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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Caught in geopolitical crossfire: Al-Azhar struggles to balance politics and tradition



By James M. Dorsey

When Pope Francis I visited Egypt in 2017 to stimulate inter-faith dialogue he walked into a religious and geopolitical minefield at the heart of which was Al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and foremost seats of Islamic learning. The pope’s visit took on added significance with Al-Azhar standing accused of promoting the kind of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that potentially creates an environment conducive to breeding extremism.

The pope’s visit came as Al-Azhar, long a preserve of Egyptian government and ultra-conservative Saudi religious influence, had become a battleground for broader regional struggles to harness Islam in support of autocracy.

At the same time, Al-Azhar was struggling to compete with institutions of Islamic learning in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan as well at prestigious Western universities.

The battleground’s lay of the land has changed in recent years with the United Arab Emirates as a new entrant, a sharper Saudi focus on the kind of ultra-conservatism it seeks to promote, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts since 2015 to impose control and force Al-Azhar to revise its allegedly conservative and antiquated curriculum that critics charge informs extremism.

Ordained by God

Addressing a peace conference at Al-Azhar, the pope urged his audience to "say once more a firm and clear 'No!' to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God."

In doing so, the pope was shining a spotlight on multiple complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa. These battles include Saudi efforts to distance ultra-conservatism from its more militant, jihadist offshoots; resistance to reform by ultra-conservatives who no longer are dependent on support of the kingdom; and differences between Saudi Arabia and some of its closest Arab allies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, in their approaches towards ultra-conservatism and opposition to extremism.

Mr. Al-Sisi, referring to assertions that Al-Azhar’s curriculum creates a potential breeding ground for extremism, charged at the outset of his campaign that “it is impossible that this kind of thinking drive the entire world to become a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction to the extent that we antagonize the whole world. It’s unconceivable that 1.5 billion Muslims will kill the whole 7 billion in the world so that they alone can rule.”

Mr. Al-Sisi, often prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandisement, threatened the university’s scholars in 2015 that he would complain to God if they failed to act on his demand for reform. "Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.," Mr. Al-Sisi said.

Speaking months later to a German Egyptian community, Mr. Al-Sisi, an observant Muslim who in a 2006 paper argued that democracy cannot be understood without a grasp of the concept of the caliphate, asserted that “God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, he made me like this so I could see and understand the true state of affairs. It’s a blessing from God.”

Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault on Al-Azhar was sparked by multiple factors: the Islamic State’s extreme violence; pressure by the United Arab Emirates that more recently joined the fray of those seeking to shape Islam in their mould, and the experiences of Egyptian intelligence officers with militants.

Hatred and bloodshed are backed up by curricula…that are approved by Islamic scholars, the ones that wear turbans… When I interrogated the extremists and talked to the Azhari scholars, I reached the conclusion that extremism comes primarily from the ancient books of Islamic jurisprudence which we’ve turned into sacred texts. These texts could have been forgotten long ago had it not been for those wearing the turbans,” said former Egyptian intelligence officer and lawyer Ahmad Abdou Maher, a strident critic of Al-Azhar.

Islam al-Bahiri, another Al-Azhar critic, who was jailed for his views and later pardoned by Mr. Al-Sisi charged that “Al-Azhar is part of the problem, not the solution. It cannot reform itself because if it does reform itself it would lose all authority. Al-Azhar is fighting for its own survival and not for the religion itself… They want you to follow religion as they understand it.”

Ironically, Mr. Al-Sisi has himself to blame for Al-Azhar’s ability to fend off the president’s effort. In attempting to not only tighten state control of Al-Azhar, Mr. Al-Sisi overreached by trying to fundamentally alter its power structure.

Legislation introduced in parliament would have limited the tenure of the grand imam, create a committee that could investigate the imam if he were accused of misconduct, broadened the base that elects the imam, included laymen in the Body of Senior Scholars that supervises Al-Azhar, and added presidential appointees to the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s overreach enabled Al-Azhar, in a rare example of successful opposition to his policies, to mobilize its supporters in and outside of parliament and defeat the legislation. It also allowed Al-Azhar to reject out of hand of Mr. Al-Sisi’s demand that it rewrites the rules governing divorce to make it more difficult for husbands to walk away.

The proposed legislation nonetheless sent a message that was heard loud and clear in Al-Azhar. In response to Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault, the leadership of Al-Azhar has sought to curb anti-pluralistic and intolerant statements by some members the faculty, set up an online monitoring centre to track militant statements on social media, and paid lip service to the need to alter religious discourse. It has, however, stopped short of developing a roadmap for reform of the institution and its curriculum.

Differences of opinion between ultra-conservatives among the Al-Azhar faculty and those more willing to accommodate demands for reform surface regularly.

Soaad Saleh, an Islamic law scholar and former head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee, last year publicly criticized a ruling by grand mufti Shawki Allam that exempted Egypt’s national team from fasting during Ramadan in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.

