial protests. Nonetheless, as the revolt transformed into an armed insurrection, specialist personnel and units from the Iranian security apparatus, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, police and intelligence were dispatched and deployed in Syria to assist in defeating armed opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army and foreign Sunni Islamist groups. However, their numbers were limited, at most in the hundreds (in the two years that followed), and not as opposition sources claimed in the thousands.
By the summer of 2011, as the confrontation in Syria turned into a protracted affair with no end in sight, the Iranian leadership began to worry that it might be on the wrong side of history and had growing doubts about the wisdom of its policy. In order to hedge its bets, Tehran approached some Syrian opposition groups (which were Islamist or did not advocate the toppling of the Assad regime) to assess their stance on various issues relating to Iran, Israel, Lebanon and the United States. However, nothing substantive seems to have resulted from these and subsequent overtures in 2012.
As the Syrian crisis continued into the autumn and winter of 2011, it increasingly assumed both a regional and international dimension. A proxy war began to emerge involving both regional and international actors. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states began to provide material and financial support to the Syrian opposition. As a result, Iran, Hezbollah, and to some extent Iraq, felt compelled to throw their weight fully behind the Assad regime. Tehran perceived its regional rivals–particularly Riyadh–as using the Syrian crisis as a golden opportunity to deny it of its most valuable ally, and diminish its power and influence in the Middle East. On the international level, the US and European Union closed ranks to exert pressure and isolate Damascus. Moscow, which had traditionally been the main supplier of weapons to Syria, continued to ship arms to Damascus. Concomitantly, in the UN Security Council, Russia and China consistently thwarted Western efforts to punish Syria and blocked any move that could lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition. (Both Moscow and Beijing were determined to avoid making the mistake they had made with regard to Libya in 2011 when they did not block the passage of UNSC Resolution 1973 which provided NATO with the legal justification to intervene military to topple Muammar Qaddafi under the pretext of R2P–responsibility to protect civilians.) Iran and its allies increasingly came to view the situation in Syria as a zero-sum game, fearing that the ouster of the Syrian Ba’th could pave the way for the emergence of a new regime in Damascus that would be hostile towards Tehran. Consequently, the Iranian leadership made a strategic decision to fully support Assad by providing arms, oil and financial aid.
In 2012, when the United Nations and Arab League appointed Kofi Annan and later his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, as special envoys to mediate and resolve the Syrian conflict, Iran welcomed these moves. In general, Tehran is keen to be part of any multilateral initiative aimed at ending the current crisis and to have a role in shaping Syria’s political future. Iran’s interest in a political dialogue and possible diplomatic solution increased as the conflict in Syria dragged on into 2013, and it came to the bitter realization that the armed opposition could not be routed. Tehran looked for options to cut its losses and ensure that irrespective of the outcome of events in Syria, an anti-Iranian government would not come to power in Damascus. Concomitantly, Iran continued to provide military assistance to prop up the Assad regime in order to bolster its chances of survival and to strengthen its bargaining position in the event of a substantive political dialogue with its opponents. Tehran calculated that if the opposition failed to topple the Syrian Ba’th, it may eventually be amenable at the very least to some form of transitional government that contains some elements from the ancien regime. In essence, over the past two years, Iran has pursued a two-track policy by trying to engage in diplomacy to resolve the Syrian debacle politically, and in parallel, continuing to provide military support to the Assad regime.
It should be emphasized that with the passage of time, Tehran sees a number of advantages to a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis. First, it realizes that the pre-March 2011 political status quo ante cannot be restored. Therefore, it aims to contain the damage and extricate itself, if necessary, in a face-saving manner. Second, it is genuinely concerned that the prolonged fighting in Syria will have a knock-on effect and destabilize Lebanon and Iraq. This could further undermine the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the al-Maliki government in Iraq. Third, in view of its regional and international isolation due to its stance on the Syrian conflict and the imposition of Western sanctions because of its nuclear program, Iran would like to demonstrate its importance as a key regional actor involved in helping attain peace in Syria. Fourth, the Islamic Republic is extremely concerned about the growing sectarian polarization and the possible transformation of the conflict into a regional war pitting Sunnis against Shias. This would be detrimental to its efforts to export its revolutionary ideology and achieve Muslim unity. Fifth, Tehran knows that it cannot indefinitely provide financial and material support to the Assad regime due to its own economic woes and foreign sanctions. The Islamic Republic’s oil revenues have decreased markedly and its economy has begun to contract for the first time since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Sixth, although not considered an ideal solution, Iran may conclude that in the final analysis, it may be more prudent to facilitate the emergence of a national unity government in Damascus that may not be Tehran’s ally, but at minimum will not be its enemy either.
