Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Sunni-Shia Divide

John Kerry and King Salman.
It is an incontestable fact that the real culprit behind the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism all over the Islamic world has been Saudi Arabia. The Bani Saud (the tribe of Saud) were the most primitive and marauding nomadic tribesmen of Najd who violently defeated the Sharifs of Mecca after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Their title to the leadership of Saudi Arabia is only de facto, not de jure; since they neither have any hereditary claim to the Saudi monarchy, nor do they hold elections to ascertain the will of the Saudi people.

Thus, they are the illegitimate rulers of Saudi Arabia and they feel insecure because of their illegitimacy; a fact which explains their heavy-handed and brutal tactics in dealing with any kind of dissent, or movement for reform in the Gulf States.

The phenomena of religious extremism and jihadism all over the Islamic world is directly linked to the Wahhabi-Salafi madrassahs (religious seminaries) that are generously funded by the Saudi and Gulf’s petro-dollars. These madrassahs attract children from the most impoverished backgrounds in the Third World Islamic countries because they offer the kind of incentives and facilities which even the government-sponsored public schools cannot provide: such as, free boarding and lodging, no tuition fee at all, and free of cost books and stationery; some generously-funded madrassahs even pay monthly stipends to their students.

Apart from madrassahs, another factor that promotes the Wahhabi-Salafi ideology in the Islamic world is the ritual of Hajj and Umrah (the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.) Every year millions of Muslim men and women travel from all over the Islamic world to perform the pilgrimage in order to wash their sins.

When they return home to their native countries after spending a month or two in Saudi Arabia, along with clean hearts and souls, dates and zamzam (purified water), they also bring along the tales of Saudi hospitality and their supposedly “true” and puritanical version of Islam, which some Muslims, especially the backward rural and tribal folk, find attractive and worth-emulating.

Authority plays an important role in any belief system; the educated people accept the authority of the specialists in their respective field of expertise; similarly, the lay folk accept the authority of the theologians and clerics in the interpretation of religion and scriptures. Apart from authority, certain other factors also play a part in the psychology of the believers: like, purity or the concept of sacred, and originality and authenticity, as in the concept of being closely corresponding to an ideal or authentic model.

Yet another factor which contributes to the rise of Wahhabi-Salafi ideology throughout the Islamic world is the immigrants’ factor. Millions of Muslim men, women and families from all over the Third World Islamic countries live and work in the energy-rich Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Oman. Some of them permanently reside there but mostly they work on temporary work permits.

Just like the pilgrims, when they come back home to their native villages and towns, they also bring along the tales of Saudi hospitality and their version of supposedly “authentic Islam.” Spending time in Gulf Arab States entitles one to pass authoritative judgments on religious matters, and having a cursory understanding of Arabic, the language of Quran, makes one equivalent of a Qazi (a learned jurist) among the illiterate rural folk; and they simply reproduce the customs and traditions of the Arabs as an authentic version of Islam to their communities.

The Shi’a Muslims have their Imams and Marjahs (religious authorities) but it is generally assumed about Sunni Islam that it discourages the authority of the clergy. In this sense, Sunni Islam is closer to Protestantism, at least theoretically, because it prefers an individual and personalized interpretation of scriptures and religion. Although this perception might be true for the educated Sunni Muslims, but on the popular level of the masses of the Third World Islamic countries, the House of Saud plays the same role in Sunni Islam that the Pope plays in Catholicism.

By virtue of their physical possession of the holy places of Islam – Mecca and Medina – they are the ex officio Caliphs of Islam. The title of the Saudi King: “Khadim-ul-Haramain-al-Shareefain” (the Servant of the House of God), makes him a vice-regent of God on Earth; and the title of the Caliph of Islam is not limited to a single nation state, he wields enormous influence throughout the Commonwealth of Islam: that is, “the Muslim Ummah.”

Notwithstanding, when we hear slogans like “no democracy, just Islam” on the streets of the Third World Islamic countries, one wonders that what kind of a simpleton would forgo one’s right to choose their government through a democratic and electoral process?

This confusion about democracy is partly due to the fact that the masses often conflate democracy with liberalism without realizing that democracy is only a political process of choosing one’s representatives through an electoral process, while liberalism is a cultural mindset which may or may not be suitable for the backward Third World societies depending on their existing level of cultural advancement.

One feels dumbfounded, however, when even some educated Muslims argue that democracy is somehow un-Islamic and that an ideal Islamic system of governance is caliphate. Such an ideal caliphate could be some Umayyad or Abbasid model that they conjure up in their minds, but in practice the only beneficiaries of such an undemocratic approach are the illegitimate tyrants of the Arab World who claim to be the Caliphs of Islam, albeit indirectly and in a nuanced manner: that is, the Servants of the House of God and the Keepers of the Holy places of Islam.