Ms. Saleh argued that only those travelling for reasons that please God such as earning money to feed the family, study or to spread the word of God were exempted from fasting. Soccer did not fall in that category, the scholar said.

Ms. Saleh earlier asserted that Muslims who conquered non-Muslims were entitled to sex slaves. “If we [Egyptians] fought Israel and won, we have the right to enslave and enjoy sexually the Israeli women that we would capture in the war,” Ms. Saleh said.

Ms. Saleh remains a member of the Al-Azhar faculty. So is Masmooa Abo Taleb, a former dean of men’s Islamic studies who argued several years ago that Al-Azhar had endorsed the principle that Muslims who intentionally miss Friday prayer could be killed.

Combatting extremism

Al-Azhar nevertheless asserts that it has reviewed its curriculum and was working with the education ministry to revise school textbooks. It rejects suggestions that the revisions are primarily cosmetic.

“We have done a number of corrective as well as preventive measures to respond to this urgent call about reforming Islamic religious discourse. We have revisited a number of religious fatwas that were authored in the past; fatwas that unfortunately have given rise to a number of wrong behaviours,” said Ibrahim al-Najm, a senior scholar at Dar al-Iftar, the Al-Azhar unit responsible for legal interpretations.”

Mr. Al Najm pointed to a revision of a fatwa that authorized female genital mutilation as well as Al-Azhar Facebook pages with millions of followers that refute jihadist teaching such as those of the Islamic State. A recent online textbook says in the introduction: “We present this scientific content to our sons and daughters and ask God that he bless them with tolerance and moderate thought ... and for them to show the right picture of Islam to people.”

Yet, scholars of the university struggle when confronted with an Al-Azhar secondary school textbook, a 2016 reprint of a book first written hundreds of years ago that employs the same arguments used by jihadists. The book defines jihad exclusively as an armed struggle rather than the struggle to improve oneself and contains a disputed saying of the Prophet according to which God had commanded Mohammed to fight the whole world until all have converted to Islam.

Scholars argued that such texts were part of history lessons that teach Islamic law, including the rules of engagement in war in times past. They assert that students are taught that interpretations of the law in historic texts may have been valid when the books were written but are not applicable to the modern-day world.

They further stress that the concept of jihad an-nafs, the struggle for improvement of oneself, was taught extensively in classes on ethics and morals. Al-Azhar has nonetheless advised faculty that they should not allow students to read old texts without supervision. Panels have been created to review books to ensure that they do not advocate extremist positions.

Al-Azhar’s critics charge that it is plagued by the same literalism and puritanical adherence to historic texts that radicals thrive on and that feeds intolerance and discrimination. Al-Azhar has lent credibility to those charges through various positions that it adopted. Those include, for example, demanding closing down a TV show that advocated the purge of canonical texts that promote violence against and hatred of non-Muslims and the suspension of a professor for promoting atheism by using books authored by liberals. 

Al-Azhar’s huge library that provides teaching materials is a target too. It contains volumes of interpretations of the Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet written over the centuries, some of which preach militant attitudes such as a ban on Muslims congratulating Christians on their holidays, a Muslim’s duty to fight infidels, the imposition of the death penalty on those who abandon Islam, and harsh punishments for homosexuals.

The blurring of the lines

Complicating the effort to reform Islam is a dichotomy shared by both Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi. Both accept the notion of a nation state and see themselves as guardians of Islamic Orthodoxy, witness the crackdowns for example on LGBT, as well as Mr. Al-Sisi’s failure to make good on his promise to counter discrimination of Egypt’s Coptic minority and widespread bigotry among the Muslim majority.

Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi also both embrace the civilizational concept of the ummah, the community of the faithful that knows no borders. Their efforts to counter extremism are moreover not fundamentally rooted in values that embrace tolerance and pluralism despite the adoption of the lingo but as defenders of Muslim conservatism against extremism and jihadism, trends they deem to be heretical.

In a study written in 2006 at the US War College, Mr. Al-Sisi, a deeply religious man whose wife and daughter are veiled, pushed the notion that democracy in the Middle East needed to be informed by the ‘concept of El Kalafa,’ the earliest period of Islam that was guided by the Prophet Muhammad and the Four Righteous Caliphs who succeeded him. “The Kalafa, involving obedience to a ruler who consults his subjects, needed to be the goal of any government in the Middle East and North Africa,” Mr. Al-Sisi wrote.

Resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s calls for fundamental reform is nonetheless deeply engrained. It has been boosted by a history of fending off attempts to undermine its independence, a deeply embedded animosity towards government interference and its definition of itself as the protector of Islamic tradition.

It has also been undergirded by decades of Saudi influence that was long abetted by Mr. Al-Sisi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and Mr. Al-Sisi’s high-handed approach.

The resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s campaign is further informed by the fact that although still revered, Al-Azhar no longer holds a near monopoly on Islamic learning. Beyond the competition from Saudi, Jordanian and Turkish institutions, Al-Azhar is also challenged by Islamic studies at European and North American institutes such as Leiden University, Oxford University, London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) the University of Chicago and McGill University.

Yet, those institutions too are not immune to producing ultra-conservatives. Take for example, Farhat Naseem Hashmi, a charismatic, 60-year old Pakistani Islamic scholar and cultural entrepreneur who graduated from the University of Glasgow. Ms. Hashmi has become a powerful ultra-conservative force among Pakistan’s upper middle class. Or Malaysian students in the Egypt, UK and elsewhere who were introduced to political Islam by Muslim Brotherhood activists at their universities.

Muhammed Azam of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Institute of Islamic Studies notes that the Malaysian government no longer funds students that want to go to Al-Azhar. “If they go (to Al-Azhar), it is self-funded,” Mr. Azam said. He noted further that Saudi Arabia had stepped in to offer hundreds of scholarships at institutions in the kingdom. “Because of the financial constraints, people to go to whatever country has got sponsorship,” Mr. Azzam said.

At the same time, Mr. Azzam said more Malaysians were heading to Jordan. “There is a shift. Malay parents now send their kids to Jordan to further their studies either in Islamic studies or Sharia or one specific subject matter or banking and finance… They have a different curriculum. They have the Islamic and the secular curriculum and that has given a different result for the graduates who come back,” he said.

A grinding, long drawn out battle

The upshot of all of this is that the struggle for Al-Azhar is likely to be grinding and drawn out rather than swift and decisive. It is a political, geopolitical and religious battle in which Mr. Al-Sisi, backed by his Gulf allies sees religious reform as one key to countering perceived security threats and extremism.

His nemesis, a Sorbonne-educated imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque, Ahmed El- Tayeb, pays lip service to the notion of reform but insists that textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise and righteousness, not obscurantism. Reform in Mr. El-Tayeb’s view cannot entail abandoning unambiguous Koranic texts or authentic sayings of the Prophet or hadiths.

Mr. Al-Sisi appears to also have learnt a lesson from his failed effort to bend Al-Azhar to his will. His religious endowments ministry has laid the groundwork for male and female imams to be trained at a newly-inaugurated International Awqaf Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than Al-Azhar. The ministry has drafted the curriculum to include not only religious subjects but also politics, psychology and sociology.

Built on an area of 11,000 square meters, the academy boasts a high-tech infrastructure with foreign language and computer labs.  Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh, the Saudi Islamic affairs minister, attended the inauguration and promised that the Saudi Institute of Imams and Preachers would work closely with the academy. Select Al-Azhar faculty have been invited to teach at the academy. Training courses last six months.

The academy competes with the just opened Al-Azhar International Academy that in contrast to the government’s academy focuses exclusively on religious subjects. The Al-Azhar initiative builds on the institution’s international outreach in recent years that was designed to combat extremism and project Al-Azhar as independent and separate from the Egyptian government.

Parallel to the inauguration of the government academy, Mr. Al-Sisi, in an effort to curtail Al-Azhar’s activity decreed that senior officials including Mr. El-Tayeb would need to seek prior approval from the president or the prime minister before travelling abroad.

As part of his effort to micro-manage every aspect of Egyptian life and frustrated at Al-Azhar’s refusal to bow to his demands, Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, ignoring Al-Azhar objections, instructed his religious affairs ministry to write standardized sermons for all mosque preachers.

While resisting Mr. Al-Sisi’s attempts to interfere in what Al-Azhar sees as its independence and theological prerogatives, it has been careful not to challenge the state’s authority on non-religious issues. This was evident in Al-Azhar’s acquiescence in the arrest in 2015 of some 100 Uyghurs, many of them students at Al-Azhar, who at China’s request were deported to the People’s Republic.

Convoluted geopolitics

The pope’s interlocutors at Al-Azhar meanwhile tell the story of the institution’s convoluted geopolitics.

They included former Egyptian grand mufti Ali Gomaa, an advocate of a Saudi-propagated depoliticized form of Islam that pledges absolute obedience to the ruler, an opponent of popular sovereignty, and a symbol of the tension involved in adhering to both Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that serves the interests of the Saudi state, and being loyal to the government of his own country.

A prominent backer of Mr. Al-Sisi’s grab for power, Mr. Gomaa frequently espouses views that reflect traditional Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism rather than the form projected by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In an interview with MBC, a Saudi-owned media conglomerate, Mr. Gomaa asserted in 2015 that women did not have the strength to become heart surgeons, serve in the military, or engage in sports likes soccer, body building, wrestling and weightlifting. A year later, Mr. Gomaa issued a fatwa declaring writer Sherif El-Shobashy an infidel for urging others to respect a woman’s choice on whether or not to wear the veil.