In the event the current war of attrition leads to the overthrow of Assad, Iran has started over the past year to build up a militia force in Syria known as the People’s Army (Jaysh al-Sha’bi) consisting of regime loyalists, Alawites and other groups to ensure that the new regime would not be able to assert control over Syria and would become bogged down. According to reports, the aim is to build up a force which is at least 100-thousand strong. Iran wants to have a viable, armed proxy in a post-Assad Syria. In short, Tehran’s objective is to ensure if it cannot have Syria as an ally in the Middle East, others should be prevented from instrumentalizing Syria against Iran in the regional power struggle.
If the Assad government is toppled, this would represent a major setback for Iran. Overall, it could be argued that if such an event were to occur, it would be the greatest loss for the Islamic Republic on the regional level since its creation in 1979. It would constitute a major blow, particularly in terms of the Islamic Republic’s ideological and foreign policy objectives. Syria has been the only stalwart Arab supporter of Iran. Furthermore, it has served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and material support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Since the end of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Damascus and Tehran have restored Hezbollah as a formidable force with an arsenal of some 40,000 rockets and missiles. The overthrow of the Assad regime could transform the regional situation overnight. Not only would Iran lose its most important Arab ally, but its ability to provide support for Hezbollah and to influence the situation in Lebanon and in the Arab-Israeli arena would also be severely curtailed. In addition to its importance in advancing Iranian ideological and foreign policy interests in the Levant, from Tehran’s vantage point, Hezbollah has become a vital actor to safeguard Iranian national security in recent years since the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program emerged. According to Iranian strategic thinking, potential Hezbollah retaliation against Israel serves as a trip wire for US and Israeli military action against Iran.
Although the current strategy of trying to prop up the Assad regime is partially aimed at preserving Iran’s ability to project its power and influence in the Levant, the strategy also has several key defensive components. Over the past year, tensions in Iraq have increased markedly, and the confrontation between the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and the Sunni opposition has intensified. Armed Sunni extremist groups have conducted bold attacks against Iraqi civilians and the vestiges of the Iraqi state. The success of the Syrian opposition in seizing control of areas in the east bordering Iraq and their increasing cooperation with Iraqi Sunni insurgents have contributed to the growing instability in Iraq. This has also alarmed policy makers in Tehran. A poignant example in 2013 was the announcement of the alliance between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front (Jabha al-Nusra) in Syria. Consequently, there is now a genuine fear in Tehran that if the Assad regime is toppled, it may have a knock-on effect in Iraq. This could lead to greater instability and potentially even to the overthrow of the current government in Baghdad and the rise of a Sunni-dominated regime. Iran sees this possibility as completely unacceptable. In fact, the security situation in Iraq figured prominently in the discussions Nouri al-Maliki had with the Iranian leadership during his first state visit to Tehran after Hassan Rouhani’s election. Moreover, Iran sees Syria as the first line of defense against a concerted effort by its regional and extra-regional foes not only to bring about regime change in Damascus and the end its alliance with Tehran, but as part of a longer term strategy to isolate and overthrow the Islamic Republic. According to Hojatolislam Mehdi Taeb, a close ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, “if we lose Syria, we won’t be able to hold Tehran.”
At present, Tehran fears the emergence of a crescent of pro-Western (Sunni) regimes stretching from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The nightmare scenario for Iran would be for the Syrian Ba’th to be replaced by a Sunni fundamentalist regime that is staunchly anti-Iran and anti-Shia, and closely allied with Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. However, “the mother of all nightmares” for Iran would be if both of the existing regimes in Damascus and Baghdad were toppled and succeeded by governments which are implacably hostile towards Tehran. To date, Iran has done all it can to ensure that Bashar Assad will not be toppled by pouring in men, materiel and money to bolster his position. In spite of its tremendous efforts and spending billions of dollars to prop up the Syrian regime, the outcome is still unclear. In fact, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a number of politicians and members of parliament (majles) have expressed disappointment about the results in the past. According to one estimate, by late 2012, Tehran had spent over US $10 billion to support the Assad regime. More recently, in July 2013, Tehran extended a US $3.6 billion line- of-credit to Damascus for the purchase of oil.