The illegitimate, and hence insecure, tyrants adopt different strategies to maintain and prolong their hold on power. They readily adopt the pragmatic advice of Machiavelli to his patrons: “Invent enemies and then slay them in order to control your subjects.”

The virulently anti-Shi’a rhetoric of the Gulf-based Wahhabi-Salafi preachers, who are on the payroll of the Gulf’s petro-monarchies, appears to be a cunning divide-and-rule strategy on the lines of Machiavelli’s advice. The illegitimate autocrats of the Gulf States cannot construct a positive narrative that can recount their own achievements, that’s why they espouse a negative narrative in order to vilify their political adversaries for regional dominance in the Middle East.

The Sunni-Shi’a conflict is essentially a political conflict which is presented to the lay Muslims in the veneer of religiosity. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest proven petroleum reserves, 265 billion barrels, and its daily crude oil production is more than 10 million barrels (equivalent to 15% of the global crude oil production.) However, 90 % of the Saudi petroleum reserves and infrastructure are located along the Persian Gulf’s coast, but this region comprises the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia which has a significant and politically active Shi’a minority.

Any separatist tendency in this Achilles’ heel of Saudi Arabia is met with sternest possible reaction. Remember that Saudi Arabia sent thousands of its own troops to help the Bahraini regime quell the Shi’a rebellion in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Shi’a-majority Bahrain, which is also geographically very close to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism is a threat to the Western countries but the Islamic countries are encountering a much bigger threat of sectarian conflict. For centuries the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have coexisted in relative peace throughout the Islamic World but now certain vested interests are deliberately stoking the fire of inter-sectarian strife to distract attention away from the home front: that is, the popular movements for democracy and enfranchisement in the Arab World.

Islam is regarded as the fastest growing religion of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are two factors that are primarily responsible for this atavistic phenomena of Islamic resurgence: firstly, unlike Christianity which is more idealistic, Islam is a more practical religion, it does not demands from its followers to give up worldly pleasures but only aims to regulate them; and secondly, Islam as a religion and political ideology has the world’s richest financiers.

After the 1973 collective Arab oil embargo against the West in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war, the price of oil quadrupled; and the contribution of the Gulf’s petro-sheikhs towards “the spiritual well-being” of the Muslims all over the world magnified proportionally. This is the reason why we are witnessing an exponential growth of Islamic charities and madrassas all over the world and especially in the Islamic World.

Moreover, it’s a misconception that the Arab sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and some emirates of UAE generally sponsor the Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam, because the difference between numerous sects of Sunni Islam is more nominal than substantive. Islamic charities and madrassas belonging to all the Sunni denominations get generous funding from the Gulf Arab states as well as private donors. Consequently, the genie of petro-Islamic extremism cannot be contained unless that financial pipeline is cut off. And to do that we need to promote the moderate and democratic forces in the Arab World even if they are moderately Islamic.

The moderate and democratic Islamism is different from the monarcho-theocratic Islamism of the Gulf variety, because the latter is an illegitimate and hence insecure regime; in order to maintain its hold on power it needs subterfuges and external rivals to keep the oppositional internal threats to its survival in check. Takfirism (labelling others as infidels) and jihadism are a manifestation of this Machiavellian trend.

In the nutshell, Islam is only a religion, just like any other cosmopolitan religion, whether it’s Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism; we don’t have to find any exceptionalist justifications to explain the phenomena of Islamic resurgence; it’s the petro-Islamic extremism and the consequent phenomena of Takfirism and jihadism, which are like the collision of continental tectonic plates that have engulfed the whole of Islamic World from the Middle East and North Africa to the Af-Pak and Southeast Asia regions.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Pakistan's Lesser-Known Pashtun Insurgency

Imran Khan in Pakistan's Tribal Areas.
Is it not ironic that two very similar insurgencies have simultaneously been going on in Pakistan for the last several years: the Baloch insurgency in the Balochistan province and the insurgency of the Pashtun tribesmen in the tribal areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province bordering the United States-occupied Afghanistan.

The Pakistani neoliberals fully sympathize with the oppressed Baloch nationalists but when it comes to the Pashtun tribesmen, they are willing to give the security establishment a license to kill, why? It’s only because the tribal Pashtun insurgents use the veneer of religion to justify their tribal instinct of retribution.

The name Islam, however, is such an anathema to the core neoliberal sensibilities that they don’t even bother to delve deeper into the causes of insurgency and summarily decide that since the Pashtun tribesmen are using the odious label of the Taliban, therefore they are not worthy of their sympathies and as a result the security establishment gets a carte blanche to indiscriminately bomb the homes and villages of the Pashtun tribesmen using air-force and heavy artillery.