Prince Mohammed has since 2015 significantly enhanced women’s professional and sporting opportunities although he has not specifically spoken about the sectors and disciplines Mr. Gomaa singled out.

Pope Francis’ interlocutors in Cairo also included Mr. El-Tayeb, the imam of the Grand Mosque. A prominent Islamic legal scholar, who opposes ultra-conservatism and rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize, recalls Mr. El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar scholars, the legal scholar said, compete “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.

“Many of my friends and family praise Abdul Wahab in their writing,” the scholar said referring to Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century religious leader whose puritan interpretation of Islam became the basis for the power sharing agreement between the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family and its religious establishment. “They shrug their shoulders when I ask them privately if they are serious… When I asked El-Tayeb why Al-Azhar was not seeing changes and avoidance of dogma, he said: ‘my hands are tied.’

To illustrate Saudi inroads, the scholar recalled being present when several years ago Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, a former grand mufti and predecessor of Mr. El-Tayeb as imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, was interviewed about Saudi funding. “What’s wrong with that?” the scholar recalls Mr. Tantawy as saying. Irritated by the question, he pulled a check for US$100,000 from a drawer and slapped it against his forehead. “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), they are our brothers,” the scholar quoted Mr. Tantawy, who was widely seen as a liberal reformer despite misogynist and anti-Semitic remarks attributed to him, as saying.

Separating the wheat from the chafe at Al-Azhar is complicated by the fact that leaders of the institution although wary of Salafi influence have long sought to neutralize ultra-conservatives by appeasing rather than confronting them head on. 

The Al-Azhar scholars believed they could find common ground on the grounds that they and the ultra-conservatives each had something the other wanted. Beyond gaining influence in a hollowed institution, ultra-conservatives wanted to benefit from its credibility while Al-Azhar hoped to capture some of the ultra-conservatives’ popularity on Muslim streets. That popularity would help justify Al-Azhar’s long-standing support for Egyptian and Arab autocracy.

Absolute obedience

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed, has, at least in the greater Middle East including Al-Azhar, largely focused on the promotion of a specific strand of Salafism, Madkhalism.

Led by octogenarian Saudi Salafi leader, Sheikh Rabi Ibn Hadi Umair al-Madkhali, a former dean of the study of the Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings at the Islamic University of Medina, 
Madkhalists seek to marginalize more political Salafists critical of Saudi Arabia by projecting themselves as preachers of the authentic message in a world of false prophets and moral decay.

They propagate absolute obedience to the ruler and abstention from politics, the reason why toppled Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi tolerated them during his rule and why they constitute a significant segment of both Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) as well as forces under the command of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

Madkhalists often are a divisive force in Muslim communities. They frequently blacklist and seek to isolate or repress those they accuse of deviating from the true faith. Mr. Al-Madkhali and his followers position Saudi Arabi as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The promotion of Madkhalism falls on fertile ground in Al-Azhar. It was part of what prompted conservative Al-Azhar clerics to call on Egyptians not to join the 2011 mass protests on the grounds that Islam commands Muslims to obey their ruler even if he is unjust because it could lead to civil strife.

Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born Qatari-based scholar with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, unsuccessfully sought to counter Al-Azhar’s call by developing an alternative strand of legal thought that he described as fiqh al-thawra or jurisprudence of the revolution.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi 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.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi’s argument failed to gain currency among the Al-Azhar establishment. Moreover, more critical thinking like that of Mr. Al-Qaradawi barely survived, if at all, in private study circles organized by more liberal and activist scholars associated with Al-Azhar because of the risks involved in Mr. Al-Sisi’s tightly controlled Egypt.

A new kid on the block

If Saudi money was a persuasive factor in shaping Al-Azhar’s politics and to some degree its teaching, the kingdom has more recently met its financial match. Ironically, the challenge comes from one its closest allies, the United Arab Emirates, which promotes an equally quietist, statist interpretation of Islam but opposes the kind of ultra-conservatism traditionally embraced by Saudi Arabia. The UAE has scored initial significant successes even if its attempts to persuade Al-Azhar to open a branch in the Emirates have so far gone unheeded.

Mr. Al-Sisi demonstrated his backing of the UAE approach by not only acquiescing in the participation of Messrs. Gomaa and El-Tayeb but also sending his religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari, to attend a UAE and Russian-backed conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2016 that condemned ultra-conservatism as deviant and excluded it from its definition of Sunni Muslim Islam.

The UAE scored a further significant success with the first ever papal visit to the Emirates in February by Francis during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Mr. Al-Tayeb.

The pope, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledged the UAE’s greater influence, when in a public address, he thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Mr. Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration. “Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al-Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist with close ties to key players in Al-Azhar and the UAE.