The Rise of Rouhani and Its Ramifications
Since the ascendance of Hassan Rouhani to the office of president in August 2013, it is evident that Syria has remained the main foreign policy challenge in the Middle East for the new Iranian leader. Hassan Rouhani is fully aware of Syria’s importance since he has been a key figure in the Islamic Republic’s political-security establishment, holding important government posts, including serving as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) between 1989 and 2005. The situation in Syria has been a major concern and preoccupation for President Rouhani and his team. Rouhani cannot be described as a hardliner, moderate nor reformist, but as a pragmatist. It is noteworthy that the political rhetoric emanating from Tehran has softened, and there have been shifts in the posture of the new administration. Iran has continued its two-pronged strategy of continuing to prop up the Assad regime, and concomitantly, seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis. However, Rouhani has been placing greater emphasis on pursuing a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria. Over the past several months, he has repeatedly underscored that the crisis must be resolved by the Syrians themselves and signalled Iran’s readiness to mediate between the Assad regime and the opposition. For instance, Rouhani declared that “the ground should be prepared for holding an absolutely free election with no preconditions.” The Iranian president realizes that there is no military solution, and the political track needs to be pursued more vigorously. Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has also voiced concern and warned the West by stating, “if the flames of sectarianism rage in the Middle East, you will see the results in the streets of London, New York, Rome and Madrid…we think people [in Syria] should be making their decisions at the ballot box and the tragedy there should come to an end with the help of neighboring countries.”
In order to set the stage for finding common ground on Syria with Iran’s neighbors and also mending fences with its regional rivals, the Rouhani administration has embarked on a diplomatic offensive in recent months to improve relations and diminish its isolation in the Middle East. Furthermore, its success in reaching an interim agreement with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) on the nuclear issue has contributed to defusing tensions and building some degree of trust. Iran’s diplomatic efforts have been led by foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who has visited Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and a number of Gulf Arab states. These efforts seem to have yielded fruit as Ankara and Tehran have jointly declared the need for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict, and the GCC has praised Iran’s new overtures and agreement to limit its nuclear activities. Iran has engaged in intensive efforts to mend fences with Turkey. As bilateral relations have thawed, Ankara has signalled its support for Iranian participation in peace talks on Syria. The rapprochement can be also partially attributed to the deterioration of Saudi-Turkish relations due to differences over Egypt and Syria. Last July, Riyadh backed the military coup in Cairo which ousted the Muslim Brethren from power, while Ankara vehemently denounced it. Furthermore, Turkey has been alarmed by Saudi attempts to limit its influence over the Syrian opposition, and it does not want to become a hotbed for Sunni Islamic extremists.
It remains to be seen whether Rouhani will have a free hand to pursue a new foreign policy, especially if it entails making some hard choices in order to reach an agreement on Syria. It is evident that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the hardliners have empowered Rouhani and Zarif to negotiate on the nuclear issue in order to diminish Iran’s isolation and improve the domestic economy. However, on key security issues, particularly regarding Syria and Lebanon, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its elite Qods Force have been the main drivers of Iranian policy. It is noteworthy that shortly after his inauguration, Rouhani served notice to the IRGC that they must stay out of politics and refrain from interfering in political decision-making. Rouhani asserted that “the IRGC is above and beyond political currents, not beside or within them…the IRGC has a higher status, which is that of the whole nation.” The IRGC in turn, to date has given qualified support to the Rouhani administration’s moves by stating that it supported any steps so long as they were in line with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s strategies and Iranian national interests “based on dignity, expediency and logic.” Hardliners in Tehran may impede and thwart Rouhani’s moves in view of their hostility toward the US and its allies in the Middle East.