As the well informed readers must be aware that military operations have been going on in the tribal areas of Pakistan since 2009; but do you have any idea that what does the euphemism “military operation” stands for? The Pakistani troops have not been playing a friendly cricket match with the tribesmen out there. A military operation, unlike the law enforcement or paramilitary operations, is an all-out war.

Air-force bombardment and heavy artillery shelling has been going on for several years; the Pashtun tribesmen have been taking fire; their homes, property and livelihoods have been destroyed; they have lost their families and children in this brutal war, which has displaced millions of tribesmen who are rotting in the refugee camps in Peshawar, Mardan and Bannu districts.

I have knowingly used the term ‘Pashtun tribesmen’ instead of ‘Taliban’ here, because this phenomena of revenge has more to do with tribal culture than religion, per se. In the lawless tribal areas, they don’t have courts and police to settle disputes and enforce justice; the justice is dispensed by the tribes themselves: the clans, families and the relatives of the slain victims take revenge, which is the fundamental axiom of their tribal ‘jurisprudence.’

In Pakistan, there are three distinct categories of militants: the Afghan-centric Pashtun militants; the Kashmir-centric Punjabi militants and the transnational terrorists, like al-Qaeda. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is mainly comprised of the Pashtun militants, carries out bombings against the Pakistani state apparatus. The ethnic factor is critical here. Although the TTP likes to couch its rhetoric in religious terms, but it is the difference of ethnicity that enables it to recruit Pashtun tribesmen who are willing to carry out subversive activities against the Punjabi-dominated state establishment.

Here we must keep in mind that an insurgency anywhere cannot succeed, unless the insurgents get some level of popular support from the local population. For example: if a hostile force tries to foment insurgency in Punjab, it would not be able to succeed; because Punjabis don’t have any grievances against Pakistan. On the other hand, if an adversary tries to incite an insurgency in the marginalized province of Balochistan and the tribal areas, it will succeed because the local Baloch and Pashtun population has grievances against the heavy-handedness of Pakistan’s security establishment.

Notwithstanding, excluding religion, all the diverse and remote regions of Asia and Africa that have been beset by militancy share a few similarities: 1) the weak writ of the respective states in their faraway rural and tribal areas; 2) the marginalization of different ethnic groups; 3) the intentional or unintentional weaponization of militant outfits that have been used as proxies, at some point in time in history, to further the agendas of their regional and global patrons. When religious extremism blends with militancy, it can give birth to strands as deadly as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia.

After invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, and when the American “nation-building” projects failed in those hapless countries, the United States’ policymakers immediately realized that they had been facing large-scale and popularly-rooted insurgencies against the foreign occupation, consequently the occupying military altered its CT (counter-terrorism) doctrines in the favor of a COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy. A COIN strategy is essentially different from a CT approach and it also involves dialogue, negotiations and political settlements, alongside the coercive tactics of law enforcement and paramilitary operations on a limited scale.

The goals for which the Islamic insurgents have been fighting in the insurgency-wracked regions are irrelevant for the debate at hand; it can be argued, however, that if some of the closest Western allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, have already enforced Sharia as part of their conservative legal systems and when beheadings, amputation of limbs and flogging of the criminals are a routine in Saudi Arabia, then what is the basis for the United States’ declaration of war against the Islamic insurgents in the Af-Pak and Middle East regions, who are erroneously but deliberately labeled as “terrorists” by the Western mainstream media to manufacture consent for the Western military presence and interventions in the energy-rich region under the pretext of the so-called “war on terror?”

Regardless, what bothers me is not that we have not been able to find the solution to our problems, what bothers me is the fact that neoliberals are so utterly unaware of the real structural issues that their attempts to sort out the tangential problems will further exacerbate the main issues. Religious extremism, militancy and terrorism are not the cause but the effect of poverty, backwardness and disenfranchisement.

The Pashtuns are the most unfortunate nation on the planet nowadays because nobody understands and represents them; not even their own leadership, whether religious or ethnic. In Afghanistan, the Pashtuns are represented by the Western stooges, like Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, and in Pakistan the Pashtun nationalist party, ANP, loves to play the victim card and finds solace in learned helplessness.

In Pakistan, however, the Pashtuns are no longer represented by a single political entity, a fact which has become obvious after the 2013 parliamentary elections in which the Pashtun nationalist ANP had been wiped out of its former strongholds. Now there are at least three distinct categories of Pashtuns: 1) the Pashtun nationalists who follow Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s legacy and have their strongholds in Charsadda and Mardan districts; 2) the religiously-inclined Islamist Pashtuns who vote for the Islamist political parties, like the Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI-F in the southern districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; 3) and finally, the emerging new phenomena, i.e. the Pak-nationalist Pashtuns, most of whom have joined Imran Khan’s PTI in recent years, though some of them have also joined the Muslim League.