The UAE’s increasing involvement in Al-Azhar is part of a broader strategy to counter political Islam in general and more specifically Qatari support for it. The Grozny conference was co-organised by the Tabah Foundation, the sponsor of the Senior Scholars Council, a group that aims to recapture Islamic discourse that many non-Salafis assert has been hijacked by Saudi largesse. The Council was also created to counter the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Mr. Al-Qaradawi.

There’s a big, wide world out there

Mr. Al-Sisi’s efforts to gain control or establish alternative structures and competing UAE and Saudi moves to influence what Al-Azhar advocates and teaches notwithstanding, it remains difficult to assess what happens in informal study groups. Those groups are often not only dependent on the inclinations of the group leader but also influenced by unease among segments of the student body with what many see as a politicization of the curriculum by a repressive regime and its autocratic backers that are hostile to them.

Islamist and Brotherhood soccer fans, many of whom studied at Al-Azhar, were the backbone of student protests against the Al-Sisi regime in the first 18 months after the 2013 military coup.

Unease among the student body is fuelled by the turning of Al-Azhar and other universities into fortresses and an awareness that students, and particularly ones enrolled in religious studies, are viewed by security forces as suspicious by definition, monitored and regularly stopped for checks.

“The majority of students at Akl Azhar are suspect. They lean towards extremism and are easily drafted into terrorist groups,” said an Egyptian security official. Foreign students wearing identifiable Islamic garb complain about regularly being stopped by police and finding it increasingly difficult to get their student visas extended.

A walk through the maze of alleyways around the Al-Azhar mosque that is home to numerous bookshops suggests that there is a market not only for mainstream texts but also works of more radical thinkers such as Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century theologist and jurisconsult, whose thinking informs militants and jihadists and Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Kishk, a graduate of Al-Azhar known for his popular sermons, rejection of music, propagation of polygamy, and tirades against injustice and oppression.

Works of Sayyid Qutb, the influential Muslim Brother, whose writings are widely seen as having fathered modern-day jihadism, are sold under the table despite the government’s banning of the Brotherhood.

Caught in the crossfire

Caught in the crossfire of ambitious geopolitical players, Al-Azhar struggles to chart a course that will guarantee it a measure of independence while retaining its position as the guardian of Islamic tradition.

So far, Al-Azhar has been able to fend off attempts by Mr. Al-Sisi to assert control but has been less successful in curtailing the influence of Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE that increasingly are pursuing separate agendas.

In addition, Al-Azhar is facing stiff competition from a newly established Egyptian government facility for the training of imams as well as institutions of Islamic learning elsewhere in the Muslim world and Islamic studies programs at Western universities.

Al-Azhar’s struggles are complicated by the driving underground of alternative voices as a result of an excessive clampdown in Egypt, unease among segments of the student body and faculty at perceived politicization of the university’s curriculum and the blurring of ideological lines that divide the protagonists.

They are also complicated by inconsistencies in Al-Azhar’s matching of words with deeds. The institution has taken numerous steps to counter extremism and bring its teachings into line with the requirements of a 21st century knowledge-driven society. Too often however, those measures appear to be superficial rather than structural.

The up-shot is that redefining Al-Azhar’s definition of itself and the way it translates that into its teachings and activities is likely to be a long-drawn-out struggle.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Building cohesive societies: Southeast Asian states take on gargantuan challenge



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Several Southeast Asian governments and social movements are seeking to counter mounting polarization and inter-communal strife across the globe fuelled by the rise of civilizationalist leaders who think in exclusionary rather than inclusionary terms.

In the most high-brow of various initiatives, King Abdullah of Jordan is scheduled to deliver a keynote address at the inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies organized by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with support from the Singapore government.

Singapore president Halimah bint Yacob has mooted the conference as a high-level forum involving religious leaders akin to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that for the past 17 years brings together annually senior Asian, European and US government officials in what is Asia’s foremost security forum.

In what amounts to a timely strategic effort to tackle what may be one of the most fundamental threats to peace and security, the conference reflects a growing concern that global polarization and civilisationalism could fuel inter-communal tensions and militancy in Southeast Asian societies.

It crowns a separate Indonesian initiative that targets religious reform and Malaysian willingness to speak out on controversial or sensitive issues.

Southeast Asian concerns include fear that Rohingya lingering in refugee camps in Bangladesh with no prospects could radicalize, the possibility of extremists capitalizing on the fact that reconstruction of the devastated southern Philippine city of Marawi has stalled two years after it was overrun by jihadists, and the danger that suspected sleeper cells of groups like the Islamic State will seek to disrupt the region’s social fabric.

"The social fabric of many communities is stressed by extremism, exclusivism and polarisation. It is important for us to grow trust across communities. This will always be a work in progress, so it is an effort we must constantly invest in," Ms. Yacob said on the eve of the Singapore conference.

King Abdullah, in a separate statement, warned that “attacking and excluding others, insulting other peoples and their faiths and convictions - this is no way forward. The future lies in unity and respect, not division and stereotypes."

Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah’s warnings were designed to be an anti-dote to rising prejudice and racism fuelled by the rise of supremacism of various stripes and Islamophobia as well as increased anti-Semitism that often is encouraged by world leaders for ideological or opportunistic reasons.

For Ms. Yacob and King Abdullah, the concern is not a far-from-my-bed show.

Human rights activists were taken aback when Myanmar leader, Nobel peace prize winner and one time human rights advocate Aung San Suu Kyi agreed earlier this month during a visit to Hungary with far-right, staunchly anti-immigrant prime minister Viktor Orban that both Southeast Asia and Europe were struggling with the “emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.”

Southeast Asia and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are home to the world’s most populous and foremost Muslim democracy, Indonesia, as well as Malaysia that has been among the most outspoken in criticizing Myanmar’s repression of the Rohingya and one of the few Islamic countries to speak out about China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

To King Abdullah, Ms. Yacob’s backyard must look like something approaching paradise. Conflict characterizes all of his kingdom’s borders.

Moreover, the Middle East, beyond Jordan’s immediate borders, is wracked by civil wars, national conflicts and regional rivalries that all involve aspects of prejudice, right-wing nationalism, militancy and sectarianism.

Add to that, the world is holding its breath as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran square off in the Gulf in a dangerous dance that threatens to spiral out of control.

Less highbrow but no less ambitious, Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Sunni Muslim movement, has launched a campaign with Indonesian government backing to “reinterpret and recontextualize” Islam.

The campaign amounts to more than simply confronting ultra-conservatism and militancy. It is a pushback against the notion that secularism and pluralism are expressions of a Western conspiracy to undermine Islam.

If successful, Nahdlatul Ulama’s strategy could have far-reaching consequences. For many Middle Eastern autocrats, adopting a more tolerant, pluralistic interpretation of Islam would mean allowing far greater social and political freedoms and embracing concepts of pluralism. That would likely lead to a weakening of autocrats’ grip on power.

Similarly, political scientist and Islam scholar Ahmet T. Kuru throws down a gauntlet in a forthcoming book by arguing that the notion of Islam rejecting a separation of religion and state is based on “a fabricated hadith” or saying of the Prophet Mohammed that has since been perpetuated.

Singapore’s conference like Nahdlatul Ulama’s initiative constitute accepting a gargantuan but critical challenge posed by civilizationalist leaders who reflect deeply rooted currents in societies irrespective of their political systems and/or notions and myths that have been nurtured over centuries.

Inclusiveness is the magic wand touted by all seeking to halt a slide toward societies characterized by fragmentation, political polarization and inter-communal discord. Yet, the enormity of the challenge lies in addressing deep-seated grievances and challenging taboos.

Discussing the rise of populism in the West, politics scholar Matthew Goodwin identifies what he terms the four Ds that drive democracy’s turmoil: distrust of political institutions that have become less representative; the destructive impact of fear of loss of national identity, culture and way of life; ethno-national deprivation fuelled by liberal elites’ focus on migrant and minority rights; and the dealignment of significant segments of the electorate with the traditional parties they long supported.

Mr. Goodwin’s four Ds are likely to challenge cohesiveness even if, as Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper notes, their foremost political beneficiaries are being sucked into the swamp they vowed to drain.

US president Donald J. Trump, Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, former Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, and billionaire Czech prime minister Andrej Babis are all fighting off allegations of wrongdoing.

The allegations and their legal entanglements mean that they risk losing the high ground on issues of corruption, alongside immigration and security, a key pillar of their recent success.

Putting forward an optimistic argument, Mr. Kuper notes that concerns about migration and security no longer top Europeans’ agenda with younger voters mobilising around climate change.

Polls, however, suggest that the popularity of leaders accused of illegitimately benefitting from wrongdoing or questionable practices and their political parties have lost little of their allure despite climate change increasingly becoming a major concern.

Populists’ current Teflon effect means that building cohesive societies will have to involve finding a middle ground between majoritarian concerns and concepts of diversity, multiculturalism and minority rights.

It amounts to manoeuvring minefields and treading on uncharted territory irrespective of culture and political system.

In the absence of the perfect blueprint, countries like Singapore, New Zealand and Norway have in their own ways taken a lead in attempting to make inclusion a pillar of policy.

While inter-communal harmony has long been a driver of Singapore’s social and economic policies, New Zealand and Norway responded to traumatic acts of political violence by bucking the trend towards polarization, profiling and concepts of us and them by saying not me instead of me too.

The proof is in the pudding.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who became an icon of compassion and inclusivity with her response to the killing of 50 people in March in two Christchurch mosques, recalled a Muslim woman reacting to the government’s response by telling her that, despite having been a target, she had "never felt more at home (in New Zealand) than she had in the last 10 days" since the attacks.