In recent months, since the beginning of 2014, a number of developments have undermined the position of the Rouhani administration and strengthened the hand of the more hardline elements led by IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani who advocated unconditional support for the Syrian regime. First, from the Iranian perspective, if Tehran had not been invited to the Geneva II talks in January, it would have been highly disconcerting. However, the fact that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon initially extended an invitation to the Islamic Republic and then withdrew it after coming under immense pressure from the US and the Syrian opposition was considered deeply offensive and humiliating. This weakened the position of the pragmatists who believed that after concluding the interim agreement with the P5+1 on the Iranian nuclear program in November 2013, this landmark accord could build mutual trust and confidence, with cooperation then spilling over into the Syrian peace negotiations. Barring Iranian participation in Geneva II dashed such hopes. Furthermore, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that Iran could be allowed to contribute informally to the negotiations from the sidelines was interpreted as adding insult to injury. In view of Iran’s status as a regional power and a key player in the Syrian conflict, the Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesperson rejected Tehran playing only an informal role, declaring, “the Islamic Republic of Iran will not accept any proposal which does not respect its dignity.” Second, the failure of the Geneva II talks to yield any positive results in finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict reinforced the position of the hawks in Tehran would favored providing greater military support to the Assad regime in order to build on the momentum and successes which had been achieved on the ground against the rebels since 2013. Third, the outbreak of fighting in recent months among the Syrian opposition forces, most notably between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Nusra Front was seen by Soleimani as propitious opportunity to exploit divisions among the ranks of the rebels and seize the initiative in order to defeat them.
In recent weeks, Tehran has dispatched more military advisors, specialists and elite units (primarily from the IRGC but also other branches) to train Syrian government forces and pro-regime militias. There have been reports that they have established a presence in the vital government-controlled seaports of Tartus and Latakia, and Iranian transport aircraft have been ferrying weapons directly to the airport in Hama. In order to bolster the ranks of pro-government forces on the ground, with Iranian guidance and support, greater numbers of Iraqi militiamen from the Shia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah are being sent to take part in the fighting in Syria. It is estimated that between 8,000 to 15,000 Shia militiamen, primarily from Iraq and Lebanon, are currently in Syria. More recently, there have been reports that Iran is also recruiting Afghans to fight for the Syrian regime. In addition, due to the easing of international sanctions following the nuclear agreement last November, Iran has begun to ship larger amounts of oil to Syria.
Overall, the events of the past few months bode ill for resolving the Syrian conflict through peaceful means. On the international level, the rift between Washington and Moscow since the eruption of the crisis in the Ukraine may diminish the prospects of future joint US-Russian diplomatic initiatives to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian imbroglio. On the regional level, in spite of Iran’s rapprochement with a number of key neighbors, most notably Turkey, and recent positive signals emanating from Saudi Arabia, differences still remain. On the domestic level, in Syria, the failure of the Geneva II talks clearly demonstrated the huge political divide that continues to exist between the Assad regime and its opponents. The recent resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi has been another ominous sign of the dismal state of affairs. With regard to Iran, although senior Iranian officials such as Rouhani and Zarif have continued to reiterate the need to find a political solution and called for elections in Syria, their position has been undermined by recent events. Iranian hardliners who urge support for the Syrian regime at any cost seem to be on the ascendant for the moment. From the perspective of policy makers in Tehran, even if Assad can never reassert control over all of Syria, his ability to hold onto Damascus and the southern and western regions of the country could be considered a limited victory depending on how events unfold on the ground in the future.
In conclusion, at present, Iran will do all it can to ensure that Bashar Assad will not be toppled. There is no doubt that the Syrian-Iranian alliance is at a critical crossroads and its days may be numbered. That being said, its resilience and ability to survive major crises should not be underestimated. Those who dismiss its strength and capabilities, do so at their own peril. The alliance has always been able to thrive and surprise its opponents when it has been on the defensive. This has consistently been the case over the past three-and-a-half decades. In 1980, Saddam Hussein did not think that his invasion of Iran would lead to the formalization of the Tehran-Damascus nexus, thereby enabling it to thwart his efforts to deal a death blow against revolutionary Iran. Two years later, in 1982, Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan could not foresee that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the deployment of the Multinational Force would fail to bring the country into the US-Israeli orbit due to the decisive response and countermeasures taken by Syria, Iran and their Lebanese allies. In 2006, once again, Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush initially envisaged that a month-long, intensive aerial, naval and ground campaign waged by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) would result in the destruction of Hezbollah and weaken the regional power and stature of Syria and Iran. In fact, the exact opposite happened as Hezbollah was able to weather the storm, and in aftermath of the conflict, the popularity of Bashar Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad soared to unprecedented heights in the Arab-Islamic world. Finally, in early 2011, when the unrest in Syria erupted, no one predicted that the Assad regime would still be in power three years later as a direct consequence of stalwart Iranian support. Many believed that it would quickly meet with the same fate as the Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi regimes. Hence, it should be underscored that irrespective of how much longer the Damascus-Tehran nexus endures, its impact on Middle East politics over the past 35 years has been undeniable and significant. It has left its mark on the political landscape of the modern Middle East.