Additionally, it should be remembered here that the general elections of 2013 were contested on a single issue: that is, Pakistan’s partnership in the American-led war on terror, which has displaced millions of Pashtun tribesmen. The Pashtun nationalist ANP was routed, because in keeping with its supposedly “liberal” ideology, it stood for military operations against the Islamist Pashtun militants in the tribal areas; and the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province gave a sweeping mandate to the newcomer in the Pakistani political landscape: Imran Khan and his PTI, because the latter promised to deal with the tribal militants through negotiations and political settlements.

Though Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif both have failed to keep their election pledge of using peaceful means for dealing with the menace of religious extremism and militancy, but the public sentiment was, and still is, firmly against military operations in the tribal areas. The 2013 parliamentary elections were, in a way, a referendum against Pakistan’s partnership in the American-led war on terror in the Af-Pak region, as I have already mentioned, and the Pashtun electorate had given a sweeping mandate to pro-peace political parties against the pro-war ANP.

Moreover, it’s a misperception to assume that the Pakistani security establishment used the Pashtuns as cannon fodder to advance their strategic objectives in the region. Their support to the Islamic jihadists, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s during the Cold War against the erstwhile Soviet Union, had been quite indiscriminate. There are as many Punjabi militants in Southern Punjab as there are Pashtun jihadists in the rural and tribal regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

The only difference between these two variants of militancy is that the writ of the state in Punjab is comparatively strong while in the tribal areas of KP it is weak, that’s why the militancy in KP has flared up into a full-fledged Pashtun insurgency. Furthermore, the difference of ethnicity and language between the predominantly Punjabi establishment and the Pashtun insurgents has further exacerbated the problem, and the militants do find a level of popular support among the rural and tribal masses of the Pashtun-majority areas.

Although the leadership of the Pashtun nationalist political parties loves to play the victim card but the fact of the matter is that religious extremism and terrorism have equally affected all the ethnicities in Pakistan, in fact this phenomena is not limited to Pakistan, rather it has engulfed the whole of Islamic World from North Africa and Middle East to Southeast Asia and even the Muslim minorities in China and Philippines have fallen prey to it.

However, without absolving the role of Pakistan’s security establishment in deliberately nurturing militancy in the Af-Pak region and in order to comprehensively identify the real cause of Islamic radicalism, it would be pertinent to mention that in its July 2013 report the European Parliament had identified the Wahhabi-Salafi roots of global terrorism. It was a laudable report but it conveniently absolved the Western powers of their culpability and chose to overlook the role played by the Western powers in nurturing Islamic radicalism and jihadism since the Cold War against the erstwhile Soviet Union.

The pivotal role played by the Wahhabi-Salafi ideology in radicalizing Muslims all over the world is an established fact as mentioned in the European Parliament’s report; this Wahhabi-Salafi ideology is generously sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf-based Arab petro-monarchies since the 1973 oil embargo when the price of oil quadrupled and the contribution of the Arab sheikhs towards the “spiritual well-being” of Muslims all over the world magnified proportionally.

However, the Arab despots are in turn propped up by the Western powers since the Cold War; thus syllogistically speaking, the root cause of Islamic radicalism has been the neocolonial powers’ manipulation of the socio-political life of the Arabs specifically, and the Muslims generally, in order to appropriate their energy resources in the context of an energy-starved, industrialized world.

Notwithstanding, in the Pakistani socio-political milieu there are three important political forces: the dominant Islamic nationalists; the ethno-linguistic nationalists; and the neoliberal elite. The Islamic nationalists are culturally much closer to the traditionalist, ethno-linguistic nationalists, but politically due to frequent interruptions of democratic process and the martial law administrators’ suspicion towards the centrifugal ethno-linguistic nationalists, the latter were politically marginalized.

As we know that politics is mostly about forming alliances, therefore the shrewd neoliberal elite wooed the naïve ethno-linguistic nationalists and struck a political alliance with them. But this alliance is only a marriage of convenience because culturally both these camps don’t have anything in common with each other. The Islamic nationalists and the ethno-linguistic nationalists belong to the same social stratum and they go through thick and thin together; while the comprador bourgeois are beholden to foreign powers.

Leadership is a two-way street: a judicious leader is supposed to guide the masses, but at the same time he is also supposed to represent the interests and aspirations of the disenfranchised masses; the detached and insular leadership that lives in a fantasy-world of outlandish theories and fails to understand the mindsets and inclinations of the masses tends to lose its mass appeal sooner or later.