Singapore’s creation of a global forum in which opposing views and grievances are aired constitutes a vital contribution towards creating the environment for the building of more cohesive societies. It is a vital cog in a mesh of attempts to achieve legal reform and call out abuse and violations of human rights.

Taken together, they hold out the promise of a concerted effort to counter debilitating prejudice and bias even if a truly cohesive, harmonious society may prove to be a utopia.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Russia joins Gulf states in coaching Sudan’s military



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Russia has emerged as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ silent partner in assisting the Sudanese military’s efforts to weaken, if not defeat a months-long popular revolt that has already toppled president Omar al-Bashir.

Documents leaked to The Guardian and MHK Media, a Russian-language news website, by the London-based Dossier Centre, an investigative group funded by exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, disclosed Russia’s hitherto behind-the-scenes role in Sudan.

Laying out plans to bolster Russia’s position across Africa by building relations with rulers, striking military deals, and grooming a new generation of leaders and undercover agents, the documents included details of a campaign to smear anti-government protesters in Sudan.

The plan for the campaign appeared to have been copy-pasted from proposals to counter opposition in Russia to president Vladimir Putin with references to Russia mistakenly not having been replaced with Sudan in one document.

Russia advised the Sudanese military to use fake news and videos to portray demonstrators as anti-Islamic, pro-Israeli and pro-LGBT. The plan also suggested increasing the price of newsprint to make it harder for critics to get their message out and to discover “foreigners” at anti-government rallies.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg-based businessman and close associate of Mr. Putin, complained in a letter to Mr. Bashir before he was overthrown that the president was not following his advice.

Mr. Prigozhin, who was indicted by US special counsel Robert Mueller for operating a troll factory that ran an extensive social media campaign that favoured of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was according to the documents a key player in efforts to enhance Russian influence in Africa.

Mr. Prigozhin accused Mr. Bashir and his government of not being active enough and adopting an “extremely cautious position.”

If a visit this week to Sudan by foreign journalists at the invitation of the military to show them medical facilities that had allegedly been ransacked by protesters and demonstrate that hospitals that had been attacked by notorious paramilitary forces associated with Sudanese army were returning to normal, is anything to go by, Mr. Prigozhin’s criticism may have merit.

“It must have seemed like a good idea to somebody, although I cannot imagine why. The plan was to show us how terribly the protesters had behaved. If the world could see what they were really like they would understand that the regime had no choice but to send in the militia. Except from the moment we arrived at the first medical facility things started to go wrong,” said the BBC’s Africa editor, Fergal Keane.

To Mr. Keane, the omnipresence of paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) made the paramilitary headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka Hemedti, believed to be a Saudi and UAE favourite because his troops fought in Yemen and his reputation for ruthlessness, look “more like an army of occupation than an internal security force.”

Widely viewed as ambitious and power hungry, General Dagalo resembles in the eyes of protesters Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the autocratic general-turned-president who in 2013 staged a Saudi-UAE-backed military coup that toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Defending the UAE’s contacts with the military council, Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said his country’s “credibility is our means to contribute to enhancing peaceful transition in a way that preserves the state and its institutions.”

Human Rights Watch this week called on the United Nations Security Council to halt the withdrawal of peacekeepers from Darfur, noting that the Rapid Support Forces “have a long track record of abuse. They carried out highly abusive counter-insurgency campaigns in Darfur, and the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions over the past five years, in which they attacked villages, killed and raped civilians, and burned and looted homes.”

Witnesses outside a medical facility and a hospital that Mr. Keane visited countered the military’s tale, describing how troops stormed the buildings and looted and destroyed facilities. “"The international community has to intervene. There is no peace here in Sudan. People are suffering a lot… I am frightened for my country," said a man as he drove by Omdurman Hospital.

The failed public relations tour, the crackdown, the Russian guidance and stalled talks between protesters and the military fits a Saudi-UAE promoted pattern that has evolved across the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 popular Arab revolts. It’s a pattern that aims to defeat popular protest at whatever cost.

The Sudanese protest movement has emerged from the crackdown that doctors said killed at least 118 people and efforts to delegitimize it battered, divided and potentially weakened but still standing.

A general strike declared at the beginning of this week initially paralyzed the capital Khartoum but within a day or two appeared to be weakening.

Ethiopian mediator Mahmoud Dirir said on Tuesday that the protesters had agreed to end the strike while the governing Transitional Military Council (TMC), headed by officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was ready to release political prisoners, one of several key demands of the protesters.

Mr. Dirir said the two sides had also agreed to “soon” resume talks to resolve the crisis even if they were nowhere near narrowing differences of returning Sudan to civilian rule. It was not clear what soon meant.