Jubin M. Goodarzi is Deputy Head of the International Relations Department at Webster University Geneva in Switzerland. He was previously a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. He has also worked with a number of US and UK research institutes and foundations, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, and the Ford Foundation in New York. Dr. Goodarzi is author of Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), and numerous articles and book reviews on the international relations of the Middle East. He holds a B.A. in International Studies from the American University, a M.A. in Arab Studies from Georgetown University, and a doctorate in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).
Yair Hirschfeld, “The Odd Couple: Ba’thist Syria and Khomeini’s Iran,” in Syria Under Assad: Domestic Constraints and Regional Risks, ed. Avner Yaniv and Moshe Ma’oz (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 105 and Shireen T. Hunter, “Syrian-Iranian Relations: An Alliance of Convenience or More?” Middle East Insight, June/July 1985, pp. 30-31. Hirschfeld, p. 105.
Hirschfeld, p. 105.
 Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 1-2.
 See Graham E. Fuller, The Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press/Rand Corporation, 1991).
Herbert S. Dinerstein, “The Transformation of Alliance Systems,” American Political Science Review, 59, No. 3 (1965), p. 599.
George Liska, Nations in Alliance: The Limits of Interdependence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), pp. 39-40 and Stephen M. Walt, “Why Alliances Endure or Collapse,” Survival, 39, No. 1 (1997), p. 159.
Liska, p. 62. Liska argues that consultations strengthen alliance cohesion since they reinforce solidarity and equality among the members. Liska, p. 69.
Liska, p. 82.
Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 35-36, 206-212 and “Why Alliances Endure or Collapse,” p. 163.
See Meris Lutz, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Calls Uprising an ‘Islamic Awakening’,” The Los Angeles Times, 4 February 2011.
 Confidential conversation with a senior Iranian official, Geneva, Switzerland, March 2012.
See BBC News Middle East, “Syria Conflict: Cleric Qaradawi Urges Sunnis to Join Rebels,” 1 June 2013.
See Sam Dagher, “Arab Media Clash Over Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, 24 March 2012.
For details, see David W. Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 128, Ian Black, “Iran Confirms It Has Forces in Syria and Will Take Military Action If Pushed,” The Guardian, 16 September 2012, and Con Coughlin, “Iran Sends Elite Troops to Aid Bashar al-Assad Regime in Syria,” The Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2012.
For details on the extent of Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict and the specious nature of Syrian opposition claims in this regard see “In Assad’s Syria, Iranians are Calling the Shots,” United Press International, 6 November 2013, and Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer, Iranian Strategy in Syria (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 2013), pp. 10, 13-15.
 See Emile Hokayem, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2013), p. 124 and Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj, “Transcript: Interview with Ali Larijani,” The Financial Times, 19 September 2012.
Iraq permitted Iran to establish an air bridge to Syria. Iranian military and civilian transport aircraft ferried weapons and supplies to Syria. In spite of US protests, Baghdad facilitated the flow of arms and looked the other way. See Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Tim Arango, “Flows of Arms to Syria Through Iraq Persists, to US Dismay,” The New York Times, 1 December 2013.
See The Daily Telegraph, 16 May 2012, and Lina Saigol, “Iran Helps Syria Defy Oil Embargo,” The Financial Times, 18 May 2012.
 For example, the recent spate of bombings targeting Hezbollah strongholds and the Iranian embassy in Beirut orchestrated by Sunni extremists underscore the growing tensions and displeasure with Hezbollah’s and Iran’s actions in the Syrian theater.
Karen De Young and Joby Warrick, “Iran and Hezbollah Build Militia Networks in Syria in Event That Assad Falls, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, 10 February 2013 and “Israel Sees 50,000 Syrian Fighters Backed by Iran,” Reuters, 14 March 2013. In early 2013, with Iranian assistance, the Assad regime began efforts to unify and consolidate its various paramilitary and militia formations into a new force called the National Defense Forces (Quwat al-Difa’a al-Watani). See “Syria Builds Paramilitary Force Aided by Iran: NGO,” Agence France Presse, 21 January 2013.
For details on Iranian support to Syria, see “Three-Way Bet: Hizbullah’s Strategic Dilemma in Lebanon,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 2011, p. 30.
See Jubin M. Goodarzi, “Radicalism or Realpolitik?: The Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Babylon: The Nordic Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 8, Number 2, 2010, p. 88 and Jubin M. Goodarzi, Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), p. xiv.
“Iraq PM in Talks on Syria During Iran Trip,” The Associated Press, 4 December 2013.
 See Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer, Iranian Strategy in Syria, p. 26.
 For example, see Hugh Tomlinson, “Tehran Split Over Billions Spent by Spy Chief to Prop Up Assad Regime,” The Times of London, 1 October 2012.
Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Iran Grants Syria $3.6 Billion Credit Facility to Buy Oil Products,’ Reuters, 31 July 2013.
See Hassan Rouhani, “Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement,” The Washington Post, 19 September 2013.
“Geneva 2 Must Aim to Free Polls in Syria: Iran,” The Daily Star, 5 December 2013.
Tim Arango and Sebnem Arsu, “Turkey and Iran Signal a Softening of Differences Over Syria,” The New York Times, 1 November 2013.
 See Tim Arango and Sebnem Arsu, “Turkey and Iran Signal a Softening of Differences Over Syria,” The New York Times, 1 November 2013, “Turkey, Iran Agree on ‘Relative Ceasefire’ in Syria,” Turkish Weekly, 28 November 2013, and Amer Sultan, “Gulf Summit Backs Egypt, Praises Iran and Warns Syria,” Al-Ahram, 12 December 2013.
“Turkey Expels Saudi Intelligence Over Diplomatic Rift: Source.” Al-Akhbar, 1 November 2013.
 “Iran’s Rouhani Tells Revolutionary Guards to Stay Out of Politics,” Reuters, 16 September 2013.
 See Jason Rezaian, “Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Takes Diplomatic Tone at Military Event,” The Washington Post, 22 September 2013.
For more details and analysis on the perspectives of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states on Iran see Ian Black, “Gulf Widens as Iran Returns from the Cold,” The Guardian, 12 December 2013, and Bernard Haykel and Daniel Kurtzer, “Saudi Arabia and Israel Have Very Different Concerns about Iran,” The Daily Star, 17 December 2013.
Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Says Iran Won’t Attend Peace Talks on Syria,” The International New York Times, 10 January 2014.
Ruth Sherlock, “Iran Boosts Support to Syria,” The Daily Telegraph, 21 February 2014.
Jonathan Saul and Parisa Hafezi, “Iran Boosts Military Support in Syria to Bolster Assad,” Reuters, 21 February 2014.
Martin Chulov, “Controlled by Iran, the Deadly Militia Recruiting Iraq’s Men to Die in Syria,” The Guardian, 12 March 2014.
For details, see Farnaz Fassihi, “Iran Pays Afghans to Fight for Assad,” The Wall Street Journal, 16 May 2014.
Alex Lawler and Jonathan Saul, “Iranian Oil Exports Rise in February, More to Ally Syria,” Reuters, 27 February 2014.
See Simeon Kerr, “Saudi Arabia Moves to Ease Regional Tensions with Iran,” The Financial Times, 13 May 2014, and Martin Chulov, “Saudi Arabia Moves to Settle Differences with Iran,” The Guardian, 13 May 2014.
Policy Update 3/2014
Can the Pope Revive Palestinian-Israeli Diplomacy?
By Joshua Rickard and Michael C. Hudson
- Pope offers symbolic gesture to Palestinians
- Pope reaffirms his commitment to to peace process
- Palestinian Christians living inside Israel have faced a dramatic increase in violent attacks by right-wing extremists
- Within Israel reaction to the Pope’s visit was mostly negative
It would take a miracle, say hardened Middle East observers, if the hundred year conflict over Palestine could finally be solved. Ever since it was carved out of the former Ottoman empire in World War I, the problem has eluded the best efforts of politicians and diplomats and instead spawned seven wars, two intifadas, thousands of casualties, and countless violent incidents. Dozens of diplomatic initiatives, including the ill-named “peace process” have failed.
When it comes to miracles in the Holy Land, can Pope Francis accomplish one? His landmark visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel this past week certainly has raised hopes that the “soft power” of religion might succeed, if not in solving the issue but at least restarting efforts to bring about a reasonably just two-state solution.