“Negotiation - even if it happens soon - will circle back to the same issue: will the military cede power to a civilian government? Nothing about the generals' actions has indicated that this is an imminent possibility. The fear is that they will use any negotiations to try to divide the opposition while security pressure is maintained on the streets,” Mr. Keane said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Russian Iranian strains raise spectre of US-Israeli-Russian deal on Syria


By James M. Dorsey


A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

With Israel set to host an unprecedented meeting of the national security advisors of the United States, Russia and Israel, this week’s efforts by German foreign minister Heiko Maas and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to mediate between the US and Iran could prove to be a sideshow.

The meeting of the national security advisors, against the backdrop of Syrian and Russian forces pummelling the northern region of Idlib, the last major stronghold of Syrian rebels, takes on added significance with strains emerging in relations between Moscow and Tehran.

Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced in the latest attacks that have not shied away from targeting hospitals and residential areas.

In what may be marching orders for his national security advisor, John Bolton, US President Donald J. Trump tweeted last week: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The World is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”

While few expect the advisors’ meeting this month in Jerusalem to produce immediate results, US and Israeli officials hope that it could prepare the ground for a deal that would further weaken Russian ties to Iran and reduce, if not terminate Iran’s presence in Syria.

Among multiple scenarios being bounced around, some analysts believe that a possible deal could involve Russia pushing Iran out of Syria, a key US and Israeli demand, in exchange for the lifting of at least some American and European sanctions against Russia and US acceptance of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu rejected a similar Russian proposal last November.

“The fact that the Russians see value in these conversations, that they’re willing to do it publicly, I think is in and of itself quite significant. And so we are hopeful that they’re coming to the meeting with some fresh proposals that will allow us to make progress,” said a senior Trump administration official.

The officials suggest that a recent Russian refusal to sell Iran its most advanced S-400 missile defense system because that could fuel regional tensions and tacit Russian acquiescence to Israeli military strikes against Iranian and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah targets in Syria opens the door to a potential deal.


Mr. Bolton’s discussions with Israeli national security advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Nikolay Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council, could not come at worse moment for Iran as it struggles to dampen the effect of harsh US sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

Analysts Udi Dekel and Carmit Valensi argued in a report published last month by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) that despite public statements to the contrary, Russia like Israel, rejects a withdrawal of US forces from Syria.

After initially announcing in February a complete pullback, Mr. Trump agreed to keep several hundred US troops in the country.

Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi said that a US withdrawal would strengthen Iran and force Russia to allow Iran to take control of oil fields in the east of the country.

Writing in Haaretz, columnist Zvi Bar’el suggested that Russia and Iran differ over the endgame in Syria. “Russia has no intention of simply returning Syria to Assad’s control,” Mr. Bar’el said. He added that Russia sees Syria as a base to forge closer ties to the Gulf and Egypt.

Iran, by contrast, hopes to capitalize on its massive investment in Syria to maintain its influence in Lebanon, counter Saudi regional ambitions and grant it access to the Mediterranean.

Scores were killed in clashes between pro-Iranian militias and Russian forces in Aleppo and Deir az-Zor in April. Russian forces last month reportedly removed Shiite militias from areas close to the international airports of Aleppo and Damascus.

Ibrahim Al-Badawi, a Syrian columnist identified with Mr. Al-Assad’s regime, reported that Russian and Syrian security forces had arrested pro-Iranian Syrian activists.

Mr. Al-Badawi said further that a recent reshuffle of the upper echelons of the Syrian state security apparatus had been designed to weaken the position of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother and commander of his Republican Guard as well as the army's elite Fourth Armoured Division. Maher al-Assad is believed to be close to Iran.

Russia and Iran are “each…striving to strengthen its influence in the Syrian security apparatuses and in the militias fighting on the ground, while weakening the other side's influence and presence… The [once-]concealed disagreements among Syria's allies are now out in the open. It is no longer a secret that Russia, in response to a clear demand from the Gulf, aspires to weaken Iran's influence,” Mr. Al-Badawi wrote.

A possible litmus test of the potential of the talks between the national security advisors may be whether Russia accedes to an Israeli request not to give Syria full control of the S-300 anti-missile system, the equivalent of the US Patriot batteries, that Moscow has already sold and delivered.

Israeli officials have warned their Russian counterparts that once fully controlled by Syrian forces, the S-300 would be a legitimate target.

Israel and Russia agreed four years ago to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire.

Israel, however, last year rejected a Russian offer to ensure that Iranian forces would not move within 100 kilometres of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war and recently recognized as Israeli territory by the United States. Accepting the Russian offer would have amounted to tacit acceptance of an Iranian presence in Syria.

Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi noted in their report that Israeli forces had reduced the number of attacks on Iranian targets in Syria in a bid to improve chances of exploiting Russian-Iranian strains.

“There is a window of opportunity that allows Israel to try…with Russia and the United States…to formulate and achieve shared interests that it has with the two superpowers, most importantly increasing stability in Syria and instituting governmental reforms in Syria, along with reducing Iranian influence there,” Mr. Dekel and Ms. Valensi said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.