Pope Francis, who has become known for being outspoken on issues of human rights and social justice, has recently concluded a politically heated three-day tour of the Holy Land. The Pope’s recent visit has come at a time not only of faltering peace talks but also during the formation of a long awaited Palestinian unity government, which may address some divisions in the political rift between the Hamas and Fatah factions. In response, Israel has threatened to effectively wage economic war on Palestinian banks and imposing more severe restrictions.
In what may become a defining moment in Pope Francis’s reign, and a powerful symbolic message, he made an unscheduled stop outside of Bethlehem at the separation wall where he placed his forehead in prayer against graffiti reading “Free Palestine” at a location that divides Palestinians from Jerusalem. The wall, which runs through the West Bank is called a security fence by Israel but is called the apartheid wall by many Palestinians and considered an attempt to confiscate land. The decision to enter the West Bank to visit Bethlehem via Jordan as opposed to Israel is also interpreted by Palestinian leaders as a show of his support for a Palestinian state. The Pope also met with Palestinian leaders including Mahmoud Abbas as well as with youth from a Palestinian refugee camp. In response to the Pope’s prayer at the wall, Israel’s PM Netanyahu requested that the Pope makes an unscheduled visit to a memorial for Israeli terror victims located on Mt. Herzl. According to a press release by Netanyahu, he had apparently explained to the pontiff the importance of the wall in diverting terror attacks, in an apparent expression of disappointment at the Pope’s decision to pray at the separation wall.
During a speech at Ben-Gurion Airport addressed to PM Netanyahu the Pope implored that leaders secure a lasting peace in Jerusalem and called the current situation unacceptable. Meeting with Israeli president Peres, he reiterated his support for a two state solution at a time when such an arrangement has not seemed farther away. He also extended an invitation to both Peres and Abbas to join him at the Vatican for a unity prayer session, which both parties agreed to attend next month. In another attempt to build bridges the Pope met with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew for a unity service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as signing a pledge to work together in solidarity. This is significant as Orthodox and Catholics make up the majority Christian populations in the Levant, yet they have been divided since the Great Schism in 1054 separated Rome and Constantinople.
Prior to the Pope’s visit, he has on repeated occasions expressed concern for dwindling Christian communities in the region, particularly those of Nazareth and the Galilee. The population of Christian Palestinians living in both Israel and the West Bank and Gaza is significant but has been steadily declining. This has been a trend across the region for different reasons in various areas. In Syria and Iraq the communities had enjoyed protection under the previous regimes but have in recent years come under threat. In Palestinian communities Christians are well integrated and often successful in local businesses, despite this fact they still face the same restrictions on movement and discriminatory policies of military occupation as their Muslim counterparts. Christian Palestinian families have also tended to be a more affluent segment of the society with more connections in western nations, and therefore had more options to resettle elsewhere.
Since the most recently stalled peace talks began there has been a sharp rise in ‘price tag’ attacks against Palestinians by Israeli nationalist and specifically an increase in attacks against Christian holy sites in Israel. Palestinian Christians living inside Israel have faced a dramatic increase in violent attacks by right-wing extremists in recent months. Israel’s Christian population has also been under threat from politicians who have in some areas restricted access to holy sites and others who have advocated the removal of the population from Israel.Threat of attacks from Jewish extremists prompted the Israeli government to dispatch 8,000 police officers for security during his visit to Jerusalem. During the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem more than 150 right-wing extremist violently protested his presence clashing with police and barricading themselves inside King David’s Tomb complex.
Within Israel reaction to the Pope’s visit was mostly negative. One immediate result was an Israeli decision to build 50 new settler houses in Har Homa settlement adjacent to Bethlehem, where the Pope had stopped at the “separation wall” to acknowledge Palestinian suffering. An article in the Jerusalem Post of May 27 entitled “Pope Francis’s Unfriendly Visit” concluded that “Israelis and Jews around the world need to be aware of what is happening. Francis is leading the Catholic Church in a distressingly anti-Jewish direction.” Palestinians, however, were elated: despite the Pope’s visit to the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and his other pro-Israel gestures, they saw the Pope’s words and body language as expressing empathy for their cause. Clearly, neither side saw Pope Francis as a neutral figure; for Israelis he would not be a trusted mediator.
One potentially bright spot is that both the Palestinian and Israeli presidents have accepted Pope Francis’s invitation to come to the Vatican, but more than a prayer session will be necessary if a miracle is to occur. On balance, it appears that the Pope made more progress in promoting unity between the Latin and Orthodox Christian communities than between Palestinians and Israelis.